Everyone wants to be the hero

Whenever there’s an economic incentive to get people to believe something, you’re going to find organizations doing their best to get out the evidence that supports their case. But they may not think of themselves as propagandists. They may simply be engaging in the kind of motivated reasoning that all of us engage in. They’re finding the evidence that happens to support the beliefs they already have. They want whatever it is that they believe to be true. They don’t want to feel like they’re bad people. They’re trying to get the best information out there.

This from a fantastic interview with philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. They have just written a book about how misinformation spreads.

I’ve just downloaded the book and plan to dig into it, but this passage strikes at a tendency many have to want a villain.

I often hear people talk about oil companies (etc.) suppressing climate change research. It now seems like they did know about climate change long ago, but were those executives really sitting in front of a fireplace stroking a white cat?

It seems like it would be more useful, maybe even more accurate, to view them as exactly like the rest of us. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories. None of us want to be wrong. We all dig in, especially given perverse incentives.

We all engage in motivated reasoning, among other scary mental shortcuts and fallibilities.

Rather than treating them as deviant or Machiavellian, surely it’s healthier to realise many of us would react the same given a similar position? At the very least it won’t shut down the conversation.

Once someone in the conversation is evil there is very little room to move – look at contemporary political discourse. Everyone wants to be the hero. That’s the only way we get anywhere.

It’s time for other arguments about climate change

The “debate” about climate change is so poisoned it has brought down at least two Australian prime ministers, and the very term is redacted from US government websites.

So maybe it’s time to retire, or at least rein in, this line of argument. The externalities produced by burning coal and oil, from factory farming etc., have many facets that can be tackled. Notably, health.

Take this recent study on air pollution from researchers at Arizona State:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature.”

“Burgeoning medical literature provides reason to suspect that long-term exposure to elevated pollution levels may permanently impair older adults’ cognition, especially in the case of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, commonly known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5”. The small size of PM2.5 allows it to remain airborne for long periods, to penetrate buildings, to be inhaled easily, and to reach and accumulate within brain tissue. The accumulation of particulates in the brain can cause neuroinflammation, which is asso-ciated with symptoms of dementia…”

So, emissions are not just harmful to the environment, but human health as well. The suffering isn’t only in the long term, evident only in a computer model, but in the health of real people living right now.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about who bears the brunt of this. The workers in industries like mining, obviously. But as a recent hurricane in North Carolina showed, polluting industries are also often situated in poorer areas:

“Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.”

As Ketan Joshi has noted, denying climate science is now akin to being an anti-vaxxer both in the scientific illiteracy required as well as the harm being wrought. But we can’t expect to win this fight, especially in the short time we have to take action. Instead, we should change the subject. There are plenty of other arguments to make.