Thursday, January 20, 2011

The myth of the denialist public

The rhetoric of the deniers would seem to imply a massive mob armed with torches and pitchforks, ready to unleash its fury on rent-seeking scientists, power-hungry governments, and civilization-hating vegan-eating Birkinstocks-wearing hippies. What has been insufficiently attended to, to my mind, is that this mob does not in fact exist. It is purely an artifact of cyberspace, a virtual mob, a mob consistenting of prolific commenters and right-wing bloggers and politicians. Unlike, say, the issue of abortion, or taxes, or the war in Iraq, there is no real political movement on the skeptical side that cares about this issue apart from their reflexive adherence to the party line of the Right.

This may seem harsh, but let's look at the evidence. From a Gallup poll in May:

Meanwhile, 35% say that the effects of global warming either will never happen (19%) or will not happen in their lifetimes (16%).

After all the shouting, all the slander, all the hysteria (most of it not audible to the public outside a fairly narrow group of high-information voters) only 19% of the public believe the "skeptic" line that global warming isn't happening. Those voters are clustered overwhelmingly on the right. Let's compare that to another scientific theory that fell afoul of right-wing groupthink, evolution:

You read it here first: more people absolutely reject the theory of evolution than the theory of global warming. But wait, there's more. Experts broadly agree that the American health system is a disaster, with poor access, unsustainable costs, inconsistent, non-evidence-based practice, and dangerous error-ridden hospitals. The notion that the United States has a fantastic health system, tops in the world, is a ignorant notion promoted, again, by the right wing, to stave off calls for government action to improve the system. How's that basket of lies doing?

 Boston, MA - A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Harris Interactive, as part of their ongoing series, Debating Health: Election 2008, finds that Americans are generally split on the issue of whether the United States has the best health care system in the world (45% believe the U.S. has the best system; 39% believe other countries have better systems; 15% don't know or refused to answer) and that there is a significant divide along party lines.  Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (68%) believe the U.S. health care system is the best in the world, compared to just three in ten (32%) Democrats and four in ten (40%) Independents who feel the same way.

Yep, forty-five percent of Americans are "skeptical" of the findings of every major comparative study of health care outcomes and health care economics. Especially if you're a Republican, we've got the best damn healthcare in the world, period.

I humbly suggest to the very smart people working on climate scientists' "communication problem" with the public that no such problem actually exists, which is why they have made so little headway. Judith Curry and Michael Tobis are each in their own way wrong. It is the editors of the Economist who have got it right:

And what of those who were happy Copenhagen had failed? For them, climategate was a more comforting reason for that failure than the real ones. Copenhagen did not fail because governments didn’t want action on the climate, or even because no one is willing to take any action. It failed because they all wanted other countries to take more and different actions than the other countries would agree to. For people who don’t want there ever to be action, though, it is obviously happier to think that the case had been undermined by some dodgy emails than to recognise than that it still stood—and indeed still stands—but had simply failed to compel action. 

Resolve, not belief, is the problem. The mob is an optical illusion created by apathy on the one hand and the new media on the other. People believe in the existence of the mob because the science implies that we must act, a vocal minority say the that we can't trust the scientists, and we don't act. In a rational world, #3 would happen only because people compared #1 and #2 and concluded the latter case was more persuasive than the former. But this isn't a rational world; it's a world in which apathy and denial -- denial the old-fashioned primitive defense mechanism, not denial the political war cry -- lead us to ignore all sorts of festering problems that are not causing us great personal harm just yet. The deficit. Entitlement spending. Public education.

Among the deniers, those that believe create prolific commentaries that can dominate an online discussion and drive out the other side with volume and repetitiveness and no small degree of personal abuse; look at the Dot Earth threads for many examples. This functions much like an old trick of a Confederate general, who would march the same piece of artillery through the same small clearing visible to the opposition, until it seemed like twenty guns rather than one.

Deniers claim this apathy as a judgment on the science and a victory for their blogging and their commenting and their interviews on Fox News. But the sad reality is, the public often fails to take action every when there is not a well-funded interest group stirring up confusion. People fail to act because it is hard and because they identify with a particular partisan outlook, not because a small number of deniers manufacture one bogus allegation after another. Remember, if you are reading this, you are part of a tiny minority hungry for detailed information on climate change.

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