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Stop blaming ‘both sides’ for America’s climate failures

Posted on 5 March 2018 by dana1981

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and author of Bill Gates’ two favorite books. However, his latest – Enlightenment Now – has some serious shortcomings centering on Pinker’s misperceptions about climate change polarization. Pinker falls into the trap of ‘Both Siderism,’ acknowledging the Republican Party’s science denial, but also wrongly blaming liberals for the policy stalemate, telling Ezra Klein:

there is implacable opposition to nuclear energy in much of the environmental movement ... There are organizations like Greenpeace and NRDC who are just dead set opposed to nuclear. There are also people on the left like Naomi Klein who are dead set against carbon pricing because it doesn’t punish the polluters enough ... the people that you identify who believe in a) carbon pricing and b) expansion of nuclear power, I suspect they’re a tiny minority of the people concerned with climate … What we need are polling data on how many people really would support carbon pricing and an expansion of nuclear and other low carbon energy sources.

Here Pinker has created a strange straw man that bears no resemblance to the real population of American liberals and environmentalists. In fact, the polling data he wonders about already exists.

For example, a 2016 survey by Yale and George Mason universities found that 73% of Democrats support a carbon tax or a combination of tax and regulations (a further 17% favored carbon pollution regulations only). In fact, most consider putting a price on carbon pollution the single most crucial step in tackling global warming. Even Naomi Klein has said, “I don’t think a carbon tax is a silver bullet, but I think a progressively designed carbon tax is part of a slate of policies that we need.”

While it’s true that a majority of liberals oppose building more nuclear power plants, 38% support the idea. Some environmental groups like Greenpeace do oppose nuclear power, but Pinker’s other example, NRDC merely points out that new nuclear plants are currently uneconomical, and even suggests, “The federal government should continue to fund research into nuclear energy.” There are strong economic reasons to oppose building new nuclear power as an inefficient use of resources when renewables today are cheaper and can be deployed more quickly. That being said, were nuclear power funding included in comprehensive legislation to tackle climate change, most liberals and environmentalists would accept that deal in a heartbeat.

Science rejection is predominantly a conservative phenomenon

There’s cultural pressure to place the blame on ‘both sides,’ for example by claiming that while conservatives reject science on climate change and evolution, liberals reject it on the safety of GMOs and vaccines. However, research has shown this is simply not the case – Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to distrust GMOs, and conservatives are the group that most opposes vaccines.

It’s also important to remember that the Republican Party is the only major political party in the world whose leaders reject the need to tackle climate change. And their president made America the only country to reject the Paris climate agreement. There simply is no equivalent on the political left.

In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof pointed to research led by Yale’s Dan Kahan showing that when presented with data about a politically charged issue like gun control, the mathematical and cognitive abilities of “Democrats and Republicans alike went to pieces,” as Kristof interpreted it. But Kahan’s data showed the problem was much more pronounced among conservatives. 

In the experiment, numerically-adept Democrats were about 33% more likely to misinterpret (made-up) data when it suggested that gun control increases crime, but numerically-adept Republicans were 70% more likely to misinterpret the same data when it suggested that gun control decreases crime. Democrats who are weak at math weren’t biased at all, whereas Republicans who are bad at math were 50% more likely to get the answer right when it confirmed their ideological biases. The difference between conservatives and liberals in both cases was stark. 

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Surveys have shown that increased general science knowledge makes Democrats more likely to accept human-caused global warming – the same is not true for Republicans. Thus, it’s certainly true that ideology is preventing conservatives from accepting certain scientific realities. The problem is in the temptation to assume ‘both sides’ are equally guilty of letting ideological bias cloud their judgment. As Kahan’s research showed, some liberals are certainly guilty of this sort of bias, but it’s a far bigger problem among conservatives.

Blame the Fox Newsification of America

So how did America get here? Political polarization has been on the rise in America on both sides of the political spectrum for the past four decades. But a rating of ideology-based voting in Congress created by Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthal found that while Democrats are gradually becoming more liberal, Republicans in Congress have become radically more conservative since 1980.

In 1987, the FCC under Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required television and radio stations to be equitable and balanced. The Rush Limbaugh Show then launched in 1988, and so came the rise of right-wing radio. Fox News launched in 1996, providing conservatives a source of politically-biased news coverage. Combined with conservative news websites like Breitbart, Drudge, and Infowars, the right-wing echo chamber can envelop anyone who seeks only news spun to confirm their ideological biases.

In a 2012 survey, participants who only watched Fox News were less likely to correctly answer questions about domestic or international events than viewers of any other news source (NPR, Sunday political shows, The Daily Show, talk radio, MSNBC, or CNN), or even people with no news exposure. And on the subject of climate change, the vast majority of Fox News coverage has been factually inaccurate.

Unsurprisingly, public trust in science over the past 40 years has only fallen among one group – conservatives. That aligns with research showing that watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh decreases viewer trust in scientists.

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Comments 51 to 54 out of 54:

  1. NorrisM @50, I have bought Pinkers Enlightenment book, and it is well worth the money. Everyone should read it.

    Some of my reservations after skimming it in the shop were simply because one or two issues Pinker argues don't seem convincing to me, and I had already read the Moral Arc by Shermer, which is rather similar.

    But overall Enlightenment is more comprehensive than the moral arc and the better buy.

    He is indeed critical of Ayn Rand and the comparison with Nietzshe is perceptive. 

    His chapter on CO2 emissions is good overall and very balanced. He has certainly done his homework, but geoengineering even of a temporary kind is still high risk. He is attempting to be open minded on it which is rational, but the tecnical risks remain daunting.

    The guy pulls together the work of so many people, and I dont think I have ever seen such a long bibliography, so the guy must read a lot.

    The underlying decision making philosophy is basically sound,  and if only people thought like that it would be a better world.

    However he does start to worship freedom a bit ardently, and over simplifies.

    And there is always a risk that people will use his emphasis on progress humanity has made to dismiss problems. Of course this would not be Pinkers fault. Perhaps he should have cautioned readers more about this issue and not to use his book in that way.

    But his book is phiosophically soundly based overall, and so a useful guide even if some things in it are debatable, and it should be on everyones list of best non fiction of the year.

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  2. nigelj@51,

    Thank you for sharing your impressions of “Enlightenment Now”.
    I suspected that Pinker's presentation would include an apologetic argument for people to be freer to believe what they prefer and do as they please.

    In addition to the two-siderism explained in this OP, the misrepresentation of the Klein-Koch matter in Washington State that NorrisM quoted was a red flag that Pinker had a bias towards promoting/excusing freedom of thought and action without restriction of the responsibility to not harm others. Klein and the Kochs did not share the same motivation regarding what was happening in Washington State. Pinker's apparent depth of investigation into other matters raises suspicions about why he would fail to better present the proper understanding of the Klein-Koch matter.

    Also, expecting future generations to experiment with geoengineering in the hopes of reducing the harmful consequences created by irresponsible people in previous generations is the sort of careful callous disregard for Others I have seen many times from current day people who desire the promotion/continuation of the Religion/Dogma of 'Good things will develop if people are freer to believe what they wish and do as they please'.

    Therefore, I will borrow the book from a Public Library. I only want to make purchase choices that help to more rapidly achievement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I have no interest in supporting efforts to excuse clearly and undeniably harmful things that have developed by claiming that helpful developments have also occurred during the same time period (no proof of a direct connection between the harmful unsustainable activity and the helpful activities/developments, just a claimed connection because of concurrence in time).

    In “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill explained that society has the ability and responsibility to properly educate its entire population. And he warned that “If society lets a considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences.”

    Musings that attempt to defend 'liberty without responsible self-limiting and correction of unacceptable behaviour' are unhelpful, and likely to be harmful. I will read and evaluate Pinker's book with that in mind. I would blame Pinker for creating a tool that can be misused by failing to include the warnings about its potential misuse.

    My recommended reading to others prior to reading a book like Pinker's is the SDG's and all of the internationally collaboratively developed documents associated with their development through the decades, especially the 1987 report “Our Common Future” (and including the IPCC Reports).

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  3. I find “Enlightenment Now” to be heavy on sales pitches defending people who have Private Interests that are contrary to more rapidly achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, people inclined to want to believe that 'future generations will figure out amazing solutions to whatever problems current day people create' or 'deny that the systems that have developed create unsustainable and harmful results and need to be corrected'.

    The end of chapters that relate to the SDGs consistently make claims that what has developed so far is Good that can be expected to get Better (Feel Good Claims), with implications that the Good and Better are natural expected outcomes of the systems that have developed. The reality is that any Good has actually been 'corrections of identified harmful unsustainable developed activity that occur because of raised public awareness and better understanding of the incorrect popular and profitable developments in the developed socioeconomic-political systems'.

    Within those chapters Pinker often criticizes people who try to raise public awareness and better understanding of the harmful unsustainable things that have developed because such 'efforts to better educating of the public' likely upsets people who consider themselves to be Conservative. Making people with Private Interests contrary to achieving the SDGs learn to change their minds is a challenge. Helping enough Other people become more aware and better understanding is a solution.

    To be helpful, Pinker could have focused on his linguistics and cognitive specialization to develop and present an evaluation of why misleading marketing in support of Private Interests that are understandably contrary to the achievement of the SGDs are so successful and what can be done about that undeniable developed problem.

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  4. People can better appreciate how unhelpful Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" actually is by reading books like Naomi Klein's "No is Not Enough". It has been recommended by many people including Noam Chomsky (a far more relevant judge of what helps raise awareness and better understanding than Bill Gates) whose simply stated evaluation is "Urgent, timely, and necessary".

    In "No is Not Enough", the section of Chapter 4 (The Climate Clock Strikes Midnight), titled "What Conservatives Understand about Global Warming - and Liberals don't", includes the following: "... when hard-core conservatives deny climate change, they are not just protecting the trillions in wealth that are threatened by climate action. They are also defending something even more precious to them: an entire ideological project - neoliberalism - which holds that the market is always right, regulation is always wrong, private is good and public is bad, and taxes that support public services are the worst of all."

    Pinker may not be a fanatical promoter of neoliberalism. But I do not see him bluntly criticizing the current day threat that its promotion by people calling themselves Conservative is. And he certainly does not appear to tell Conservatives that they need to act aggressively against neoliberals rather than uniting with them (and the less tolerant among us) in the hopes of Winning.

    Pinker's presentation of criticisms by Klein and the Kochs of the Washington State Carbon Tax proposal does not distinguish the different motivations of Klein and the Kochs. It is either poorly informed or deliberately misleading.

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