CATEGORY: WordsMatter

Words Matter: a “denier” is someone who denies, nothing more or less

CATEGORY: WordsMatterThe English language can be confusing, absurd, and infuriating all at the same time. Words Matter is a new occasional feature where S&R authors deconstruct how English words, phrases, and colloquialisms are used and misused.

deny
to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of (Source)
denier
one who denies [deniers of the truth] (Source)

As part of my climate and environmental reporting, I come across the term “denier” all the time, as in “climate denier,” “climate change denier,” “global warming denier,” and “industrial climate disruption denier.” And there are a lot of people identified as deniers who claim that the term is an attempt to place them on the same moral level as those individuals who claim that the Holocaust didn’t occur, aka Holocaust deniers. While there are certainly some who intentionally make that implication, the implication has nothing to do with the word “denier” itself. “Denier” means nothing more than a person who refuses to accept the existence, truth, or validity of something.

The definition of a denier is completely neutral. The definition doesn’t include any guidance about the values, ethics, morals, psychology, beliefs, or experiences of anyone who qualifies as a denier, only that the person is denying something. The definition also doesn’t define whether the thing being denied actually exists, is true, or has validity, only that it’s existence, truth, or validity is being denied. What’s being denied can be literally anything – evolution, that Han shot first, the existence of God, vaccine safety, that Picard was the best Star Trek captain, HIV as the cause of AIDS, that Shakespeare authored his plays, or even 2 + 2 = 4.

Since the definition of “denier” offers no guidance as to motivations or moral equivalencies, any good or bad properties associated with the term are necessarily a function of the term’s context, not of the term itself. In the context of a Sunday church service at a fundamentalist Christian church, someone being an evolution denier is unimportant. But change the context to a high school biology classroom and suddenly that denial may matter greatly. Similarly, a vaccine safety denier may well be harmless if he or she refuses to get the annual flu vaccine, but put that same denier in the context of child immunizations and public health ramifications of a pertussis outbreak and his or her denial may well be a serious concern.

But even in the case of vaccine safety deniers, their denial doesn’t mean they are necessarily immoral. They may simply be so afraid of vaccine side effects that their usual rationality is clouded by their own biases. Or they may not have the mathematical skill to realize that they’re actually making their children (and others) less safe by refusing to vaccinate. Their denial doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, either – everyone’s rationality is occasionally clouded by biases, emotions, and/or ignorance. It’s when someone knows that vaccines are safe and yet claims they aren’t for some other reason that vaccine safety denial becomes immoral. Of course, we tend to use different terms for these kinds of people – terms like “liars.”

It’s true that sometimes cultural context can mean that value-neutral terms can develop values that are partially independent of the term itself. A good example of this is the difference between “ethics” and “morals.” In philosophy they mean the same thing, but in the United State we tend to use “ethics” when we’re talking about professional behavior and “morals” when we’re talking about personal behavior. It’s possible that “denier” did originally have the cultural context of morally repugnant Holocaust denial, but even if that was the case years ago, it’s not the case any more.

Google is an occasionally convenient way to gauge the culture of the United States – search for something and the things that people are most interested in show up in the first few pages of results. When I did a search strictly on the word “deniers” earlier this week (1/14/2013), I found the following:

  • Links to definitions of “denier” were ranked #1, #6, and #17.
  • The Wikipedia disambiguation page was ranked #2.
  • A reference to the French denier coin came in at #27 and a reference to the denier as a unit of fiber measurement came in at #33.
  • The first Holocaust denial link was ranked #56, on page 6 of the results.
  • The first mention of Holocaust denial was in the “Searches related to deniers” options at the bottom of first page. The alternate search terms were “deniers definition,” “evolution deniers,” “climate change deniers,” “climate deniers,” “aids deniers,” “famous Holocaust deniers,” “Holocaust deniers claims,” and “Jewish Holocaust deniers.”

Every other link up to #56 was to a website or blog post or news article related to the denial of industrial climate disruption. It’s probably fair to say at this point that calling someone a “denier” is less likely to invoke Holocaust denial than it is to invoke climate disruption denial.

So why do people who deny one thing or another generally dislike being labeled as “deniers?” It’s probably not because of the spurious connection to Holocaust denial. Instead, people who take umbrage at the term do so because no-one likes being labeled negatively. We psychologically prefer to view ourselves in positive terms than in negative ones, and the term “denier” is a strongly negative term.

Furthermore, in most cases the term “denier” simply and accurately describes what the people so labeled are doing – they’re denying some aspect of objective reality. Vaccine safety deniers deny the reality that vaccines have repeatedly been demonstrated to be safe and that the risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of going unvaccinated. HIV/AIDS deniers deny the reality that HIV causes AIDS. Evolution deniers deny the reality that species evolve and that God is not a necessary condition for the existence of humanity.

In my opinion, however, there is another aspect to the complaints about the word “denier,” one that goes to the heart of why so many industrial climate disruption deniers claim that “denier” is meant to imply Holocaust denial. I think that some deniers dislike that such a simple, value-neutral word as “denier” can be used to accurately describe them and would prefer that some other term be used instead (we’ll cover euphemisms and misnomers like “climate realist” and “climate change skeptic” another time).

There are over a dozen synonyms for the verb “deny.” Converting them from the verb form to a noun that describes the person doing the action generates the following list of alternate terms that could be used in place of “denier:”

contradictor, disaffirmer, disallower, disavower, disclaimer, disconfirmer, disowner, gainsayer, negator, negativer, refuter, rejecter, or repudiator.

With the possible exception of “rejecter,” however, each of the terms is more confusing than “denier.” How many people would know what you meant if you wrote “Holocaust gainsayer” or “HIV/AIDS disavower” or “industrial climate disruption disconfirmer?” Most people would become confused by the unknown word, lose track of the point you were trying to make, and then give up and move on.

The word “denier” is value neutral and it says nothing about the motivations or ethics of a person who is described as such. It’s only through context that “denier” can be given a moral or ethical dimension. While it’s possible that it was once culturally tied to Holocaust denial, that cultural connection is minimal now, and it probably has been ever since “denier” became so firmly attached to climate change/global warming/industrial climate disruption. Nowadays, “denier” merely means someone who rejects the existence, truth, or validity of something. Any other implications are strictly in the minds of the person calling someone a denier, and in the mind of the person being called one.

Words matter – use them carefully.

Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS)

Libertarians and engineers should embrace industrial climate disruption, not deny it

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3Part Five of a series

Industrial climate disruption presents challenges to libertarians and engineers. As we saw in Part Three of this series, the likely policy responses to industrial climate disruption represent a threat to libertarian values, specifically the moral ideal of “negative” liberty. And we saw in Part Four that many engineers consider industrial climate disruption a threat to their jobs and to their employers, and industrial climate disruption runs counter to many engineer’s psychological need for certainty (as discussed in Part Two). And we saw how cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning can lead both libertarians and engineers to deny the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting industrial climate disruption.

But not all libertarians or all engineers are industrial climate disruption deniers. Many have reviewed the evidence and concluded that greenhouse gases emissions by industry is the best explanation for all the facts related to climate disruption. Some have simply chosen to trust the experts. And others have concluded that it’s simply good personal and professional policy to plan for the worst – at least that way you’re prepared for whatever comes your way and any surprises are good surprises.

But these aren’t the only good reasons why libertarians and engineers, both as groups and as individuals, should embrace industrial climate disruption. Denying the reality of industrial climate disruption won’t get either group a seat at the negotiating table, but engagement might. There’s also a lot of money to be made adapting to industrial climate disruption and mitigating its causes. And the sooner we start working on the problem, the cheaper it will be in the long run.

Libertarians: fight, not flight

When something that you hold dear is threatened, there are essentially only two responses. You can stand and fight, or you can flee. Industrial climate disruption threatens the values and livelihoods of many libertarians, and many have chosen to flee to the perceived safety of denial. But that safety is illusory, as the crazy weather of 2012 (the increased incidence of extreme weather phenomena has been projected by climate models for years now) and the ongoing global temperature record demonstrate.

While the the threat to libertarian values could reasonably justify the denial of industrial climate disruption by a significant majority of libertarians, the best way to ensure that your values are protected is not to flee, but rather to confront the threat. Denial won’t prevent the enactment of policies that are a threat to the “negative” liberty valued by libertarians, but engagement might. At a minimum, engagement with liberals and conservatives who also accept the reality of industrial climate disruption will ensure that libertarians have a seat at the negotiating table, something that flat-out denial is unlikely to provide. After all, libertarians are only about 10% of the U.S. population – if the other 90% came to an agreement on their own, libertarians could find themselves, and their values, steamrolled.

There are all sorts of policies that are presently being considered as ways to adapt to and to mitigate the causes of industrial climate disruption. Most of them are potential threats to economic liberty, defined as the right of a person to spend his wealth however he sees fit. The Environmental Protection Agency has already put in place regulations to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and the regulations have survived review by the DC Court of Appeals (and are likely to survive Supreme Court review as well). California has implemented a cap-and-trade scheme, and some economists and scientists are calling for outright carbon taxes. The cap-and-trade scheme is the least disruptive to libertarian values, but the other two have their proponents and both are more disruptive to people’s economic liberty. If more libertarians were involved in the process, a cap-and-trade system that minimizes economic disruption would become more likely than highly disruptive carbon taxes or regulations and the associated fees and fines.

With respect to being able to live your life however you see fit (lifestyle liberty), the costs of addressing industrial climate disruption will also have an impact. Any method that prices CO2 will necessarily increase energy prices. This will increase the costs of products, especially those manufactured overseas and/or trucked long distances as the price of marine bunker fuel and diesel increase. People will probably travel less for vacations as well. And the cost of living wherever you choose will also go up, as insurance rates skyrocket (or insurance simply goes away) for property near sea level, on floodplains, or in wildfire prone areas.

Industrial climate disruption will continue to threaten libertarian values so long as it threatens human welfare and the global economy. If libertarians want their ideology to survive the crucible of industrial climate disruption, they’ll have to engage. And the sooner that engagement happens, the less damage the libertarian ideology will suffer.

Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS)

Captain Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS)

Engineers: engage

Engagement is also the best approach for engineers, and those engineers who are not also libertarians will probably find engaging easier than most libertarians will. Partly this is because engineering is a professional discipline rather than an ideology, but it’s also partly a result of the corporate environment in which engineers work and that inculcates them with many of its values.

Corporations value short-term profits more than anything else, with one notable exception – staying in business. If it’s a question between either providing dividends this quarter or investing in the company so that it’s still in business several years from now, smart companies always choose to invest in themselves. That’s part of why engineers are asked to design new products – markets change, and corporations who fail to provide what the new market demands risk going out of business.

Engineers working in product development are expected to adapt to new market realities all the time. Often the adaptation is as simple as updating a prior design to a new set of requirements – different temperature ranges, different operating voltages, different types of materials, etc. Occasionally adapting requires doing something completely new, and many engineers live for that kind of intellectually stimulating challenge. Most engineers will find engaging with industrial climate disruption no more difficult than updating their requirements and initial assumptions. Once that’s done, the engineers will pick up the new changes and run with them. The challenge will be convincing engineers that their experience and expertise may no longer be applicable (depending on the industry and engineer) and that they may have to change career paths in order to adapt professionally to a new, climate disrupted reality.

Ultimately, though, engineers respond to challenges, and just as industrial climate disruption is perhaps the most important issue that modern humanity has ever faced, so too is it one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Engineers who can move beyond denial and engage with the creation of solutions will likely find the process remarkably rewarding.

Mining profits from industrial climate disruption

Beyond needing to fight for their values or rising to meet new technical challenges, both libertarians and engineers should engage with industrial climate disruption because there is a huge amount of money to be made in the process.

Many libertarians are economic or financial types who make their money trading stocks, commodities, etc. Assuming that a cap-and-trade market system is implemented nationally or globally instead of carbon taxes or direct regulations, that market is going to be largely the same as any other commodity market. As such libertarians will be able to buy and sell carbon credits, creating carbon liquidity much as traders create financial liquidity in the financial markets today. But this opportunity only materializes if a cap-and-trade market is created instead of carbon taxes or direct emission regulations.

For those libertarians who work in other fields, the all-encompassing nature of industrial climate disruption will create opportunities for anyone who has the courage to grab them. Libertarians working in construction can make money insulating homes and installing solar panels on rooftops. Libertarian farmers can make money figuring out how to grow crops using less water and fertilizer and then marketing those methods to fellow farmers nationwide. Libertarians working in the energy industry can make money by financing new power lines to transport renewable electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. And libertarians in transportation can make money by providing new, low carbon emitting cars, trucks, tractors, aircraft, and ships to carry people and goods from one place to another. But each of these opportunities requires that the individual libertarians working in these industries stop denying the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Engineers have at least as great an opportunity to make money as libertarians do. After all, who do you think is going to design all those products for all those industries listed above? Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to get PCs to consume even less power than they already do. Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to turn small-scale carbon capture demonstration projects into full-scale installations at coal and natural gas power plants. Engineers are going to be the ones figuring out how to boost the efficiencies of solar panels by combining photovoltaic panels with passive solar water heating and at a price point that consumers can afford. And so on.

Engineers excel when given a problem to solve and a set of parameters within which to solve it. And the engineers who are the best at it will make a great deal of money in the process. But to do so, they have to move beyond denying industrial climate disruption. After all, just because an engineer will to work on a project he doesn’t believe in, that doesn’t mean he’ll be motivated to do his best work that way. But give an engineer a project that makes him think “this is going to be totally awesome” and he’ll figure out a way to move Heaven and Earth for you.

Pay now, or pay a lot more later

Not everyone can be lured by wealth and a good, high paying job with good job satisfaction into changing their mind about denying the reality of industrial climate disruption. For some, avoiding the anticipated economic costs of industrial climate disruption is a greater motivator. Economists have been saying for years now that it will cost less to mitigating industrial climate disruption than the damage done to the global economy by doing nothing (or delaying action for decades). Essentially, most economists believe that the cost of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable (and possibly nuclear) sources of energy is much lower than the cost of sea level rise on property values, rebuilding communities built in floodplains, losses to crops due to drought and pests, and the disruption of the global economy due to tens or hundreds of millions of migrating climate refugees, among others.

There are fundamental disagreements among economists about the “correct” way to account for multi-generational issues like industrial climate disruption, with some economists (Nordhaus for one) approaching the problem strictly from a utilitarian perspective while others approach the problem from a “minimal regret” perspective. The utilitarians tend to weigh the economic status of people who are alive today much higher than they weigh the economic status of unknown future generations. This can result in a situation where you could mathematically argue that it would be OK for humanity to go extinct ten generations from now so long as the people alive today aren’t inconvenienced by having to pay more for gasoline. It’s not a coincidence that libertarians tend find themselves among the utilitarians, given that Iyer et al found that libertarians are utilitarian and also value themselves more highly than they do “generic others” like hypothetical great, great, great grandchildren.

The “minimal regret” economists, on the other hand, tend to approach the problem more holistically, applying value not just to a standard of living, but also to the quality of that standard of living. They also tend to apply different discount rates to different aspects of human goods and experience, and they try to incorporate the needs of human survival and health into their economic models. But at the extreme end of this end of the spectrum, “minimal regret” economics can mathematically conclude that destroying the global economy today is acceptable to ensure that at least some of humanity survives ten generations hence. The inclusive nature of the “minimal regret” economic models makes their conclusions more likely to be robust than utilitarian models, and it’s the models of the “minimal regret” school of thought that indicate the costs of doing nothing are much higher than the costs of mitigating industrial climate disruption.

(Scott Ambler)

(Scott Ambler)

But even if you reject the economic models and instead ascribe to utilitarian economics, there is a business concept that makes the same basic argument. In business, the costs of making changes to a project is very low early in the project’s lifecycle. But as the project moves through its various stages, it becomes more and more expensive to make changes until, finally, making changes simply isn’t possible at any price.

Businesspeople and engineers who work in product development tend to understand this idea almost instinctively. During requirement definition, the cost of making a change is maybe a few hours to updated a few documents. Once the design is complete the cost of making a change includes a few hours for several people to update a lot more documents. Once something physical is created, the cost increases even more to include changing hardware, possibly even throwing out the original design and starting from scratch. And if a change is needed after the product has been delivered, it may need to be recalled or it may not even be possible to implement the change at all.

We can look at adapting to and mitigating the causes of industrial climate disruption as a set of projects not too different from any other. As an example, adapting New York City to rising sea level may require sea walls around the harbor, major filling of land and reconstruction of buildings on the newly raised ground, or even the partial abandonment of low-lying areas such as those that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy. The sooner this process starts, the cheaper it will be to implement. First, inflation means that the longer a major construction project takes, the more the construction materials will cost. Second, the longer the process takes, the more likely it becomes that another another storm like Sandy sweeps into New York City and does tens or hundreds of billions more dollars in direct and indirect damage – damage that could have been dramatically reduced had the adaptation strategy been in place.

On a smaller scale, this same business axiom explains part of why you shop around for the right solar panels to put on your roof. Not only are you looking for a good deal, but you’re also making sure that you won’t want to change your mind later. After all, if the wrong panels are already on your roof when you discover they’re wrong, you’ll be lucky to get away with only having to pay someone to come out to remove the wrong panels and then pay to have the right panels put back up.

According to national polls, about 84% of all libertarians deny the reality of industrial climate disruption, and while there’s no data about the number of engineers who are similarly in denial, there are a lot of people who identify themselves as engineers on major denial websites. While it makes sense that both groups would feel threatened by industrial climate disruption, albeit for different reasons, both groups should embrace the overwhelming science and data and work toward solutions instead of denying the problem. There will probably never be a greater challenge to solve, or a greater opportunity to make money from creative solutions, than the challenges and opportunities posed by industrial climate disruption. And the sooner the solutions kick in, the less damage will be done to libertarian values, business, and the global economy.

Over the last few weeks, we have in investigated why there are so many libertarians and engineers among the ranks of industrial climate disruption deniers. We’ve looked at the values and personalities of both groups and we’ve looked at how those values and personalities lead so many libertarians and engineers to deny the reality of industrial climate disruption. And we’ve looked at why, as a matter of pragmatism, both groups should embrace industrial climate disruption instead of denying it.

There are some known areas of contention in climate science, such as the effects of clouds on global climate. But those few remaining areas of contention are very unlikely to change the scientific conclusion – human industry is emitting greenhouse gases and those gases are and will be largely responsible for disrupting the Earth’s climate. However understandable it might be for a libertarian or engineer to hunt for and cling to the few scraps of data that confirm their existing biases, doing so is no longer rational. There are just too many other fields of scientific endeavor that would have to be largely incorrect for the conclusions of industrial climate disruption to be wrong.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3

Climate disruption denial: a natural by-product of libertarian values

Decrease in amount of carbon 13 isotope due to the burning of fossil fuels.  Credit: CDIAC

Decrease in amount of carbon 13 isotope due to the burning of fossil fuels. Credit: CDIAC

Part Three of a series

Industrial climate disruption – the disruption of the global climate as a result of human activity, especially our industrial consumption of fossil fuels – is more or less settled scientific fact. In order for industrial climate disruption to be incorrect, over a century of well-established science would have to be overturned. Some of the established science that would need to be significantly wrong include the Stefan-Boltzmann Law (thermal radiation from a body in space), quantum mechanics, significant portions of chemistry, radioisotope dating and profiling, several laws relating to the behavior of gases, and innumerable measurements of the fundamental physical properties of materials. As an example, if quantum mechanics were significantly wrong, that would mean that microwave ovens, carbon dioxide industrial cutting lasers, and most of modern electronics and electronic imaging would all work differently from how quantum mechanics predicts.

The problem for libertarians is that accepting human responsibility for climate disruption creates a threat to their values. The Iyer et al paper detailed in Part One of this series found that libertarians are fundamentally driven by a single moral good, specifically the liberty to be left alone to do as they pleased. Industrial climate disruption challenges both the primacy of personal liberty and, as a result, libertarians are highly motivated to reject the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning

There’s always a reason when a person denies something. That reason may be based on fact and verifiable reality, such as someone rejecting a claim that the sky is a beautiful shade of paisley. But sometimes denial is based not on facts, but rather on belief, values, or personality. For example, there is no question that the earth is older than 6,000 years old, yet fundamentalist Christians known as “young-Earth creationists” deny that fact because it conflicts with their literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. When beliefs or values conflict with fact and verifiable reality, certain psychological effects either force us to change our beliefs or to deny both fact and reality.

When people learn new things, they can suffer from a psychological condition known as cognitive dissonance. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you are trying to simultaneously hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. What happens is the person feeling cognitive dissonance wants to eliminate their discomfort and quickly and as thoroughly as possible. In the example above, a young-Earth creationist who was also a paleontologist would have to either change his views about the age of the Earth or rationalize a reason for why God would want to deceive humanity into thinking the earth was 4.5 billion years old.

One way to alleviate cognitive dissonance is with another psychological effect known as confirmation bias. This is the process by which a person only seeks out or remembers only that information which confirms his or her existing beliefs while ignoring or forgetting information in conflict with those beliefs. Confirmation bias can also relate to the way in which a person interprets new information such that it supports his or her existing beliefs, whether the new information actually supports those beliefs or not.

Interpreting new information in a way that supports your own beliefs can reduce cognitive dissonance, but sometimes it’s more than that. Confirmation bias can also be part of what’s known as motivated reasoning. The modern concept of motivated reasoning began with a 1990 paper by Ziva Kunda, and he found that people let their personal motivations affect their reasoning. For example, if a person discovered that a coworker was behaving unethically at work, the person might be motivated to reject the information because he or she didn’t want to report the coworker to a superior for disciplinary action. Motivated reasoning is the process by which the facts are mentally adjusted in order to conform to a desired outcome instead of adjusting the outcome to conform with the facts.

A classic example of motivated of motivated reasoning goes something like this: it’s difficult to convince someone to accept something when their job depends on not accepting it. In this case, the outcome motivating the denial is the desire to stay employed. Many libertarians use motivated reasoning to reject the reality of industrial climate disruption because it is more than a mere threat to their jobs – industridal climate disruption is a threat to their most deeply held libertarian values.

Industrial climate disruption threatens libertarian values

According to Iyer et al, libertarians essentially have a single moral good – liberty. Specifically, they value the idea of “negative” liberty, which is defined as the right to do with your life and possessions whatever you please so long as you don’t infringe upon the right of others to do the same. Iyer et al also found that libertarians very strongly valued self-direction (the right of individuals to make their own choices in life) and achievement, more so than either conservatives or liberals.

The problem is that these values conflict with the strategies that have been proposed to adapt to and mitigate the effects of industrial climate disruption. As a result, libertarians have strong motivations to deny that industrial climate disruption is a problem.

By its very nature, industrial climate disruption is a global problem, and so the most effective responses to it will also be global in nature. Strategies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the dominant cause of industrial climate disruption) will necessarily require cooperation among nations, communities, and individuals. Similarly, strategies to adapt to those effects that cannot be mitigated, such as increased incidence of river flooding and higher coastal storm surges, will greatly affect individuals as well as communities.

From a libertarian’s perspective, if industrial climate disruption is real, then his property rights are likely to be limited “for the greater good.” But there is no such thing as a “greater good” to a libertarian than individual rights, so right away this entire approach would be unacceptable to a libertarians. Furthermore, reducing greenhouse gas emissions could very well mean that more land needs to be cleared and easements across private property purchased for power lines to carry renewable energy from wherever it’s generated to the communities and industries that consume it. Or maybe some land would need to be seized by the government via eminent domain to build a wind turbine to generate electricity for someone else. Or maybe the property is located near sea level where models project the ocean will make the land unsuitable for habitation in 50 years. In these cases the libertarian would be motivated to reject any science that results in outcomes that are so contrary to his values.

But it goes beyond just property rights. According to Iyer et al, libertarians generally value altruism much lower than either conservatives or liberals, and they value egalitarianism lowest of all. Multiple analyses have demonstrated that the effects of industrial climate disruption will disproportionately affect the poor, and so one of the adaptation strategies planned is to provide additional aid to the poor. One example is the government helping to pay any increase in energy bills due to pricing greenhouse gases. But libertarians reject these kinds of aid (along with Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) because they interfere with the right of the wealthy to spend their wealth however they see fit. If industrial climate disruption means limiting economic liberty, then that provides yet another motivation for libertarians to deny industrial climate disruption.

In addition, both of the prior examples would require a strong national government in order to push through the kinds of changes needed to effectively address industrial climate disruption. A strong national government means a government that has the power to restrict individual liberties, and libertarians simply cannot accept that.

An example: values-motivated arguments regarding climate sensitivity

As shown above, industrial climate disruption is clearly a threat to the liberties that libertarians value the most. This means that there is tremendous motivation for libertarians to rationalize away the threat. Iyer et al found that libertarians are more systemizing than empathizing, meaning that they are more interested in systems with equations and variables to be fiddled with than they are interested in people’s emotions. This focus on rational systems makes libertarians particularly good at motivated reasoning – they’ll go hunting for data, process that data in a way that is subject to their confirmation biases against industrial climate disruption, and then create a superficially reasonable rationale for why the science is wrong.

We can illustrate this process in one of the many arguments that libertarians make against various aspects of climate science, specifically the argument that climate scientists have miscalculated how much the global temperature will increase as a result of a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, aka the “climate sensitivity.” Deniers of industrial climate disruption often refer to the work of Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer, both of whom claim that climate sensitivity is well below the generally accepted range of 3.6 to 8.1 °F (2.0 to 4.5 °C). Lindzen proposed a hypothesis in 2001 that climate sensitivity was much lower because there was an “iris” in the tropics that would result in more efficient radiation of heat from the tropics into space. But that hypothesis was rapidly challenged, and other scientists have repeatedly shown errors in Lindzen’s work that cast significant doubt on the “iris effect.”

Roy Spencer has an alternate, but also cloud-related, hypothesis that not only suggests that climate sensitivity is low, but that nearly every other climate scientist on the planet is wrong about the feedback mechanism between tropical clouds and the El Nino/Southern Oscillation. Spencer’s latest version of the hypothesis was thoroughly refuted by at two independent scientific papers and the problems found with the paper were so severe that the editor of the journal that published the paper resigned as a way to restore the journal’s credibility.

There are dozens of papers that are based on multiple different lines of evidence (bottom-up climate models, directly measured temperatures, ice cores, even the measured response of the Earth’s climate to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo) that contradict both Lindzen and Spencer and that calculate climate sensitivity to be approximately in the accepted range – some are somewhat higher or lower, depending on the exact calculation methodology and data used. Yet libertarians regularly refer to one or the other of the two men as having the best estimates of climate sensitivity that is strictly based on observations instead of models. That both men use simplified models of their own devising (and that those models have been regularly found to be too simple for the purpose of estimating climate sensitivity) seems to be forgotten or justified in the service of reasoning away the reality of industrial climate disruption.

Another factor that is probably in play in libertarian arguments against high climate sensitivity is how libertarians process arguments. According to Iyer et al, libertarians focus on data and logic over “intangibles” like appearance or perceived credibility. This generally a good thing, but it can be taken too far, especially with respect to perceived credibility.

Lindzen and Spencer are both reasonably well-respected scientists. Lindzen is a professor at MIT and a member of the National Academy of Sciences because of his contributions to atmospheric physics. Spencer, along with his University of Alabama-Huntsville colleague John Christy, developed a methodology by which satellites could measure the Earth’s temperature at multiple altitudes using microwaves. But Lindzen and Spencer also have some credibility problems that should raise red flags about their objectivity on the issue of industrial climate disruption for anyone who’s reasoning is motivated by accuracy instead of ideology.

First, Lindzen has a decades-long history of proposing hypotheses about how the Earth’s climate works that have mostly turned out to be wrong. For a rundown of this by climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert during his American Geophysical Union Tyndall lecture, skip ahead to about 33 minutes in the following video:

While Lindzen is often wrong, his questions and alternate hypotheses have largely improved the state of climate science and he’s mostly backed down from his ideas when they were thoroughly refuted. The same cannot necessarily be said for Spencer. Spencer and Christy have had to make at multiple significant corrections to their satellite temperature dataset, nearly all of which they had to make after others found problems with the satellites (annual variation in calibration targets, satellite orbital drift and decay, et al).

Table of most of the corrections made by UAH team to satellite record of global temperature.

Table of most of the corrections made by UAH team to satellite record of global temperature.

In addition, in 2012, Spencer manipulated the editor of the journal Remote Sensing into publishing a paper that purported to demonstrate that climate sensitivity was low. However, Spencer had provided a list of friendly reviewers to the editor and so the fundamentally flawed paper sailed through palpeer review with little to no oversight. Once the editor discovered he’d been used, he offered Spencer’s critics the opportunity to respond to Spencer in the journal and resigned as editor to restore the journal’s scientific credibility.

Finally, Spencer is a member of industrial climate disruption-denying, dominionist evangelical group the Cornwall Alliance. He wrote the science section of the Alliance’s white paper titled “A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor,” a document that is filled with misinformation and denial. This is perhaps not a surprise given Spencer’s history and his evangelical faith. But the same document’s “Theology” section justifies denying predictions of sea level rise by saying that God swore he’d never send another flood (p15), and elsewhere on the same page the document says that the last ice age was a direct result of Noah’s Flood. These claims are in direct conflict with scientific theories and data about ice ages and ice sheet formation. While Spencer himself did not write the theology section, his association with a group that is more interested in making data fit their theology than looking clearly at what the data raises serious questions about Spencer’s scientific credibility on the subject of industrial climate disruption.

Iyer et al found that libertarians need to examine things, to feel rational, before they make decisions. This strong need to be and feel rational does nothing to protect a libertarian from cognitive dissonance or to insulate them from confirmation bias. And it does nothing to immunize libertarians from rationalizing away inconvenient data or conclusions that threaten their values. If anything, the libertarian need to feel rational makes libertarians more prone to motivated reasoning, not less – the more you know about a subject, the more susceptible to motivated reasoning you become.

No-one, of any ideology, is fundamentally immune to motivated reasoning. But libertarians tend to be highly motivated by industrial climate disruption because it threatens their core values. High motivation plus easily available misinformation equals lots of opportunity for confirmation bias to manipulate reasoning.

Given all these facts it’s no wonder that there are so many libertarians among the ranks of industrial climate disruption deniers.

In Part Four we’ll look closer at why engineers deny climate disruption.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3

Libertarians, engineers, and climate disruption denial: part 1 – libertarians

National Park Service/Will Elder

National Park Service/Will Elder

Part One of a series

Industrial climate disruption, aka climate change or global warming, is perhaps the most important issue that humanity has ever faced. Scientists have concluded based on an overwhelming amount of data and over a century of well established and verified science that humanity has probably never faced the kind of disruptions to our world that are coming as a result of our emissions of greenhouse gases. But there is small and vocal minority of people who reject the science and data underlying this conclusion, and in the United States those deniers have successfully convinced the bulk of the Republican party to act as if that science is wrong and doesn’t matter.

Ever since I encountered my first example of a climate disruption denier I’ve wondered what kind of person could deny the reality that is industrial climate disruption. Over the years of writing on climate, however, it became clear that there were two groups of people who made up the majority of the serious deniers – libertarians and engineers of various stripes. As an electrical engineer myself, however, I didn’t understand how individuals trained in mathematics, science, and logic could fail to see glaring scientific, mathematical, physical, or logical flaws in their own arguments. Eventually, though, something clicked: most of the engineers I work with today and have worked with since earning my MSEE are either libertarians themselves or have some libertarian leanings.

This is the first part of a series of posts exploring the personality traits and moral values of libertarians, engineers, and the relationship of those traits and values to the denial of industrial climate disruption.

Libertarians: a distinct personality profile and moral ideal

If you think about the stereotypical traits we tend to attribute to libertarians – pro-small government, pro-property rights, anti-regulation, and anti-taxes, to name a few – it makes some logical sense that they’d be more inclined to reject the science supporting climate disruption. After all, if climate disruption requires government intervention, higher taxes, and restricts what a libertarian can do with his property, then he’d naturally oppose those types of solutions. But that resistance doesn’t explain why libertarians oppose the science itself instead of simply opposing policies that might be implemented as a result of the science.

In August, 2012, several researchers studying the psychology of political ideology released the results of three psychological studies they had performed into the values and personality traits of self-identified libertarians. The researchers compared the self-identified libertarians to self-identified liberals and conservatives and then compared and contrasted their values and personality traits. This paper (hereafter Iyer et al) concluded that libertarians were not merely a point on the traditional liberal/conservative values scale, but rather that libertarianism represented a third, unique approach that is distinct from both liberal and conservative values.

This paper served as the starting point for my investigation into why so many libertarians deny the reality of industrial climate disruption. But before we can understand their denial, we must first understand exactly what personality traits libertarians have and what they value.

Liberty as the only moral good

According to Iyer et al, libertarians really have only a single moral good – freedom from restrictions on their actions, or what Iyer et al call “negative” liberty. This differs from the more common “positive” liberty in that positive liberty means having the opportunity to pursue one’s own interests. In terms that many Americans are familiar with, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances described in the First Amendment of the US Constitution is a form of positive liberty, while having the freedom to do anything you want so long as it doesn’t interfere with the right of others to do the same is a form of negative liberty.

But Iyer et al indicate that this moral good is not well measured by traditional studies of morality, writing that “standard morality scales… do a poor job of measuring libertarian values” and that “if liberty is included as a moral value, libertarians are not amoral.” The flip side of this statement, however, means that libertarians do not share a common moral framework with either liberals or conservatives.

The data in Iyer et al demonstrate that libertarians have a similar profile (the relative order of importance of various values) to liberals on one test of moral values, the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ). Specifically, libertarians rate fairness highest, followed by harm, and both groups value authority and purity the least. But Iyer et al indicates that libertarians don’t think about fairness and harm in the same ways that liberals do – harm to a liberal often means injury to someone else, while harm to a libertarian means injury to the libertarian by others. Conservatives valued authority and being associated with the “in” group the most, above both harm and fairness.

This pattern of valuing the welfare of others less than one’s own welfare was again seen in the data from the Schwartz Values Scale. Given there are ten different values in this scale (instead of the five in the MFQ), there were more differences between libertarians, liberals, and conservatives. While all three groups valued self-direction the highest, libertarians valued it more than liberals and far more than conservatives. Libertarians valued achievement just after self-direction and over all the other values (benevolence, conformity, hedonism, power, security, stimulation, tradition, or universalism). According to Iyer et al, the libertarian profile looks “somewhat like liberals,” but with lower value placed on benevolence and universalism, the two Schwartz values that relate to caring about the welfare of others.

When Iyer et al looked at ethical positions, they found that libertarians were more likely to consider ethics “situational” instead of universal. This means that libertarians are more likely to feel that what is ethically acceptable varies from one situation to another. Iyer et al suggest that this is because libertarians “live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g. altruism, respect for authority) are not assigned much importance.” This is supported by the original research upon which Iyer et al’s survey was based, which found that people with ethical profiles like those of libertarians

‘reject moral rules’ and ‘base moral judgements on personal feelings about the action and the setting.’

Iyer et al further investigated the low valuation libertarians of traditional authority with a questionnaire that directly measures “the extent to which people are emotionally resistant to restrictions on their behavioral freedom and to the advice and influence of others.” Conservatives were the least resistant, followed by liberals. Libertarians were the most resistant to accepting restrictions on their behavior and even to listening to the expert opinions of others.

When asked specifically about their interest in economic and lifestyle liberty, libertarians valued both types of liberty the highest, well over either liberals (who valued lifestyle over economic liberty) or conservatives (who valued economic over lifestyle liberty). In this case, Iyer et al defined “economic liberty” as the right of successful people to “enjoy their wealth as they see fit” and “lifestyle liberty” as the right of everyone to “be as free as they choose” within the limitation that their freedom not infringe upon others.

The Iyer et al studies conclusively demonstrated that the single libertarian moral good of liberty, specifically “negative” liberty, is quite different from the morals of either liberals or conservatives. This single moral good is the driving factor from which all other libertarian values are derived.

The rational ethos of libertarianism

Beyond the moral good of liberty that libertarians espouse, Iyer et al found that they also feel a greater need to be rational than, and to perceive themselves as more rational than, either liberals or conservatives.

When Iyer et al looked at the Big 5 personality traits (an alternative method of determining personality to Myers-Briggs personality types) of libertarians, they found that libertarians were largely open to new experiences, felt a strong need to think about things, and were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives. In more common Myers-Briggs terms, libertarians have an INTx profile, where the “x” could be either judging or perceiving (J/P).

When it came to difficult moral choices, libertarians’ need to be rational about their choices produced utilitarian results. For example, libertarians were more willing to sacrifice one person to save many than either liberals or conservatives, with conservatives being the least willing to logically reason out the need for one to die so many could live.

When faced with questions that had two different answers, one of which was correct and another that was intuitive, Iyer et al found that libertarians were more likely than either liberals or conservatives to choose the correct answer. Iyer et al was careful to point out that this result does not necessarily mean that libertarians are smarter than liberals or conservatives, only that libertarians are mentally better at suppressing the intuitive reflex.

Finally, Iyer et al also found that libertarians needed to formulate their opinions based on arguments and data instead of on “peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is.” Again, libertarians had a slightly greater need to think about things than liberals and a moderately greater need than conservatives.

In every case that Iyer et al looked at, libertarians needed to think more about things before forming judgements, usually somewhat more than liberals and much more than conservatives. One possibility for why this is could be that libertarians are psychologically more comfortable with systems that have black and white rules than they are with people who only come in shades of gray.

Systemizing over empathizing

Iyer et al looked specifically at the preference of libertarians for systemizing or empathizing. According to Iyer et al, the creators of this particular personality scale define systemizing as “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Empathizing, on the other hand, is defined as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion.” Given that libertarians tend to be introverts who value being left alone to do as they please, it’s reasonable to expect that libertarians would also prefer systemizing more and empathizing less than liberals or conservatives.

What surprised Iyer et al was just how strongly libertarians are systemizers. While liberals valued empathizing more than systemizing, and conservatives valued both about the same (with a slight emphasis on empathizing), libertarians valued systemizing more than empathizing, and nearly as much as liberals valued empathizing.

This result describes what Iyer et al and others call a fundamentally “male” mental process, as opposed to the “female” liberal mental process of empathizing. But there’s a problem with this characterization, namely that libertarians are overwhelmingly male – 79.6% in Iyer et al and 67% in polls of the United States as a whole. Since correlation is not causation, it’s not possible to know with the data from the Iyer et al study whether this dominant systemizing mental process is because so many libertarians are men, or whether men are more likely to be attracted to libertarianism because it’s dominant mental process is systemization.

Independent and solitary

Iyer et al found that libertarians are weak empathizers, have a strong need for rationality over emotion, and value their independence. These traits come together in a number of ways to describe how libertarians relate, or perhaps fail to relate, to other people.

One of the Big 5 personality traits that Iyer et al looked at is extraversion, and a low score means that you’re more introverted than extraverted. Libertarians were more introverted than either liberals or conservatives, who were roughly equal with each other. When asked about how they empathized with others, libertarians were the only group to use the “put yourself in their shoes” type of empathizing more than any other type. Not only that, but libertarians empathized with others’ personal distress the least of all.

Iyer et al also compared libertarians’ relative level of individualism and collectivism to both liberals and conservatives. As expected, libertarians valued both competitive, hierarchical individualism and peer-to-peer, horizontal individualism more than either liberals or conservatives and more than either form of collectivism. Libertarians valued peer-to-peer collectivism, described in Iyer et al as characteristic of an egalitarian attitude, the least and moderately lower than either liberals or conservatives.

Libertarians and conservatives had similar profiles in the Iyer et al data for how much each group identified with the rest of humanity (as broken down into community, country, and the world). Both groups identified the most with their country, followed by their community, and lastly with the rest of the world. Liberals, on the other hand, identified with the world first, then community, and lastly their country. But libertarians identified the least with community and country, and only barely more with the rest of the world than conservatives did. Iyer et al wrote that this finding was “consistent with the libertarians’ desire for personal liberty.”

Finally, when Iyer et al looked at the data for how libertarians felt love toward their partners, family, friends, or “generic others,” Iyer et al found that libertarians feelings of love toward all four groups of people were the weakest of all when compared to liberals and conservatives. Libertarians’ feelings were the strongest toward their partners, but even those feelings were slightly weaker than the feelings that liberals and conservatives felt toward their partners. Feelings of love toward “generic others” were the lowest of all for libertarians. Iyer et al considered these results to be “noteworthy” because

differences between liberals and conservatives were generally small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers. [emphasis added]

Iyer et al are not able to turn the correlations in values and personality traits they observed among libertarians into causative relationships. The data from Iyer et al cannot say, for example, that libertarians’ focus on negative liberty as their single moral good is because libertarians tend to be introverted and unable to empathize with others.

Furthermore, while Iyer et al is based on a large sample of data, it is not necessarily representative of the entire population of libertarians. For example, the demographics of Iyer et al are somewhat different from a nationally representative poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press that also included a breakdown of libertarian demographics. For example, Iyer et al had a significantly greater percentage of men, a slightly greater number of whites, and about the same number of college educated respondents as the Pew poll did. The greater number of whites and males almost certainly skews the data some, but it’s not possible with the Iyer et al data to say how much.

But when you look at Iyer et al‘s conclusions, they match well to the profile that Pew used to differentiate between libertarians and other ideological groups in their poll. Pew’s data shows that most libertarians reject strict environmental laws, something that is expected given Iyer et al’s finding that libertarians are resistant to external factors that would impinge upon their personal liberty. Pew found that libertarians were accepting of homosexuality, which is also expected given Iyer et al’s findings that libertarians are relatively unmotivated by emotional “disgust” reactions and highly value horizontal, peer-to-peer individualism. So while a similar study to Iyer et al would almost certainly generate somewhat different results using a nationally representative poll of libertarians, it’s unlikely that the results would significantly change Iyer et al’s overall conclusions.

Finally, Iyer et al points out that entirely possible that the moral good of negative liberty that libertarians value more than any other may be a moralization of their personal preference for living free of too many entanglements. In a culture where morality is generally defined along lines that libertarians disagree with and don’t feel, it’s easy to see why libertarians would have an emotional need to redefine morality in a way that reduces their cognitive dissonance. But whether this is the case or not will require more studies than just Iyer et al.

As an engineer with some libertarian leanings myself, I found Iyer et al to be fascinating. It explained much about so many of my fellow engineers, so many of whom are also libertarians. In Part Two I’ll discuss how being an engineer and working for a corporation affects the perspectives and values of engineers.