Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Sky is Falling

Once upon a time I had put together a book proposal I unsuccessfully shopped to agents, with the subject being a line of academic psychological research into the psychology of political conservatives. It is quite a rich field of study in psychology departments, and I must say that it is not without its valuable observations, although it errs in narrowly applying them to political conservatives, whereas the traits they observe are far more general and non-partisan.

Among those observations uniquely attributed to the conservative personality that I recall are their pessimistic and morbid views for the future; it seems we barely get over our obsessive McCarthy-like fear of a communist takeover, and turn with equal obsessive fear to the threat of Islamo-fascism. But obsessive fear is a trait that clearly goes beyond partisan classification; many people will rationally become very concerned with potentially catastrophic events provided that they associate a sufficiently high probability to that event. A conservative is likely to be uniquely concerned with potential events where they subjectively assign a higher probability to that event than liberals, and vice versa.

A general distrust of government power and a preference for greater economic freedom may incline conservatives to subjectively sign a higher probability to the threat of communist takeover, for example, than liberals, who were at the very least sympathetic to the egalitarian goals of communism. These ideological inclinations lead conservatives to subjectively assign a higher probability of a communist takeover, coupled with a more disastrous outlook of the consequences of such a takeover. Of course there is great uncertainty around the probability, and therefore there can be no way to reconcile the different subjective probabilities assigned by conservatives and liberals.

Now consider global warming, and how the issue aligns with the conservative and liberal outlooks. Presumably any solution to the problem involves a vast increase to the power and degree of centralization of government; it is not a state or local issue, or even a national issue – it is international in scope, and requires some supranational governing institution to enforce. And the blame for global warning lies squarely on Big Oil (never the consumers who demand their products) and rich countries, which by extension means free market capitalism. There’s nothing about the causal explanation or the solution that doesn’t appeal to the liberal, or repel the conservative. As a result, liberals are ideologically inclined to assess both a higher probability of global warming occurring, and more dire consequences should it occur. The obsessive fear follows naturally.

Unlike the conservative obsessive fear of communism in the old days, the liberal obsessive fear of global warming cannot be avoided through simple small talk, because small talk usually involves the weather. If you were a liberal stumbling across your conservative neighbor back in the 1950s, as long as you didn’t ask him about the bomb shelter he was building, you could probably avoid him warning you against drinking fluoridated water. But if a conservative comes across a liberal neighbor on a sixty degree day in January, he can forget about avoiding a sermon. I’ve taken to wearing winter clothes on such days, scrunching my shoulders in, and blowing hot air on my hands as I rub them together in front of my face.

None of this is to say that one’s ideology necessarily leads to a biased estimate of the probability and harm of a certain event, but clearly it can. The facts, which are independent from the politics, are what they are, and they may very well align with one side over the other. But they are rarely that clear cut – in many cases very relevant facts are simply not known at key points in the debate. It was only after the Soviet Union collapsed, for example, and the KGB files were opened up to Western eyes, that once and for all the extent of Soviet influence in America was established beyond a doubt, along with the guilt of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and high officials in the Roosevelt administration. But some people never let facts get in the way of their deeply held beliefs: When Alger Hiss died several years after the Soviet records were opened, Peter Jennings introduced the story of his death as if there was still a lot of uncertainty around his guilt as a commie spy, despite the overwhelming evidence of its certainty.

When it comes to global warming, on the one hand you have what is billed as a scientific consensus, strangely contradicted by respected scientists, albeit a minority, expressing significant doubt about the extent such warming is a result of human activity. Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” documents no dissenting views held by respected scientists, and indeed asserts there are none, while providing misleading and incomplete evidence. If the case is so solid, why not present the alternative views and provide their refutation? (I suspect the answer lies in the notion that the probability of catastrophe, though not certain, is high enough to warrant drastic action, but drastic action will be harder to sell politically if people think the science is unsettled – in short, an inconvenient truth can only be sold by way of a convenient lie). The fact of the matter is that this particular issue is not only aligned with Gore’s ideology, it is absolutely crucial to supporting his self-image as, if not a messianic savior of a desperately fallen humanity, at least a prophet of very high importance. The average global temperature could fall 10 degrees tomorrow for the remainder of his life, with every scientist on the planet revising prior held theories and beliefs, and Gore would go to his grave asserting the consensus on global warning.

All that said, by definition all but one doomsday scenario is proven false. And maybe the global warming doomsday scenario will prove out in the end. But nevertheless there are other potential humanity-ending catastrophes that have some probability of occurring – among them are an asteroid collision with the earth, bioterrorism, and something known as a strangelet disaster (in one US government funded super-collider used to experiment on the building blocks of matter, there is some chance of creating a strange quark with a negative charge that manages within minutes to collapse the entire planet to a ball 100 meters in diameter). Right now we’re doing nothing to prevent an asteroid collision, and the super-collider is up and running. These are two inconvenient truths if ever such truths existed, but inconveniently for us, no one on the liberal side of the aisle has yet to figure out how to argue that the solution to either requires world government, or alternatively how to pin the blame on Big Oil and capitalism.


Blogger Unknown said...

For a conservative, it's astounding how well you understand the nuances of the liberal viewpoint, and express them accurately.

Or maybe you're just making it up. It's always so hard for me to tell...

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other day, I was listening to NPR. Two reporters were answering questions about the Global Warming story. Although every one has bias, these reporters were making an effort to cover the story in a neutral way.

They said that most scientists, but not all, felt Global Warming was a reality and human activity had some role. They said the scientific community largely felt that a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of twenty five percent would have no effect on climate change. Finally, they said according to the economic community, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of twenty five percent would cause worldwide economic depression. The question no one seems to ask is how much worldwide economic pain is the world willing to endure for the vague concept of doing something about climate change?

I remember as a kid that scientists were predicting an ice age. I remember dire predictions of a hole in the ozone. I remember dire predictions of a population explosion. Now I hear about global warming, nothing about an ozone hole, and problems with aging populations without enough working young people. Global warming may or may not be one of those dire predictions that seems silly to subsequent generations. The fear I have is the proposed solutions may cause real worldwide economic catastrophe.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Hatch! Good to have you back! I'll tip a Chartreuse or two in celebration of your return. Not that I need an excuse.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatch..Hatcher..Where are you?

4:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


4:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is Senior Senior Senior Guard John Hatch?

4:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatch, you should at least turn the lights off when you leave.

4:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PLEASE COME BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

the giant

1:49 PM  

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