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Politics and Knowledge: What to Do ? (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:16 AM GMT on August 24, 2010

Politics and Knowledge: What to Do ? (1)

A few months ago a Republican candidate for State Office came to my office to talk about climate change. At the end of the hour he asked me how I thought we could advance beyond the current political state which is publicly characterized by, my word, tribalism – do you or do you not “believe” in climate change? Since I had recently posted an article on the subject (here), I had some semblance of an answer queued up. At one level the answer is “time,” but I will get back to that.

At the top of strategy was the realization by scientists that climate change was, now, a political issue, and that within the realm of the political culture, knowledge based “education” was not, first and foremost, the way forward. In fact, in many cases, the exposure of more knowledge, more “science,” was likely to have a negative effect, fueling the political turmoil, and damaging, more, the body of scientific knowledge. Nuance of the scientific literature adds to uncertainty, and all uncertainty can be used to build doubt, which is the goal of the political argument.

Climate change has been a political issue for many years, but the relative weight between “political issue” and “scientific issue” has changed. The fact that a political candidate came to my office is, perhaps, a measure of how political it has become. But there are more thorough and, do I dare, more scientific measures. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues have been investigating how the public perceives climate change. Table 31 in this June 2010 presentation shows that Democrats are in a very small minority of those who are “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” of climate change. Republicans are in a slightly less distinct minority of those “Alarmed” or “Concerned” about climate change. The group who identified themselves as “Concerned” was the largest of six groups.

The majority of people who were “Alarmed” and “Concerned” about climate change identified themselves as Democrats. In the categories of “Doubtful” and “Dismissive” the largest group of people identified themselves as Republican, with a large percentage identifying themselves as Independent.

This quantifiable information supports the identification of climate change as a political issue and aligns climate change with the values associated with political affiliation. Hence, policy (and de facto commercial) interests and political values of taxation, regulation, energy, environment, conservation, etc. enter into how people think about climate change. For example, climate change means we have to change our reliance on fossil fuels, and if I make my living on fossil fuels, then I will likely be inclined to embrace the doubt that is the product of the political argument.

Once accepting that climate change is, publicly, a political issue more than a scientific issue, it is important to realize that this challenge to science-based motivation of policy and societal change is not unique to climate change. In a paper I have referred to many times before Liisa Antilla states in her conclusions (I refer you to the original paper for the references):

“The attack on climate science, observed Pollack (2003), replicates previous assaults on science, such as by the pesticide industry (DDT), coal-burning electric utilities (acid rain), and the chemical industry (effect of CFCs on stratospheric ozone). Furthermore, Nissani (1999, p. 37) stressed that the ‘phoney’ controversy surrounding anthropogenic climate change has been preceded by controversies on such issues as slavery, child labour, and civil rights. There have always been experts willing to back up a ‘profitably mistaken viewpoint’; there have always been efforts ‘to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty’ and to ‘unearth yet one more reason why the status quo is best for us’ (Nissani, 1999, p. 37–38).”

It is important to appreciate that the politicization of climate change is not unique because it means that there is not some piece of magic, something that we have being saying wrong, that if we say it correctly, more convincingly, with a preponderance of knowledge and rationality – if we say it correctly, then we can move forward. Also realizing that the climate change is not unique in its politicization allows us to depersonalize the attacks, which are sometimes highly personal (a tried and true political tactic).

The use of the heavy weight of scientific investigation in such a political argument, I assert, serves just as much to maintain the politically useful perception of the arrogance of scientists and elitism of education as it does to correct misconceptions. This continual flow of knowledge and education from scientists engaged in this political game fuels the words of those making the argument that there is a conspiracy to deny personal choice - forced vegetarianism, a breathing tax, small dangerous cars …

Never mind the fact, the evidence, that small cars are not distinguished by excess danger, this is not a game of knowledge, of facts. Though not specifically focused on climate change a recent paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler study The Persistence of Political Misconceptions. They find through case studies of a set of recent cases that the correction of incorrect information in polarized political issues did not lead to a rationalization of factual knowledge. In fact, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarization. Quoting from their conclusions:

“As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

The realization and acceptance of climate change as a political issue that has a significant element of political values or ideology in how climate change is perceived has a profound influence on how we advance beyond the current political state. Notions that the way forward is simply a matter of communication are naïve. Yes, there is a subset of people that such information might influence; however, it will not convince those who have taken an explicit anti-climate change position. It will likely fuel them, amplify their message, with that also influencing those in middle ground open to influence. Not a simple case. The next articles will explore more aspects of the strategies for advancing the issues of climate change - What to do? What to do?


Pakistan: I am certain to maintain an interest in Pakistan far longer than the average disaster attention span. My youngest sister Elizabeth is in Peshawar so I keep an eye on the news. We remain at the start of this flood, and we are just beginning to realize the consequences. Attention to the Pakistan flood is a moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

Elizabeth says that it is better to send money to the organizations doing the relief work than to try to organize shipments of goods.

Figure 1. MODIS Image of Indus River on August 11, 2010 from NASA Earth Observatory. Follow the link to NASA sight for more images, including a pre-flood image of the same scene.

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at climateknowledge.org

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.