Half a Century of Ignoring What Scientists Are Saying
Today a student asked something that may have occurred to you, too, at some point in the climate debate:
How on earth did this happen? Who could have imagined that in the third millennium AD, in the technologically advanced Western hemisphere, there would ever prevail such an epidemic—a pandemic, even—of contempt for what scientists tell us?
What a dumb question.
The answer, of course, is Milgram.
Stanley Milgram could have imagined it.
Last year was the 50th birthday of an announcement that shocked academia… no pun intended! The work Prof. Milgram had done in the bowels of the Yale University Psychology Department revealed for the first time the sheer depth of Middle America’s disrespect for scientific authority.
The idea that ordinary, churchgoing folk would ignore clear instructions from a proper scientist in favor of the evidence-free whining of an actor no better credentialed than themselves came as even more of an insult to rationality and propriety in 1963 than it does today.
Milgram’s writeup was so incredible it almost failed peer review. How could “normal” people behave this way?
The subjects must have been confused, surely; dazzled by the elegant but elaborate experimental design. They must have got the idea, somehow, that the confederates they refused to “electrocute” were even more reputable in the science world than the lab-coated experimenter! (Remember, most of the people who answered Milgram’s ad would have been lucky to have high-school diplomas. They weren’t exactly the brightest sparks… no pun intended!)
Yet follow-up trials in which the Experimenter pointedly touted his academic honorifics, while the Learner/Victim dropped multiple hints about flunking the tenth grade, were not associated with an improvement in obedience—which rules out such easy explanations.
You may find it hard, dear reader, to imagine having any trouble at all picking the more credible source of commands. But then, you’re special: it isn’t everyone who has the education and discernment to surf pro-climate-science blogs for fun, is it?
No. Not by a long shot.
What Milgram found, to his own amazement, was that a seemingly trivial test of social reasoning actually caused psychic distress in many of the lower-scoring (less compliant) subjects:
Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. One unexpected sign of tension—yet to be explained—was the regular occurrence of nervous laughter, which in some S[ubject]s developed into uncontrollable seizures.
And the refuseniks have been laughing at science ever since!
Denialism isn’t something that arose spontaneously among the free peoples of the world. It was a time bomb that took fifty years to go off.
And the rest is history. Climate denial is now endemic in the most successful and individualist cultures on earth—societies like the US and the rest of the Anglosphere.
Professor Kahan, who strides the same dark corridors in Yale’s Psychology “Dungeon” half a century later, has even shown that the tragic effects of individualism operate within cultures. Predictably enough, the same people who flunk the construct he calls “Egalitarianism-Communitarianism” can’t bring themselves to believe in the climate consensus either, no matter how many authorities endorse it.
But maybe, just maybe, the bad news is also the good news.
You’ve heard the cliché. Climate skepticism is like universal suffrage, secret ballots, the liberation of women from the typecast of parturition, high literacy rates, vanishing infant mortality, freedom of congregation and diversity of the press: an exclusively Western problem.
So let’s learn from other cultures. What can Sierra Leone teach us about solving the climate-skeptic problem? Why not take a leaf from Korea’s book—both of them? What can we learn from the Haitian experience with denialism?
More on this tomorrow, if packing for Germany permits.
(Yep, we’re off to the Nürnberg Sustainable Living Conference where my partner and I first met, several years and three kids ago! It’s an annual family pilgrimage, so please bear with us if updates are sparse.)