Oily prodigal son returns

Why do we believe the things we do? In criminology I spend a lot time refuting the popular belief that crime could be reduced if only we had tough enough sentences. Proponents of “getting tough” typically subscribe to a naïve version of rational choice theory. They presume that people make utility-maximizing calculations when deciding to commit a crime. This is to say, they think people rationally weigh costs and benefits in some robust way before doing the bad thing. Most don’t — especially if we’re talking about people who are incapable of deep rational thinking — like someone desperately trying to feed a drug addiction. Anybody who has ever lived with a drug addict knows just how “rational” they can be.

To this point the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once posed an evocative question: “What is the difference between someone who is convinced and one who is deceived?”

His answer: “None, if he is well deceived.”

We adopt all kinds of reasons to deceive ourselves, especially if our livelihood or habits depend upon it. A while back I had a discussion with a reader who took me to task for my criticism of the fossil fuel industry. No matter what I provided in terms of scientific evidence, he simply would not accept that there could ever be an alternative to a fossil fuel-based economy. Of course his son worked for Exxon.

In the same vein, I wonder why so many people (who don’t work for the fossil fuel industry or utilities) have such a hard time accepting the reality of human-influenced climate change. What’s in it for them? Why does blind subscription to a dogma based in ignorance give them such comfort?

Climate change deniers like to promote the idea that there is scholarly division on the matter. Yes, there is some division — at percentages slightly north of those who believe in a flat Earth.

There are two well-vetted meta-analyses (analyses of analyses) that quantify just how “great” this scholarly division really isn’t. The most recent was led by Prof. John Cook of the University of Queensland. His team published their findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

They surveyed the published studies of 29,000 scientists who authored 11,994 academic papers. Of the 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change only 0.7 percent, or 83, disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity, with the view of the remaining 2.2 percent unclear —- 3 percent, if you count in the “unclears.” In 2004, Prof. Naomi Oreskes, at the University of California, San Diego, conducted a similar survey of climate change literature. Her study, published in the journal Science, reflects a similar consensus: 97 percent of climate scientists agree on the causes of climate change.

This is not a debate. Absent radical new evidence to the contrary, it is decided.

In an interview with the Guardian, Prof. Robert Bruelle at Drexel University said he didn’t think the overwhelming weight of scientific consensus would ever be enough to sway those who refuse the truth: “I don’t think people really want to come around to grips with the fact that climate change is a highly ideological issue and it is not amenable to the information deficit model,” he said.

“The information deficit model, this idea that if you just pile on more information people will get convinced, is just completely inadequate. It strengthens the people who actually read and pay attention but it is certainly not going to change or shift the opinions of others,” he told the Guardian.

It’s chilling to know that almost half of all Americans surveyed decided their position using something other than the decades of peer-reviewed scientific studies produced by thousands of independent researchers.

While I would never claim to make all the decisions in my life with balanced empirical information, vetted by science and common sense, I just can’t imagine the advantage of believing something is good when science says is wrong. One misinformed old man I get, but surely not everybody’s son works for Exxon?

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com.