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Friday, February 15, 2013

Downside of the Conservative Brain

MobyT | 11:54 PM 20 Comments - leave a comment

Ends and Means - Is Morality Dependent upon World View?

On one of my rare visits to the blog of Judith Curry, I came across a conundrum.  She had an article discussing whether the ends justify the means. 

In it she had a paragraph about Peter Gleick who, by pretending to be someone else, obtained revealing documents from the Heartland Institute.  She implied that she believes the ends did not justify the means in that case.  Her very next paragraph was about the stolen emails from CRU, and the way she referred to them it's clear she believes that when it comes to stealing thousands of emails, the ends did justify the means.

However in the latter case, the use to which the stolen emails were put was for nefarious purposes (to misrepresent science and scientists and thereby try to delay action to mitigate global warming).  On the other hand, the use to which the Heartland Institute documents were put was to expose nefarious goings on.  They showed, among other things, the depths to which the Heartland Institute would stoop to prevent any action to ameliorate global warming.

Now I'm not one to see the world in black and white, but Prof Curry's position does strike me as very perplexing from a moral standpoint. 

(Coby posted an article recently on the Heartland affair, in which he discusses how ethical ends vs means issues are not always black and white.  Scott Mandia expresses the view that what Dr Gleick did was wrong, but that despite this error, he continues to contribute a heap of good to the world, while the Heartland Institute continues to only do bad.  He provides scorecards as evidence.)

Logical fallacies and flawed assumptions

Curry bases her article on a post by Roger Pielke Jr, which in my opinion has logical fallacies and flawed assumptions. 

He argues that people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is akin to companies pretending horse meat is beef.  What he refers to is people wanting to mitigate global warming because they believe that it will cost relatively less to act sooner rather than later.  (Yes, his argument is more about cost in dollar terms in the relatively short term (decades) rather than loss of human life, biological diversity, and general ecological destruction over the medium to longer term (centuries to millenia.))

As well as disregarding medium to longer term impacts of global warming, there are (at least) two other flaws in Pielke Jr's argument:

Firstly, he says that the science is not 'strong' in regard to increasing costs associated with extreme events (hotter, longer droughts; bigger floods etc), as a proportion of GDP, even if we do nothing to limit global warming.  The jump from the science not being 'strong' to 'there will not be increasing costs/GDP associated with extreme events' as the world heats up, is a leap much to big to take IMO.  For one thing it's not a scientific point - the science is quite clear that we will get more and more often events that today are considered extreme.  The point he is putting forward is an economic one (not a scientific one) - that GDP will rise faster than costs associated with extreme events. IMO the science is at least grounded in evidence.  The economics has a lot more ifs and buts and assumptions (and in any case, he doesn't point directly to any cost/GDP projections to support his position.  He merely makes a passing mention of the Stern Review and the IPCC).

Secondly he seems to imply that even if people overly attribute an extreme event (today) to global warming then it is because someone (knowledgeable) has deliberately deceived them, rather than because they are ignorant or were mislead by another ignorant person.  There is nothing to support that assumption.

To sum up Roger Pielke Jr's position, he seems to be saying let's pay for extreme events as they happen.  Don't plan for them or take any preventative action now because the world will have more money in the future to deal with the increase in weather disasters.

To sum up Prof Curry's position, she seems to be saying:

1. Let the world heat up and do it's worst.  Let future generations deal with the consequences.

2. Deception is bad (even if you have good intentions) but stealing is good though you have bad intentions.

The Conservative Brain

I guess these positions are manifestations of the drawbacks of having a conservative brain. (Having a conservative brain is not inherently 'good' or 'bad'.  It has benefits as well as disadvantages.  There are upsides and downsides to having a liberal brain too.) 

This article gives some insight into the conservative brain. Put simply, scientific evidence indicates that people having a 'conservative brain' are more fearful (eg saying climate scientists are 'alarmists'); while people having a 'liberal brain' are more tolerant of uncertainty (more easily make decisions when there is inherent ambiguity). 

Then there is the finding that conservatives have a greater tendency to avoid self-harm ("I don't accept science because I don't want to pay tax"), whereas liberals avoid collective group harm ("I want to save the world and everyone and everything in it").

Combine those two tendencies of the conservative brain and you are part way towards explaining the difficulty many conservatives have when it comes to accepting, let alone acting upon, unpalatable facts that affect the whole world.

More of my musings on the conservative brain can be found here.

20 comments:

  1. From a more recent study - (on cause and effect):
    “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative. People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security,” McDermott said.
    http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2013/02/fear

    And more here to suggest people can change - the brain is plastic:

    So rather than creating an immutable link between biology and ideology to forever bind us to a single party, the study actually suggests that people can change overtime, overcome their natural predispositions and maybe even come around to new political ideas.
    http://www.salon.com/2013/02/15/study_are_some_people_born_conservative/singleton/

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  2. A couple of quibbles with your reasoning process, Sou.

    1. Whatever the empirical situation, the following comment is self-contradictory on its face:

    "people having a 'conservative brain' are more fearful (eg saying climate scientists are 'alarmists')"

    Calling someone an "alarmist" (unfairly, as you imply) is a way to disapprove of, not to endorse, the fear they express. If conservative-brained people were more fearful, you would expect them to say alarmists were 'realists,' not the other way round. If they were even more fearful, they'd call alarmists 'optimists.'

    2. Nobody has ever thought, spoken or written the following, obviously invented, quotation:

    "I don't accept science because I don't want to pay tax"

    3. The people you accuse of "rejecting science" do no such thing in their own terms; in their own terms, science is on their side, not yours. You might disagree diametrically with their interpretation of what science "says," but the value of science itself has never been in dispute, and that's why you'll never find a real quote for even the first half of your imagined thought:

    "I don't accept science"

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    Replies
    1. Hi Brad, re your 2, I see people saying/writing this all the time. For example, when asked: "What bothers you most about the arguments that there is serious global warming?"

      Anthony Watts replied: "They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes."

      Approx one minute into this interview:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmIJCGQzCiU

      (After realising that taking action to limit global warming will require cooperative action at the national and international level, some people reject the science.)

      Re your 1. IMO people who say climate scientists are 'alarmist' are doing so to ward off fear by denying the situation.

      Your 3 provides evidence that supports the above (denying facts by pretending there exists some imaginary alternative science).

      Delete
    2. Hi Brad, re your 2, I see people saying/writing this all the time.

      All the time? The only example I've heard that even tenuously backs up the idea is the one you've now cited: Michels' question juxtaposed with Watts' answer. Are there others? Because this particular gotcha is, to say the least, less than clearcut.

      Michels interviewed Watts for 2 hours, which was then cut down to a much shorter segment. What was edited out where the camera jumps from Michels' question to Watts' answer?

      Michels seems to understand an idea conveyed in Watts' answer which is far from obvious to the viewer, because when Watts finishes answering he follows up with, "Are you suggesting that they're corrupt?"

      So something has obviously been lost in editing—not maliciously, but simply as part of the "long story short" process of making documentaries. (There's little indication from this segment that Michels himself is biased against Watts.)

      Also, note that Watts admits he was personally a victim of the "noble cause corruption" that blinds people to flaws in the science. He admits, just a minute after the remark you've focused on, that he got excited / carried away by the idea that there was a big problem and that we had to save the world from it.

      So, unless he's lying about his former views, it's pretty hard to fit them into your explanatory schema:

      "After realising that taking action to limit global warming will require cooperative action at the national and international level, some people reject the science."

      You offer the interesting opinion that "people who say climate scientists are 'alarmist' are doing so to ward off fear by denying the situation". In other words, you interpret the claim that there's nothing to worry about as evidence of fear! With such a powerful and infinitely elastic hermeneutic system at your disposal, Sou, could any observation POSSIBLY falsify your theory that conservatives are "fearful"?

      LOL

      :-)

      Delete
    3. There are not many reasons for people to dispute climate science or to argue for stopping it. The two main motives would be that the protesters are anti-regulation and/or anti-taxation. There is little to argue in the science itself.

      You don't see people spending the same effort to protest pursuit of the Higgs Boson, leading edge medical research or any other science where it doesn't impinge on policy or their hip pocket in an obvious way. (Other examples where fringe groups operate are GMOs, fluoridation, vaccination, etc - mostly based on arguments of freedom of choice, a sub-category of the 'policy/regulation' opposition - with some based on religion - eg teaching evolution vs creationism).

      There are always people who will protest any policy that they view as infringing their right to harm themselves or others - eg tobacco smoking, wearing safety belts / crash helmets, environmental protection regulation etc. Often they will try to couch their protests in terms of 'science' but when you look into it their 'science' isn't science at all. And too often their mask will slip and you see it's all about policy after all.

      Delete
    4. "There are not many reasons for people to dispute climate science or to argue for stopping it."

      "Stopping" climate science? I've yet to hear that proposed, but I guess one reason to do it would be that climate science is a broken science: it consumes many billions of dollars per annum and yet (unlike, say, leading-edge medical research) it's made no useful progress for 20 or so years. Can you think of anything at all we know about the climate that we didn't know in, say, 2008?

      I agree with your last paragraph but I wonder how relevant it is. None of the issues you name—"tobacco smoking, wearing safety belts / crash helmets, environmental protection regulation etc."—is really comparable to the dangerous-global-warming debate. This debate is unique because:

      1. half the community, including the scientific community, remains unconvinced by "the science"

      2. there is no group that admits "the science" is sound but defends "their right to harm themselves or others" anyway, like there is in (say) the smoking debate. There's no climate equivalent to the people who argue, "I know damn well how bad it is for my lungs, but I'm a free adult—I have the right to slowly kill myself if I want to."

      In other words, all opposition to the climate-change-mitigation movement is from people who don't buy the "scientific" claim that climate change is dangerous in the first place. If they're just wearing science as a "mask" for their ideological opposition, they're doing a damn good job of staying in character.

      Do you think that if a thousand Peter Gleicks stole a thousand dossiers from a thousand "denier" think-tanks, a single one of them would contain the admission that: "sure, we all secretly know the IPCC is right about the dangers of AGW, but we must stay strong in our opposition to the tyranny of the carbon cops"?

      Not gonna happen, because in the climate debate, opposition to "the science" is unfeigned.

      Delete
    5. Brad, you don't get out much do you. First you didn't know there are many people who oppose climate science because they don't want to pay tax. Now you say you are yet to hear anyone propose no more climate science. Go to sites like WUWT and other denier websites and you'll often read complaints about the fact that climate science is being done at all.

      Your comment about the 'billions of dollars' could have been taken straight off one of the more whacky denier websites. Sure, if you add in the capital cost of satellites over the years, maybe. But do you really not want to know when and where the next major storm or cyclone will hit? (Satellites are used for monitoring weather as well as climate.) The amount of money spent on some other fields of science far outstrips that spent on climate research (think medical research for example).

      And your question about new knowledge since 2008 suggests you don't read any scientific journals (which continue to publish new science). Just one example:
      http://www.nature.com/nclimate/archive/issue.html

      If you had looked at the published science you'd have noticed there is virtually none that conflicts with mainstream climate science. So your statements about 'half the community including the scientific community' (unsubstantiated even when it comes to the general public) is flat out wrong. Look up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False-consensus_effect

      Probably explains why many climate science deniers (present company excepted) avoid all but the fringe denialist blogs and why they are under the misapprehension that most people share their off-beat opinions about climate science.

      Delete
    6. First you didn't know there are many people who oppose climate science because they don't want to pay tax.

      Well, Sou, neither of us KNOWS that. It seems to be little more than a conviction you hold, for which some supporting evidence would surely have been discovered by now if it were true. And by "supporting evidence," I'd have expected something a bit more persuasive than the Watts/Michels to-and-fro—do you have any other data for my consideration?

      Go to sites like WUWT and other denier websites and you'll often read complaints about the fact that climate science is being done at all.

      Yes, I suppose it's possible I've overlooked comments like that, since I do tend to filter out stuff written by my "side" (in broad terms), in favor of reading new information / new perspectives and learning from them.

      And your question about new knowledge since 2008 suggests you don't read any scientific journals (which continue to publish new science). Just one example:
      [Link to Nature climate archive]


      All you've linked me to is proof that grant money is still being spend "doing" climate science.

      You've avoided the question. Can you think of anything we know about the climate that we didn't know in 2008? (This should be the easiest thing in the world to answer if you keep up with the journals, and if climate science works.)

      I'm simply curious as to whether you can tell me, in your own words, something we've learned about the climate in the last 5 years.

      So your statements about 'half the community including the scientific community' (unsubstantiated even when it comes to the general public) is flat out wrong.

      Well, nobody much disputes the existence of a climate, or the fact that it changes any more. (What exactly does the weasel-friendly phrase "conflicts with mainstream climate science" mean, Sou?)

      What most of the world—and a large slice of the scientific world—does NOT believe is that AGW is a major problem.

      Andrew Bolt reports that, "Only 36 percent of geoscientists and engineers believe that humans are creating a global warming crisis, according to a survey reported in the peer-reviewed Organization Studies."

      Check it: http://oss.sagepub.com/content/33/11/1477.full

      An interesting finding from the study: “Adherents of [the standard warmist view] in our study are significantly more likely to be lower in the organizational hierarchy, younger, female, and working in government.”

      Delete
    7. OMG - now you're quoting that renowned climate 'expert', Andrew Bolt! That's equivalent to saying only 36% of smokers (or motor mechanics or barbers or pole dancers) think that smoking poses risks to one's health!

      I've just discovered you have your very own thread (with >2000 comments) at Tim Lambert's place, Brad. Congrats! (I'm starting to see why.)

      Shades of the HotCopper S&M club!

      Delete
    8. And Bolt quoted a peer-reviewed study!

      Which quantified the opinions of credentialed engineers and working earth scientists!

      Yay!

      And was conducted by warmist academics!

      Yay!

      Have you glanced through it, Sou?

      Delete
    9. Yes, Brad, I've looked at it. The authors did a depth analysis with a particular focus on how deniers frame their denial. They deliberately chose their cohort accordingly - geoscientists and engineers working in an industry (oil/petroleum) and locale (Alberta Canada) that are both predominately economically dependent on adding to the greenhouse effect and contributing to global warming.

      The authors' findings described by them as Frames 3 and 4 in particular, are consistent with the studies I referred to about the conservative brain (above).

      Refining my analogy, the aspect of the findings that you highlighted is the equivalent of saying that thirty years ago, 36% of people working in the tobacco industry were adamant that smoking poses a risk to human health.

      The authors themselves accept climate science.

      Delete
    10. "The authors themselves accept climate science."

      So do I, Sou. Do you know what that means? (I'm only asking because I seem to remember you were unfamiliar with the meaning of "consensus" last year—we're having an enlightening shitfight about this at Lambert's place, if you were still curious about the definition.)

      "The authors' findings described by them as Frames 3 and 4 in particular, are consistent with the studies I referred to about the conservative brain (above)."

      Really?

      A key claim of those studies, as you put it, was:

      "Put simply, scientific evidence indicates that people having a 'conservative brain' are more fearful (eg saying climate scientists are 'alarmists')."

      And when I wondered why brains in thrall to their own amygdala would scoff at alarmist scientists as "alarmists", you said it was precisely because they were so afraid:

      "Re your 1. IMO people who say climate scientists are 'alarmist' are doing so to ward off fear by denying the situation."

      Lefsrud and Meyer don't seem to agree with this (dare I say Freudian?) analysis at all.

      Quite the opposite: they seem to have concluded that the most alarmed group were the, uh, alarmists:

      "Supporters of the Kyoto Protocol consider climate change to be a significant public risk and see an impact on their personal life. In their prognostic framing, they tend to fear that the risks are greater in extent (i.e., global and regional) and in magnitude (i.e., changes to both the average state and variability of the climate) than other groups…"

      ... whereas this is how Lefsrud and Meyer describe Frame 4:

      "To the contrary, they seem generally apathetic – ‘How can anyone take action if research is biased?’"

      So there seems to be a direct contradiction here: are conservatives/"deniers" more fearful than liberals/"believers", or less? They can't be both, Sou!

      Delete
    11. Oh, now I remember you, Brad. You were banned from Shaping Tomorrow's World for tying the discussion up in knots when you kept insisting on redefining words to suit yourself, thereby making reasoned dialogue impossible ('scientific consensus'; 'climate science'). So you're still stuck on that hobby horse :(

      Here, among other difficulties, you aren't discerning the difference between 'avoiding fear' (by refusing to accept reality, dismissing the findings of experts) and 'facing fear' (acknowledging real risk of harm).

      I suspect that 'refusing to accept reality' is your biggest stumbling block.

      Delete
    12. "Oh, now I remember you, Brad. You were banned from Shaping Tomorrow's World"

      Yes—and I'm a little hurt that it took you so long, frankly! :-(

      for tying the discussion up in knots

      Ah, sweet, simple Sou! Your childlike faith in the justice of moderation is quite touching. But no, the SS kidz who ran Lewandowsky's security were happy to ignore the courageous entreaties for my censorship on the part of you and your friends for a couple of weeks at least; and, being the traffic-minded entrepreneurs they are, there's little reason to think they would ever have heeded the petitions of the mob.

      I was banned (within 2 minutes of the fact) for crossing an entirely different, inviolable line: I drew attention to something which one of the moderators had written and which wasn't supposed to be read by the general public.

      when you kept insisting on redefining words to suit yourself, thereby making reasoned dialogue impossible ('scientific consensus'; 'climate science').

      Your recollection is faulty, Sou. Far from "redefining" anything, I merely opened up my dictionary to the word "consensus" and informed you what it meant in English. It meant "majority opinion." It still means "majority opinion." Nothing's changed.

      Go to shapingtomorrowsworld and read your own comments (mine were bravely deleted by the SS); I think you'll see yourself insisting, in the absence of any lexicographic support, that "consensus" was a vague reference to a kind of evidence for something.

      Whatever your idea was, you were wrong. The Oxford Dictionary was right. Webster's Dictionary was right. The Macquarie Dictionary was right. I was right. It means "majority opinion."

      There may have been a few desultory attempts to distinguish "scientific consensus" from all other kinds of "consensus" known to the Anglosphere, but they didn't get very far, for the simple reason that no dictionary could be found that deemed "scientific consensus" worthy of its own entry as a phrase.

      It's just an adjective + a noun. "Scientific" + "consensus." Not too difficult to grasp, one would have thought.

      But can you remind me, who haggled over the meaning of "climate science"? That must have been an amusing argument!

      Delete
    13. Sou, you say that:

      "Here, among other difficulties, you aren't discerning the difference between 'avoiding fear' (by refusing to accept reality, dismissing the findings of experts) and 'facing fear' (acknowledging real risk of harm)."

      And which of those two activities—'avoiding fear' or 'facing fear'—is mediated by the amygdala, pray tell?

      (You're promoting a neuroscientific theory of the great climate divide, so this question should be well within your ken, right?)

      "I suspect that 'refusing to accept reality' is your biggest stumbling block."

      Yeah, I've never been too good at refusing to accept reality.

      FWIW I suspect that your biggest stumbling block is 'how to tell pop neurology from the actual behavioral sciences.'

      Delete
    14. Here are some links to related research, particularly no. 4 - from the article I referred to above.

      Time to follow this advice, and point here.

      (Warning to other visitors - do not follow the last link, the 'here' link, if you are seeking polite, rational discourse.)

      Delete
    15. Yes, I did read Kanai et al.

      Your "this advice" link imputes that I'm commenting on topics I don't understand.

      Are we to believe, then, that you have some expertise in neurobiology, Sou?

      Good! So you can surely enlighten us by addressing the question:

      "And which of those two activities—'avoiding fear' or 'facing fear'—is mediated by the amygdala, pray tell?"

      You're promoting a neuroscientific theory of the great climate divide, so this question should be well within your ken, right?

      Delete
  3. Also:

    Dr Gleick shopped around a *fake* Heartland document, whereas the Climategate emails were *authentic.*

    By what perverse logic, then, did you assume Gleick's motives were *honest* but the Climategate leaker's/leakers' were *dishonest*?

    Bizarro world.

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    Replies
    1. I'll probably do a post on confirmation bias in the not too distant future, Brad :D

      Delete
    2. Yes, that was presumably a key factor in the widespread uncritical acceptance of Gleick's dodgy dossier.

      Delete

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