Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

into the morass

Following up on yesterday’s request for help with the notorious Bret Stephens op-ed on climate change — no help has been forthcoming, by the way — I’d like to call your attention to this superb column by Damon Linker:

Stephens didn't deny the reality of climate change. He merely dared to advocate a slight rhetorical adjustment to the way environmental activists and their cheering sections at websites like Slate and Vox, and newspapers like the Times, go about making their case to the wider public. What followed was not a reasoned debate about the rhetorical effectiveness of claims to modesty and certainty, dispassionate concern and outright alarmism. Instead, there was simple, pure, satisfying, but politically impotent condemnation: "You can't say that!"

Perhaps the most telling response was that of Susan Matthews at Slate, who admitted that Stephens had not denied any of the facts of climate change, and agreed that Stephens is exactly right in his claim that scientists and journalists who speak for scientists often mishandle probabilities and discount their own biases — but insisted somehow all that makes his column even “scarier and more damaging.” Your overall argument is not wrong, and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

I think journalists are so upset with Stephens not because he challenges the scientific consensus on climate change — he clearly doesn't — but because he challenges them. His argument, as Linker suggests above, is about rhetorical effectiveness: He claims that if people who are seriously and legitimately concerned about climate change went about their business in a more epistemically modest way, they might well win over more people. That is, rhetorical extremism might not be the best way to go, even when the facts warrant it. But, it appears, if there’s anything worse that climate-change denialism, it’s journalistic-wisdom denialism.

Yet in other arenas, arenas where they don't perform, I’d bet those same journalists could understand the legitimacy of Stephens’s general point. For instance, when people have accused Rod Dreher of being “alarmist” in The Benedict Option, Rod has typically replied that he writes that way because he’s genuinely alarmed. To which some of his critics have said “Yeah, but you don't have to sound so alarmed. You’re scaring people off who don't already agree with you.” And isn't this a a reasonable criticism? Especially given what we have learned about the backfire effect — the tendency people have to double down on wrong ideas when they’re presented with facts that challenge those ideas? And if it is a reasonable criticism, mightn’t it apply to journalists too? Believing in SCIENCE doesn't give you infallible judgment.

There’s one more context for this whole argument. I have been meditating over the last couple of days on this tweet from my friend Yoni Appelbaum:

For some time now I’ve asked the New York Times to give better and fairer coverage of social conservatives and religious people, and hiring Stephens seems to have been at least a small step in that direction. But if their core constituency continues to engage in freakouts of this magnitude over any deviation from their views, will we see any more such steps? Given the economic realities Yoni’s tweet points to, I’d say: not bloody likely. The pressures of the market are relentless. And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry.

Again, my concern here applies to every institution that deals in ideas. When people ask me how academic administrators can allow student protestors to behave so badly — can allow them even to get away with clearly illegal behavior — I answer: The customer is always right. And I’ve got a feeling that’s exactly what the publishers of the New York Times are thinking as members of their core constituency cancel their subscriptions. Religious weirdos like me are a lost cause; but they can’t lose their true believers. Mistakes were made; heads will roll; it won't happen again. And America will sink deeper and deeper into this morass of “alternative facts” and mutually incomprehensible narratives.


  • Yes, yes, and also yes. When one seeks to persuade an audience, it helps to bear in mind what fears the audience brings into the room, and to address those fears as sympathetically and positively as possible. Hectoring people from a great height is generally not a well-established means of persuasion. Coming alongside them to reassure them that whatever change you ask of them will be for the benefit of themselves and their children AND that you recognize the costs you are asking of them--but see? It's not so bad...and it'll be worthwhile--perhaps will be more efficacious.

  • I suspect that his column hit a nerve because many climate advocates worry that the average person has biases that prevent them from being sufficiently alarmed about the climate, and that any kind of reasoned skepticism will move things in the wrong direction. Conversely, a bit of exaggeration may be morally justified to get people to take the problem seriously.

    Many people who claim to be concerned about climate change either believe (out of wishful thinking) that it can be dealt with at zero cost to themselves, or else (as the non-endorsement and even opposition to the I-732 carbon tax initiative in Washington State by environmental groups) have other goals as well.

    So the exaggerations and so forth may in fact be necessary, from this point of view. Disputing that is a point of rhetorical strategy, of course, so it shouldn't necessarily require such a vehement reaction, except that the vehement reaction is part of the exaggeration. As well, I think that there's some hidden guilt among some people who tolerate or engage in such exaggeration, causing them to lash out at the person who points it out. (That applies to anyone who betrays one principle for some other possibly higher end, such as some Trump supporters who knew better.)

  • John S., thank you!

    John T.: Surely you are exactly right. Critics like Susan Matthews are especially angry, I suspect, because they see Stephens using points that are true for nefarious purposes. And maybe he is! But the response to that is not, I think, to try to suppress the truth about how science works, how probabilities work, the role of bias, etc. I may write another post about this....

  • "And the more of our institutions, especially our intellectual institutions, are governed by those relentless pressures, the fewer places we will have to turn for nonpartisan inquiry." A depressing thought, but I'm sure you're right. The scary thing, as Scott Alexander points out, is that because our mainstream/elite (my words, not his) institutions are increasingly left-leaning, but still feign neutrality, the impact of those pressures may be more damaging to conservatives. That is, the more prestigious, historic, "mainstream" institutions come to be dominated more and more by the left, while still pretending to be neutral gatekeepers, while conservatives increasingly seek refuge in explicitly tribal ghettos of lesser quality and prestige. Market forces will exaggerate confirmation bias among both sets of institutions, but the power will increasingly reside on one side. The impact on the dispossessed group will be predicable.

  • I have tread a long, slow path from a conservative, Republican, evangelical childhood to a Catholic whose views are a mixed bag, as I think a Catholic's should be, but whose overall trajectory has been toward moderate-ness. (I think, from having read your stuff for a number of years now, that my political views are very similar to yours.)

    But anyway, the point is that I can still sort of code switch--the Politico/NRO/Weekly Standard part of my brain is, like, all still there, and even when it's not at all reflective of my actual beliefs, it's like there's a parallel commentary running alongside my actual thoughts, and I in a very vivid way can intuit the phenomenal experience of being, for example, an enthusiastic Trump voter. It's like my past self still sits in my mind as a non-voting observer.

    All of that to say, I have the view you articulate in the first part of your previous post about this, and yet when I read things about climate change the rhetoric makes me *want* to disbelieve simply in virtue of how condescending, arrogant, politically-charged, smug it all is. In my climate-change-denying youth my final fallback was always: if people *actually* believed what they are saying about climate change, why is it merely one more tool in the Democrats' shed to browbeat people about? Why the rhetoric, the villification, etc if, per the hypothesis, getting *everyone* on board is of paramount importance for the long term survival and wellbeing of the entire human race?

    I no longer think this is correct because, it turns out, politics has gotten way worse about this sort of thing than it was even 10-15 years when I was having these thoughts. But, though I don't listen to it, I retain some sympathy for that part of my brain, and for people who actually hold those views.

  • I was also going to link to the Scott Alexander piece, which was posted at nearly the same time as your first post and struck me as highly apropos, and exactly correct in most of its points.

  • The Canadian academic philosopher Joseph Heath, a moderate liberal, has made similar points about global warming discourse:

  • Susan Matthew's response at Slate contains several details worthy of contemplation. To pull a few together:
    - admitting any epistemic uncertainty is at least equated to "giving in," or, as stated later, "the idea that truth may not be knowable is ... insidious"
    - the institution of science is "the entire system that creates facts" and should not be questioned (note: "creates," not interprets or deduces or discovers or explores; also, "entire")

    There's no room allowed for doubt, humility, or moderation. She takes the message she imagines to be whispered in subtext ("You have to be an idiot or a zealot to believe climate change is certain"), inverts it, and responds in kind. Yes, the point about winsome communication has either been utterly missed or utterly dismissed.

    She may benefit from reading the two science articles which Slate offered me just below hers about strategic scientific communication and the "religious" approach to science observed at the recent march.

  • Jay, I love this phrase: "It's like my past self still sits in my mind as a non-voting observer."

    Bret: those are very good points. The implications of science as creating rather than discovering facts....

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