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 previous issue                         issue #61,  posted 9 /25 / 2019                      archive of all  issues

Climate Deniers and the Seductive Appeal of Certainty

in the news:  The September 2019 Scientific American is a special issue built around the theme "Truth, Lies, and Uncertainty." Similarly, the September 21 2019 issue of The Economist is entitled "The Climate Issue".  The latter contains a lengthy article that brings these two topics together: "The Uncertainties of Climate Change."  The former is introduced with a story about the Trump administration's total mischaracterization of its environmental record that serves as an example of what the editors go on to term "the warping of truth and the normalization of lies." Their article's last paragraph begins, "Uncertainty in the world makes us all the more susceptible to such campaigns." 

Meanwhile, Swedish 16 year-old-old climate activist Greta Thunberg sails into New York City's harbor, on her way to deliver an impassioned speech at the UN, with "Unite Behind Science!" written on one of her boat's sails. 

commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, founder and manager, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): Why is that? I'd say all of us like tidy, straight-forward explanations, or choices that are simple in a distinguishing black & white sense. Uncertainty--especially when its importance can be magnified by those promoting their own agenda—is connected with a messy complexity swamp that those who like to keep things simple often don't want to wade in. As society becomes more technologically complex—and a typical person's critical thinking skills and scientific literacy fail to keep pace—it seems increasingly a strategy of those who might otherwise be on the losing end of an argument that could be decided on the basis of evidence is twofold.  First they attempt to "muddy the waters" introducing extraneous issues / more details /complexity. This makes a typical person's task of keeping everything straight, sorting out truth / lies, etc even more difficult. Thus they are more likely to give up and not even try—whereupon they fall prey to the second strategy of the unscrupulous: saying to people, "Trust us!"

Here I'm linking the unscrupulous to those who value two worldview themes in particular: theme #2A The True Believer and theme #2B I Know What's Best For You. (Note this link is not true in general.) In the descriptions of the former theme you'll find the statement, "Critics say true believers have an "excess of certitude." Others point out that this certainty can be seductive when it comes to recruiting followers!" Who better to offer that black & white simplistic certainty to potential recruits than those consummate persuaders with their "I Know What's Best for You!" sales pitch? 

As Steven Pinker recountsnear the start of his 2018 bestseller Enlightenment Nowhow many young people, unable to find meaning and purpose in the secular humanist (see theme #10) world with its philosophical uncertainties and complexities, and fell prey to trusting the Islamic jihadist religious fundamentalist (see theme #9A) recruiters' simpler message and joined ISIS. With respect to all of the complexities in explaining physical mechanisms, and uncertainties involved in understanding future climate predictions, behind the climate change debate, it seems the fossil fuel lobby and their political allies offer the twofold "baffle em" and "trust us" strategy.  "Baffle em" by promoting the notion that there is legitimate scientific uncertainty as to the cause of climate change (there basically is none, the scientific consensus is overwhelming that the problem is human caused with burning of fossil fuel, deforestation, etc.) And "Trust us, the sky is not falling, you can continue denying there is a problem, and continue with your business as usual". 

As The Economist article cited above points out with respect to the challenge climate models are up against in trying to make good future climate projections, "The most important human uncertainty is how quickly and completely people will stop using fossil fuels."  Their critics charge that fossil fuel lobbyists and their allies hope the human addiction to what they offer never ends. To counter this theme #51B "Big Business Pushes Limits," environmentalists offer a renewable energy based future built on theme #40 "Environmental Economics". (* see note 1 below)  

Finally, regarding Thunberg's sail message, I note that Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina, in the issue cited above, refers to science as "an engine of human prosperity" and "that evidence-based engine." This recalls the "Evidence-Based" theme #201A, whereas "Trust Us" appeals connect more with the "Faith-Based" theme #201B.           (* see note 2 below)    


* 1) These two themes represent the last of the 52 numbered choices in The Choices We Make presentation of 104 worldview themes you'll find on this website, specifically choice #52.

*2) These two themes represent the first of the 52 numbered choices in The Choices We Make presentation of 104 worldview themes you'll find on this website, specifically choice#1. 

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