First, a note on Lewis Carrol, Alice and Wonderland, and drugs. The current revisionist version of that work is that Carrol was not referring to drugs when he has Alice or other characters imbibe or smoke various substances (including ‘shrooms) and in so doing experience dramatic changes in reality. Uh huh, sure. The argument is based on the belief that Lewis Carrol did not do drugs. That argument is absurd, of course, because Alice in Wonderland and related works ARE FICTION. If these stories can only involve thematic metaphor to drug use by the author actually being on drugs while weaving the yarns, then what exactly do we expect Stephen King’s life to be like? But, I digress and we shall now get on to the point of this post.
There is a new paper by the Conspiracy and Consensus team exploring how climate science deniers, in a conspirational mode, are, essentially, on drugs. Not real drugs, just the metaphorical ones invoked when we think or utter, “What did he say? Man, he must be on drugs.” To be clear, this paper does not actually make the drug connection directly. The connection to the Alice down the rabbit hole metaphor is in the great disparity and incongruence among ideas proffered or claimed simultaneously by the deniers of climate science.
Here’s the details on the paper: Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J. & Lloyd, E. Synthese (2016). The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6.
Click the link to get your free copy.
The authors make two key observations, and then explain them. First observation: The climate change denier community is capable of saying, seemingly at the same time, completely different things that contradict each other. Second observation: Same as the first one, but this also applies to individuals. In other words, the internally conflicting disparity of ideas does not solely represent heterogeneity in the denier community. It indicates a lack of need or desire for consistency or internal coherency. Science deniers do not care that they, as a group or as individuals, saying that even though paleo-temperature data from proxies are unreliable, a claim (which is incorrect) can be made that the middle ages were warmer than today. They can say that we can’t really measure atmospheric CO2 levels in the past, but they were higher in the past at particular points in time. And so on. The paper provides numerous examples.
The authors explain this lack of coherency by the fact that there is coherency, but at a different level. Given (or, as an assumption) that this is conspiratorial ideation in action, the deniers know (but are wrong) that there is a conspiracy at a higher level to obscure or hide the truth, or to make stuff up, etc. Therefore, any given idea, no matter how much conflict it implies with other ideas, is acceptable as long as it doubles as a finger pointing to the man behind the curtain, the deep and high level conspiracy. If an idea supports the idea that there is a conspiracy (any conspiracy, or just an unspecified conspiracy of some sort, not a particular one) then it is an OK idea.
I would either mildly disagree with this explanation, or take it one sept further and fully agree with it. I’m still thinking about it.
In dueling with deniers, one thing that very quickly becomes apparent is an utter lack of concern for honesty. One could ask the question, was honesty absent from the beginning, as a character trait of these individuals, or was it sacrificed in service of strong conspiratorial ideation? I think the lack of honesty is critically important, because this is what make it impossible, in a conversation, for the interlocutors to agree on what we are all getting at, or to acknowledge when we are going in a good vs. bad direction with intermediate conclusions or provisional ideas, or to in any way come to any kind of understanding about pretty much anything.
An honest conversation moves towards something, and that something is defined and redefined, and increasingly better understood, as part of the conversation itself. Deniers are not even moving towards a better and more coherent conspiracy. They are, rather, denying every aspect of the mainstream, coherent, consensus-seeking conversation, no matter what it is. You can test this, by engagement in comment sections of newspaper articles and blog posts. You can trick these folks into saying something that favors a normal interpretation of climate science, by simply letting them know that you are agin’ ’em, and then stating the opposite of what you want them to say. In the trenches, detailed positions are not necessarily developed and framed just in reference to the conspiracy by a higher power (the government, the academics, etc.), but also (or maybe mostly?) in simple opposition to whatever a scientist, climate change “believer,” etc. is saying.
That applies, by the way, to about everything one might talk about. On this blog, several folks who showed up as science deniers discovered a conversation about firearms, and engaged fully. And, the same tactics prevailed. I’m not sure how important that is, but those conversations might be worth a look.
This could be all about the Ultimate Conspiracy, and the dishonesty simply arises from the incoherence of the necessary arguments. Or, the Ultimate Conspiracy could be the final (and ultimate) excuse when everything else fails, and fail it must if ever the conversation goes on long enough for everyone to understand that the deniers have contradicted themselves and each other on everything they’ve said.
Either way, the utter lack of honesty must matter. The adherence to honesty in the normal, honest conversation about policy or science, or science policy, is critical. When that breaks down, and people involved in the conversation are working with other objectives, that is when you get serious problems (including post-modernism within academia, damaging political positions in state houses and national capitols, and utter craziness on the internet.) I’m not a psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that disregard for honesty, or the inability to grok honesty, or something, is associated with a range of pathologies. I’d love to see this explored more.
And, now, a musical interlude.