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The Politics of Ignorance in Global Warming
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-11-26 09:45:07
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Professor Cahan teaching at Yale University

I live in a State of the US (Flrorida) where both one of its senators (Marco Rubio) and its present governor (Rick Scott) just reelected, both Republicans, deny that there is global warming going on in our world and that in a few decades the sea will start reclaiming Miami and Southern Florida. In effect they are denying science and espousing the politics of ignorance. This is by no means uncommon in the Republican party. The politics of ignorance has been elevated to the level of ideology, a faith of sort, never mind reason or science. We are at a point when any Republican running for office needs to deny science to have any chance of being elected. That means logically that in a nation of 350 million divided almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, approximately 150 million people do not believe in scientific truth. The question arises: how, could this happen, despite the scientists’ many warning of impending catastrophes, in an epoch characterized as modern, enlighten and “positivistic,” given to the glorification of science and technology?


Six years ago, Florida’s southern counties began coordinating an appropriate response to the rising ocean. They proposed the Southern Florida Regional Climate Change Compact covering all the land from Palm Beach to Key West. However, republican skeptics like Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and their Republican Tea Party cohorts soon enough came to dominate the discussion and managed to shut down the plan in the three counties who had initiated it. This is quite disturbing! The divide exists not only in climate change, but in vaccines, genetically modified food, nuclear power, evolution, stem cells, you name it, and it spans the globe. Nevertheless, it is a bit too simplistic to simply draw a political line between the two sides.


There is a professor at Yale University who doesn’t believe the issue  is so simple. He is not  a scientist but a criminal lawyer who considers himself a public intellectual and has been attempting an explanation of this social phenomenon which he calls “cultural cognition.” His name is Dan Kahan. His is an interdisciplinary approach which combines psychology, anthropology, political science, communication, law, and seeks the roots of the current debates over science’s credibility.  He seems to be saying that different backgrounds and different cultures arrive at different answers to the same question. This of course infuriates the scientists who like to believe that science is culturally neutral and that it is dishonest to rearrange facts to fit one’s ideological tendencies. A genuine scientist never allows cultural values to trump the scientific facts.


Kahan of course does not deny science but is convinced that there is something deeper that drives the public discussion of the divide between scholars and scientists and the public, something deeper than even rationality or irrationality. He began noticing that if one was an individualist one opposes gun control, while an egalitarian or a communitarian would support, and this independent of religion, fear of crime, geography, political ideology or party affiliation. He came up with the idea of “motivated reasoning” which shapes facts around one’s beliefs in situations where facts threaten one’s identity. Al Gore called them “inconvenient truths.”  For example, an ardent believer in free market will naturally balk at climate change mistaking it for an attempt to curb economic growth, while an egalitarian may find the centralized authority demanded by nuclear power unacceptable. What drives Congressional votes on climate, is not psychology but simply the ration of electricity obtained from coal in their district. It is a simple economic interest which is felt as threatened.  He discovered that issues like nuclear power and global warming broke along world-view lines, or what he calls cultural filters. So when people subvert facts to fit their world-view they are indeed using reason; it is not about too little rationality but too much of it, affirms Kahan. Therefore, the problem was one of poor communication of science to the public. Better communication is what most scientist need to work at and implement. He now teaches a new course which he prepared at Yale University: The Science of Science Communication.


Two years ago Kahan returned to the problem of Florida described above and offered free help since he had received financial support by the Skoll Global Threats Fund and an NGO financed by a former president of eBay. It paid off, the five original counties, four of which have republican mayors, with the support of 100% of its local businesses, now support the plan for global warming and have realized that global warming has nothing to do with party affiliation. States like Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota have all followed suit and have invited him to come and help them in their difficulties with climate change. Will the newly elected republican governors have a change of heart and abandon their politics of ignorance? The answer is blowing in the wind, and time is running out!


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