People often have problems reasoning effectively. Everyone of us fails to understand or misinterpret information many times each week, month or year. But from personal experience I believe that there is no one area in which people so frequently commit so many logical fallacies and fail so spectacularly to apply their reason, and with such potentially catastrophic consequences, as in discussions about climate change.
Climate change is now scientific mainstream. Scientists from any discipline with any amount of credibility who still refuse to believe that the Earth’s temperature is increasing and humans are the cause of it are few and far between. The Earth’s temperature is increasing and there is only one explanation which succeeds over reasonable doubt (abductive reasoning would be very useful here. We should be able to apply inference to the best explanation and close the chapter).
Despite this it appears public opinion is squarely against climate change. In a recent article in the Journal it was discussed that only 26% of the British public believe that climate change is caused by human activity and there has been an increase of 10% in the number of people who refuse to believe it exists at all.
One of the factors for this discussed by the author, Laura Morris, is that media outlets, in the pursuit of debate are eager to give equal footing to people like Sarah Palin and Nigel Lawson, people completely unqualified to comment on the existence or non-existence of climate change, with climate scientists. This is of course an important factor, but what is of more philosophical interest is the other factor she mentions; that people simply don’t want to accept climate change as a reality because it causes us to re-evaluate certain things about how we lead our lives. From my own experience people do this by doing the most bizarre intellectual back-flips. A conversation with a climate sceptic may go like this:
Person A: “I am concerned about climate change. The information climate scientists give us is worrying.”
Person B: “Oh, I don’t believe in climate change.”
Person A: “Why?”
Person B: “I think it’s just another way for governments to tax people.”
That’s all very well and good, after all certain plans to reduce carbon emissions do reply on increasing taxes, but pointing that out does absolutely nothing to refute the science behind climate change. Taxes or no, it’s still happening.
Another bizarre logical trick climate sceptics perform is what George Monbiot refers to as ‘changing the goal-posts.’ Suppose you are in conversation with someone who doesn’t believe climate change is an issue on the grounds that ‘it’s an excuse for governments to tax you’, and when the flaws in this argument are pointed out the sceptic retorts with something like ‘it’s a natural cycle. Human activity has nothing to do with it.’ A conspicuous intellectual hoop has been jumped through here as in a breath the sceptic has went from denying the very existence of climate change (albeit on dubious grounds) to then accepting it’s existence but claiming there is nothing we can do about it. Quite a sudden change of beliefs by anyone’s standards.
This issue is so important because it seems to me that there is no bigger ethical issue in the world than climate change. A utilitarian principle can be applied if we look solely at the numbers. It has the potential to negatively effect most, if not all, people on the planet and is therefore a pressing ethical concern. If the general feeling is that the debate about the existence of climate change must be concluded before we act, there is a fairly lo-fi youtube video which proposes something that looks like a secular version of Pascal’s Wager which I would recommend.
The Normativity of Rationality by Johnathan Way