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Under Discussion: Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change, and the Crisis of Trust

photograph of several snowballs at the bottom of hill with tracks trailing behind

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On February 26th, 2015, Republican Senator James Inhofe carried a plastic bag filled with snow into the Capitol Building; in his now-infamous “Snowball Speech” criticizing the Democrats for their focus on climate policy, the senior senator from Oklahoma said “In case we have forgotten — because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record — I ask the chair: you know what this is [he holds up a softball-sized snowball]? It’s a snowball that’s just from outside here. So, it’s very, very cold out.”

Of course, Inhofe’s snowball disproved the reality of climate change no moreso than a heat wave in January disproves the reality of Winter (at least for now). But that didn’t stop Inhofe from chuckling through his hasty generalization of what’s proper to conclude about historical trends in temperature and other metrics from a random snow sample he happened to see on his way to work. The difference between climate and weather is a basic distinction that Inhofe simply ignored for the sake of a quip.

Given Inhofe’s career of expressed skepticism towards the science supporting climate change (something about which Inhofe himself said he “thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost”), we might think this was just a political stunt. However, it was one that resonates with a not-insignificant chunk of our society. While popular consensus still technically leans towards recognizing the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change (something about which expert consensus overwhelming agrees), there remains a stubborn minority of Americans who are convinced (to varying degrees and for various reasons) that climate change either does not warrant significant political or financial attention or that it is simply a hoax — just one more example of so-called “fake news.”

The Prindle Post has spent the past week exploring the complicated issue of how to address climate change — a thorny problem that interweaves questions of political risk, economic uncertainty, and genuine danger for both present and future generations. But the hope of successfully coordinating our efforts in the ways necessary to shift current climate trends seems particularly unrealistic when climate change deniers (who make up between 10 and 15% of the population) continue to spin conspiracy theories about the scientists, the science, and the “real” schemes secretly motivating both.

For example, in a video created last year by the conservative media production company PragerU, Alex Epstein (author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels) argues that “climate change alarmism” exaggerates the threat of the “genuine” science while intimating that such distortions are actually motivated by a desire to justify “an unprecedented increase in government power.” For another, prior to taking office, former President Donald Trump claimed that global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” — a sentiment he echoed during his first presidential campaign when he explicitly called it a “hoax.” And as recently as this month, Fox News host Sean Hannity criticized President Joe Biden’s aggressive climate plan as something designed to benefit “hostile [foreign] regimes”: “Mark my words,” said Hannity, “this will not end well.” In different ways, each of these suggest that the real story about climate change is some terrible secret (often involving corrupt or otherwise evil agents), so the “official” story (about how human activity has provoked wildly unprecedented global temperature shifts) should be doubted.

At least some forms of climate change denial are easy to explain, such as ExxonMobil’s well-documented, decades-long disinformation campaign about the evidence for a link between human activity (in particular, activity related to things like carbon emissions) and global temperatures; given that ExxonMobil’s nature as an energy company depends on carbon-emitting practices, it has always had good reason to protect its operations by deceiving the public about matters of scientific fact. In a similar way, politicians hungry for votes can use the rhetoric of climate skepticism to signal to their supporters in return for political capital; when Ted Cruz said recently that the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) prioritizes the “views of the citizens of Paris” over the “jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh,” the junior senator from Texas was clearly more concerned about scoring partisan points than accurately representing the nature of the PCA (which, for example, received no substantive input from the people of Paris).

But conspiracy theories about climate change — like conspiracy theories about anything — don’t require elite figures like Cruz or Hannity to be maintained (however helpful celebrity endorsements might be); much of their viability stems from the naturally enjoyable experience of the cognitive processes that underlie conspiratorial thinking. For example, in his book Conspiracy Theories, Quassim Cassam explains how the story-like nature of conspiracy theories (especially grandiose ones that posit particularly complicated connections or conclusions) provides a kind of cognitive pleasure for the person who entertains them; as he says towards the end of chapter two, conspiracy theories “invest random events with a deeper significance, which they wouldn’t otherwise have” in a way that can satisfy apophenic desires of all stripes. Moreover, conspiracy theories allow the conspiracy theorist to imagine themselves as superior to others, either for cleverly figuring out a puzzling truth or for being a hero “who doggedly takes on the forces of the deep state or the new world order in the interests of making sure that the public knows what’s really going on beneath the surface.” The ease with which we can access and disseminate information online only exacerbates this problem (for just one example: consider the recent spread of the QAnon slogan #SaveTheChildren).

Similarly, Tom Stafford discusses the biases at play when we take the time to think through things for ourselves (or when we “do our own research” about an already much-researched topic); at the end of that process, we might well be loathe to give up our conclusions because “we value the effort we put in to gathering information” and “enjoy the feelings of mastery that results from insight” (even if that “insight” is targeting nothing true). In short: if you build it yourself, you’re more apt to experience feelings of loss aversion about it — and this apparently applies to mental states or beliefs just as much as to other things in the world. Furthermore, given the web of suspicion about many different agencies, studies, scientists, and data points that is required to maintain doubts about something like climate change, Stafford’s “epistemic IKEA effect” seems useful for explaining not only the phenomenon of climate change skepticism, but how climate skeptics are more likely than most to believe in conspiracy theories about other topics as well.

So, importantly, contrary to the stereotypical image, conspiracy theorists are not just half-crazed hermits with walls of photographs connected by string; careful thought, reasoned argument, and even the citation of evidence are common elements of a conspiracy theorist’s case for their position — the problem is simply that they’re applying those tools towards objectively invalid ends. Sometimes, conspiracy theorists (such as those who believe that JFK, Princess Diana, or Jeffrey Epstein were killed by various complicated networks of culprits) might be relatively harmless. But when conspiracy theories have political consequences, such as in the case of climate change denial, they have ethical consequences as well.

Of course, what to do about conspiracy theories regarding climate change is far from clear. Although various proposals have been put forth for how to deal with conspiracy theories in general, researchers currently seem to agree mainly on one practical thing: straightforward confrontation of conspiracy theorists’ beliefs is almost certainly a bad move. An attempt to debunk an interlocutor, particularly in public, will (perhaps understandably) tend to trigger a backfire effect and simply provoke them into a defensive posture, rather than maintain a common ground of trust from which conversations can proceed. While some might find the sarcastic ridiculing of climate deniers entertaining, those jokes also feed a standard component of the kind of echo chambers that fuel conspiratorial thinking: distrust of outsiders who believe things that contradict the conspiracy theory.

In his work on echo chambers, C. Thi Nguyen has highlighted the role of trust for breaking through the epistemic barriers around conspiracy theories that end up fueling (and being fueled by) political and other social divisions. Though we often take it for granted, trusting strangers to tell us the truth is a fundamental component of living in and contributing to the collective project of society together. In a very real way, our collective scientific processes — and, hopefully, the governmental policies based on them — depend on the presumption that the people involved are trustworthy. But by rejecting that starting point, conspiracy theories (about climate change or anything else) reject one of the fundamental elements that makes public cooperation possible.

This crisis of trust cannot be fixed simply by shoehorning legislation through committees, regulating social media posts, encouraging companies to deploy trendy, green-themed advertising campaigns, or shaming relatives who roll their eyes at the near-unanimous consensus of climate scientists — indeed, however commendable (and, in some cases, necessary) such tactics are for quickly calming the rapidly-changing climate, they also encourage the continued entrenchment of climate skepticism and denial. If we wish to make comprehensive headway on tackling climate change together, we must at least pragmatically attend to even the most anti-science perspectives for the sake of promoting respectful discourse that can help repair the broken relationships which have rent our social fabric into its hyperpartisan state. Such a project might even serve to mitigate the effects of other echo chambers along the way; an ebbing tide calms all conspiracy theories, as it were.

How to implement such a policy at an effective scale is a problem for a different expert (what would a “trust-promotion campaign” even look like?). In the end, destabilizing echo chambers might well be the kind of thing that governmental (or otherwise “official”) action can’t accomplish: the respectful discourse required to manifest what Nguyen calls a “social-epistemic reboot” might well fall to individuals building relationships with other individuals, enriching the soil of our social lives so that our epistemic lives can collectively grow strong.

But one thing is clear: the deep roots of conspiratorial theorizing in America about climate change must be considered and addressed if we hope to untangle this knotty existential problem. Without doing so, any substantive attempt to take action on climate policy stands a snowball’s chance on the rapidly-warming Earth.

Fighting Fire with Smoke: On CPAC’s “Anti-Greta”

photograph of climate protest signs ("Not Cool")

This week it was announced that Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “Anti-Greta Thunberg,” will be speaking at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Seibt, 19, preaches to her ~50,000 YouTube followers the dangers of “climate alarmism,” and reveals the “despicably anti-human ideology” at the foundation of our climate change discourse and fearful prognostications. In contrast, Seibt says “I don’t want you to panic,” and assures her flock that “These days, climate change science isn’t a science at all.”

The Washington Post’s front-page profile of Seibt Monday following the announcement was met with criticism. “Why,” asks one reader, “would The Post print a profile of the efforts of a European teenager to dismiss, distort, distract and show dismay at the climate movement?” The paper’s choice to dedicate so much time and space to Seibt, they argue, threatens to normalize fringe beliefs, further derail the climate conversation, and promote obvious propaganda.

Propaganda? While the German YouTube influencer has claimed to be “without an agenda, without an ideology,” Seibt is currently under the employ of the Heartland Institute, a conservative “think tank” once dedicated to discrediting the science behind secondhand smoke, and now devoted to climate change denial. The Institute remains committed to protecting the interests of big business and seeks to reverse the “negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations.”

It’s not hard to read the playbook and see the strategy at play. As Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, explains,

“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion.”

This is not merely misinformation; it is not the product of unintentional error. This is a disinformation campaign intentionally and strategically designed to muddy the waters.

While these kinds of campaigns have proven incapable of moving the needle on public opinion when it comes to partisan politics–given the strength of our preexisting political beliefs–they can be extremely effective on swaying opinion on medical and scientific questions–given our lack of knowledge and weaker starting points. You won’t sway a Trump supporter to vote for Bernie, but you might be able to convince a parent who vaccinates to consider your anti-vaxx pamphlet. By continuing to promote voices like Seibt who say, “I don’t want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change,” but also argue, “Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that’s ridiculous to believe,” entities like the Heartland Institute hope to erode public support and stifle legislative action. Given these modest goals, recruiting true believers would be great, but simply encouraging agnosticism will do just fine.

So with the terms of success so low and the stakes so high, should The Washington Post be condemned for playing into climate change deniers’ hands? Has the news organization acted against public interest by giving climate change denial a platform? Is it accountable for normalizing fringe beliefs?

Some argue that The Washington Post is in the wrong for lending credibility to the notion of “climate skeptics”–“a euphemism coined by climate-change deniers to disguise their rejection of massive volumes of peer-reviewed science as reasonable skepticism.” By adopting the language of Seibt and Heartland, the paper legitimizes an unsound and dishonest position. As such, the piece represents an obvious failure to uphold professional ethics. “At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.”

Others see The Washington Post’s piece as an exploration of Seibt’s claim to expert testimony (a concept Ken Boyd wrote about Wednesday). It evaluates the reasons on offer for considering Seibt a credible and reliable source of information about how to respond to climate change (from her affiliation with Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the story of her recruitment and marketing by Heartland). It’s damning without needing to tell us so, and lets its subject speak for itself.

In the end, our diverging opinions on whether The Washington Post’s coverage represents uncritical acceptance or the relaying of fact free of judgment likely depends on our confidence in the reasoning abilities of The Post’s readership. It’s true that public attention is a finite resource. To pick from a crowded field any particular subject and direct readers to it rather than some other subject is to exercise an enormous amount of discretion. And there are clear cases of media outlets violating this trust. But the elevation of Seibt by CPAC makes The Post’s profile relevant, even if it’s for no other reason than to know thy enemy.

Twitter Bots and Trust

photograph of chat bot figurine in front of computer

Twitter has once again been in the news lately, which you know can’t be a good thing. The platform recently made two sets of headlines: in the first, news broke that a number of Twitter accounts were making identical tweets in support of Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign, and in the second, reports came out of a significant number of bots making tweets denying the reality of human-made climate change.

While these incidents are different in a number of ways, they both illustrate one of the biggest problems with Twitter: given that we might not know anything about who is making an actual tweet – whether it is a real person, a paid shill, or a bot – it is difficult to know who or what to trust. This is especially problematic when it comes to the kind of disinformation tweeted out by bots about issues like climate change, where it can not only be difficult to tell whether it comes from a trustworthy source, but also whether the content of the tweet makes any sense.

Here’s the worry: let’s say that I see a tweet declaring that “anthropogenic climate change will result in sea levels rising 26-55 cm. in the 21st century with a 67% confidence interval.” Not being a scientist myself, I don’t have a good sense of whether or not this is true. Furthermore, if I were to look into the matter there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to determine whether the relevant studies that were performed were good ones, whether the prediction models were accurate, etc. In other words, I don’t have much to go on when determining whether I should accept what is tweeted out at me.

This problem is an example of what epistemologists have referred to as the problem of expert testimony: if someone tells me something that I don’t know anything about, then it’s difficult for me, as a layperson, to be critical of what they’re telling me. After all, I’m not an expert, and I probably don’t have the time to go and do the research myself. Instead, I have to accept or reject the information on the basis of whether I think the person providing me with information is someone I should listen to. One of the problems with receiving such information over Twitter, then, is that it’s very easy to prey on that trust.

Consider, for example, a tweet from a climate-change denier bot that stated “Get real, CNN: ‘Climate Change’ dogma is religion, not science.” While this tweet does not provide any particular reason to think that climate science is “dogma” or “religion,” it can create doubt in other information from trustworthy sources. One of the co-authors of the bot study worries that these kinds of messages can also create an illusion of “a diversity of opinion,” with the result that people “will weaken their support for climate science.”

The problem with the pro-Bloomberg tweets is similar: without a way of determining whether a tweet is actually coming from a real person as opposed to a bot or a paid shill, messages that defend Bloomberg may be ones intended to create doubt in tweets that are critical of him. Of course, in Bloomberg’s case it was a relatively simple matter to determine that the messages were not, in fact, genuine expressions of support for the former mayor, as dozens of tweets were identical in content. But a competently run network of bots could potentially have a much greater impact.

What should one do in this situation? As has been written about before here, it is always a good idea to be extra vigilant when it comes to getting one’s information from Twitter. But our epistemologist friends might be able to help us out with some more specific advice. When dealing with information that we can’t evaluate on the basis of content alone – say, because it’s about something that I don’t really know much about – we can look to some other evidence about the providers of that information in order to determine whether we should accept it.

For instance, philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has argued that there are generally three categories of evidence that we can appeal to when trying to decide whether we should accept some information: someone’s expertise (with factors including testifier credentials, and whether they have published and are recognized in their field), their honesty (including evidence about conflicts of interest, dishonesty and academic fraud, and making misleading statement), and the extent to which they display epistemic responsibility (including evidence about the ways in which one has engaged with the scientific community in general and their peers specifically). This kind of evidence isn’t a perfect indication of whether someone is trustworthy, and it might not be the easiest to find. When one is trying to get good information from an environment that is potentially infested with bots and other sources of misleading information, though, gathering as much evidence as one can about one’s source may be the most prudent thing to do.

When Moral Arguments Don’t Work

photograph of machines at a coal mine at dawn

In 2019, the global issue of the climate emergency has taken center stage, with the School Strike for Climate movement, led by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, mobilizing 4 million people on September 20 to strike in the largest climate demonstration in human history.

It is of course well understood, by scientists and by much of the public, that burning fossil fuels is trapping carbon (and other greenhouse gasses) in the atmosphere and causing the world to warm. Since pre-industrial times the world’s climate has warmed by an average of 1C, and on the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions, will warm more than 3C by the end of the century.

Though it is becoming harder for climate change deniers to evade the existential implications of inaction, globally, governments are still prevaricating and fossil fuel companies are doubling down.

The climate and ecological emergency is clearly a grave moral issue, yet for many of those within whose power it is to act, moral imperatives to do so are either unrecognized or unheeded. This raises the question of whether moral arguments on this issue are defunct, in terms of their power to move those within whose power action lies.

Right now Australia is a case in point; the country is in the grip of an unprecedented bushfire emergency.

More than 3 million hectares has burned just in the state of New South Wales (NSW) already this bushfire season; in excess of 20 percent of the national park area of the Blue Mountains, adjacent to Sydney, has been razed, and a ‘mega-fire’ that emergency crews say can not be extinguished continues to rage. The state capital, and Australia’s largest city, Sydney, has been blanketed in toxic bushfire smoke for several weeks, and the city’s already low water supply is in danger of being poisoned by toxic ash. Out of control fires are burning as well in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

This horrifying start to the summer has sparked a national conversation about the reality of global heating for an already drought and bushfire prone country, and also about the exponential costs of government inaction. It has elicited pleas from large sections of the public, and from professional organizations representing front-line health and emergency services, for the government to own up to its moral responsibility – all of which appear to be falling on profoundly deaf ears.

Back in 2007 then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated: “Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.”

Yet, here we are in 2019 with a Liberal-National government that is determined to continue subsidizing the coal industry and whose refusal to countenance climate action is scuppering hopes of an effective international agreement.

Just last week, as the country burned, the latest round of climate talks in Madrid ended in stalemate, and Australia was accused of cheating (by claiming ‘carryover credits’ to meet its Paris target) and of frustrating global efforts to secure meaningful action.

The moral argument for climate action is not registering at a political level here, and it is impossible to miss the fact that this failure is inversely proportional to the government’s support for Australia’s coal industry.

This week 22 medical groups have called on the Australian government to phase out fossil fuels, and close down the coal industry, due to what it is calling a major public health crisis. Dr. Kate Charlesworth, a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said: “To protect health, we need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, healthier and safer forms of energy.”

At the same time the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action are calling for a national summit to address climate change, and are criticizing the government for its failure to address the climate emergency.

Yet Michael McCormack, Deputy and currently the Acting Prime Minister told a press conference, which was being held in the incident control centre for a state-wide bushfire emergency that “… We need more coal exports.”

Given that moral imperatives are traditionally thought to be some of the strongest motivations we have for action, why aren’t the moral arguments cutting through?

The obvious, though depressing, answer is that the rapacious demands of neoliberal capitalism have managed to drown out the principled stance of moral analysis.

There is a plethora of literature available on the relationship of capitalism, neoliberalism, overconsumption and climate change. One need read no further, for example, than Naomi Klein’s 2014 book ‘This Changes Everything’ to understand the mechanisms by which neoliberal capitalism has caused the climate crisis and has systematically frustrated efforts to combat it.

If climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation, it is rapidly becoming its great moral failure. But since moral language is not working it is perhaps time, for pragmatic reasons, to deploy another set of concepts.

One suggestion is to recalibrate our analysis from the ethical to the clinical by thinking of the problem as one of addiction. Caution is obviously needed here – we do not want to make the mistake of assuming diminished responsibility. The point is, rather, that the concept of addiction allows the compulsive, subconscious elements to be taken into account as part of our understanding of the degree of difficulty we face in solving this problem.

Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming (a chemical, drug, activity, or substance), even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. A person with an addiction uses a substance, or engages in a behavior, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences. Traditionally, at least in western thought, ethics is a rational activity but we seem to be facing a situation where the rational is struggling to break through the dark and self-destructive compulsions of the addiction.

The coal industry is killing us, and the degree of difficulty of interrupting deeply entrenched patterns of addiction reflects the degree of difficulty of interrupting the Australian government’s commitment to the coal industry. Of course the issue is vastly larger than just the coal industry as such, but the Australian government’s relationship to coal is emblematic of the entrenched patterns of consumption to which all of us in rich countries are similarly addicted.

As we try to free ourselves from the grip of what is now threatening our very existence, moral arguments may be less effective than existential ones, and thinking in clinical terms may possibly arm us with the practical understanding we need to appreciate the difficulty of the kind of work that has, now, to be done.

On Ethically Addressing Climate Change Deniers

"Banksy is a climate change denier" by Matt Brown licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rising temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting ice caps, and heightened levels of greenhouse gases are all familiar phrases when discussing climate change. Unfortunately, so are controversy, political debate, partisan animosity, and climate change deniers. Tensions are so high on both sides that many of us are left wondering when science became a partisan issue, and moreover one which causes individuals on both sides to engage in debates which result in little to no consensus.

Continue reading “On Ethically Addressing Climate Change Deniers”