I came across a couple of articles about how best to deal with the passionately deluded. ‘Wing nut’ is a relatively new expression to me, and is explained by one of them like this: ‘A wing nut is someone who has a dogmatic commitment to an extreme political view (“wing”) that is false and at least a bit crazy (“nut”). A wingnut might believe that George W. Bush is a fascist, that Barack Obama is a socialist, that big banks run the Department of the Treasury or that the U.S. intervened in Libya because of oil.’

They sound like prats or ratbags, but they don’t have to be. You can come across them in any walk of life, and on any subject. Judith Curry devoted one of her threads to this subject, and I put the question aside for a few days to think about it. You would think that university-educated people wouldn’t be like this, because they ought to know how contingent our knowledge of almost anything is, and have themselves grappled with why they think as they do about X, whatever X is. The older I get, the less sure I am that I ought to be sure  about anything, if you’ll forgive the paradox.

So let me go back to my youth, when I studied farmers and their politics, and met not a few of them. They were no less intelligent than any other group, and often thoughtful and interesting about what they did and why they did it. They were often hard to budge, too, and I reasoned that their attitudes and their strong opinions came from their working life. You drive round on a tractor all day, and you have plenty of time to think. You form a view, and try it out on your wife, who suggests you try it out on Farmer Fred up the road. Strangely, he too has been thinking about the same subject, and it is not long before you agree; the other’s agreement reinforces your own view. You then try it out on the stock and station agent, who also thinks you’ve got something there.

The farmers I am thinking of didn’t come across alternative points of view, or other sources of information — or if they did, distrusted the source. I lived and worked in an academic environment in which contrasting views were the order of the day, and you were constantly challenged, and that made me cautious about putting anything forward in a confident way, unless it was well supported by argument and evidence. We got to be good at critique, in seeing the flaws in others’ positions, and that made us careful about our own. By and large those early habits of mine have stuck.

So, how should one deal with the wing nut? According to Fernbach et al, people often think they know more than do about any subject, and can hold firm views about what ought to be done. But if they’re asked to explain their position in detail they come to recognise that they really don’t know a lot about it, and moderate their previous position. Fernbach and his colleagues conducted experiments to ascertain what happened when people were asked to explain themselves in detail, and I enjoyed the experiments.

But we don’t live in a world of experiments. Fernbach’s subjects were paid to participate. The wing nuts I come across are hard to engage in anything like an experimental setting. As it happened, one of the issues the psychologists used was ‘cap ‘n trade’ — what we know as an ’emissions trading system’. In my experience those who are wedded to this scheme are not interested in sitting down and explaining to you how they came to hold their views, and if you persist in asking them they call you  a ‘denier’, and move on to someone else.

If I set out why I am sceptical about it all, the usual response is to ask do I really believe that thousands of scientists are engaged in a conspiracy, or don’t I recognise that every scientific body on the world  believes that humans are responsible for AGW and that we need to act now! What I see then is something I read about ages ago, the capacity of people to build defences about their positions, rather than examining them to see if they are worth defending. They are engaged in ‘motivated reasoning’. They have a cause, and the cause is more important to them than the internal validity of their position. In my experience they are hard cases.

And that takes me to a recurrent thread in the whole AGW scare, which is why so many people want to believe in the approach of doom, when the evidence for it is slim and conjectural at best. That really is a puzzle to me, and I’d be glad if Fernbach et al had a go at it in their next publication.


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  • DaveW says:

    I think that a belief in doom is a very human thing and part and parcel of our need to believe in gods, doing the right thing and salvation. Religions have never needed strong proof of their dogmas, but their priests have been able to seize on droughts and floods and plagues and wars and animal entrails to ‘prove’ that whatever god they worship is displeased. For many, CAGW is a religion in all but name and the coming climate catastrophe doesn’t seem all the different from other religious Armageddons.

    Could religious behaviours (including a belief in a coming day of accounting) have an adaptive value? Well, preaching doom has always been a good way for priests and prophets to earn a living and for rationalizing the concentration of power in an elite. What those controlled gain is hard to understand, but stronger social cohesion, a stronger society better able to resist other groups of people, seems most likely. Perhaps doom is like the pheromones the queens of social insects (ants, bees, wasps) feed their workers to control the hive.

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