Libertarianism and (climate) science denial

science denial

One accusation thrown at libertarians by the statists (especially left-wing statists) is that we’re all tinfoil-hat-wearing, science-denying swivel-eyed loons. They like to cite peer-reviewed literature - from the social sciences, of course - to support their case. One study that has been making the rounds in the statist recesses of the internet involves a survey of climate blog visitors. It showed that respondents who profess to hold free market values are also more likely to disagree with scientific consensus.

Now I’m not a social “scientist”, so take my analysis with a grain of salt, but I did have a few criticisms of the study. First of all, the most obvious one: the audience is obviously self-selected and does not represent any segment of society except for people who frequent climate blogs. The researchers admit to this, but claim that this does not impact their results, because: “We designed the study to investigate what motivates the rejection of science in individuals who choose to get involved in the ongoing debate about one scientific topic, climate change”. To me, that sounds like: “We took a very small sample of a very skewed population and made some overarching conclusions out of it”. But hey, I’m a science denier, what do I know?

The second issue I have is that the questions they posed in their survey are skewed towards so-call “right wing nuttiness”. In addition to asking whether people accept the scientific consensus towards climate change, the other science-related questions posed were whether they accept that HIV causes AIDS and whether smoking causes lung cancer. I was, to be honest, slightly confused by this choice, because the HIV denial movement is very small these days (because hey, highly active antiretroviral therapy works!) and because there are maybe 5 people who still disagree that smoking is bad for you. For more balance, some questions could have been geared towards “left wing nuttiness”, something about the benefits of organic food or the evils of genetically modified organisms.

In addition, the study looked at belief in conspiracy theories and rejection of the same scientific facts. Here the scope of conspiracy ideas was satisfyingly broad, ranging from belief that there’s a global new world order arising to belief that 9/11 was an inside job to belief that there are alien bodies at Roswell. However, despite what leftie media would have you think, free market ideology and conspiracy theory ideologisms were two separate variables, and were not linked together. So no, it doesn’t say that libertarians believe that the US government intentionally created AIDS to get rid of blacks and gays.

I’m not going to judge whether the study was well or poorly designed, but I certainly disagree with it being in any way a judgment on free market proponents and their scientific literacy. Certainly, we as a loosely-defined philosophical movement have our share of nutjobs. But I don’t think climate change denial is the worst kind of anti-science stance to have. After all, unlike anti-GMO campaigners or anti-vaccine proponents, climate change skeptics are not indirectly responsible for people starving or children dying of preventable diseases. And the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine lunatics span the whole political spectrum.

Why climate change? Climate is a very, very, and I mean very complicated subject. There is literally no way for a layperson (and I include myself when talking about climate science) to understand what is going on without eating up the regurgitated data from specialists. To use the same examples the study did, with HIV and lung cancer, the results are obvious. You give HIV positive people antiretrovirals, they don’t develop AIDS. You don’t smoke - you’re much less likely to get lung cancer. The data is out there, and it’s graspable by any intelligent bystander. Yet with climate change, it has been so politicized, so manipulated, so incomprehensible, it is almost (but not quite) a matter of faith whether you accept it or not. Especially when the consequences are intangible and spread out over many years. No one disagrees that climate is changing, but the underlying reasons for it are so ideological, it may as well be a political movement - and in many ways it is. Free market proponents are quick to point out that the whole climate change issue has been used to stifle freedom and to expand the nanny state - and they are right. If the climate is changing, and if humans really are responsible, the market will adapt.

  • martinbaines

    The thing about “climate change denial” is that getting sucked into debates with the minutia of the evidence for a human link is that you are implicitly playing on their playing field.

    I always think much better to argue for the distinction between science giving evidence and politics deciding what we do with the evidence. Even if the evidence is strong for a human component to climate change what we do about it is a political question. Letting the market decide is a perfectly good political answer - just because the climate has changed and will continue to change does not mean we need to reduce carbon emissions. It might well be that just learning to live with the change (i.e. letting the market do what it is good at) is a better solution in the sense that everyone gets a better life than trying to stop the change which would cost a huge amount and likely require a lot of loss of liberty and standard of living along the way. In fact if as some climate scientists predict it is too late to stop massive changes that is pretty much what we have to do anyway.

    Taking that approach also tends to bring out how bad the climate models are at prediction. To make a political decision one needs to be able to rely on the predictive power of the models and that is where they fall down. Pretty much all of them diverge radically after just one year and after 10 years you would not know you are looking at supposedly the same science. Then factor in that any proposed “solution” they propose needs to be evaluated for its economic impact. You then have one system with poor predictive power (climate prediction aka long term weather forecasting) interacting with an even less well understood system (the economy and economic modelling). That to me looks like recipe for disaster if you try to build a big state, slow to react “planning” based model. Just leave it to the market: it may not always have comfortable outcomes but I will bet in the long run they are better than trying to second guess it.

    I have a science based degree and understand a lot of what they say in some detail. There is some very good science in there but there is also a lot of extrapolation from science to politics without justification. Make them come and play on the political field rather than let them lump you in with creationists and other scientific ignoramuses.

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