by Andy West
A frequent topic at Climate Etc. is the ‘consensus.’ An argument is presented here that the climate consensus is as much about culture as it is about climate science.
For about 150 years we’ve been learning how cultures work and evolve. Great progress has been made on a wide range of topics such as the mapping of cultures, cultural coalitions, the categorization of underlying bias mechanisms, gene-culture co-evolution and others, even if much mystery remains, for instance at the fundamental level of what happens inside the mind regarding the social / individual interface, gnawed at from different directions by anthropology, memetics, psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines.
This accumulated knowledge on cultures is directly relevant to understanding the climate movement. So that we don’t have to relearn the 150 years experience again in the climate domain as though this is all something new, it is crucial to acknowledge the cultural nature of the consensus and bring this wealth of acquired knowledge to bear.
I’ve long since lost count of the many parallels drawn between the climate consensus and religion, from both notables and many blog commenters within the climate domain1. While these tend to be instinctive expressions and are mostly from skeptics, there are a few from the consensus side2 and still more describing climate change as a transformative culture. The former sometimes draw the worst possible connotations or even invalid consequences, yet nevertheless correctly discern the underlying truth that the climate consensus is a cultural phenomenon, while the latter fail to appreciate that cultures of this kind do not so much communicate the truth, as manufacture it.
I’ve prepared a 3 step basic social analysis that I hope will be straightforward to follow, conveniently available as the ‘Aux File’ below and also at my blog, showing the cultural nature of the climate consensus. The 3 steps are first executed for the creationism / evolution domain, and then in exactly the same manner for the climate change domain. The analysis takes the ‘robot from Mars’ view; it is possible to identify a culture with very little knowledge of domain details, and best to do so if possible in order to maximize objectivity. The steps are built on data from public surveys and Dan Kahan’s great data from Cultural Cognition.
Despite the large commentary about cultural characteristics that pervades the climate change domain, there does not appear to be recognition that the Consensus, with its narrative of imminent (decades) calamity, *is* a formal culture. All the disciplines involved in cultural understanding, such as anthropology, psychology, memetics, neuro-science and others, think climate change is merely a matter of science; why would they even attempt apply their knowledge in this domain? Unless perhaps to try and explain ‘deniers’, of course. So what might these disciplines think if they weren’t blinded by the science label?
A thought experiment
Imagine a professor of bio-cultural evolution who researches and favors the strong Darwinian end of the current range of cultural evolution theories, is returning from a field trip in the Pacific. He runs into trouble of some sort, and ends up stranded for over 30 years, like Robinson Crusoe, on an isolated island. Hence he receives no knowledge of the climate change phenomenon. Then sailors rescue him, and tell him that the whole world is hugely worried about climate change and is spending trillions to try and avert an imminent calamity. Before any other detail gets discussed, one sailor happens to add that he’d read a recent article showing that the climate change consensus (along with the wider movement it inspires) advocating urgent action to save the planet, was shown to be a formal culture.
The professor immediately has strong suspicions that:
- Whatever is happening in society now will be due mainly to cultural effects, and not due to what will emerge regarding the physical climate (whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent).
- There will be a socially enforced consensus serving a cultural narrative.
- The above will include statements that are presented as all-explaining and/or indisputable.
- The consensus will be actively policed via a range of mechanisms including status control and emotive pressure.
- There will be uncritical acceptance of an authority or authority figures, possibly even adoration.
- There will likely be some rights or privileges granted to only a few.
- There will likely be some vision of catastrophe, and yet also an expectation of salvation / rebirth / renewal that is conditional upon catastrophe avoidance.
- Anxieties, fears, guilt, hopes and inspiration will all be culturally steered via the above visions and consensus, causing immense bias within all areas of endeavor connected with the culture.
- There will be double standards concerning many matters within the cultural domain, the creation of a feeling of threat, a shifting moral landscape and likely large changes to the law (if the culture has been active long enough).
- The core narrative promoted by the cultural consensus will be spread into many areas of society as justification for all sorts of changes that benefit the culture, independent of their true usefulness to the human condition and in fact even if some are damaging.
- There will be organizations acting as aggressively advocate wings who are still more emotive and still more convinced. Orgs like this contribute to the policing of internal ranks in a culture, plus also get the job of missionaries and recruitment agents (think Jesuits).
- Many adherents especially in the advocate wings, will self-identify with the culture. This produces instinctive and emotional (rather than reasoned) support.
- While conspiracies can latch onto any sufficiently large human endeavor, the phenomenon is not driven by conspiracy as root cause. Cultures are emergent phenomena, driven as much or more from the convinced at all levels of society and grass roots passion, as from top down command.
- Dissenters will be demonized, and possibly persecuted if the culture has gained enough moral penetration.
- Notwithstanding above, unless the culture has achieved a clean sweep of elites already, the domain-knowledgeable will be highly polarized.
- The 30+ years since the professor was stranded is not enough to get the multi-generational penetration needed to overcome ‘innate skepticism’ in the wider population. Hence there will still be a large rump of the public, possibly a majority, who are unconvinced.
- The culture will attempt to form cross-coalitions with other cultures (religious, or political or other secular).
- If as the sailors say this is already a global phenomenon, then likely whole governments and various other authorities will have bought into it.
- Huge resources will be going into infra-structure that benefits / promotes the culture and its ideals, yet doesn’t necessarily help with the renewal / salvation advertised by the core narrative.
- Despite an avidly promoted certainty of an apparently static position, the core cultural narrative will in fact slowly evolve.
- There will be icons. The evolution in 20 means that some icons will be set aside for new ones, having lost their usefulness for some reason.
- Cultures are by no means all bad, and not only that, without the mechanisms on which cultural consensus are founded, human civilization wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. Though some cultures can be net very negative, there will likely be positive elements to this culture.
Well, not all relevant professors would suppose all of this, for instance there is still strong (even bitter) resistance in some social sciences to anything seen to be verging on reductionism. And some would be happy categorizing dead cultures this way, yet apprehensive about doing the same for living ones. Others would be perfectly happy categorizing living religions this way, for instance Blackmore, and I doubt Dawkins would have any problem here too, yet be horrified by applying the same system to the social aspects of climate change. However they’d all recognize the approach, and the point here is that these differences reflect more the different biases of the academics involved than they do the validity of the characteristics. And the Crusoe professor is, by his long absence, extracted from any bias regarding the climate domain at least. He would see it with new eyes.
The above list reflects much about the climate consensus, and at this point our Crusoe knows a great deal more than the sailors. Our Crusoe would also guess that the relevant science must be highly uncertain, because otherwise there would be too much constraint for the emotive memes that power the mainline cultures to have arisen and gotten such a grip. He doesn’t know about funding bias or what Climategate revealed about 4), or that the authorities in 5) include the IPCC or adoration of Gore and Hansen. Per 6) he doesn’t know about the reluctance of scientists to let data out of the privileged circle, or that the WWF and Greenpeace and others fulfill 11). He doesn’t know about particular skeptics who claim ‘hoax’ and ‘conspiracy’ per 13), or about the ‘denier’ term per 14), or the Democrat-climate coalition in the US per 17), or the bio-fuels debacle, or wind turbines that would disappear without trace without large subsidy, per 19). Or that per 21) the once prominent icon of the hockey stick had to be de-emphasized because of ‘the pause’. He just knows that these kind of things happen in strong cultures.
Regarding 8), this previous post at Climate Etc looks at emotional bias in the Consensus, and footnote 4 links to detail on more relevant bias mechanisms. There’s just room left in this post to briefly look a bit deeper at the important topics in 2) and 9).
Culture and consensus
Cultures do not arise via trivial processes, but via long co-evolutionary mechanisms in which anxiety, fear, guilt, inspiration, hope, and other emotive hot buttons in all of us are activated. One result is a culturally enforced consensus. Indeed many consider culture and social consensus to be synonymous. For instance, when anthropologists are seeking the nature and range of a culture that they are not too familiar with (and hence do not know the ‘correct’ cultural answers to whatever questions they form as tools), it is exactly the existence and strength of a consensus via which they map the boundaries and core values of the culture. In other words, it is assumed that the social consensus essentially equates to the culture. (Such investigations are performed via the statistical techniques in Cultural Consensus Theory: wiki, slide deck from one of the originators, do it yourself CCT Pack).
Throughout our evolution as Homo Sapiens (and possibly before), cultural consensus has been a net huge benefit, and continues to be so. The mechanisms via which it works allow common action to be achieved in the face of the unknown, an evolutionary advantage. It’s a big part of the ‘job description’ of culture to manufacture consensus. There are downsides though; a culture can become parasitical or net negative in some other way. And though instinctive ‘innate skepticism’ helps us to resist misinformation and culture overdosing, this defense can be overcome.
So, when we encounter a culture we expect to see an enforced consensus. The defensive manner in which the climate movement treats the topic of uncertainty, and the emotively imperative manner via which it promotes the certainty of imminent (decades) calamity, is how we expect a culturally enforced consensus to be operating.
Morals and the Law
Altruistic behavior emerges from group selection, specifically via ‘correlated interaction’4, and is deeply rooted in human nature. However when actually operating within a particular generation, innate altruism needs cues regarding who is in-group and who is out, what is correct behavior in this group and what is not. These cues are largely provided by culture, which therefore is not only bound up with our identity, but with our morals. And if a new culture comes along and muscles into the pack of existing cultures and cultural relationships, then it will shift the moral landscape. The wider the scope of the new culture and the deeper its social penetration, then the more the moral landscape will shift. Behaviors that were once ok may become offensive, and vice versa. Some folks may find themselves edged ‘out’ of the altruistic circle(s) they thought they were in; consequently they will not be well treated.
An important function of the law is the guardianship of morals. While cultural evolution requires the law to constantly evolve in order to accommodate resultant moral modifications, the law is also deliberately entrenched and made pretty hard to change (especially for core principles). This is so that short-term fads or cultural wrong turns or the whims of individual power-brokers do not constantly make it into law, as such would undermine the guardianship. However if a powerful new culture arises, and especially if the rise is swift (in generational terms), this will create moral pressures upon the (entrenched) law. This will happen for both net positive and net negative cultures, yet latter case is obviously more dangerous. The pressure will manifest in a raft of ways, including likely prospects such as:
a) A systemic blind eye to law bending or law breaking that aligns to the new moral compass.
b) Extreme clemency for those who are apprehended; maybe even a badge of honor / reward.
c) Calls for that which is both accepted and lawful yet not aligned to the new moral compass, to be outlawed.
d) Calls for orgs or individuals who question the new culture, to be silenced.
e) Calls for orgs or individuals whose interests are counter to the new culture, to be subject to a penalty of some fashion (by stretching existing law or calling for new law to achieve this).
f) In stronger cases, calls for the very system upon which the law rests to be changed or abandoned (e.g. a revolution, or calls to abandon democracy, or major schism within a religious based system / society).
g) All of the above repeated for codes of conduct (e.g. in corporate or academic orgs, financial conduct, conflict of interests etc) as well as the main law system.
If moral pressure is sustained for long enough, the law will realign to the new landscape. Once changes start to occur, the positive feedback boosts the culture. However if a swift cultural rise doesn’t occur, it could break like a wave upon the law and then recede. (Note: non-cultural drivers can cause some of these characteristics, especially for conduct codes and more peripheral laws, yet not across the board).
Those who resist a new culture may call upon the (current) law both to protect themselves and to return fire, so to speak. Yet many will be afraid to if rapidly shifting social norms get to a state whereby this will result in their demonization. We consider this price worthwhile for benign cultural change, but not for unsavory culture — the problem being that we only know the former from the latter with the perspective of history or distant geography. The net effect can be hard to assess, for example regarding benign religions that once tortured and suppressed. At any rate this all means that the courts will be one of the main battle-lines, and for a cultural versus evidential scenario this results in the rather ridiculous spectacle of the law attempting to settle a scientific matter, for instance regarding Evolution the Scopes monkey trial, or regarding Climate Change and the rule of Law, Professor Sands’ proposal at a UK legal conference: ‘One of the most important things an international court could do – in my view it’s probably the single most important thing – is to settle the scientific dispute.’ (Sands pdf).
Climate culture doesn’t come up short regarding the above list. A few examples: a) Long record of rights and law being trampled in the name of renewable energy: Pat Swords, b) Gleick, c) Ban Fossil Fuels, Ban Beef?, d) Legal academics: Silence the Skeptics, e) Put fossil fuel CEOs on trial, The RICO 20 letter, f) Lovelock: democracy on hold, or Overridden, g) EPA collusion, Conflicts of interest in Climate Science. Whether any particular cases out of these and many others happen to have some justification or not, isn’t the main point. Such an overarching list of this form is yet another sure symptom of a rising culture, and so the ultimate justification is only an emergent social story. Whatever the state of the opposing skeptic position, this story isn’t truth – rather, it is socially manufactured.
It is extremely important to note that cultures are emergent phenomena. So while elites will play their (often disproportionate) part, cultures are not ‘ordered from the top’. Much of the pressure on the law comes from self-convinced front-line professionals in the relevant fields, plus grass-roots support from passionate individuals. Even for highly offensive cultures (as perceived now), the self motivation at all levels of a population is well documented4.
Considering how much may be predicted about the climate consensus from one single fact, i.e. it is a culture, this has to be the most important single fact one could possibly know about the climate Consensus. And if this fact isn’t grasped more widely, especially by those in the disciplines that deal with culture, everything we know about culture will have to be learned again within a climate-change specific context, the hard way. Worse, if we don’t choose to exercise our understanding about the phenomenon that is bulldozing its way through our morals and laws and infra-structure, there’ll be little chance to free science from its grip, or mitigate the downsides of its advance, or prevent fundamental cultural change that could never have happened without the stalking horse of science, from going bad on us.
link [Climate Culture Footnotes] to endnotes
link [Who is Who Aux File] to ‘Who’s who’ auxiliary file
JC note: As with all guest posts, keep your comments civil and relevant.