Asteroidgate: The Rocket, Not the Asteroid, Packs the Punch
Eric Posner muses about Asteroidgate:
Suppose that astronomers around the world alerted us that a large asteroid is headed in our direction, and might collide with the earth in the year 2012. The astronomers cannot give us a precise probability of collision because of many imponderables . . . To build a defense system—say, rockets that would intercept the asteroid and knock it off course—would cost hundreds of billions of dollars . . . As is always the case, there are a few dissenters . . . A scandal erupts when emails at the West Anglia Space Research Unit are released, and shows that some scientists tried to arrange a boycott of a journal that published a few articles of the skeptics. At the same time, thousands of astronomers not connected with the West Anglia Unit continue to insist that the risk of a collision is very high . . . A few questions. In this scenario, would there emerge an industry of non-credentialed “astronomy skeptics” in the press and public comparable to the current batch of “climate skeptics”? My instinct is that the world would quickly get to work building the rocket system, and disregard the views of the skeptics. Is this right or wrong? If it is right, is there some reason to think that climate science and astronomy are different, justifying the skepticism about climate science that does not (yet) exist about astronomy?
This is a clever scenario, and its gives me a launching pad to talk about why climate-change skeptics and believers have reacted so differently to the same set of information: namely the stolen East-Anglia emails.
The Cultural Cognition Project has a perspective on this problem which may be helpful. Dan Kahan, Don Braman, Paul Slovic, John Gastil, and Geoffrey Cohen wrote a paper called The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact. Using a large random and nationally representative study sample, the paper confirms that Americans are deeply divided over basic questions about the climate, such as “how much risk does global warming pose for people in our society?” Those divisions track the cultural identities that the project has often explored — and which relate back to pioneering work by anthropologist Mary Douglas. That is, group-grid theory.
Of particular interest, Kahan et al. tested the hypothesis that individuals’ perceptions about the same set of facts about the severity of the problem turned on what policy solutions were recommended to deal with it. When the policy solution was nuclear power, hierarchical and individualist Americans were far less likely to discredit global warming facts than when the solution was an expanded set of anti-pollution measures. Such individuals find expanded anti-pollution policy threatening to their identities: it suggests restriction of market activities (upsetting to individualists) and it implicitly challenges the legitimacy of the ruling order (upsetting to hierarchs). Confronted with such a threat, individuals are less likely to credit information about increased risks of warming. Conversely, egalitarians and communitarians were more likely to see global warming as a severe threat when the solution was anti-pollution control.
What does such research teach us? Well, for one, it makes reactions to “climate-gate” easier to understand. We know that people are looking at the benefit/risk calculus in highly polarized ways. The East Anglia emails, which go to the weight of the evidence about warming, is yet more fodder in that filtered debate. This polarization is (notably) neither partisan nor conscious.
More importantly, the research suggest a very concrete strategy for those who worry about climate change and who want to see their position persuade unbelievers: you should be more attentive to finding politically congenial solutions, and spend less energy trying to use data to convince those you disagree with. Thus, former VP Gore’s approach, which focused on staking out a data-driven position on the scope of the problem, has at best produced a fragile coalition in support of change, which will be undermined quickly when individuals are presented with alternative data, information about imperfect scientists, or threatening policy solutions.
Rounding back to Eric’s post, the reason that asteroidgate seems like a clear example where an organized opposition would not emerge is that neither the underlying disaster nor the policy solution poses a threat to the identities of large and discrete groups of Americans. Expensive rockets simply aren’t the bogeymen that private-property-destroying pollution controls are. The case would be different if the solution to our asteroid problem were to unequally burden a minority group. In that scenario, egalitarians and communitarians would be much less likely to credit the risks of a massive asteroid than would hiearchs and egalitarians.