The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology

by John Quiggin on May 3, 2010

One problem with the recent discussion of epistemic closure or, in my preferred terminology, agnotology, ( that is, the manufacture and maintenance of ignorance) on the US[1] political right is that a lot of it has been discussed in fairly abstract terms. However, there is a fair bit of agreement that climate change is both a key example, and that the rightwing construction of a counternarrative to mainstream science on this issue marks both an important example, and a major step in the journey towards a completely closed parallel universe of discourse.

Climate change as a whole is too big and complicated to be useful in understanding what is going on, so it is useful to focus on one particular example, which does not require any special knowledge of climate science or statistics. The Oregon Petition, commonly quoted as showing that “31000 scientists reject global warming” not only fits the bill perfectly but was raised by Jim Manzi in his critique of Mark Levin.

So, it provides a useful test case for understanding the agnotology of the right.


The Oregon Petition has been around since the 1990s, so it’s had plenty of time to to be checked out. A 1998 version attracted 17000 signatures, and a subsequent effort in 2008 brought the total to 31000.

Here’s the Wikipedia article, a further debunking from DeSmogBlog and here’s my own investigation from 2002. Some basic points

  • “Scientist’ In this petition means anyone who claims to have gone to university (initially, they had to claim some study of science subjects). The number of actual (PhD with published research) scientists who reject any part of the mainstream consensus on climate change is far smaller (Wikipedia provides a list of such scientists who have at least one published article). The number of such scientists with relevant expertise, who are not obvious cranks, ideologues or hired guns, is small enough to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
  • The petition and its reporting are dishonest in obvious ways (fake PNAS style, misreporting of the content) etc
  • The promoters, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine are obvious fruitcakes

These points are easy for anyone to check, and have been so widely reproduced that a majority of the top hits on Google are debunkings. Yet, until Manzi’s takedown of Levin, I’m not aware of anyone on the conservative side of politics who has criticised the petition. On the contrary, it has been uncritically reproduced time after time (here, here, here, and a long list (with a further thorough debunking here)

To put it simply, you would have to be either a fool or a liar to suggest that this exercise had any credibility. Yet as far as I can tell, Jim Manzi is the first person on the right to offer overt criticism of this exercise, and the reaction he received suggests he will probably be the last. But the reactions Manzi received certainly give us some insight into the agnotological processes at work on the right. Essentially no-one (feel free, as always to point out exceptions) cared at all about the facts of the matter: are there really 31 000 scientists who dispute mainstream global warming theory? Rather, most of the responses amounted to circling the wagons in one form or another.

The best way to understand the rightwing approach is in legalistic terms – the aim is present advocacy for the general proposition “We are good, people who are Not Like Us are bad”. Since this is advocacy rather than analysis, it’s OK to present only evidence that supports your case, and to obfuscate or ignore disconfirming evidence. And, as in standard legal argument, it’s OK to argue simultaneously for multiple, mutually inconsistent hypotheses, as long as they all support the same final conclusion.

To switch analogies, it’s like a game of basketball scored in talking points. Fouls (in this context, talking points which get discredited) are just part of the game, with the object being to get away with as many as possible on your side, and to draw as many from the other side as possible (of course, this objective is subordinate to the overall goal of scoring as many points as possible).

So, with something like the Oregon petition, the archetypal rightwinger would simultaneously advocate all of the following:

  • The petition shows that 31 000 scientists reject AGW (lots of examples above)
  • There is no scientific consensus supporting AGW, so even if lots of the petition signatories aren’t really scientists, the main claim behind it is correct (see, for example, here)
  • The scientific consensus supporting AGW is wrong, and its proponents are dishonest, so its OK to present non-scientists as scientists if that will promote the truth Here, particularly in comments
  • AGW is being used to promote statist policies, so, even if the hypothesis is true, it should be criticised in order to undermine support for such policieshere
  • Even if policies like emissions trading schemes aren’t really statist, and are a response to a real problem, they have been put forward by environmentalists and liberals (people who are Not Like Us) and must therefore be opposed by any means necessary. (implicit in just about everything written on this topic – can anyone locate an explicit version of this?).

Although this example is particularly clear-cut, it’s not atypical. Look at rightwing discussion of almost any topic (any environmental issue, health care in the US, Obama’s personal history, WMDs, effects of tax cuts and many more) and you’ll find factoids doing the rounds even though five minutes with Google would show that they are absurdly wrong.

This kind of thinking is by no means unique to the contemporary right. But it is ubiquitous, and the staying power of the Oregon petition indicates way. Even the silliest claim, once made part of the canon must be defended to the last. In extreme cases, there is the option of dropping an utterly discredited talking point and then saying “we never said that”. This is one thing the Internet has made much harder, with the perverse result that obstinacy in error has become more entrenched.

To avoid thread derailment, I’d like to defer to a separate thread (coming soon, I promise) the main rightwing response, which is a tu quoque, that is, that the left (here meaning Democrats and everyone to their left) is just as bad. I don’t believe there is anything comparable to the Oregon petition, but I want to leave this for a separate debate.

Instead, I’d like to end with the rhetorical question of whether, given the extent to which the US rightwing movement relies on the deliberate promotion of ignorance, anyone, regardless of their philosophical views on conservatism, libertarianism and so on, can associate with this movement and maintain any intellectual integrity. The converse question for the left, is whether there is any benefit in engaging intellectually with anyone who is, in the end, promoting ignorance and dishonesty by virtue of their affiliations.

{ 101 comments }

1

John Holbo 05.03.10 at 11:12 am

I think ‘agnotogeny’ might be a better term for the manufacture and maintenance of non-knowledge. Then again, a-gnosis is somewhat awkward cut along the agno- line, etymologically. Hmmmm. Maybe ‘foologeny’?

2

Praisegod Barebones 05.03.10 at 11:18 am

Doesn’t agnotogeny just recapitulate foologeny?

3

John Quiggin 05.03.10 at 11:18 am

I guess, I should have said “the study of manufactured ignorance”.

4

JoB 05.03.10 at 12:06 pm

Well to promote ignorance would require you to be at least somewhat in the know, not? If so it’s a possible strategy to demonstrate that those who promote ignorance do in fact know better. On the other hand there maybe those that are so zealous in their defense of the possibility of some reasonable right that they become unreasonable in it. These are harder to deal with – as they have something of an allergic reaction. It is better to wait for them to be desensitized to be starting up the debate again as anything you say to address them whilst still overly sensitive will just bring out another allergy attack.

5

pdf23ds 05.03.10 at 12:07 pm

Krugman asked a while back whether any other major political movement in American history took this agnotology to a comparable extreme.

6

Peter Erwin 05.03.10 at 12:19 pm

Your “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine” link (in the middle of the “The promoters, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine are obvious fruitcakes” bullet point) doesn’t point anywhere valid. OK, maybe it’s a subtle joke, but I figured it might just be an unintentional error.

7

Peter Erwin 05.03.10 at 12:28 pm

Oh, and the “my own investigation from 2002″ link doesn’t work, either, though that’s just because of a missing “h” at the beginning of the URL. (Turns out there actually is a TTP protocol, but not for the internet, alas.)

Fixed now, with the other error, I hope

8

Neil 05.03.10 at 12:28 pm

I don’t know whether or not there is something distinctive about climate delusionism, but if there is, the description of it as advocacy, in which different and inconsistent arguments are put forward so long as they all support the position “we are good, they are not” doesn’t get at it. A cursory glance at the current UK election reveals the appropriteness of that description for all three parties.

9

Anderson 05.03.10 at 1:12 pm

the aim is present advocacy for the general proposition “We are good, people who are Not Like Us are bad”. Since this is advocacy rather than analysis, it’s OK to present only evidence that supports your case, and to obfuscate or ignore disconfirming evidence

This gets it mostly right, but calling this “advocacy” is unfair to advocates and goes too lightly on the right wingers (can’t we call them “wingnuts”?). Lawyers have some limits on permissible argumentation; they aren’t allowed to lie to the court, ignore controlling authority, etc.

Whereas the wingnuts think that lies, sabotage, whatever, are legitimate tools, because the alternative is that America’s enemies might win. Once you’ve made that into one half of your disjunction, pretty much anything can fill the other half.

More succinctly, not good/bad (advocacy), but good/evil (wingnuttery). Teh Evil are depraved, yet so powerful that one’s own morals must be abandoned in opposing them, and anyway it’s what they’d do to us. Same dynamic as led to the adoption of torture.

10

Barry 05.03.10 at 1:21 pm

John, the link to your 2002 post didn’t work for me. It appears as:
http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2002/09/02/expertise-bias-and-argument-ad-hominem/

11

Glen Tomkins 05.03.10 at 1:22 pm

Isn’t AGW-denial just an example of BS?

I’m referring to BS in the technical sense of claims the truth status of which the speaker doesn’t even care to determine. Why invent a new disease for our nosology of ideas and discourse, when the existing category of BS covers this particular example of intellectual pathology quite adequately?

I think that we can assume that if there actually were sound science casting serious doubt on AGW, these folks would be happy to lead with that. If that is the case, then there is no reason to suppose that an active hostility to sound science motivates them, that they are responding to some animus to knowledge. If they were, then their disease could reasonably be described as “agnotology”.

But that doesn’t really seem to be what’s at work here. What’s at work here, by the author’s own account, is simply opportunism. These people will seize upon any idea, no matter what its truth status, if that advances their parti pris. Far from having an animus to science, their preferred BS in this case of the Oregon petition, actually is an idea that cloaks itself in the mantle of science. As shame is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, this Oregon Petition fable is the tribute that denialist BSers pay to actual knowledge. They would lead with memes that dispute the very idea of science if they were “agnotologists”, not memes that pretend to be science.

These folks aren’t some exotic new species, and they don’t have the previously undescribed intellectual disease of hostility to knowledge, or agnotology. They’re just the latest sighting of BS-producers on the hoof. Vast herds of these creatures still roam the Plains.

12

Ben Alpers 05.03.10 at 1:29 pm

Two thoughts:

1) Let’s go with “agnotology.” May not be the perfect neologism. But at least it’s a neologism. Much better than misappropriating a philosophical term that means something totally different.

2) My guess is that the prehistory of this particularly rightwing habit of mind is a darkside argument regarding Communism: i.e. the dishonesty and unscrupulousness of the (then presumed) Communist foe requires conservatives to be equally dishonest and unscrupulous in the defense of freedom/capitalism/the Constitution/liberty etc. Rick Perlstein notes in Nixonland (p. 437): “When Richard Nixon had a dirty job to get done, he often dispatched it to a Goldwater conservative. ‘Healthy right-wing exuberants’ were more likely to understand that civilization was at stake in defeating the enemy, and the end thus justified the means.”

13

Ben Alpers 05.03.10 at 1:35 pm

@ Glen Tomkins:

Your comment on BS went up as I was writing my last comment. Just to be clear: calling it “agnotology” seems much preferable to “epistemic closure.” I agree that a case can be made that this is just BS (in the technical sense); if so, it’s better to just call it that.

14

Sam 05.03.10 at 1:51 pm

“Doesn’t agnotogeny just recapitulate foologeny?”

You win the internet

15

Glen Tomkins 05.03.10 at 1:52 pm

@Ben Alpers

You’re certainly right about that other bit of mislabeling we see on this question, this idea that the Right coughs up such as the Oregon Petition out of “epistemic closure”, when what is really meant is the claim that the Right listens to no one but itself. The Lodges speak to no one but the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God, and so forth. That’s not what is meant by “epistemic closure”, of course.

I would make the further claim that what these critics do mean when they misuse this term “epistemic closure”, what we already have perfectly good names for, as the echo-chamber effect, or simply intellectual narcissism, isn’t really at work here either. These folks haven’t been led to a mistaken belief in anti-AGW pseudo-science out of some misplaced interest and investment in the doctrines of any particular pseudo-science itself. They’re just using whatever is at hand, and if there are a half-dozen denialists with some formal scientific credentials out there, they will exploit that, without any care at all for the details of the denialism.

16

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 1:58 pm

Very interesting topic.

There are some problems with criticising the adoption of inconsistent positions, though they aren’t necessarily applicable in this case:

1. Arguing in the alternative is not necessarily inconsistent (in arguing legal cases, for example, one doesn’t try to establish contradictory propositions): ‘There was no dog, but even if you don’t accept that, there certainly wasn’t a bite, and even if you insist there was a dog and a bite, any such dog certainly wasn’t mine.’

2. The inconsistent positions may not actually be put forward by the same people: instead there may be a coalition – or axis – of dog-sceptics, moderate anti-bitists, and ‘wet’ ownership-deniers, all arguing against the same thesis. An extreme example in which this fact is ignored is that of so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’. Of course this stricture can also be taken advantage of, (sometimes) deliberately with the interpersonal distribution of arguments allowing any given individual to appear (indeed, be) consistent. (There is perhaps an element of a different and more subtle phenomenon in academic economics: an overall impression or position has dominance, even though individual economists all deviate from that position, or regard it as a vulgarisation. The deviations or rejections all go in different directions, so the methodological ideal remains the centre of gravity for economics as a whole…)

3. The ad hominem issue (properly so called, i.e. relying on inessential inconsistencies in the opponent’s position) might be relevant in some cases, if you want to take the high ground of impartial truth seeking rather than advocacy. That very much depends on whether the opposition is testifying to factual claims, or putting forward a logical argument. ‘Ad hominem’ is irrelevant in the factual case: pointing out inessential inconsistencies – or unrelated falsehoods – goes to the the reliability and even honesty of the witness, rather than being an argumentative strategy, and is an entirely appropriate (indeed required) move in impartially assessing evidence.

Another point perhaps worth making is that promoting ignorance doesn’t necessarily mean knowing the truth, nor deliberately propagating falsehood. Harry Frankfurt’s article (and impulse-buy pocket book), ‘On Bullshit’ discusses the state of being entirely indifferent to the truth, and I think this – with varying degrees of self-deception, bad-faith, repression of sneaking doubts etc – is a common enough phenomenon (e.g. in connection with WMD ), which muddies the waters considerably. This is a kind of plausible deniability (‘I don’t want to know’, like Odysseus’s shipmates) taken to its extreme in self-deception or ‘closing one’s mind to an obvious fact’ – to use a memorable judicial phrase which IIRC caused a good deal of trouble in relation to a definition of recklessness.

Relatedly, ignorance may be promoted without disseminating falsehood at all, knowingly or otherwise. Perhaps an example would be parapolitics (‘conspiracy theories’), in which area there is a great deal of bullshit (and its cousin, argument biased by unconscous prejudice), but also a parallel strategy of discouraging serious investigation, by rhetoric like that of the ‘paranoid style’ or by changing the subject to a non-existent ‘conspiracy theory of history’, as well as more overtly enforced taboos in e.g. the academic study of history.

Btw, (excuse the personal note but it’s highly relevant) I suppose I adopt a position somewhat similar to that described in to point 4 (may I suggest using numbers instead of bullets?): I have some doubts , around the 30% mark, that the official consensus position is correct, but since the policies it is driving are largely congenial to me, I have no interest in spending any time investigating an issue of which I’m currently 70% satisfied. (Obviously the figure is not a rigorously-defined quantity, though I think I’m more justified in providing a ‘merely indicative’ figure than those who usually use that phrase, i.e. statisticians.)

I also don’t tend to go on about these doubts because the 30% figure is apt to be ignored by both ‘sides’. I have no desire to bolster the 100% denialist position, nor to attract opprobrium nor to damage my reputation (or rather jeopardise any future need to avoid a bad reputation), especially since I’m mostly interested in the study of ‘conspiracy theories’, in which area one is constantly on the brink of being dismissed as a fruitcake.

(Missed a few posts while writing this one – hence BS ref)

17

Substance McGravitas 05.03.10 at 2:01 pm

Whereas the wingnuts think that lies, sabotage, whatever, are legitimate tools, because the alternative is that America’s enemies might win. Once you’ve made that into one half of your disjunction, pretty much anything can fill the other half.

But wait, there’s more! Even if you’re not a cynical liar, you can’t call out the cynical liars on your side because they’re on your side. Manzi used Jonah Goldberg’s contention that Ross Douthat was “basically right” regarding epistemic closure as a starting point to accuse Levin of wingnuttery. What Manzi missed is that you don’t actually take issue with fellow conservatives by name and that you don’t trust any point Jonah Goldberg makes because he takes them back when he likes.

18

Anderson 05.03.10 at 2:13 pm

Even if you’re not a cynical liar, you can’t call out the cynical liars on your side because they’re on your side.

That follows logically. One has to suppose that at least *some* on the Right are as intelligent as Dostoevsky’s inquisitor, and could argue that rhetoric and passions, not facts and logic, drive public discourse; hence the intelligent wingnut tolerates, even promotes, lies and fallacies because that is how one gets the results one desires.

Maybe one day in a fit of unemployment I will actually write The Red and the Blue, an updating of Stendhal in contemporary America. Closet liberal decides he has to fake his ideology to succeed; gets job homeschooling wingnut pol’s family … sub law school (& Federalist Society) for the seminary … D.C. for Paris … it could work!

19

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 2:18 pm

I don’t think that this analysis quite gets at all the pieces of the system. There isn’t just the right wing. There are also the corporate polluters who were the ultimate source of global warming denialism. They are the ones who did the original manufacturing of ignorance — which, of course, for them was not ignorance. The right wing may now have picked up on it to the extent that it is now self-reinforcing and self-generating, so that they can repeat it to themselves endlessly, but that’s not how it started.

In addition to the corporate polluters, there are the right-wing funders who promote this stuff for ideological reasons. For the Oregon Petition, the authors of the fake academic paper included Seitz, Baliunas, and Soon, who all worked at the George C. Marshall Institute, itself funded by Scaife and Bradley.

People can characterize this as the ignorant talking only to themselves and defending their ignorance in order to preserve their world-view. But that ignores the inputs into the system.

20

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 2:22 pm

“The converse question for the left, is whether there is any benefit in engaging intellectually with anyone who is, in the end, promoting ignorance and dishonesty by virtue of their affiliations.”

Oh yes, this. Well, that engagement wouldn’t be so bad, by itself. Unfortunately, nearly everyone who does it spends most of his time chiding other people for not doing it and boasting about how much of a better person he is than those who don’t.

21

Anderson 05.03.10 at 2:27 pm

There isn’t just the right wing. There are also the corporate polluters

Are these distinct sets?

Puchalsky is right of course that the wingnuts need a steady diet of press releases et al. (many of which find their way into mainstream news articles as well), and that there are devious minds at work stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular pundits.

… And what a sad slur on Marshall’s memory that “institute” is.

22

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 2:43 pm

I don’t think BS covers it though, and I don’t actually think Frankfurt’s characterisation cuts things at the joints, either, for all that his discussion is fairly interesting.

BS on his account is different from lying (I agree), because it is produced without concern for what the truth is. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think it’s a very significant difference. (Lying, btw, can arguably be done even by making a true assertion – if one believes it false.) What one believes is the key, but belief itself admits of degrees. I may be doing something very like lying if I say something while strongly suspecting it to be untrue; or while ‘deliberately’ ignoring strong grounds for doubting it.

I actually think the key to bullshit – its difference from the varieties of lying and similarly dishonest speech – is that one is not ‘primarily’ (excuse fudge) concerned to instil in the listener any particular belief. The kind of mutual grooming involved in pub discussions depends on agreeing, allowing each other to appear knowledgeable, etc. Often it’s quite clear that the person holding forth is literally making it up as they go along (UK readers may be familiar with Viz magazine’s ‘legal advice from the man in the pub’). While it may unfortunately give rise to beliefs in some participants, the aim of the person holding forth at any given time is really nothing to do with the topic, and this is understood by most participants. Instead it’s showing off, asserting dominance by commanding agreement, some ind of binding, whatever.

Similarly, ‘fast-talking’ bullshit is generated in pursuit of some goal like being admitted to a club – or of course, selling something – and comes as part of a package of which the primary components are typically nothing to do with eth content of what is being asserted – perhaps this claim can be part-operationalised by asking ‘would the speaker actually prefer it if the meaning of what is beiong said washed over the other party altogether?’

Denial of human-reversible CC is however aimed – at least in some cases – at convincing people of a factual claim (or in eroding belief in its contradiction). At one point, Frankfurt discusses Augustine (I think, could be Aquinas) on lying. IIRC, ‘A’ only considers lying to be ‘real’ lying if its intention is to instil false beliefs for the sake of doing so – I suspect this is tied up with Double Effect, since otherwise this seems a bit odd. But in any case, I don’t think the CC denial campaigners can be described as ‘only incidentally’ wanting to convince others of a particular claim in any plausible sense.

(A bit rambling, not well thought out, sorry.)

23

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 2:43 pm

I do think they are distinct sets, because the phrase “the right wing” implies some kind of political belief. I don’t think that large oil and coal companies often really have political beliefs, as such. They’re are just gaming the system for their benefit, in the same way as they game the electoral or regulatory political systems. If they decided that “left wing” beliefs served them better, they’d do that in some sense. For instance, BP tried very persistently to greenwash itself with its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, which offered all sorts of incidental support for solar power, climate change science, etc. if you ignored what BP was actually doing. Most of the techniques, and indeed many of the personnel, for manufacturing ignorance came straight out of the tobacco industry, which exported them when most of the expert liars they’d trained had to find new jobs.

It’s interesting to ask whether it’s still under industry control, though. Most of the big industrial players have gotten out of it, or are at least being a lot more circumspect. (The same isn’t true of the right-wing ideological funders). Now that it’s reached critical mass, though, in the sense that a right-winger can make easy money telling it to other right-wingers, I don’t think that its original promulgators still have control of it.

24

The Raven 05.03.10 at 2:50 pm

Gary Trudeau has a relevant strip, today.

25

Ori 05.03.10 at 3:08 pm

So, with something like the Oregon petition, the archetypal rightwinger would simultaneously advocate all of the following: […]

Reminds me of the old joke, wherein a man accuses his neighbor of returning a borrowed kettle in damaged condition. The neighbor replies: “First, there was no kettle. Second, I never borrowed it. Third, it was damaged when I got it.”

26

Tim Worstall 05.03.10 at 3:09 pm

“To avoid thread derailment, I’d like to defer to a separate thread (coming soon, I promise) the main rightwing response, which is a tu quoque, that is, that the left (here meaning Democrats and everyone to their left) is just as bad. I don’t believe there is anything comparable to the Oregon petition, but I want to leave this for a separate debate.”

I await that thread as the only thing about climate change that bugs me quite so much as those denying its existence on the basis of no knowledge at all (or even manufactured absebnce of knowledge) are those who propose solutions on similarly no knowledge at all (or manufactured absence of knowledge). Which does become rather a tu quoque.

27

Anderson 05.03.10 at 3:11 pm

I don’t think that large oil and coal companies often really have political beliefs, as such. They’re are just gaming the system for their benefit

I really don’t mean to pick nits, but pursuit of one’s interests is a pretty classic element of politics, no?

Belief that one’s company can and should be able to do X, Y, and Z without regulatory interference or legal liability, necessarily is a political and ideological position. To distinguish that from politics, wouldn’t one have to buy into the notion that the market is apolitical?

28

chris 05.03.10 at 3:28 pm

I don’t think that large oil and coal companies often really have political beliefs, as such. They’re are just gaming the system for their benefit, in the same way as they game the electoral or regulatory political systems. If they decided that “left wing” beliefs served them better, they’d do that in some sense.

Left-wing beliefs can’t serve them better, or, indeed, at all. Left-wing beliefs hold that democratic government exists to benefit the people in general, not whoever can most successfully game it in their direction. The whole enterprise (and I use that word advisedly) of running the government for private benefit is right-wing (as the wings are defined in the present-day US.)

29

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 3:37 pm

Well, this leads to a series of bromides, more or less. “Everyone has an ideology.” “It’s impossible not to have an ideology.” “People who claim to be apolitical are just following some sort of default ideology, usually market ideology.”

For the purposes of ordinary communication, I think it’s best to leave all that as read, since statements that you make above everyone really are pretty much statements that you make about no one. In this particular case, the phrase “the right wing” has particular content in contemporary America, as well as a history of meaning going back to the French Revolution. The corporate officers who started global warming denialism do not necessarily have this right-wing package of beliefs. They may not even have had market fundamentalism — I don’t know. I’m not saying that their intervention into the political system isn’t political, I’m saying that it’s not “right wing” as such.

30

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 3:50 pm

Oh yeah, I’m really waiting for that other thread too, so Tim Worstall can tell us how much people ignorantly proposing solutions bug him, and so that Tim Wilkinson can tell us about his 30% doubts (if he really has them, and they weren’t part of a hypothetical; I couldn’t quite tell). Really, truly, sincerely looking forward to it. Because really, that stuff is just as important as the organized campaign to discredit science, and we wouldn’t be fair and balanced if we didn’t give people a chance to address it at length.

31

Tim Worstall 05.03.10 at 3:52 pm

“Oh yeah, I’m really waiting for that other thread too, so Tim Worstall can tell us how much people ignorantly proposing solutions bug him”

So we both look forward to it then….

32

Bruce Baugh 05.03.10 at 4:17 pm

Tim Wilkinson: I think Rich is right on when he points to the corporate funding of this stuff. The oil companies, the tobacco companies, and all the rest are not just stumbling around looking for things they can use to prop up ideologies they’re generally committed to – they’re looking for defense of their privileged positions, and for tools to improve them. Right-wing political movements make themselves useful for this precisely because they are hostile to outside truths and often overtly committed to ignorance as a virtue in the general public.

33

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 4:35 pm

Rich Puchalsky Tim Wilkinson can tell us about his 30% doubts (if he really has them, and they weren’t part of a hypothetical; I couldn’t quite tell

It doesn’t actually make any difference, does it. But in any case, 30% doubt is 70% certainty that every aspect of the official consensus is correct in every respect – is that really not pure enough for you? As I pointed out, I expect this kind of thing from some quarters, though I hadn’t anticipated being bracketed with Worstall.

Bruce Baugh – yes, I entirely agree. I can’t see why you would think I don’t.

34

Anderson 05.03.10 at 4:40 pm

In this particular case, the phrase “the right wing” has particular content in contemporary America, as well as a history of meaning going back to the French Revolution.

Sure. But the association of conservatism and the Republican Party with the interests of big business has existed since, well, big business, and big business played a huge role in the *creation* of conservatism and of the Republican Party (which, after 1877, had rather lost its raison d’etre). If it’s succeeded in persuading any leftists that this is not “political” in a nontrivial sense, well, that’s another feather in its cap.

35

Anderson 05.03.10 at 4:42 pm

… N.b. that by “conservatism” I do not mean, say, de Maistre, but “conservatism” as it was understood in America from the Gilded Age to Eisenhower. European categories do not always transfer over here without modification.

36

Jim Harrison 05.03.10 at 4:51 pm

In a country with some democratic features, the more oligarchical your party is, the more you have to lie. There is an irreducible contradiction between egalitarianism and the defense of privilege. The novelty in the case of environmental issues is that the anti-evolutionary position is not only maintained in the interest of a group that is a minority relative to the other people living now. It is also a combination against people who haven’t been born yet. (Nice symmetry: conservatism, which maintains that the dead should have a vote, engaged in a struggle with those who want to extend the franchise in the other direction.)

37

Billikin 05.03.10 at 5:03 pm

“Epistemic closure” makes me think of transitive closure, not of closed minds.
“Agnotology” = the study of lambs?

What about “agnosology”, from “agnosia”, meaning “ignorance”?

Or “retardification”, for the process? ;)

38

Leo 05.03.10 at 5:27 pm

The basketball analogy is illuminating, even for someone such as myself who lacks any knowledge of the rules. It also adds a tinge of irony to Sarah Palin’s use of an extended basketball analogy in her speech announcing her resignation as governer of Alaska:

“Let me go back quickly to a comfortable analogy for me and that’s sports. Basketball! And I use it because you are naïve if you don’t see a full court press from the national level picking away right now. A… good point guard here’s what she does: she drives through a full court press pro…tecting the ball, keeping her head… up because she needs to keep her eye on the basket and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can win *gasp* and that is what I’m doing – keeping our eye on the ball that represents sound priorities remember they include energy independence and smaller government *gasp* and national security and freedom and I know when it’s time to pass the ball… for victory.”
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sarah_Palin

39

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 5:36 pm

Anderson, perhaps my original phrasing is just causing more trouble than it’s worth. My basic point is that the conservatism of big business is not really in any important sense the same thing as the conservatism of the right wing. There are people who try to reduce one to the other, but I don’t find that kind of Marxian analysis convincing. It’s like saying that bees want to make honey and that beekeepers want bees to make honey, so they’re both honeyists.

People in the right wing in America have real commitments to e.g. racism that business just doesn’t have. (Although business will of course use those commitments to split its work force.) People in the right wing actually, really believe in all sorts of things that the people who try to manipulate them only care about instrumentally. That makes them different kinds of actors. For one thing, it means that global warming denialism doesn’t just go away once the original funders shut off the tap.

The problem have with “Agnotology” and similar terms is that it buries all sorts of things under a single word for a process.

40

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 6:15 pm

The problem have with “Agnotology” and similar terms is that it buries all sorts of things under a single word for a process.

It’s not the name of a process, it’s a topic or field of study. The aim being digging all those things up and having a good look at them.

41

psycholinguist 05.03.10 at 7:09 pm

I guess as a psychologist the whole “epistemic closure” idea is a bit of a yawner. This pattern is just what people by their nature do – we’ve been calling it confirmation bias since the 60’s , and you mix that in with a little attitude polarization, and baddabing, you have pretty much what is described as epistemic closure. I would stress that it isn’t limited to conservative thought – we all have beliefs we would like to keep because we have emotional investment and personal identity wrapped up in those beliefs, and so we ignore info that is in conflict with our beliefs, and seek out anything, even when it is tenuous, to confirm those beliefs. I think the reason this example, and other recent examples have such impact is because the lengths people will go in trying to hold on to those ideas can be breathtaking. On the other hand, remind yourself every now and then that these are real beliefs for most of these folks, not something necessarily cynical – most of them really, honestly believe this stuff. For anyone out there who has taught in the classroom, you should understand this – teaching isn’t about giving knowledge to a blank slate sitting in front of you, it also crucially involves finding ways to get around those often tightly held falsehoods that are in the way of that kid actually advancing in knowledge.

The Wikipedia entry on confirmation bias is pretty good – read that a bit and see if it doesn’t match pretty exactly what is being described here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

42

chris 05.03.10 at 7:09 pm

My basic point is that the conservatism of big business is not really in any important sense the same thing as the conservatism of the right wing.

A screw and a screwdriver aren’t the same thing either, but understanding either without knowledge of the other is difficult at best. Studying them in isolation would be perverse.

43

Barry 05.03.10 at 7:17 pm

I finally got Rich’s point – what he’s interested in (the particular phenomena) is that many right-wing things have a life of their own: Rush, Fox, Palin, Beck, global warming denialism, etc. They might have been set up by certain factions, but they are capable of continuing on even in the absence of that faction’s support.

44

charles pierce 05.03.10 at 7:36 pm

Not to be too shameful in my self-promotion, but there’s a book I can recommend on the subject, the paperback edition of which debuts tomorrow.

45

Ron 05.03.10 at 7:44 pm

Curse you @Praisegod Barebones!

“Doesn’t agnotogeny just recapitulate foologeny?” That made me laugh so much that I couldn’t take the rest of the comments seriously. But it was definitely the comment of the day.

46

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 7:59 pm

Barry is right, although I’m interested in other aspects of the relationship as well. chris, I think you’re being too reductionistic. The whole Nixonland thing, in America, just would not work without race. And racism doesn’t simply reduce to business dividing the proletariat. Racism is bound up with America from slavery on, and while modern, corporate big business certainly has used it, it’s really overestimating what they can do to say that they primarily created it or maintain it. Sure, if you’re studying a political system you want to study all parts of the system, but you have to study what’s actually there.

Here’s an example. In some ways, especially in its origins, global warming denialism was a business effort. And they’re always provided experts for it. But right now I think that it functions in the U.S. more as a proxy for racism than anything else. Ressentiment at elites who tell them what to do is how right-wingers have been trained to come together around the basic hatred of black and brown people that it’s no longer respectable for them to express.

47

Glen Tomkins 05.03.10 at 8:21 pm

@Billikin

“Agnotology” certainly is a horrid neologism, but “the study of lambs” would be “arniology”, so that criticism is a bit off the mark. You’re mixing and matching your Latin (I would imagine that, if you were a victim of a Catholic education, as I was, you remember the phrase Agnus Dei) and Greek, a practice which is, technically, known as barbarism. You probably aren’t accused of barbarism every day, and perhaps never before with any accuracy.

48

Trent 05.03.10 at 8:34 pm

My initial reaction to this post is that it seems rather silly and self defeating. Large political coalitions always contain great diversity and draw various malcontents, demagogues, and publicity seekers.

A great example is the Lyndon LaRouche political cult. These days they attend Tea Party rallies, generally with “Obama as Hitler” and impeachment signs. They attract the press, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, a few years back they could be found with similar signs about Bush at anti-war rallies. What does their participation in those events tell us about the other people at those events? Very little, though it can be mistaken as emblematic, either by those ignorant of what is actually going on or those blinded by their own bias.

This petition in Oregon–for which you deserve at least this credit: I heard it here first–does not represent “the right” or even all those who question whether global warming is indeed a crisis which requires an immediate, massive, coordinated, and very expensive solution.

If you sought an honest debate, you would look for the most honest and thoughtful persons on “the right” or among those who question global warming. Instead, you “present only evidence that supports your case,” by presenting the worst, rather than the best, of your opposition. From the tone of your post, one could easily get the impression that, in your view, people who agree with you are good, people who are not like you are bad. Very disheartening.

49

R. Cynic 05.03.10 at 8:49 pm

I’d have have more patience with discussions of right wing “agnotology” if the liberal nomenclatura had any sense that perhaps the Cambridge Apostles (excluding the writings at least of JMK) don’t offer a good model for democratic culture or even the relations of the educated elite to what academics are once again calling the “folk”.
The lies of con men gain traction when there is no trust, and the contempt of the elite is met by the same in return.

If you want the (forgotten) pop-culture take on this watch John Boorman’s Zardoz again.
Not a very good movie but it makes a point.

50

chris 05.03.10 at 8:50 pm

Racism is bound up with America from slavery on, and while modern, corporate big business certainly has used it, it’s really overestimating what they can do to say that they primarily created it or maintain it.

Well, I suppose that depends on whether or not you’re willing to extend your definition of “big business” into the past, to cover business arrangements that existed then. The Civil War was basically fought (on the South side) by poor whites to defend the slaveowning rights of rich whites and to this day it’s primarily poor whites who still have Confederate flags on their property. That may not be *corporate*, per se, but class is also bound up with America from the Revolution on (or even longer) and the phenomenon of using racism to distract from class issues is quite old.

I see what you’re getting at with the ideology taking on a life of its own, but was it ever *really* off life support from the Scaifes and Murdochs of the world? It certainly isn’t today — look at the (now semi-) secret backers of the Tea Party for example.

I think it fuels the growth of the Tea Party for its members to believe that they’re not on anyone’s leash. I think it is dangerous to conclude that they are not, in fact, on anyone’s leash.

P.S. The fact that “the whole Nixonland thing” works through race does not necessarily mean it *couldn’t* work without race, but only that it would have to take a different form. Race is a convenient tool because it’s there and powerful, but other tools could be found or made if needed. Religion is popular, historically speaking. You can divide the people according to their favorite chariot racing teams if no other division is handy.

51

John Quiggin 05.03.10 at 9:02 pm

A few comments

* Big business certainly promoted the sources of ignorance, but I think they have now lost control of the process. Multinationals would mostly prefer to get the climate change issue settled, but it’s become a cultural totem for the Anglospheric right

* As regards race, I mentioned that this is basically a cultural dislike of people who are Not Like Us. Obviously, in the US context, this brings race to the fore very quickly, but the same mechanisms function with respect to all sorts of out-groups

* -ology is now a standard English suffix, so we can use it however we wish without worrying about Latin roots

52

John 05.03.10 at 9:07 pm

Are you seriously claiming that the Oregon petition is endorsed, implicitly or explicitly, as a rightwing dogma? This can’t be right: there are many people on the right who believe that global warming exists and is at least partially due to man’s influence. People that have said so publicly. Including the most famous Republican governor, as well as the most recent Republican presidential candidate. But also hosts of others. The claim that the petition has been endorsed or silently tolerated on the right is wildly and manifestly false. It has been clearly implicitly rejected by a great many on the right – all of those that “believe in” global warming. Yes, explicit rejections are more rare. But so what? Explicit rejections of lots of things are rare.

53

Quiddity 05.03.10 at 9:15 pm

Almost 9 years ago, John Stossel was touting that Oregon Petition.

It included (self-described) dentists, gynecologists, veterinarians, and ophthalmologists.

54

Anderson 05.03.10 at 9:19 pm

Multinationals would mostly prefer to get the climate change issue settled, but it’s become a cultural totem for the Anglospheric right

I find it difficult to believe that America’s corporations really would like to see a climate bill, but are unable to make their $$$ effective in marshaling public opinion.

55

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 9:34 pm

OK, so illicit influences favouring the rejection of CC among the right

On the supply side:
(obviously) the oil,road,auto interests and allies, acting through funding research that’s biased in various ways, thinktanks, and other stooges; their friends in the Republican party using similar yactics but also (not necessarily distinct) the party line and party channels; the petrolobbies’ and Reps’ influence over elements of the press; the very fact that it’s become a party-political issue, which presumably adds more Republican support….

On the demand side:
the pre-existing cars-and-oil culture (which the same suppliers have already had a hand in entrenching and promoting of course). The fact that it is indeed inconvenient, so a preexisting reason exists for rejecting CC; and the pre-existing antipathy to anything environmental which has also been the subject of propaganda in the past; anti-scientific attitudes coming from the Adam-and-Eve crowd as well as a wider horny-handed-son-of-toil mythology; poor education; a highly polarised ‘culture war’, none of which are entirely spontaneous…..

These are all strong prima facie candidates. Further and better particulars, specific examples, analyses, etc are presumably to be supplied.

I do wonder how many of this counts as manufactured ignorance, rather than standard disinformation and false propaganda. I suppose one distinction is between ignorance as deprivation of knowledge v ignorance as rejection of knowledge.

Presumably the CC case comes under the latter: the misinformation is essentially negative – a denial – so accepting it is not much different from rejecting good information. This maybe contrasts with knowledge which is displaced by competing beliefs: perhaps as in the case of the religiously-motivated rejection (so far as it is r-motivated) of evolutionary theory.

Such a competing mythology is perhaps a more robust way of blocking knowledge than mere denial which perhaps needs to be constantly reinforced (pace chris), at least unless it gains the institutionalised status of a taboo. [Update: JQ suggests it now has a life of its own and is even unwelcome. If that’s correct it would be a form of blowback.]

Q: does knowledge need to be kept out? Is there a general tendency for it to creep in if not blocked? Are these (as I suspect) silly questions if put in no particular context?

Rich can be seen as proposing a ‘perpetuating’ mechanism with his racism theory, which if it could be elucidated a bit – might be a special case of a piggybacking tactic: identifying a new idea with an existing, established belief or attitude, somewhat as Roman invaders would identify their pantheon with local gods.

So Rich: Ressentiment at elites who tell them what to do is how right-wingers have been trained to come together around the basic hatred of black and brown people that it’s no longer respectable for them to express.

An interesting suggestion, but seems undersubstantiated as it relates to CC. Perhaps I lack a good understanding of racism in the US, but it doesn’t seem at all obvious from my viewpoint that this is right.

It strikes me that the GWOT is a better – or at any rate more obvious – example of channeled racism. Of course that doesn’t in any way preclude the existence of other much less easily observable cases of the same phenomenon. It does, though, provide a counterexample to any thesis that there is a general resentment of being told what to do by elites, which Rich doesn’t explicitly assert, but which is at least relevant to what he says. So as well as some evidence being provided, or a better idea of how CC is to be connected with racism, I think this theory might need to be clarified or qualified; e.g. What kind of thing? Which elite?

56

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 9:44 pm

-ology is now a standard English suffix, so we can use it however we wish without worrying about Latin roots if the stem is English, e.g. ‘kidology’. Otherwise we still have to worry as much as ever.

57

Joy 05.03.10 at 9:50 pm

From what I’ve seen in arguing with some anti-climate-changers, I think the agnotology has been so effective that their anti-AGWism is starting to become “unfixable.” I heard the term in psychiatry, where it works something like this (but not exactly). If a man believes that the Dixie Chicks are speaking to him through a special transmitter in his brain, how do you convince him it isn’t so? Do you bring the Chicks in to speak with him and tell him otherwise? Do you scan his brain while he watches and show him that there are no transmitters hidden deep within? If the person’s belief is truly unfixable, there isn’t any evidence to which you could point that would change his mind. He will have some excuse — possibly even some excuse that sounds at least superficially logical — as to why your evidence cannot be trusted, even if it requires incredible mental contortions to do so. And it is the evidence itself that cannot be trusted, not just the arguments that you make from evidence that you can both agree is there. You aren’t trying to persuade him that a transmitter which really is in his brain doesn’t have any connection to the Dixie Chicks, for example.

Increasingly, I’ve found this to be true of many AGW deniers as well. You can’t point to peer-reviewed science to persuade them — the “alarmist” scientists are conspiring to keep all skepticism out of the journals. Indeed, the mere fact that it is in a peer-reviewed journal makes it more suspect. You can’t point out errors in their evidence, like the facts surrounding the Oregon Petition described above, since the mere fact that you, an AGW proponent, are offering a criticism automatically means that it is not to be trusted and that you must be lying in some way, even if that is not immediately apparent. How do they know you are an AGW proponent? Because you are saying something that contradicts what they already believe.

I suppose this is somewhat true of any set of conspiracy theorists, or maybe of any set of true believers about anything, but what it reminds me most of are the Biblical inerrantists of my childhood. The mere fact that a speaker would say something that appears to contradict a Bible passage means that the speaker cannot be trusted and that everything he or she says can be comfortably ignored. How do you know the speaker cannot be trusted? Because he or she challenged the inerrant Bible, which by definition is without error, down to the smallest most obscure section of the “begats.”

Drawing on this Biblical background, my thoughts about climate change agnotology are (1) once an agnotology reaches this point, it is supremely successful and self-duplicating, no matter what its origins were; and (2) when a belief reaches this stage, there is no point in engaging in argument over ideas. Then it may be time to shift to a meta-argument about how they came to know it was true or something along those lines. (Maybe this is where the Biblical analogy breaks down, since at some point many inerrantists will say “you have to have faith” or “I know because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.”)

58

Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 10:09 pm

Oh yeah, while I remember: the aim is present advocacy for the general proposition “We are good, people who are Not Like Us are bad” seems wrong to me. Wouldn’t that general proposition function in any given case as a premise/supporting evidence rather than being the conclusion/probandum? E.g. ‘people not like us are bad, therefore CC is wrong QED’

59

James Wimberley 05.03.10 at 10:21 pm

On e strikingly modern aspect of denialism is the analogy to Google Earth and similar Web-based computing initiatives: no data is actually held long-term in the denialist’s mind, there is only a program for downloading new rubbish from the nets when required. So, “cloud sophistry”.

60

Rich Puchalsky 05.03.10 at 11:52 pm

John Quiggin is basically right, I think, that multinationals in general would rather just get the issue settled and go on. Oil and coal companies might not, but they are a minority of multinationals in general. The reason that they can’t “make their $$$ effective in marshaling public opinion” is because they have no strong motive to. While they might have a preference to just see the end of the dispute, it’s not a large enough preference to make them throw lots of money at it.

As for ressentiment at elites — well, I can quote Lee Atwater, who was an expert in this if anyone was:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

I don’t know how much you know about the U.S., but approval of a war against brown people is not a counterexample to ressentiment against elites. It’s a very coded use of “elites”. Forced busing, state’s rights, even taxes — those were things presented to the right as things that “elites” were making them do, “big government” (a later phrase) taking control of their lives. Of course they knew that it was all about their racism. But they were bitterly angry that society was becoming less racist.

A few decades later, and the dog whistle has gone up another octave. Now it’s climatological science as focus for displaced anger at “elites” forcing “big government” on them. But that itself is a displacement for anger about their racism.

John Quiggin may be right to generalize to a cultural dislike of people Not Like Us. But this expresses itself in different places according to well-marked historical paths. I don’t think that you can really understand why so many people in the U.S. seem to care so strongly about their global warming denialism without understanding that it’s a proxy for racism.

61

Dan 05.04.10 at 2:11 am

This is how many discuss religion. They first decide (have faith in) the conclusion (God exists etc), and then they pick up anything which supports that conclusion, without too much concern for whether it is true, balanced etc..

It is hardly a coincidence the climate change deniers are usually the aforementioned type of religious believer.

ps
http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/index.html?uc_full_date=20100428

62

John Mashey 05.04.10 at 2:12 am

If anyone really wants to dig into this topic, take a look at the first few pages of my Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony, a 185-page report that details the 20-year history of climate anti-science of which OISM petition was one step, created by familiar players. (In this case, OISM was likely acting as a front for the George C. Marshall Institute.)

It discusses overall machinery, differing sets of reasons for anti-science (some derived from discussions at JohnQuiggin), funding flows in some detail, chronologies, specific activities (including OISM), and organizations+people. For the latter, this is mostly North American-oriented, but Australia is hardly omitted!

It especially notes the conservative family foundations who fund a lot of this (along with ExxonMobil), such a Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch brothers (who I suspect most readers have never heard of. There are ~9th & 10th richest people in USA; their father cofounded the John Birch Society… Koch Industries is 2nd largest private firm in US … oil&gas)

There is a large tangle of financial, political and ideological interests in all this, and one needs care to avoid over-simplification. Much of this is driven from Washington, DC, specifically within a block of “K-Street” (Lobbyist Central), but people are involved around the world. See this Google Map, which shows many of the organizations. The report gets updated as more information appears, of which a small tidbit is over at Deltoid,Wegman and Bl*ck H*licopters. I don’t know if you those in Oz, but it is an article of faith among some in US that they are out there, watching and waiting .

63

Doctor Science 05.04.10 at 3:57 am

In any study of the origins and cultural significance of the phenomenon in question (whatever you call it), I think you have to consult the work of slacktivist, who has investigated it exhaustively from an evangelical Christian perspective.

For instance, his post on False Witnesses, and how the patently ludicrious rumor that Proctor&Gamble was a satanic cult was spread, and re-spread, and spread again. In talking to many, many of his fellow Christians about this rumor, he discovered:

The following are all true of the people spreading the Procter & Gamble rumor:

1. They didn’t really believe it themselves.

2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.

3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.

4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.

He argues — persuasively — that while the people who started the rumor had an “honest” money motive to do so, most of the people who spread it were not innocent dupes, but *complicit* dupes.

In False Witnesses, Part 2, he talks about the motive of fear, and one way of fighting it

requires more self-deception than any of us is capable of on our own. That degree of self-deception requires a group.

This is why the rumor doesn’t really need to be plausible or believable. It isn’t intended to deceive others. It’s intended to invite others to participate with you in deception.

Are you afraid you might be a coward? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel brave. Are you afraid that your life is meaningless? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend your life has purpose. Are you afraid you’re mired in mediocrity? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel exceptional. Are you worried that you won’t be able to forget that you’re just pretending and that all those good feelings will thus seem hollow and empty? Join us and we will pretend it’s true for you if you will pretend it’s true for us. We need each other.

I don’t know what the link-limit is here, so I’ll stop for now — but you may also wish to check his latest post, on “Empathy and epistemic closure”, which stresses that the will to be stupid is, fundamentally, a fear of empathy, of feeling too connected to other people. It is, at base, a *moral* problem, not an epistemic one.

64

Doctor Science 05.04.10 at 4:03 am

arrgh, blockquote fail. My kingdom (small and dusty) for a preview button.

In any study of the origins and cultural significance of the phenomenon in question (whatever you call it), I think you have to consult the work of slacktivist, who has investigated it exhaustively from an evangelical Christian perspective.

For instance, his post on False Witnesses, and how the patently ludicrious rumor that Proctor&Gamble was a satanic cult was spread, and re-spread, and spread again. In talking to many, many of his fellow Christians about this rumor, he discovered:

The following are all true of the people spreading the Procter & Gamble rumor:
1. They didn’t really believe it themselves.
2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.

He argues — persuasively — that while the people who started the rumor had an “honest” money motive to do so, most of the people who spread it were not innocent dupes, but *complicit* dupes.

In False Witnesses, Part 2, he talks about the motive of fear, and one way of fighting it

requires more self-deception than any of us is capable of on our own. That degree of self-deception requires a group.
This is why the rumor doesn’t really need to be plausible or believable. It isn’t intended to deceive others. It’s intended to invite others to participate with you in deception.
Are you afraid you might be a coward? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel brave. Are you afraid that your life is meaningless? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend your life has purpose. Are you afraid you’re mired in mediocrity? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel exceptional. Are you worried that you won’t be able to forget that you’re just pretending and that all those good feelings will thus seem hollow and empty? Join us and we will pretend it’s true for you if you will pretend it’s true for us. We need each other.

I don’t know what the link-limit is here, so I’ll stop for now — but you may also wish to check his latest post, on “Empathy and epistemic closure”, which stresses that the will to be stupid is, fundamentally, a fear of empathy, of feeling too connected to other people. It is, at base, a *moral* problem, not an epistemic one.

65

paradoctor 05.04.10 at 4:11 am

Orwell had a name for it: “crimestop”, which in Newspeak means “protective stupidity”; the ability to fail to see obvious connections of logic and evidence when they lead to politically dangerous conclusions.

66

Robert 05.04.10 at 6:42 am

If the analysis of the manufacturing of ignorance were a field of study, the investigation of the sociology of mainstream economics would be a part of it.

67

JoB 05.04.10 at 7:24 am

The relationship is in fact that of identity.

68

Billikin 05.04.10 at 7:38 am

@ 40:

A screw and a screwdriver aren’t the same thing,
But drinking the latter may lead to the former.

;)

69

John Quiggin 05.04.10 at 7:40 am

@56-57 Since Charles Pierce has already plugged his book, can I point out that Zombie Economics will be coming out at Halloween.

70

Jack Strocchi 05.04.10 at 7:50 am

Deleted. Jack, I tolerate this kind of thing on my blog, but I’ve asked you several times not to post it on CT. From now, on any comments from you place here will be deleted – JQ

71

JoB 05.04.10 at 8:25 am

You have, John, and I’m looking forward to see the pictures of your costume on what will be a great day! I’d go for the wing of a dark angel on the top of which you put th hugest nut ever ;-)

72

bad Jim 05.04.10 at 8:50 am

Previous commenters have wrestled with the sincerity of the producers of various denialist faiths. It’s far simpler to consider the consumers, who are seldom so scrupulous. Creationists continue to claim the second law of thermodynamics as proof of evolution’s impossibility even though FAQ’s on creationist websites caution against that argument.

The relevant ugly neologism in this case is Anosognosia, which covers Alzheimer’s and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Put simply, your condition blinds you to your ignorance. Unfortunately, this is more like a universal condition than a rare degenerative disorder.

In the presidential election of 1964, Johnson won by a landslide over Goldwater. The diehards sported bumperstickers reading “26 million people can’t be wrong”, implying that a much larger number must be.

It’s difficult to argue with people for whom logic is just an old tool rusting in the bottom of the box.

73

andrew adams 05.04.10 at 12:08 pm

@ 57

Indeed – how can you argue a question of science with someone who refuses to deal in the basic currency of scientific debate? You quote peer-reviewed papers and they claim that the peer-review process is hopelessly corrupted, you quote the data and they claim it is fiddled, you cite expert opinion and they claim the experts are colluding to deceive the rest of us, or that the experts are by definition vested interests and so cannot be trusted. You ask for evidence of their claims and they say the onus is on us to provide proof that AGW is real, so we quote the peer reviewed papers…
And every investigation into their accusations which shows them to be false is further proof of the conspiracy.

74

Steve LaBonne 05.04.10 at 12:19 pm

Doctor Science @64: thank you for calling my attention to slacktivist’s work. Brilliant stuff which really helped me to understand why the dupes are so eager to be duped. (That has always been the part that dumbfounded me- the motives, generally pecuniary, of the people pulling their strings have always been obvious.)

75

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.04.10 at 1:50 pm

Slacktivist’s posts linked above are well written, good prose. But the story doesn’t seem similar to climate change denialism. Also, comment 60 seems a bit over the top.

76

chris 05.04.10 at 2:03 pm

An interesting suggestion, but seems undersubstantiated as it relates to CC.

Yeah, I agree. Race has a lot to do with views on labor, the extent of economic inequality, the welfare state, the GWOT, the War on Some Drugs (the renaming of hemp is particularly revealing), police power issues in general, and several other issues, but relatively little to do with climate change.

It’s important (and deeply tangled up in class which is also important), but it’s overly reductive to view *everything* through its lens.

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Walt 05.04.10 at 2:23 pm

There’s no straightforward linkage between CC and race, but the connection is there. There are two teams: there’s the team we trust that denies global warming, and the team we don’t trust because they’re too soft on Those People who’s pushing this global warming narrative for who knows what nefarious end. If liberals and conservatives switched views, then views of global warming would switch, but still race is part of the explanation.

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clod Levi-Strauss 05.04.10 at 2:49 pm

Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven

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james 05.04.10 at 3:22 pm

I am missing the connection. How is race part of the explanation? The only people claiming ‘race’ as a reason for deanial are on the left. It looks like your projecting.

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Glen Tomkins 05.04.10 at 4:31 pm

The operational difference between BS and agnotology

I think that the main reason to view this Oregon Petition, and similar such phenomena we see from the Right, as BS rather than “agnotology”, some supposed propensity for ignorance as an end in itself, is that the former explanation is simply more likely to be an accurate assessment. I honestly don’t understand how this propensity for ignorance works, why anyone would have it, etc.; while BS is the water we all swim in.
But mileage may vary on that impression. It is just an impression.

But I also think that explaining the Right’s anti-scientific stance as BS, rather than agnotology, makes the phenomenon, whatever causal explanation is accepted, tractable. There really is nothing therapeutic to be done for a lust for ignorance, either for the spouters of its doctrines, or their listeners and followers, who must also be presumed to have this lust for ignorance. But, you know, if their hold on their followers is not a problem, if these people do not threaten the hold of what we project as “right reason” over majority opinion, then why bother thinking about them, as BSers or agnotologues? If these folks do present a threat, we need an approach to meeting that threat, and I submit that viewing them as agnotologues is supremely unhelpful.

Pointing out that their doctrines are contrary to accepted science, or any other variety of received wisdom, is simply playing into their hands. They’ve already discounted that objection, and pointing out that they are mavericks challenging the conventional wsidom is simply helping them with their PR. The defenders of the conventional wisdom have always denounced those who challenged it as ignorantist upstarts, people who had no respect for the established modes of thought, which lead to the established conclusions of the conventional wisdom. Of course, usually the conventional wisdom is absolutely right. It wouldn’t have achieved that status of universal acceptance unless it mostly worked. But history plays this trick on us, that insofar as it is the record of human progress, it turns on episodes that end up proving the conventional wisdom to have been wrong, and upstart, once heterodox and “unscientific”, opinions, to have been right.

If you have spent any time arguing with actual US rightists lately, you may well, as I have, found yourself confronted with exactly this rhetorical ploy. “Why is it that you supposed progressives are so unwilling to go along with, say, calling a constitutional convention? Why won’t you at least entertain the idea that maybe a system of divided sovereignty is not only what the Founders intended, but would work to defend against the sort of governmental overreach you claim to be concerned over? Why can’t you let alternate theories to Darwin’s about how life originated and developed, be at least put in fornt of schoolchildren ofr their consideration? Why can’t you admit into the forum of public debate, on equal footing with the defenders of orthodoxy, scientists, even if there are only a dozen of them right now, who question this dogma of AGW? At the outset, it was only one scientist, Einstein, who challenged the conventional wisdom of Newtonian mechanics. Why won’t you let the debate begin?”

You see, if you attack them as motivated by a lust for ignorance, you are forced into a situation in which they are saying the same thing about you. Agnotology as an explanation for behavior is, I’m afraid, already their theory about you. They got there first, they have trademark rights. You may not be convinced by their view of your position, and neither its similarity to what you think of them, nor the fact that they got there first, in any way helps their claim to your assent. But it does give all those people without parti pris, all those people in the middle whom we all must be concerned about slipping over to the Dark Side, some reason to see you as on at least equal footing as them, if not their inferior imitators. Again, if these people without parti pris don’t matter, why bother worrying about the behavior of the Rightists?

This makes sense in moral terms as well. The choice between portraying one’s antagonists as agnotologists, as oposed to BSers, is also a choice between seeing them as knaves, as opposed to fools. Now, my preference for portraying these people as BSers, fools, does not really let them off the hook morally. If you presume to set your opinions forth in public as the truth, you have a fundamental duty to care about the truth status of those opinions, and act accordingly, a duty that BSers ignore. Ignoring this duty fouls the waters of public discourse, as they have done. But they do not intend harm, in my view, they do not set out in an evil plot to destroy science, or right opinion.

To reject my view of them as fools, and start with the premise that they are evil, inevitably leads to Apocalyptic thinking. Follow that line, and the failure of AGW to carry all before it in public debate, can only be the handiwork of this diabolical force, agnotology, and the hold it has on the purveyors of anti-science, and their followers.

I think it much more sensible to see in the failure of AGW to carry all before it, and to have already dictated a wise and prudent course of cutting back on greenouse gasses, no more or less than the operation of the universal folly that we see every day. We and don’t have to project some new construct such as agnotology to explain it. There is more of PT Barnum than Beelzebub in the anti-science hucksters of the Right. No one ever went broke underestimating the American public, and where, as in delaying action on AGW, there is money to be made, hucksters and opportunists will not be lacking to fill the “need”. It’s surprising the hucksters aren’t doing even better than they are.

Our side will either win the argument in time to avoid climate catastrophe, or we won’t. We win the argument when the undecideds start to laugh at the hucksters. Maybe that will take too long, because it does involve getting these people to admit that they were fools for listening to the hucksters. But at least that muddle-through approach might work. Telling people that they are evil, that they are burdened, not just with the folly that the wisest of us possess in great quantities, but that they flirted with the Right out of an evil hatred of knowledge, has no chance of working.

The one thing that everybody knows is that they do not intend evil. The real trick is getting them to own their folly before its consequences overwhelm us all.

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chris 05.04.10 at 6:02 pm

a choice between seeing them as knaves, as opposed to fools

First, I assert that these possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive even at the individual level. One of the most proven ways of fooling other people into believing something is to fool yourself first, then demonstrate your sincerity. (Sincerity shouldn’t count for much when so many people are sincerely wrong about so many things, but somehow, it does.)

Second, even if you don’t buy that, they *definitely* aren’t inconsistent at the movement level. A movement definitely can, and IMO this one definitely does, contain some knaves and some fools. Any debate on how to see “them” misses the point that “they” aren’t monolithic, and that individual people need to be seen differently.

Telling people that they are fools being duped by a knave is certainly likely to encounter emotional resistance, but if it happens to be true, what other approach are you going to take? Making the fools aware of the knaves in their midst might make them more resistant to the knavery itself.

We and don’t have to project some new construct such as agnotology to explain it.

AIUI, the concept is new, but the phenomenon is not. It’s a new attempt to understand an old behavior.

The one thing that everybody knows is that they do not intend evil.

Yes, including the ones that do intend evil. They know their actions are completely justified. The certitude of righteousness is not accompanied by comparable accuracy.

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Russell 05.04.10 at 6:42 pm

” until Manzi’s takedown of Levin, I’m not aware of anyone on the conservative side of politics who has criticised the petition. On the contrary…”

It seems Mr.Quiggin’s reading on the conservative side is somewhat lacking in bandwidth-
Taki’s Magazine has long protested neocon hostility to science-based policy , and questioned the Oregon petition’s scientific bona fides in thus 2008 essay:
http://www.takimag.com/site/article/climate_of_here/

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John Quiggin 05.04.10 at 7:44 pm

I must admit I’d never heard of Taki’s magazine, and the piece cited is excellent. But, sad to say, a quick scan of the same magazine produces this from Pat Buchanan

http://www.takimag.com/site/article/shakedown_in_copenhagen/

and this from John Paul Roberts

http://www.takimag.com/sniperstower/article/truth_has_fallen_and_has_taken_liberty_with_it/

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Russell 05.04.10 at 10:44 pm

Do let our sainted editor know if Pat is not your favorite weatherman.

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ScentOfViolets 05.05.10 at 2:56 am

It’s difficult to argue with people for whom logic is just an old tool rusting in the bottom of the box.

I’d say that this is a failure on the part of the person who believes logic is all, or should be. Hard as it is to believe, I’d say most of the people most of the time feel this way about logic, the scientific method, etc – it’s just a tool that happens to be useful on occasion and that’s all it is. Hence the hostility to science and the notion of objective truths. Here’s something of a favorite of mine:

The two men were mentally too dissimilar for more than a half hour of conversation between them to be possible. When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking to react according to some prearranged plan. It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded. Anything was grist to the mill: flattery, the application of common-sense psychology, social pressure, the feeding of ambition, or even plain threats. For the most part like other administrators he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful. For strict logic he had no use whatever. To Kingsley on the other hand strict logic was everything, or nearly everything.

I don’t think there’s anything untrue with the statement that the world can be roughly divided up into Home Secretaries and Kingsleys. Sadly, the Home Secretaries far outnumber us more normal sorts, and have more power to boot.

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sorry to interrupt 05.05.10 at 3:09 am

“Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science.[!!] Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.”
That’s what is considered to be by many the most important philosophical essay in the past 50 years. It’s Quine, and it’s quackery.

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Bruce Baugh 05.05.10 at 3:17 am

I notice that there’s a significant and not-much-addressed gap in overall aims: who is it we want to persuade or otherwise motivate, when talking about something like agnotology in action? In particular, I’m aware of having crossed to the side that finds no point in ever trying to have a serious discussion with someone like Jack Strocchi or Sebastian, because they’re lacking in moral sensibilities I regard as fundamental and willing to be very clever in evading serious looks at the consequences to their fellow human beings of whatever they happen to be advocating at the moment. I’m interested in motivating those who share my general framework but who currently feel unable to act, or that acting in public affairs won’t do any good, and to that end it’s important to have a fresh, crisp awareness of how really contemptible our opposition is. It’s part of feeling that the world’s situation is such that there is anything for the rest of us to do.

Naturally this isn’t the kind of agenda that will win everyone over, but then I don’t believe that it’s possible, or that the sorts of compromise that will emerge under an “everyone talk nice” rubric will be good for humanity or the world.

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steve sims 05.05.10 at 4:28 am

Which is more important, the merits of the argument or the qualifications of the arguer? By the latter, which is the standard used to disqualify many/most of the Petition Signers, you would be disqualified as commenter on either the petition or the issue of AGW itself.
It has already been shown that the researchers were caught red-handed falsifying data and espousing the process of falsification. Quid Pro Quo has supplanted Moral Principle when it comes to research on occasion too numerous to mention – who funds the research, and what is at stake? In the case of GW, ALleGOREy stands to make 12-figure sums. With those kinds of payoffs, available to large corporations, is it any wonder the entire exercise has become an extortion racket? Somehow, we undereducated lot are supposed to parrot paid-for “researchers” and “experts” and maintain the disconnect. The real issue is pollution – pollution caused by the same corporations owned by the Al Gores and other pseudo-lefties and righties of the world who needed a diversion from the cleanup mandate which is conveniently being ignored in favor of a new derivative trading scheme which will pass on the cost to the public.
This is not a Red vs. Blue issue. To think as such is to play into the hands of the Change agents who wish to cloud the issue and steer (castrate) the debate toward a solution beneficial to Corporate-state Elites who only lip-serve their superficial Ideological loyalties. There is only one party, and that is the hierarchy of insiders who rig every game in town.

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John Quiggin 05.05.10 at 4:57 am

Bruce@86 (and others), as I said in the post, I agree that there is no longer any value in engaging with the right, in general, in an effort at reasonable discussion.

Rather, it’s a matter of peeling off those in the intellectual class who have any remaining integrity, by pointing out the kind of company they have been keeping, and deriding the remaining hacks until even they see themselves for what they are. That’s a project that will take a long time, but the current round of the debate is a big step forward.

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Jim Nichols 05.05.10 at 5:03 am

I think one challenge we have down here in the state of Georgia–the heart of Red America isn’t really the group think self insulation of conservative [sic] academics/think tanks/talking heads… but the impacts on everyday voters. When talking one on one with voters I find a total inability to deal with and face up to the propaganda.

Republican voters–at least many of them– truly refuse to want to deal with you if you are willing to actually take the time and respectfully take down each on of their talking points. They will turn to the “I just don’t believe that.”

It make me think of what Simon Blackburn said in his book Turth. “Someone sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb.” I don’t think we can defuse the time bomb via more and more examples and “fact checking” as conservatives don’t care. I think the challenge we face is out organizing them and reaching the disaffected population that that watches fox news nor cares to. Granted this might be a far greater challenge. Sigh…

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Bruce Baugh 05.05.10 at 5:16 am

Yeah, I was thinking of some of the commenters, not you, John. Sorry for being unclear about that. I knew what I meant!

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Tim Worstall 05.05.10 at 10:07 am

“I must admit I’d never heard of Taki’s magazine, and the piece cited is excellent.”

Russell was at, Tah Dah! Techcentralstation of greatly loved (erm?) memory and moved over to Takimag as did one or two others.

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John Quiggin 05.05.10 at 10:21 am

TCS would certainly provide a case study in agnotology all on its own. In fact, it has done, avant le nom.

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ScentOfViolets 05.05.10 at 1:04 pm

It make me think of what Simon Blackburn said in his book Turth. “Someone sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb.”

But if one uses logic as a tool to be used as needed and not otherwise, what counts as an “unreasonable” belief?

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chris 05.05.10 at 1:47 pm

Which is more important, the merits of the argument or the qualifications of the arguer? By the latter, which is the standard used to disqualify many/most of the Petition Signers, you would be disqualified as commenter on either the petition or the issue of AGW itself.

By the former, the petition itself is a waste of time. It only exists to say “Look at all these people who agree with us”; but that only appeals to the qualifications of the agreers. If you accept that there is no X for which X people can’t be wrong, then petitions prove nothing.

Things like the petition exist because we are only partly rational beings who *are* swayed by a long list of people who believe something, even if we don’t know their basis for that belief (or even if they don’t, strictly speaking, *have* any basis for it). That’s why it’s analogized to religion — because it propagates by the same means, not argument, but the bandwagon effect.

From the standpoint of argument, the petition doesn’t have any argument. That’s why it’s not examined from the standpoint of argument.

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Jim Flannery 05.05.10 at 6:25 pm

It has already been shown that the researchers were caught red-handed falsifying data and espousing the process of falsification.

Liar. Boring liar, since this stupid lie has been debunked many, many times.

Thanks for demonstrating the point of the original post so clearly though.

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John 05.06.10 at 1:46 am

There is a fine example of this on the political left—the animal-rights movement’s attacks on research.

For example, they love to mention how Enders and colleagues grew polio virus in cell culture and showed that the virus became attenuated, paving the way for the live vaccine and winning the Nobel Prize, but they leave out the salient fact that they assayed the virus’s pathogenicity by LD50 assays on mice. You can see this in Fig. 1 of the Nobel lecture:

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1954/enders-robbins-weller-lecture.pdf

And this was not an “alternative,” because the empirical definition of attenuation is the divergence of measurements of viral pathogenicity in plaque assays in culture (stays high) and in animals (drops).

For PeTA, this is described as, “In fact, two separate bodies of work were done on polio-the in vitro work, which was awarded the Nobel Prize and which did not involve animals…”

So yes, one can do LD50s on mice while not involving animals!

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chris 05.06.10 at 4:14 pm

@97: But extreme animal-rights stances like PETA’s are controversial *within* the left. They aren’t litmus tests for the whole side of the political spectrum or its major political movements the way abortion or AGW or freshwater econ are.

(Strictly speaking, animal rights is a set of value judgments, but to the extent that its agenda is advanced by misinformation, that would qualify — if the misinformation was adopted, repeated, and defended by a large majority of leftists, which it is not.)

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Hattie 05.07.10 at 2:53 am

We have always admired ignorance in my country.

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John 05.08.10 at 10:51 am

Meanwhile Melanie Phillips is a guest speaker at the AEI (ignorance central) promoting her new book (rant) The World Turned Upside Down.

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Socrates 05.10.10 at 2:41 am

The last paragraph of your piece is unclear.

If someone were to find that reason led to, say, libertarianism then he should not change his views simply because most of those propounding libertarianism are selfish idiots. He will not wish to spend time with the selfish idiots or discuss with them, but will seek out others who can help him develop and propound his views. Should he keep quiet about his views – which he sees as the correct ones, merely because selfish idiots share his conclusions? No of course not, he needs to try to educate those who hold false views, such as those on the left. As well as trying to get the selfish idiots to think and be unselfish.

*However* he might think it best that the selfish idiots do not gain power – because being selfish idiots they are bound to misuse it. Thus he should work against a political grouping dominated by selfish idiots; albeit at the same time as trying to establish a political grouping comprising people who are not selfish idiots, who hold the correct view (namely his).

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