Beckering Belief — The rationality of climate change denial

If human behaviour is about maximising utility from a stable set of preferences, why assume that a rational actor will accumulate true beliefs? What if the most efficient way of satisfying an individual’s preferences involves false beliefs? If theorists like Gary Becker are right, perhaps climate change denial is rational after all.

Economist Gary Becker is famous for expanding the domain of economics. He argues that if people are seen as rational utility maximisers in the market place, they should be seen as rational utility maximisers in church, the ballot box, and the bedroom. Just because the costs and benefits aren’t bought and sold in the market doesn’t mean that economic theory doesn’t apply. In a paper with Robert Michael, he argued that individuals don’t always derive utility directly from the goods they buy — often they use these goods to produce other things they value. Saucepans, knives and electric hotplates are used to produce cooked meals. And it’s the meals rather than the kitchen equipment that produces utility.

In this approach, ideas appear as ‘information’ — accurate representations of how the world is and tools for changing it. A recipe book, for example, might contain instructions for baking cakes and cookies. Unless those instructions actually work, the book isn’t of much value. False ideas are not information — like broken kitchen appliances, they are mostly just rubbish. If information is a good then surely misinformation is a bad.

But not all ideas are consumed as ‘information’. People use ideas to entertain themselves, to manage anxiety, and to signal things about themselves to others. Ideas don’t need to be true to be entertaining, reassuring or useful as social signals. Whether an idea is good or not, depends on what you want to do with it.

One way to use or ‘consume’ an idea is to believe it — to accept it as true. When we read fiction, we suspend disbelief. We use the idea, but we don’t use it as if it were true. Believing can affect behaviour in a way that other uses don’t. One way to test whether someone really believes what they’re saying is to ask them to bet on it. 11. RealClimate: " Efficient market theory states that the price in a free market should accurately reflect the aggregated information that is available, and so in 1990 economist Robin Hanson noted that we can turn the problem around: use the market as an aggregation mechanism to tell us what the odds are on any particular event. This, he claims, could be much more effective than relying on panels of government- (or self-)appointed experts and media pundits to predict the future, since the financial penalty would keep the incompetent away from the marketplace, and the real experts would be automatically rewarded for correcting any errors in the market prices." [] If you say that the Coalition is going to win the next federal election but you won’t put money on it then I’ve got reason to be sceptical.

Obviously, not all beliefs are equally testable and not all beliefs affect behaviour directly. If I go to the supermarket for corn flakes and I believe that the breakfast cereal is in aisle 4, it’s a safe bet that I’ll head for aisle 4. But if I believed that Australia was discovered by the Aztecs then how would that affect my behaviour? According to Robin Hanson, some beliefs are more functional than others. In a short online paper, he asks; "Are Beliefs Like Clothes?":

Clothes are both "functional" and "social". Functionally, clothes keep us warm and cool and dry, protect us from injury, maintain privacy, and help us carry things. But since they are usually visible to others, clothes also allow us to identify with various groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status. The milder the environment, the more we expect the social role of clothes to dominate their functional role. (Of course social roles are also "functions" in a sense; by "functional" I mean serving individual/personal functions.)

Beliefs are also both functional and social. Functionally, beliefs inform us when we choose our actions, given our preferences. But many of our beliefs are also social, in that others see and react to our beliefs. So beliefs can also allow us to identify with groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status.

Intelligent people who hold conventional functional beliefs will nevertheless display seemingly irrational non-functional beliefs. For example, a successful actor or business person might believe that, eons ago an evil galactic warlord dumped millions of beings into Earth’s volcanoes and vaporised them with bombs.

Political partisanship involves buying and displaying a package of beliefs. Just as football fans signal loyalty to their team by wearing its colours, conservatives signal their loyalty by believing that poverty is caused by poor people, that Saddam really did have weapons of mass destruction and that climate change is left wing scare campaign. Left wingers signal their loyalty by believing that poverty is caused by society, that global warming is real and that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were a right wing scare campaign. The fact that people have such strongly held beliefs on issues they know almost nothing about, suggests that it’s not just a matter of weighing up the evidence.

For the average citizen, the payoffs from holding beliefs about the causes of climate change are not ‘functional’ in Hanson’s sense. One person acting alone can’t save the planet. Part of the payoff might come from displays of political identity but that’s unlikely to be the whole story. In the opening seconds of Martin Durkin’s documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle are scenes of melting ice, devastating hurricanes the words, "AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT". For some people it seems that the major problem from climate change isn’t swamped villages, disease, starvation and death, it is personal guilt — global warming assaults their image of themselves as good people.

When people find themselves unwilling or unable to deprive their families of safe transport, comfortable homes, and overseas holidays, they begin to feel anxious and guilty. Some will buy carbon offsets, others will distract themselves with other issues, and others still will alter their beliefs. After all, climate change is still controversial isn’t it? It’s just an opinion.

The need to deal with guilt and anxiety creates demand for explanations of climate change which don’t involve personal responsibility. Convincing people that climate change isn’t caused by human actions also has benefits for businesses that are threatened by regulation or increased taxes. What happens next shouldn’t be a surprise. As Gary Becker writes:

It follows from the economic approach that an increased demand by different interest groups of constituencies for particular intellectual arguments and conclusions would stimulate an increased supply of these arguments… (p 11).

The media’s demand for controversy, interest groups’ demand for scepticism, and consumers’ demand for reassurance will combine to draw scientifically credible climate change sceptics into the public arena. And if Becker is right, a rational consumer of ideas will not spend too much time searching for information beyond what the media supplies. As he explains, searching for information involves a cost in time and effort — a cost that it’s irrational to bear if there’s no net gain in utility. So if you’re happy with the ideas you’re getting then why risk finding out something that might make you feel anxious and guilty? The search for new ideas would only make sense if the ideas you have now are making you unhappy.

Climate change activists might question whether this really is rational behaviour. After all, if everyone in the developed world acted this way, we could all find ourselves worse off. But Becker’s arguments about voting would apply equally well here. In a paper titled ‘Competition and Democracy’ he wrote:

Since each person has a fixed number of votes — either 1 or 0 — regardless of the amount of information he has and the intelligence used in acting on this information, and since minorities are usually given no representation, it does not "pay" to be well-informed and thoughtful on political issues, or even to vote (p 37).

So perhaps climate change denial isn’t irrational at all. If it is possible for individuals to deal with functional and non-functional ideas in different ways then it may be in our interests to consume only those non-functional ideas that make us happy.

Just for the record : Becker agrees that "it is prudent to take actions to reduce the build-up of carbon gases in the atmosphere".

14 thoughts on “Beckering Belief — The rationality of climate change denial

  1. ‘After all, if everyone in the developed world acted this way [ie acted as if the benefits of industrial civilisation are greater than the costs of climate change], we could all find ourselves worse off.’

    ‘We’ may find ourselves worse off. (Who’s ‘we’? Answer please. If it’s the whole world, then what gives you privileged knowledge?)

    And we may not. This is precisely what climate change activists have failed to address or demonstrate. How do they know? What would they even need to know?

    Even if the globe is warming, and even if it’s been caused by man, which themselves are questions of great complexity and uncertainty, still nothing necessarily follows. The question remains whether we might not be better off without giving government more power, money, and discretion, enjoying the benefits of industrial civilisation, and dealing with the problems of global warming other than through a superstitious belief in the magic of governmental intervention, or by the socialisation of the winds that blow.

    Climate change activists assure us that we’ll all be doomed from storms, drought, etc. but
    a) how the fuck would they know? They wouldn’t; and
    b) all this industrial activity is happening for a purpose. Human beings are making, buying and selling things because it means more of them can be alive, well, and happy. No-one has demonstrated, because no-one can demonstrate, who should forego what benefit now in order to preserve what benefit for whom when. The whole ideas is so technically and morally incoherent it would be laughable: if they weren’t so fucking serious about it.

    The idea that humans are some kind of noxious pest, that a moral crusade is warranted to fix the problem by cutting down the energy supply that is currently used to keep people alive, well and happy, and that a large dispensation of organised coercion is needed to fix the problem, apart from being vain, is also noxious.

    I wish all those braying for the use of coercion on a vast scale as the remedy would do the principled thing, as well as doing everyone else a favour, and stop using electricity and petrol.

    I challenge any proponent of governmental action on climate change to demonstrate that they know, and how they know, all that they would need to know, in order to know that coercion is justified as a response. Well? And no evasions, circular argument, personal argument, misrepresentations and all the rest of it. Just answer the question please?

  2. Justin – Let's assume you're right and the arguments made by climate change activists are "technically and morally incoherent".

    If the arguments for government action are obviously weak, then why do
    activists seem to believe in them so strongly? What's going on here?

  3. Justinyour argument proves too much. It can be deployed against just about anything including laws against homicide.  Also what are your views on the more successful CFC ban which arguably *did* save the planet from more serious disasters?

  4. Justin wrote:
    I challenge any proponent of governmental action on climate change to
    demonstrate that they know, and how they know, all that they would need
    to know, in order to know that coercion is justified as a response
    .

    1) We know because the scientists said so.  We have very few reasons not to believe them at this point, and some of those reasons have been deliberate obfuscations funded by companies that have a vested interest in the current status quo.
    2) We can never know "all we need to know".
    3) "coercian justified as a response" – hyperbole in the extreme.  I'm not advocating the whole "men with guns" approach that is the standard fallback of libertarian pants-wetters everywhere.  It has been the considered position of governments (i.e. you and me via our democracies) that pollution causing harm needs to be regulated.  It worked for Dioxins, it worked for CFC's and it'll work for carbon if we're allowed to do it.

  5. Don
    ‘If the arguments for government action are obviously weak, then why do
    activists seem to believe in them so strongly? What’s going on here?’

    (I didn’t say they’re *obviously* weak. They are superficially very plausible, that’s the prob.)

    Experience shows that people will believe just about anything, doesn’t it? Remember Jim Jones and the Kool-aid crew? I once met a man in the Solomon Islands who believed that during the creation of the world two lovers, whose folks disapproved of their love, had turned into a stone, which he pointed out. A real live dreamtime myth. I met a woman in Bali who believed that if she passed a plate of rice back and forth under her knee and muttered mumbo jumbo, it would help clear up her eye infection.

    During the twentieth century many people – hundreds of millions – believed that capitalism causes the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, and if we just gave all property and human freedom into the hands of government to decide ‘on our behalf’, it would make a better and fairer society. Many of these people were intelligent, humane and highly educated. Nor does being a scientist or technician make one immune: many of those in science and engineering were the firmest adherents. (Their positivism led them to them believe that human beings could be socially engineered, just as the climate change technicians believe today: a crime of production here, a judicious punishment here, and Bob’s your uncle.) It’s all in the assumptions, isn’t it?

    The definitive disproofs of the socialist belief system began in the 1890s and by the 1920s the theoretical refutation was total. Socialists simply ignored it. During the 1930s evidence of industrial-scale mass murders came out. Then tens of millions died under Mao. Disproof has piled on disproof in both theory and practice. Yet I had an acquaintance in the late 1990s who was a Labor party Senator, and they were still calling each other ‘comrade’ and posing in front of the Kremlin. Like the whole Jim Jones caper: unbelievable. But true. They won’t give away a bad egg.

    Climate change activism is implicated in this for two reasons. First, the whole rigid zero-sum idea shows its socialist provenance by the similarities of the assumptions it shares with Marxist socialism:
    - The necessity of forcibly overriding individual freedom to enter into consensual transactions for a supposed greater good;
    - The operations of individual liberty are irrational and untrustworthy to deal with the perceived problem: but the same people through government suddenly have the competence to know and do anything that is desired;
    - There is no question that government can achieve the desired results; the limitations on its acting through bureaucracies by regulation and taxation etc. are no reason to doubt its efficacy. It’s like Lily the Pink’s medicinal compound: ‘most efficacious in ev-ery case’ LOL; superstitious belief in the magic of government;
    - In the democracies, the fallacy takes this form: the government represents the people better than the people represent themselves;
    - The ordinary people are too selfish or stupid to know what’s good for them, but socialists or climate change activists speak from a position of privileged knowledge;
    - To even raise, as against them, the question of the value of human freedom as a matter of principle is absurd, ridiculous, contemptible: witness above David’s instant descent into personal argument.
    - The scientistic fallacy: the belief that all the issues in human action can be boiled down into technical questions to be solved by experts;
    - The fatal conceit of presuming to engineer the whole economy has now morphed into the fatal conceit of presuming to engineer the whole climate;
    - There is the age-old conceit of the ‘philosopher king’: ‘Just give me enough power’ they seem to be saying ‘and I will re-fashion this sorry scheme of things more closely to the heart’s desire’.

    And secondly of course it is mostly left-wing parties who are intent on the whole climate change project of using government to correct the world: as, your Greens, Democrats, and Labor.

    Now the Stern Review recommends a 25 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The IPCC recommends a 60 percent cut.

    Once you do the arithmetic, this would require, for example for the US, A REDUCTION IN PER CAPITA ENERGY CONSUMPTION LEVELS TO 11.25 PERCENT AND 6 PERCENT RESPECTIVELY OF CURRENT LEVELS (‘scuse my shouting). Hard to believe eh?

    To see the arithmetic workings of the climate change activists’ demands, see http://www.georgereisman.com/blog/: about 0.6 of the way down the page: The Arithmetic of Environmetalist Devastation.

    Of course the point is, people’s lives, health and happiness depend on all the contrivances that are now being powered by electricity and petrol.

    But the fact that a large amount of human death and deprivation would have to be caused in order to carry out this project appears not to worry our brave socialists – again!

    Socialists have not done enough, it seems, to correct the world though the national socialism of Germany, the Soviet socialism of Russia, the Arab Ba’ath socialism of Iraq, Kampuchea, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cuba, Syria, et al – and the wonderful socialist triumphs in Australia of public transport, public hospitals and public schools.

    Climate change activists carry on as if the dreadful ideology and history of socialism are irrelevant to the discussion. It is impertinent, or impolite, to raise it; and the value of human freedom that would be overridden yet again by their schemes.

    Rather than hiding their heads in shame and disgrace as they should do, it is as PJ O’Rourke said of Fidel Castro – you throw them out the door of human rights and they climb in the window of ecological concern.

    I reiterate my challenge stated above.

    Jason
    Your argument proves too little. You’ll have to do better than making a snide and false remark, and answering a question with a question. If you can’t be bothered making the argument, I can’t be bothered answering it.

    David
    1. ‘We know because the scientists said so.’
    You are merely exhibiting the fallacy of scientism that I discuss above. Science cannot supply the value judgments required. In any event, what you say is an appeal to absent authority, which is another fallacy.

    2. ‘We can never know all we need to know.’
    I thought you just said we do know because those sagacious scientists said so?

    If we don’t know what we need to know, then how do we know we should do it? I hope this is not your idea of proving the coherence of the thing.

    3.
    As to whether it is ‘hyperbole in the extreme to refer to the coercion involved, the whole issue is the enforcement of emissions standards. It is not open to question that there is an intention to enforce them. You are engaged in mere evasion, denying the very issue, perhaps in a hope that people won’t notice? If, as you say, it is ‘hyperbole’ to raise the question of the forcible restriction of freedom that is intended, then you should have no qualms about getting rid of any question of enforcement. No? Then it’s not hyberbole is it?

    The river cannot not rise higher than its source. Government cannot be more representative of the people than the people are of themselves. You are begging the question.

    Your entire post is one of denial, personal argument, and assuming what is in issue: a veritable amalgam of fallacies.

    Come on folks! David was the only one who took up my challenge, and he failed miserably. Go on. Have another go. If a woman in China has a baby which would have died before economic liberalisation there, which now can expect to live thanks to the benefits of industrial civilisation, but which would die if the climate change activists got to shut down all that nasty industry they don’t like: how do you weigh that up? How do you decide who in the future should get that benefit? Why? How do you know? How do you demonstrate that the whole belief system is not morally and intellectually incoherent, just like all the other socialist belief systems were?

  6. Justin wrote:
    <i>
    1. ‘We know because the scientists said so.’

    You are merely exhibiting the fallacy of scientism that I discuss
    above. Science cannot supply the value judgments required. In any
    event, what you say is an appeal to absent authority, which is another
    fallacy.</i>
    Learn to argue.  Appeal to authority only works if you are citing a particular authority (in this case scientists) as (say) moral guardians, based on their expertise in science.  I made no appeals to morality.  The scientists can only tell us what is happening and why, they can make no judgments as to what the moral course of action is.  That is our judgment to make – expressed through our governments.

    I repeat – no value judgments were made, your projection of them does not remove the point.

    <i>
    2. ‘We can never know all we need to know.’

    I thought you just said we do know because those sagacious scientists said so?
    If we don’t know what we need to know, then how do we know we should
    do it? I hope this is not your idea of proving the coherence of the
    thing.</i>That's not what science is – it isn't a moral code like religion.  The scientists can give us theories that lead to predictions, then test those predictions against the theories.  Just because scientific theory involves a certain amount of healthy skepticism is no reason to doubt that, right now, our activities are warming the planet and we might not like the consequences (although, again, the theory does not cover the morality or otherwise of inaction).3) The usual libertarian style objections to coercion.  Did you ask to be born?

    You dismissed the other polluting activities that are regulated (and, apparently, without economic holocaust).  Jason raised a valid objection which you've summarily failed to refute.

      

  7. You're being very touchy Justin but my point remains pertinent. What people do when evaluating arguments logically is test the scope and applicability of such arguments to other cases. So I am asking you – would you distinguish or qualify your arguments for the case of CFC bans where we now know in hindsight that they did make a big difference to human wellbeing (less people dying of cancer for one thing) and they did actually make a difference to the ozone layer? Or does your hammer turn everything into nails? Is your approach open to facts or not?

  8. Don, nice post and i completely agree with you that noe can never ask for full certainty on anything when deciding on what action to take even if that involves coercion. As someone is who no sceptic of climate change, but who is in bemusement looking at the calls for a symbolic international rain dance to stop it, I do have to note that your line of thought holds for any point of view: anything people feel uncomfortable about, whether true or false, will create a market for sceptic opinions. This doesnt means that every counter argument that is made against climate change is bad or even ill-motivated. The only way out of it for a scientist is to try and be as objective as he/she can and decide on the basis of the limited information available where the balance of probabilities lies. One of the roles of scientists is then to convey their considered opinion to the rest of society which, after all, has invested huge sums of money in the education of those scientists.

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  10. David

    I know that scientists can’t say what the moral course of action is – I’m the one who said so, remember?

    You are begging the question, which is whether there should be governmental action in the first place. You can’t argue ‘there should be because there should be’: it’s circular.

    Even given the opinions of scientists, the question remains why should not each person’s response be in the choice of each person. You have not given any reason to think that government is more likely to know better, or to achieve a better result: all is in the realm of presumption. To say that people in government should be able to forcibly override everyone else, you will have to fall back to the fallacy of saying that the government is more representative of people than people are of themselves.

    ‘I repeat – no value judgments were made’

    The idea that there should be governmental action involves a value judgment, one that we are agreed is not supplied by science. I repeat, the challenge is to justify the value judgment that government should be able to use force or threats to override everyone else’s freedom to choose their own response. Science does not and cannot provide what you need, so a) your initial appeal to ‘scientists’ is baseless, and b) you still haven’t given any reason to think that government is more likely to know or do better.

    As to the element of coercion, you aren’t even willing to give up electric lighting and playing on your computer voluntarily, but you expect other people, who don’t even agree with your views, to have to give up what produces their food or medicines – under compulsion. And you expect to be able to dismiss the use of compulsion as a quibble? From what tremendous height do you look down on the rest of mankind and decide who shall live or die? Evidently it’s hard to get you to condescend to notice such technical details. Presumably you can leave them to the scientists LOL!

    I challenge you to answer the question.

    Jason
    You cite the benefits of banning CFCs. Do you know what the costs of banning them were? Do you even know what you would need to know, in order to know what the costs of banning CFCs were? If so, what were they and how do you know? And if not, then you are reading off only one side of the ledger aren’t you? You assume that the effects of governmental action were beneficial on balance without even knowing what the benefits of governmental inaction, or adverse effects of governmental action were. If such blanket assumptions were so readily available, there would be no need for freedom: we could just vest all property and freedom in government and hey presto – a better and fairer society.

    In any event, banning CFCs would seem to be somewhat less thoroughgoing than what the Stern and IPCC reports have recommended, which is basically to destroy the energy base of industrial civilisation which is keeping an unprecedented number of people alive and well. Why won’t you join issue?

    I posed a question, and you responded with a question. I asked you to answer mine first, and you insisted I answer yours first. Well you can stop your detouring now. I challenge you to have an honest go at answering the question I have posed, and let us all see what you can come up with.

    Paul
    Since you think that the use of fossil fuels is causing what is in effect a great injustice to other (future) people, and you want government to compulsorily restrict people’s use of them, how come you don’t give up using electric light and playing on your computer? Do you have a car, Paul? When you’re sick, do you buy medicines made using fossil fuels? Do you eat food made with machines that use petrol? From what height do you look down on everyone else who is to be forced to comply with your opinions, when you won’t even comply with them voluntarily? What is this, the philosopher kings? Spare a thought for the human cattle on your animal farm.

  11. Paul – I agree that these kinds of argument don't  mean "that
    every counter argument that is made against climate change is bad or
    even ill-motivated."

    There will always be respectable scientists and other thinkers who have
    evidence and arguments that challenge maintream views. But while these
    people might exist, they might not always be heard.

    When there's a strong demand for an idea from groups with resources at
    their disposal, dissenting experts are more likely to get funding to
    develop and communicate their ideas. Think tanks and activist
    organisations offer jobs, foundations fund university chairs etc.

    Conflict makes a story more newsworthy and the media is likely to cover
    the views of dissenting experts. The journalistic norm of balance means
    that 'both sides' of the debate will get coverage.

    When there's a latent demand amongst the public for an idea, it can
    really take off — even if the interest groups are scraping the bottom
    of the barrel for dissenting experts.

  12. Justin wrote:
    To say that people in government should be able to forcibly override
    everyone else, you will have to fall back to the fallacy of saying that
    the government is more representative of people than people are of
    themselves.

    This sentence is a piece of empty posturing, not an argument.  In fact, it's a fallacy in itself.  You're deliberately and misleadingly confusing the concepts of personal liberty and collective action through representative government as if buying your groceries and defending the country were one and the same thing:  obviously false.

      We vote for our government, most of the time our representatives do what we want.  They aren't some bizarre "other" with inherently evil characteristics.  We ask them to build roads and hospitals and they do it.  We ask them to make laws about guns and they do it.  We ask them to manage our commonly owned assets and they do it.  We vote them out when we have had enough and want someone more representative.  When we've decided we want something done about global warming, they do it (and are doing it).  It's slow, cumbersome, sometimes wasteful and sometimes woeful, mostly adequate and occasionally wonderful.  There are things our governments can and should do on our behalf (make laws and enforce them) that we take for granted as the bedrock of civilized society.  These things do not emerge from chaos.

    If you don't respect the legitimacy of freely elected governments you've got no chance of making a cogent argument.

  13. Don, I think we've run out of disagreements on this. Of course well-funded interest groups can buy opinions and you will always find scientists to act as guns-for-sale if they have enough resources. Justin, you say "Paul
    Since you think that the use of fossil fuels is causing what is in effect a great injustice to other (future) people, and you want government to compulsorily restrict people’s use of them, how come you don’t give up using electric light and playing on your computer? Do you have a car, Paul? When you’re sick, do you buy medicines made using fossil fuels? Do you eat food made with machines that use petrol? From what height do you look down on everyone else who is to be forced to comply with your opinions, when you won’t even comply with them voluntarily? What is this, the philosopher kings? Spare a thought for the human cattle on your animal farm."You can only say this if you've not paid much attention to my previous writings on this site. While I dont deny climate change, I'm not particularly bothered by global warming (and yes, I have a car). There are other environmental problems I worry about more (depletion of common resources in particular). I'm just acknowledging that Don has an obvious point when he says that interest groups will create bogus scientific arguments and that lazy people who want to believe an opinion will buy such bogus arguments. Since Don is not claiming this happens for climate change but is merely quietly suggesting it I dont see what you're getting worked up about. An almost undeniable example of his general point is the debate about Intelligent Design, where evangelicals have started to fish around for scientific guns-for-sale. 

  14. Paul

    ‘You can only say this if you’ve not paid much attention to my previous writings on this site.’ If you are opposed to governmental action on climate change, then I apologise :-)

    Doubtless different corporate interest groups do and will seek results for the selfish interest of their incumbents at the expense of everyone else. And of course government is a corporation too, and so are the NGOs like Greenpeace et al. It is the fact of state-enforced conformity – the compulsory ‘one size fits all’ mentality – which gives rise to this ‘hiring of scientific guns’. It would be unnecessary, and would not arise, if government were not claiming the right to make the relevant decision. This phenomenon is not really about knowledge, it’s about power.

    But why should the issue be decided by state power in the first place? For example, instead of letting parents and students decide for themselves, the state foists a single uniform syllabus on the entire. This then drives various parties to contest what the content is to be. And of course why wouldn’t they? Their money is being confiscated to pay for it. Everything becomes unnecessarily political. Those in favour of state control of education are in effect claiming access to absolute knowledge that justifies the imposition of their view.

    While I would most certainly object if the Puritans got to dictate the contents of the syllabus or the laws, I don’t see how the situation is any better if it’s the Greens or the ‘experts’ on the Board of Studies. Children are not the property of the state or of a political party. If their parents don’t have a right to teach them according to their lights, I don’t see how the state can be in any better position.

    This argument applies to scientific hired guns in the climate change debate. There is no reason why those who want to cut down on the use of certain fuels can’t go right ahead, and those who don’t, don’t. But some people don’t just want to reform themselves, do they? They want to reform everyone else – under compulsion. The case is the same as that which prevailed between religions before Toleration was developed – and the Greens are the new puritans.

    David
    You are starting to arrive at the issue. The problem with a theory that what government can and should do is ‘make laws and enforce them’, is that, taken on its terms, there are no limits on the powers of government. According to this formulation, if a ‘freely elected government’ decided to exterminate a minority, you would have no chance of making a cogent argument against it, on the ground that you would be ‘not respecting its legitimacy’. But that’s not right, is it?

    Something more is needed: a theory of limits on governmental power. This is missing in the debate on climate change, just as it was missing in Russia in 1917. The issue is whether a given governmental action is legitimate in the first place. You can’t just assume it is for no other reason than that the government does it. There is a need for principles to distinguish right from wrong. I’m sure you have them, but you haven’t put them forward.

    ‘We vote for our government, most of the time our representatives do what we want.’

    Voting is compulsory, so there is no evidence for your assertion.

    And is there a box on the ballot paper that says ‘Tick here if you don’t want any of these’? No.

    And what about the rest of the time when even you admit that ‘our representatives’ are not doing what we want? What justifies them then?

    In any event, how do you know it’s true that ‘most of the time’ our representative do what we want? You, and everyone else, have no way of knowing whether that is true because even democratic government provides no process by which a voter can vote for or against a proposed law (referendums excepted). So the evidence that any given governmental act actually ‘represents’ the people is formally non-existent. It is virtually a certainty that any given aact does not represent all the people. Even if it were true that a majority may rightfully rule a minority – which gives rise to that old Hitler problem, doesn’t it? – still our system provides no way of knowing that a majority is *in fact* in favour of any given governmental act.

    You are still in the realm of unevidenced presumption, and continuing to argue in a circle. You are also tending to confirm the suspicion that, if governmental action on climate change required destroying the energy base of civilisation (which according to the UN it does), and this in turn required human death, suffering and deprivation on a grand scale, there is nothing in your theory of government to protect those people against it. This is precisely my point.

    However if as you say the legitimacy of government making any given decision comes from the fact that each person wants it, then there can be no objection to letting each person decide what they want. No need for government to impose a ‘one size fits all’ on the whole population. This would have the advantage that everyone in the whole population would get to decide what they want, instead of only a majority, and only some of the time. It would have the disadvantage that those who want everyone else to comply with their own opinions, would not be able to force them into it, which is as it should be.

    ***

    So the result is, no-one has been able to show that he knows what he would need to know, in order to know that coercion is justified as a response to the issue of climate change.

    QED.

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