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.1 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".
- " 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."~RealClimate