In many households tonight, we’ll be sitting down with loved ones with whom our political opinions, and perception of the facts, are at odds. In the interests of family peace and in the spirit of the holiday, here’s a dose of humility.
We may have our convictions on complex technical issues of public importance, such as climate change. Those convictions may even be correct. But ultimately, our positions on these issues come down to trust and elite signalling.
It’s possible that some of you out there are climate scientists that have stayed current with the peer-reviewed literature. But for the rest of us, our opinion on this matter is dependent on someone we trust telling us what the scientific consensus is. Maybe for you it’s the Sierra Club or Al Gore, or because it’s the opposite of what the oil industry says. For me, when The Economist — a source not partial to environmental panics — was convinced about 10 years ago, it finally routed my initial skepticism.*
Someone who’s chosen the wrong entity to trust — perhaps because they share values on a completely unrelated issue — can always find reassurance by being presented with an undue emphasis on remaining skeptics, exaggerating either their numbers or their credentials, or focus on data points that don’t support the theory.
I don’t mean to excuse those elites who are doing the signaling. A legislator that focuses on these sectors, or a national reporter trying to cover the debate, has access to actual experts and a duty to educate themselves in an open-minded way. But let’s spare a little empathy for the denier across the dinner table.
*For the record, my support for reducing carbon emissions extends beyond what a magazine told me 10 years ago. For example: I’m scientifically literate enough to know the theory of the underlying mechanism is plausible; the circumstantial evidence I’ve seen seems persuasive; the likelihood of it happening, and the seriousness of the consequences, warrant action even without absolute certainty; and the externalities involved in fossil fuel consumption, aside from climate change, make a strong case for curbing it.