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Plagues of Denial

Why can’t the leaders see the obvious problems as they come?

There are certain things we see coming, and, this being 2020, things we didn’t see coming. Until an event actually comes to pass, it’s easy enough to think it may or may not.

An example will help. The Civil War.

For the decades before the war, there was a lot of effort made on both sides of the horror of slavery. Slaves struggled and sometimes freed themselves. They were captured and sent back, or they kept their freedom and worked to free others. Some folks agitated for emancipation. Some manumitted in their wills, others upon inheritance.

But the talk of disunion wasn’t a novelty come the Civil War. It had been seen coming. But still, it did come.

For decades, then, you had the slave states seeing this thing coming. They chose to let it come, and indeed they inaugurated it in attempting to cast off the bond of the Union.

Another example. The Revolutionary War. Again, Britain surely saw that risk, and yet they continued to press with taxation, with bad choices.

I’m sure there are more unseen inevitabilities than seen, but these aren’t hiding. These governments and parties are buying advertising space on their own foreheads. The ads read: “I know it’s coming, but I’m pressing on.”

Denial doesn’t tell the whole story. They know what’s coming. They are the reason it’s coming. They are what creates the conditions. Yet they do not stop or change. We have enough reporting that they’re aware of what they’re doing on some level, so it’s not full denial.

It’s more of a socially-constructed denial. That appearing weak, or making any move to change the course or ease the transition, or to admit to themselves the reality, would… this is where I struggle. The most concise image still is that of Wile E. Coyote. They don’t want to look down. They don’t want to fall. But the farther they go past the cliff, the farther the drop. It’s quite disturbing to watch. The farther down the path the naked emperor parades, the more who see him naked, until that one boy pipes up.

Would it not be better to turn around at the gate of the palace, fire the tailors, put on some trousers? Would it not be better to admit to the inevitable, to change and get ahead of it to be able to smooth the transition?

There are those who did that. Who restored the dignity they or their forebearers had stolen from their fellow men. Who quit their redcoated loyalist ways to become unionists. And there are some in the various coming crises who also do work to mend first, rather than to wait for the forces of nature to rend.

Perhaps it is all in the design of those who seek leadership and power that they cannot lead in crisis. That’s the stuff of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—the notion that they in the established order cannot bring about anything but crises, and that those who rise up to meet the crisis will supplant them.

But I don’t believe that, not entirely. It lets them off too easily. They are positioned to do exactly what they believe they cannot: to lead.

The governors who opened too fast, who have failed to heed the obvious warnings, they are still in a position to lead. It is not that they are incapable. It’s that they won’t. The system wasn’t designed to, sure. But that they won’t change it as they see the world change before them, that’s a damn shame.

The best analogy that presents itself is that of machine learning. These face recognition systems, trained on biased data, cannot properly recognize some faces. It is the same with those in power, scientific and otherwise, and their failures. The machine learning system, were it articulate, would likely admit its limitations, though. It would seem that a first step toward change would be convincing those in leadership positions the need to look at the world differently than they have. But so far, the only way that happens is after a crisis, not while it is on the horizon.

(To be clear, the list is broad. It includes social media companies who dragged their feet on dealing with hardcore hatemongers on their platforms. It includes police departments and governments that too long ignored or promoted brutality. It includes the reckoning that will someday come for the real estate industry, not just for segregation, but for being a horrid, broken mess with all sorts of crime and misery at work. It includes the climate crisis, and pollution more broadly. The gun lobby. All these myriad problems in society, all known, all coming to heads on their own timelines, but few if any actually dealt with by those in the place to do so.)

Happy Independence Day! On a personal note, my book now has a lower price, at least for the month of July.

Understanding Climate Skeptics

Basic Argument

Let’s start with three types of skeptics:

  1. Not sure that there’s climate change at all.
  2. Not sure that humans cause any climate change.
  3. Not sure how much climate change humans cause.

To get it out of the way, the type-1 skeptics probably just need to take a hard look at the temperature data.  If they don’t understand trends, that’s something to teach them, but it isn’t a skeptical point, it’s simple ignorance.

Now here’s a basic argument (not for climate change itself):

  1. The atmosphere exists as gas on the earth’s surface.
  2. The atmosphere’s behavior is called the climate.
  3. A change in the composition of the atmosphere could cause its behavior to change.
  4. Humans could provide [2].
  5. Therefore, it’s possible for humans to cause Climate Change (ie, the actual, described phenomena formerly known as Global Warming).

I’m guessing that people won’t really argue with the first two.

The third premise, it shouldn’t take very long to concede.  If, for example, a massive meteor hit the earth, the dust kicked up would change the climate.

The fourth premise is all that’s really at issue.  Some amount of the skeptics of types [2] believe that the fourth premise is false.

I believe that’s simply a lack of imagination on their part.  For example, nuclear winter is a climate change that humans could certainly cause.  That’s a scenario where large amounts of smoke and soot would cause the earth to cool due to sunlight being blocked.

Similarly, the depletion of atmospheric ozone is attributable to humans, and companies were able to cope with abandoning ozone-depleting chemicals.

So, for the type-2 skeptics, a question:  How much human climate activity does it take for humans to produce a mid-to-long term change in the climate of the earth?

In the second section, though, I’m going to examine why this section may have no real point to it, and why the question to type-2 skeptics may be misplaced.

Belief or Feeling

Often the skeptical behavior has nothing to do with belief.  The position of the skeptic is thus cleaved from the position of the denier.  The denier says not that they are unsure, but rather that they are sure.

Let’s say we’re having lunch and I bring my lunch from home.  I bring in soup every day, but today I brought in not-soup.  I open my vacuum flask and pour myself a cup of not-soup.  It’s not that I’m skeptical that it’s soup.  I’m denying it’s soup at all.

You say it’s soup, and you argue, “look it’s liquid broth with flavor and it’s got some noodles and chunks of vegetables,” but I am not skeptical, I’m just denying it.

Worse, I say, “you’ve watched me bring soup every day for the past ten years.  I know soup, and this is not-soup.”

The best thing at that point, is to let it go.  I’m probably pissed off about the fact that ten years went by and I didn’t know and at home I’ve got all those damn spices and bullion and ladles and I’ve committed myself to a horrible soup world now, even the smug shape of the soup cans taunt me, the soft bubbling in the pot is a funeral dirge.

But I digress.

Point is, if you want to reach those people, maybe the best tack isn’t to come at them head-on, but to try some flanking maneuvers.

Flanking the Deniers

The first way to flank them would be to let them save face.  Half the battle in most negative behavioral situations is accepting the problem exists.  That’s true for most substance abuse and addiction treatment: the person needs to actually recognize they need to change.  But it’s true for most things, anyway.  Until you notice your soup is… until you notice that your shoelace is untied, you won’t tie it.

But it’s important that people not feel trapped by their past.  It’s respectable and proper to update their positions along with their OS and web browser, for security reasons.

How do you let them feel comfortable in the change?  That’s tricky.  Often the reason they started eating soup was because their friends and family believed that way.  If they showed up for a meal carrying a sandwich, they worry they will insult their people.  But the alternative, creating a special soup bowl with a false bottom to hide their belief in global warming sandwiches won’t help either.

What will help is that people around them, not necessarily close, but close enough, are more vocal about their belief in climate change.

Another way to flank denial is the small taste.  That is, let them take the soup for a spin without committing to it.

In the test drive, someone else holds the belief and asks for input.  Something like, “I’ve been thinking about sandwiches lately, and I’m trying to figure out how to keep the toast from getting soggy from the tomato.”  The denier doesn’t have to like sandwiches to think about this problem.  They can just consider the problem in absence of needing to identify with the position.

Well, I’m off to lunch.