Climate Tribes

A photograph of James Lovelock.

James Lovelock. I don’t care what football team he supports. 

One of the most depressing aspects of the ‘Climate Debate’ is ease with which discussions become tribal rather than rational. This is understandable, and possibly inevitable, but I hate it!

I was reminded of this by the glee with which The Register’s global-warming-denial correspondent Andrew Orlowski, reported that James Lovelock, (currently publicising his next book) had ‘changed his mind’ on Global Warming. Orlowski seeks to portray Lovelock’s comments as agreeing with someone who says Global Warming isn’t a threat.

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened.”

This puts Lovelock in the same territory as scientists such as MIT’s Professor Richard Lindzen.

“A doubling of CO2, by itself, contributes only about 1°C to greenhouse warming,” Prof Lindzen explained [PDF].

Personally, I arrived at my view on Global Warming after reading widely and thinking about the basic science. I am affected by views of particular individual scientists, but not overwhelmingly so. Despite many uncertainties, I think the basic facts are well enough established.

The Orlowskian analysis is pernicious. It invites a tribal response, but I will not give it.

  • Supporting Queen’s Park Rangers because your friends support them makes sense.
  • Supporting Queen’s Park Rangers because Jamie Oliver supports them also makes sense in a funny way.
  • Not supporting Queen’s Park Rangers because your friends support them also makes sense.

But adopting a position on the issue of Global Warming based on the opinions of friends or celebrities is bonkers.

If I allow myself to become embroiled in this kind of tribalism then I allow others to categorise me as being a member of a ‘Pro-Global Warming’ tribe – even though I am (of course) ‘anti’ Global Warming. Paradoxically, from a purely tribal perspective:

  • ‘Good news’ is when ‘something bad happens’, such as a report of thinning sea ice: this is ‘good’ because it supports the Global Warming tribe’s stance.
  • ‘Bad news’ is when ‘something good happens’, such as a report of no thinning of sea ice: this is ‘bad’ because it supports ‘our’ opponents stance.
  • Stupid things said my fellow tribe members reflect badly on the tribe – and stupid things said by an opposing tribe reflect badly on them.

From a rational perspective, we just need less stupid things to be said on all sides. While tribal dynamics are interesting from a sociological, anthropological, psychological or  political viewpoint – for a rationalist, they are a pointless distraction.

Concerning, Lovelock’s comments, I am glad that he now has a better understanding of climate dynamics, but few others thought we were on the eve of destruction, Our Climate system is unlikely to lead to disasters next year or the year after. But we could already be irrevocably committed to a path which will bring big trouble in coming decades or centuries.

4 Responses to “Climate Tribes”

  1. tribalscientist Says:

    I don’t think you can get out of tribalism quite so easily, unfortunately.

    Rational thinking doesn’t form a clear dichotomy with tribal thinking. Nor is tribal thinking merely a replacement for a rationalist approach. Rather, our way of forming beliefs (i.e., our epistemology) emerges from a mish-mash of socially-inspired values, heuristics and other thinking tools which are applied variously to a range of contexts. While processes associated with critical thinking allow us to step back and take a careful look at our belief formation, ironically it iself occurs within a social context.

    Our tribal behaviours are often hard to see in ourselves. Yet as we grow up, we all subtly inherit values and skills from various role models. We each might believe we form opinions purely by rational thinking, but there is a personal history we’re inclined to be blind to that informs how we chose and interpreted those sources. Even science is in essence a tribal practice – albeit, a useful one.

    My main concern is this comment: ‘While tribal dynamics are interesting from a sociological, anthropological, psychological or political viewpoint – for a rationalist, they are a pointless distraction.’

    I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think understanding the social forces that give rise to knowledge is the best, if not the only, way to promote the benefits of science in the community. If being ‘rational’ means thinking you’re somehow immune to such social thinking, I fear you’d only risk becoming indistinguishable from any others in the community who believe the same.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Dear Tribal Scientist,

    I can see we are going to have to agree to disagree.

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I have previously written that depending on one’s point of view, it is quite easy to consider sociology or anthropology as being >muchis< happening to the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth. And what will happen.

    The tribal groupings around this topic tend to make people not acknowledge data that is 'damaging' to their tribes views and to ignore the nonsense spoken by their own. As I said at the start, "this is probably inevitable but I hate it". Just because there are tribal aspects to scientific endeavour does not mean that everything about science has to be tribal.

    Peace and love


  3. What Climate Sceptics are Sceptical About: Part 1 « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] written recently about the difficulty of communicating across ‘tribal’  boundaries, I guess I should take this a lesson in the difficulties […]

  4. What Climate Sceptics are Sceptical About: Part 3 « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] 1. James Lovelock is not a climate scientist of any note, and I really don’t think that his personal opinions count for anything. I don’t believe things just because other people say they believe things, and neither should anyone else. I listen to people, reflect on what I have heard, and consider how it affects my own views. Lovelock has changed his mind, ‘Great’. When a person has changed their mind – that means they have learned something’. I discussed his comments on my blog here. […]

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