Jonathan Chait of Common Dreams raises a good question: why do Republicans disagree with climate scientists more at a time when climate scientists are accruing new terrifying evidence that human activities are truly responsible for warming the atmosphere?
Last year, the National Journal asked a group of Republican senators and House members: “Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems?” Of the respondents, 23% said yes, 77% said no . . . So, the magazine asked the question again last month. The results? Only 13% of Republicans agreed that global warming has been proved.
As the evidence for global warming gets stronger, Republicans are actually getting more skeptical. . . . How did it get this way? The easy answer is that Republicans are just tools of the energy industry. It’s certainly true that many of them are. . . But the financial relationship doesn’t quite explain the entirety of GOP skepticism on global warming. For one thing, the energy industry has dramatically softened its opposition to global warming over the last year, even as Republicans have stiffened theirs.
The truth is more complicated — and more depressing: A small number of hard-core ideologues (some, but not all, industry shills) have led the thinking for the whole conservative movement . . .Conservatives defer to a tiny handful of renegade scientists who reject the overwhelming professional consensus.
In other words, the thinking process of most Republicans is worse than random. How is it that more evidence for global warming makes Republicans less convinced? Chait’s article suggests Republicans are merely being obstinate. There is a deeper explanation, however, and it has to do with the multiple functions of language. First, start with the assumption that denying global warming is bad science. Start there, but don’t end the inquiry there. Continue the analysis by treating the denial of global warming as dogma.
Dogma wears two hats. First of all, dogmatic words can convey literal meaning that often flies in the face of the evidence. Consider religious dogma, for instance. That Mary was a “virgin” is nonsensical; it is even self-disproving. So why say such a thing? The answer relates to dogma’s second function: dogma facilitates bonding.
The assertion of group-approved-nonsense looks and sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but uttering it loudly in the presence of one’s group proves one’s loyalty to those insiders. The more nonsensical the dogma is, the tighter the bond it is capable of generating among those willing to utter it. Consider, for instance, the correlation of the absurdity of the dogma and the strength of bonding in Unitarians (less absurd, less bonded) and Mormons (more absurd, more bonded).
Uttering officially-approved nonsense in front of one’s group identifies one as a bona fide member of that group. Uttering absurd things is a display that one desires to be a member of that group so incredibly much that one is willing to utter the sorts of things that will trigger social ridicule from learned outsiders. It’s a social version of the peacock’s tail–a display much like the the types of things Darwin pointed out in his theory of sexual selection. It’s saying “I am willing to pay the price of saying this idiotic thing in order to prove my loyalty to the group.” It’s a group “badge.” See here , here and here. There are non-verbal versions of dogma too. Letting one’s pants droop to expose underwear can be a strong sign of group loyalty on the streets; piercing sensitive parts of one’s body facilitates bonding among the like-minded in high schools.
Therefore, uttering nonsensical dogma is not primarily about conveying the truth of the matter asserted. Rather, it’s about sending out a sonar signal in order to identify allies and enemies. It is a herding mechanism.This deep need to be accepted by a group is so deeply wired into humans that, in most people, it even overcomes the urge to follow evidence where it leads. Unfortunately, the literal meaning of the dogma doesn’t entirely dissipate. Therefore, we have lots of Republicans who still refuse to act on the threat of global warming.
To summarize, Mary is a virgin, there are three person in one God, dead people continue to live and, of course, global warming is being dis-proved by new evidence that actually proves it. Not really, of course. None of these things is true. But the utterance of such claims works as a powerful drug among those of us who intensely crave the comfort of a group (interesting note: scientists appear to be less groupish, more independent, and thus less susceptible to dogmatic utterances).
Raising one’s hand to swear allegiance to scientific nonsense is usually done in full view, but such it actually functions like a secret handshake.
If you want to feel the glow of acceptance by a big group of Republicans, all you’ve got to do is say the magic phrase: “Global Warming has not been proven.” Say it just often enough to piss off Democrats. Don’t say it too often or too loudly, or even the Republicans will think that you’re wierd. With those magic words denying global warming, you’ll get smiles and pats on the back from total strangers who will buy you drinks and regale you with stories about how they outwitted stupid Democrats; they’ll laugh at your jokes and they’ll tell you that you’re smart. As long as you keep uttering “Global Warming is hype” (or “Abortion is the same thing as murder” or “Government is incapable of doing anything other than wasting money”), you’ll continue to be invited to continue basking in the warmth of all those new friendships. And as long as you bask in the warmth of all of those inanities, aggregate power will continue to accrue to the intellectually misguided group. Bonding is powerful–it enables groups to accompish many things that its members, acting individually, could never accomplish.
Here’s an experment that demonstrates what I’m claiming. Take a Republican off to the side and talk to him one-on-one. Be cordial and non-threatening. He’ll eventually settle down and you’ll find him somewhat reasonable on many topics. Then allow him to wander back to his group of fellow Republicans and listen to the dogma start to fly again–the same guy who (minutes ago) was starting to make sense (when it was just the two of you) is now spouting nonsense like he’s absolutely sure of himself. The same thing happens to those many church-goers who pronounce virgin birth to be a certainty, but only while in the company of other church-goers. On their own, they find the idea of virgin birth to be not interesting (how can that be?) or even nonsensical. I’ve seen this over and over in my conversations with devout Christians, including several priests. Over my lifetime, several priests have admitted to me that they are agnostics. Yet when the lights come on and the curtain goes up, they hit that pulpit without a doubt in the world.
So, how do you get people to recognize what they are in a group trance? How do you get them to relax about the need to bond and to start following the evidence where it leads? I haven’t the faintest idea.
If you’ve got any ideas, speak up now, so we won’t have to wait until 2008 . . .
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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