This is a transcript of the first half of Andy West’s podcast, which can be heard here, for those like and keep it simpleme who prefer reading to listening. (I’ll try and complete it in the next few days.) Chris is a good interlocutor, in that he obliges Andy to begin at the beginning, but to understand the nitty gritty of Andy’s studies of climate change attitudes versus religion you need to go to his articles at Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. site, beginning here:
Chris Balkaran: One entry [at Climate Etc.] in which I was immediately drawn to, was by Andy West where he described what is known as catastrophic climate change culture, or CCCC. And what he does in this article is talk about climate change as a cultural narrative. Some of Andy’s research shows countries with high religiosity such as India and Pakistan, also have a correlation to a strong belief in climate change as not only human-caused, but that it will lead to catastrophic actions, and this was truly fascinating for me, and I wanted to have Andy on, to talk a little bit more about climate change as a cultural narrative. So here’s our conversation. It was truly fascinating, truly interesting. Let me know what you think in the comments below at my website at the strong-and-free-podcast-dot-com, and let me know what you think of my conversation with Andy.
Andy, thank you so much for joining me. I have been drawn to your articles on Climate Etc. on Judith Curry’s website. But before we get into that, I want you to introduce yourself a little bit, tell me about yourself, your academic background, and what drew you to discussing climate change more broadly?
Andy West: OK Thank you for having me on the podcast first of all. I didn’t come to this domain at all by anything to do with climate. I have a background in physics and electronics technology as it happens; I have a degree in physics and I’ve spent decades in the embedded electronics industry. But throughout that entire time, I’ve had some quite passionate hobbies, of which evolutionary studies was one, and that sort of started with biological evolution, group selection, and from group selection to cultural evolution. And from there into how cultural evolution works, how it fans out into social psychology – that kind of thing. And my special interest, if you want to call it that, is how cultures germinate, how they expand, what are their main mechanics, what behaviours they impose if you like, on populations. They do have a sort of life of their own; they’re not alive, they’re neither sentient not agential, but… they do have a life of their own, and that life is what I wanted to know more about and what I’ve been investigating for a long time.
It so happened, quite a number of years ago, I think it would be about the beginning of 2007, and at that time I had no particular interest in the climate change thing, I simply took the narratives that it had at face value. I didn’t really think about them one way or another. I had no reason to disbelieve them or believe them. It just wasn’t a big thing in my life if you like. But then on somebody’s recommendation I watched Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” and it struck me immediately that this was a cultural narrative, absolutely packed full of the kind of things that cultural narratives typically have, and which I’d been mapping in other cultures for quite some time. And although that was only the beginning, I thought, well, you know, quite a lot of people who are inclined to a bit of showmanship if you like, may over-egg the pudding a lot on those kind of things, and maybe it’s not indicative that the deeper topic had a culture attached to it. But that is what set me off, and I thought: you know, this is so typical of cultural narratives, and its factual content was minimalistic, shall we say, compared to its emotive persuasion. And it didn’t really matter whether the factual content was true or false. What matters is if it’s overwhelmed by existential emotive content, then it is the latter that will gain the leverage.
So that’s what set me off, so I then had to learn a lot about what was going on over the years, and very fortunately, as I started to make some purchase – I kind of had to nibble away at the problem from lots of different angles, and it did eventually become clear to me that in the public domain, whatever is happening in the physical climate and whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and whatever is happening in climate science, which is argued a lot – but there’s an orthodox climate science, there are climate sceptics – whatever they think and they’re arguing about… independently of all that, there is indeed a culture. And although it’s taken me a number of years, by circumstantial evidence, nibbling away at the characteristics, and eventually being able…
I was quite inspired by Dan Kahan, who’s a social psychologist. I took part in his cultural cognition site for quite a while. It’s quite an obscure site, it doesn’t have a lot of visitors but it has some fantastic social psychology on there. I would recommend it except that it ceased operation, I think at the very end of 2018. And what I really liked about it was that he did this social psychology on line and he explained his ideas on line. And he was busy studying cultural trends in America, including climate change, so I really followed up on that. And as it turns out, America is pretty much an exception to everywhere else, because of its huge polarisation between Republicans and Democrats. In every other country, it’s different. But at the time it didn’t really matter, it was just the methods, and I was able to leverage some of his data directly and he gave me the idea to use public surveys in ways that I hadn’t really thought to use them before, and that was actually a kind of a big step up for me. So I’ve no formal qualifications in this, but many years of burrowing away at the thing, and a long interest.
CB: Andy, you make some really interesting points there. The first is that after watching Al Gore’s documentary you noticed that it was a cultural narrative. I wanted to ask you specifically for a definition of what you mean by ‘cultural narrative’. And if there are any examples that you can compare the climate change narrative to, in other countries or other situations around the world, where this resembles or is identically similar to another cultural narrative.
AW: Sure. I guess before we talk about the cultural narrative, I should just have a few words about ‘culture’. So what I mean about culture is not – I once read a document, I can’t remember what it was now, on some academic site, that had 300 definitions of culture. It’s a word we use a lot. So when I talk about it, the particular angle that I’m covering, it might be better to think of it as a ‘cultural entity’. So I’m not talking about a night at the opera or traditional basket-weaving or something you inherit from your traditions or society exactly, although it can include that as well. What I am talking about is best thought of as a ‘bounded entity’ that has a developmental trajectory of its own. That’s what I mean by a culture. And the most familiar example that most people would be able to put their hand on, is a religion. It doesn’t mean that everything on the surface about climate change is the same as everything on the surface about religion. They’re clearly very different. But the pertinent fact is that the mechanisms that drive them are identical. The surface characteristics vary a lot.
So, to give examples of other cultural narratives, then we’re quite familiar with them in religion, and if you pick the Christian variant – I don’t know what your listenership is – but if we pick a Christian variant, then the Day of Judgement will be very familiar to most people, and the potential salvation from that Day of Judgement if you perform the right arcane actions, whatever they may be – an absence of sin – and then you get salvation, you get beamed up to Heaven or whatever. I’m not religious I should say. Whatever is supposed to happen to you to get resurrected or rescued.
Of course, religions around the world have different interpretations of all this, there can be very different religions. But they all work by the same mechanisms. They aren’t different in how they work inside our heads, in how they work inside society. And cultural narratives of that type, and indeed extremist politics – ordinary politics is quite rational – but extremist politics can form a cultural entity as well. But they all have cultural narratives. They typically have an existential element to them. So: “We’re doomed because ofsomething.” And: “We can be saved if we do something else.” And they will be extremely emotional, existential. They don’t speak to people’s rationality. There may be some rational dressing around it, but they emotively convince people.
CB: That’s really fascinating because it strikes people on the emotive level and we know that – even in my science biology class we know that when you activate the amygdala in the brain it will override the neo-frontal cortex, the rational side of the brain. Do you think that cultural narratives are as powerful as they are because of that emotive narrative – the ability to rewire the brain and think about something in an irrational way and make it seem rational?
AW: Absolutely. You’ve hit the nail right on the head there. They do literally bypass rationality. And the reason that they can do that, is that these narratives have co-evolved with the actual development of our brain. So the narratives and our brain architecture fit hand in glove, and they’re there for a purpose. The purpose is to hold the cultural group together, ‘cos the only way – I guess you know from evolution, groups survive better than individuals – and therefore group selection is a thing. There’s a lot of argument about the relative importance of group selection versus gene selection and so on, but it’s there from an evolutionary perspective to hold the group together. And it’s more important that the group holds together than it is to have anything to do with truth. If you have a thousand people and you don’thave culture, you have a thousand opinions. If you have a thousand people and you have a cultural narrative, they’re all literally singing off the same hymn sheet – which phrase actually comes from holding the same brand of culture together. And it does that by bypassing rationality.
And not only that, it has to be false to do it. It’s in the job description. You cannot have anything as one of these cultural narratives that is anywhere near reality. Because if you have something that is too near reality, it can be challenged – through logic, it can be challenged. Someone can look out at the real world and say: “Hey! It’s not true.” There’s a sense in which the further distanced from reality it is, the more it can bypass everything and just say – it’s so no matter what. So you have to – this God thing – the further distanced God is from anything that can happen, the better it is [for the culture]. And in fact religions have always had a weak side when they attempt to use those narratives to explain something, like how the planets orbit each other, or whatever. This goes wrong when someone invents a telescope. But the core narrative, such as “God exists, he’s everywhere, he’s in everything” – it’s unchallengeable. It’s complete nonsense, but it’s unchallengeable.
And so that typically is a feature of cultural narratives. The more untrue they are, the more unchallengeable they are, and that is why in the climate case, the apocalypse and the salvation – it does not agree with mainstream science, let alone anything sceptical. And this is why I call it Catastrophic Climate Change Culture. It’s the “catastrophic” that is used freely in narrative from prime ministers, presidents, high ministers, UN elite, and this term “catastrophe” or equivalents to it, is not only used in the sense of an apocalyptic event, it’s used in the sense of a certain event. But there is no mainstream science that says that if you don’t decarbonise the world tomorrow or in ten, thirty years, whatever it might be, that there will be a certain, global, catastrophe. In fact, the IPCC Working Group – the physical science is not my thing – but just to say, in terms of: ‘Does it contradict the cultural narrative?’ Well certainly. If you look at the IPCC Working Group papers and say: ‘OK, there’s going to be this much temperature or whatever, what is the consequence?’ Well the consequence, as quite a number of people, environmentalists like Bjorn Lomborg or climate scientists like Roger Peilke Jnr say… Well, according to the IPCC the median is like a large recession by 2070. This is not an apocalypse, or anything like it. For instance, the recession we’re likely to get from Covid is probably going to be a lot bigger. So advocating that we can and should sacrifice everything for this apocalypse, is what gives it that cultural flavour. It’s not appealing to rationality, it’s appealing to emotion. And it’s doing that to hold the cultural group together. Because they have a life of their own. It’s irrelevant to the stated purpose of the narrative, the realpurpose of the narrative is only to hold the group together.
And so that feature has emerged in the public regarding climate change, just as it’s emerged for multiple religions and some extremist political brands and so on and so forth. What actually is happening in the climate, is irrelevant. Maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad or whatever, and if it’s bad we need to think about it rationally. The worst thing you can have in charge, is a culture. ‘Cos cultures spend all their time trying to prolong themselves. And to do that they stay as far away from any solution to their stated purpose as it is possible to get.
CB: As you talk about the cultural narrative – you know I just nerd out and geek out at the ancient worlds and think about all the megaliths that were created – and as you talk about cultural narrative I see the parallel, because when a lot of cultures build these massive structures there is this idea that not only is it a testament to their gods and to the afterlife and the spiritual world, but in a way these megaliths are built to sustain the order of society as a whole. And it convinces people to act, and undertake a work that is potentially deadly, is pushing people well beyond their physical limits, but it’s in the name of a bigger cultural narrative. And so I just saw that parallel there, as you were speaking about the purpose of a cultural narrative and how it talks to our emotional brain.
CB: What are some of the defining characteristics of the cultural narrative when it’s presented with science? And in the face of science, what are the similarities across different cultural narratives? Especially with climate change, when we say: “Here’s the science. Help me understand where you see that there’s an apocalypse happening in thirty years.” How does that relate to other cultural narratives?
AW: Well, cultural narratives will do everything they can to avoid rationality and fact. And because they bypass our rationality, and because we’ve evolved with them, and we evolved with them for the particular purpose of holding the group together, in the face of uncertainty (because let’s face it, everything used to be uncertain) to hold the group together in the face of uncertainty, it’s critical that you police the narrative. So there are policing mechanisms, throughout culture. So it’s another way to recognise culture: “Is the narrative being policed?” If people dissent from the narrative, are they reprimanded? Do they face emotional pressure? Are they thrown out of the peer group? Are they downgraded in status if they question the narrative? If they applaud the narrative, are they raised up, are they promoted?
And so the way that the narrative deals with science is that it basically corrupts it. It’s like a war. Science is an anti-cultural device, because it deals in reality. So any time science tries to put a peg in the ground that will pin culture down, culture can come up underneath it and sort of saw the bottom of the peg off. Because it biases people. I don’t get into the scientists and the [physical] science, because we don’t have data on them like we have for the public. We have polls that show us that this culture is intrinsic in public attitudes across nations, and it’s measurable in different amounts in every country, depending on various factors. We can’t necessarily show that in [the enterprise of] science, but we do know that it will produce a lot of bias. And so if you look – it deals in corrupting the science, it deals with hiding the science, and it deals with taking the absolute worst point you could push the science to and then going beyond that.
There’s a guy, I forget his name [it’s Caleb Rossiter], an economist I think, who did a little model of this regarding the IPCC, and it’s quite interesting. So at the bottom there’s science, so the Working Group papers have 80% scientists on them – there’s a lot of people say that the IPCC is into groupthink to start with, but forget all that, say: ‘This is the rock solid bottom, it’s science’. Then above the Working Group papers is the Summary for Policymakers, and it’s a different set of documents that’s theoretically based on the science, but it only has 20% scientists in, and the other 80% are a mixture of, I dunno, some of them are literally come from green NGOs, or some of them are politicians or… Whatever they are they’re not climate scientists, or even scientists in a lot of cases. So they summarise the science into these documents, that are quite far out from where the science started. And above that you have a summary of the summary, or statements or sound bites which get put to things like the higher echelons of the UN and the UN leadership, and it gets diluted even more. And then the UN puts out these statements, and then the statements get repeated in the press. But the press are part of the public, who already either culturally believe, or are culturally primed at least to believe, that there’s a certain catastrophe coming to us, and then they exaggerate more, and then of course it goes on. Proselytisers in green groups take what they’ve already altered, and they alter it again.
And the thing is, none of this – I’m not saying that anybody in these chains is doing anything deliberately wrong. These people are not lying, they’re believing. And there are millions of them, so you can’t point to – I mean certain actors maybe have a little more influence or whatever – but it’s a process with very many people in it, and it’s a process…
And the same thing happened with eugenics…
via Climate Scepticism
February 9, 2021 at 02:22AM