My wife is a psychologist specializing in obsessive/compulsive disorders. Sometimes she deals with very extreme cases. She is careful not to share names or identifying information with me, but occasionally discusses cases with me on the same basis she might to a roomful of colleagues.
I am struck by the confusion of the cerebral and the visceral in the more extreme cases of OCD, and in that way it reminds me of science denialism. In fact, you could argue that it is exactly the same thing.
A person in the grips of severe OCD will have certain rituals that they perform to avoid certain threats than they have greatly exaggerated in their own minds. An OCD sufferer may, for example, be afraid to touch doorknobs for fear of catching AIDS. Even though it is likely that nobody has ever gotten AIDS from a doorknob, and even though one can get the patient to acknowledge that this is the case, the fear of AIDS-infected doorknobs has been so firmed up in the patient’s mind that rational evidence to the contrary will not change the doorknob-avoidant behavior.
The treatment, as I understand it, is threefold. Convincing the patient that doorknob use is less detrimental than doorknob avoidance is necessary but it is not sufficient.
Getting the rational understanding is only the beginning.
The second step is to get the patient to actually touch doorknobs, despite their fear: this is the phase where the rational side stops cowering under a virtual table, stands up, and confronts the irrational.
The third step is to actually calm down about doorknobs through becoming reaccustomed to them, this happens purely at the emotional, limbic level. The cure is never perfect; a person who has been in the grips of such severe emotional gridlock will never be entirely comfortable around doorknobs, but can learn to tolerate the discomfort and act normally around doors.
What strikes me about this, is that there has to be cerebral collaboration in the development of the fear in the first place. After all, typically the person has never been injured by a doorknob and clearly has not contacted AIDS. The fear reaction must have been mediated through a thought process, albeit not a very clear-headed one. It is the sort of thing you might come up with in a dream, an AIDS-vector doorknob, not something you would take seriously in the light of day. But you aren’t fifteen and unusually anxious. (I hope. If you are, you have my sympathies and best wishes. I’ve been there myself.)
Irene says the way it works is that the anxiety comes first. Then the cerebrum does what it does, which is to interpret the information it has at hand. It tries to evaluate where the anxiety comes from, and latches onto something random. (“That doorknob I just touched! Could it be contaminated with a disease?”) If the attribution is sufficiently satisfactory, (“I know what to do. I’ll never touch such a filthy doorknob again!”) the cerebral process is reinforced.
Modern society is deeply disturbed. Anxiety prevails everywhere. People want to explain their anxiety and discomfort in the face of unprecedented wealth and comfort, exactly the things they were raised to desire and work for.
Most of us (except those few who still think things are going swimmingly) settle on social and historical forces to blame. Some of us are less sophisticated than others, and develop social theories that are less informed by history, geography, and (dare I say it) biology, chemistry and physics. We develop blame attachments that have something in common with the doorknobs. It’s Exxon! It’s the United Nations! It’s the Gringos! It’s the Mexicans! It’s Monsanto! It’s ACORN! etc. etc.
Look, there is such a thing as a dirty doorknob. I don’t think any of the groups mentioned are entirely blameless or harmless. They’re just collections of people doing their best to get by, sometimes cutting corners or ignoring their own flaws.
Amazingly, a group that finds physical climatology (the discipline, not the process) a key factor in their conspiracy fantasy is emerging.
Our heads are spinning in trying to deal with this.
Climate science finds itself in an exceedingly awkward position as it is being used as a proxy for the battle between these two increasingly mutually hostile and suspicious tendencies. You constantly see talk among our symparthizers of climate scientists “standing up for the cause”. Usually the suggestion is complete nonsense.
The cause of the field, that which unites the members, is simple enough. Climatologists want to be left alone to study the stuff that fascinates us. Many of us want other things, but that is the main cause which unites us.
Unfortunately climatology is obligated to explain the extent to which plausible scenarios over the next few decades could lead to severe consequences. We would like to fulfill this obligation and be left alone after the fact, since most of the work in coping will be done by others (except in case of geoengineering).
The correct thing for society to do is to take our advice into account and develop policies that reasonably account for the risks and costs associated with this circumstance. It becomes a problem in energy engineering, social policy and economics.
But people are terrified of the implications. Capitalism always operates on thin margins and does not like large disruptions. Yet we collectively must impose various large disruptions on ourselves. This feeds into various fears and hostilities, including, in America, the paranoia and racism deployed toward Obama.
So we are being door-knobbed. Significant numbers of people believe ridiculous things about us. The Murdoch press and a few likeminded media stir this up. We become a target of habitual fear and paranoia.
The mainstream press feels compelled to tell “both sides” of the story. Are we a deadly AIDS-infected doorknob, or just an ordinary, imperfect but functional doorknob? The truth must lie somewhere between.
It has gone too far. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. Except we have no clue what to do.
People like Fleck and Yulsman and Revkin tell us our cause is hopeless, that people simply do not make decisions based on evidence, and that so the windmill/jobs program approach is the best we can do. This is perfectly silly advice because it does not actually account for the interests of the scientific community at all. We do not need to argue for emissions cuts. We need to argue for science. Emissions cuts are just a consequence of reason.
Almost every scientist will agree that a carbon policy is much better than no carbon policy, but a carbon policy is not the point of science. The point of science is to discover and report truth, most consequentially in areas where the truth actually matters to the health of civilization.
When an individual has an anxiety disorder, the first thing to do is to work around the anxiety and get the person to acknowledge that their anxieties are dysfunctional.
It seems to me that the first step when soicety has an anxiety disorder is to do the same.
The second thing to do is to get them accustomed to the idea that their behavior will have to change. Eventually some healing can happen.
The journalists and PR folk are right that conveying the state of science is insufficient in getting political support for a sound policy, but I am convinced that they are absolutely and demonstrably wrong that it is unnecessary. If we are to behave rationally as a global collective, we sort of have to have some respect for the information that we need to apply our reason to.
The problem is that people grew up in a world where there was no global collective, and the idea threatens them. The fact that practically any reasonable reading of the implications of climatology presents a very clear case for the necessity of global governance connects that fear and hostility to a science.
Those who give us this advice to let it slide, that facts are not relevant, misconstrue our jobs as much as do the people who have the irrational hostility. This tragicomic “climategate” farce illuminates the problem, once you see past the pathetic behavior of the press.
The first step in treating an anxiety disorder is to convince people that their anxieties are irrational and dysfunctional. It’s not enough. But that is the only place we can start.
Update: I am NOT saying that everyone who propagates denialism is actually paranoid; some are ideological difference-splitters who simply cannot believe that the truth might not lie in “the middle” of the extremes they perceive. A few are simply psychopathic, though I think that most psychopaths tend to find other games to play.
Of course, the main problem is that they are wrong. The point here is that they can make the case by appealing to visceral as opposed to rational responses in the public.
In this view the Murdoch press et al have been functioning to make people upset and paranoid. Even if it isn’t entirely deliberate, that is how it is working. This is, of course, the opposite of helping. If the real purpose is just to sell newspapers, the psychopathology of it all is mind-boggling.
What I add here is perhaps some new insight into why it has been so easy to trick people (and so easy for people to trick themselves) and why it will be so difficult to set enough of them straight.
Our friends, especially the habitual difference-splitters in the press, tell us that we cannot realistically overcome this gap; that climate is now irrevocably a partisan issue and that people’s positions are irrevocably set by culture rather than reason. I think there is a chance that the advice is right. If so, the PR disasters of the past few months may reverberate for millenia. How tragic and how absurd!
I think we have no choice but to try. If we can’t do it soon, that doesn’t mean we can stop trying.