Poles apart:
There is an astute article (Dan Kahan Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change NATURE vol. 488 no. 7411 August 16, 2012 page 255) that addresses the question as to why it has been impossible to reach a consensus on global warming and its possible remediation by restricting the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. 

According to the article it’s because the public is too stupid and scientifically illiterate to understand the issue.  That is odd, considering how we are supposed to be getting more intelligent with each passing year and how wedded we all are to technology and how important it is for us to be able to manage its subtleties. 

In fact, according to the article, it’s really not the public’s fault.  It is the brightest and best, the most technically and scientifically accomplished who take the most extreme views.

That is in keeping with my own impression.  My field of scientific mastery is quite small and completely unrelated to climate, although of course I have an interest and even an idea.  As far as I am concerned, global warming is real.  I have for many, many years seen pictures that showed glaciers in retreat.  I have had islands pointed out in Sweden that had emerged from the sea as the crust of the earth rebounded from the retreat of glaciers eons ago.  I have little confidence that reducing carbon dioxide will change matters.  Those glaciers retreated long before the industrial revolution. 

But warming could be catastrophic.  It’s already too hot for my comfort.  Of course this is Florida.  And since carbon dioxide is the only game in town, it would seem to be common prudence to do what is possible to reduce levels.  So that would be a sort of middle ground, subject to vituperative attack from both directions.  As a member of the public I am indeed less polarized than the experts.

The point made by Kahan, and he attributes it to solid research, is that there is a sort of intellectual tragedy of the commons.  You know how that goes.  A little village is arranged around a green area.  People are permitted to graze cattle in the commons.  That’s handy, cost effective and an all around good idea.  But for each person the number of cattle put out to pasture in the commons determines that person’s income from the commons.  Most people attempt to maximize that income so the commons is overgrazed, will support no cattle, and everybody loses. 

The parallel is not strict, but the idea is, “What I do cannot alter the overall trend.  But it can make a big impact on my own affairs.”  Specifically, one is a lot better off if one is not in conflict with ones peers.  So a person among like thinking people has a strong incentive not to offer a target.  That person must seek the local mean opinion and adopt it.  Hence two attitudes become ever more extreme. 

I think there is another subtlety here.  In the old days the Methodist
and Presbyterian churches in our town, during the summer, would hold
evening services together, alternating churches.  Preacher Gordon said, “It halves your work and doubles your congregation.”  The services were very similar, but one point always stuck out.  In the Lord’s Prayer the Methodists say, “Trespasses,” where the Presbyterians say, “Debts.”  Both churches recited the same prayer every service.  A Methodist could pass without notice until the point in the serves where he said, “trespasses,” whereupon everyone within earshot knew from the hisses. 

Most conflicts of opinion are far more divisive than Methodist and Presbyterian persuasions.  They don’t know as much about each other.  So generally I suspect a member of one opinion cannot recognize all the ritual statements of the other side.  One knows only ones own side and anything else is one of the distrusted “them.” 

And generally this means the “them” with which one has the most trouble, even though “they” would recognize the same statement as not being one of their own.  This adds to the polarization.  Any alternative view is automatically received as the opposite view even if it is not.

So pity poor me.  My thesis, that we are suffering a demographic injury because of a heedless change in mating strategy, does not have a congregation of its own.  And anybody who hears it will immediately decide that it is not part of the peer consensus and that the need for personal security in the peer group forbids considering it.

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