I’ve posted his essay on Slideshare because it’s worth reading and sharing on its own. But I wanted to address his notion now in the context of the intense push to interpret the current superstorm in the context of action on greenhouse gases, and my reaction to it on the blog so far.
Am I “guilty” of reverse tribalism myself?
I’d say yes, with an asterisk. Let’s explore a bit:
I have sometimes perhaps been too eager to challenge definitive statements related to human-driven global warming for fear they will provide ammunition to those working to foment doubt and maintain stasis on our energy menu.
It’s that tendency of mine that probably prompted this tweet by David Roberts of Grist.org today:
@Revkin People are discussing climate change all over the place! You really need to work harder to tamp this down.My self diagnosis presumes that I see myself as, by nature, a member of some particular tribe. Indeed, I grew up caring deeply about the environment, so much so that as a kid I once left a threatening note on the seat of a bulldozer digging into a last patch of woods near our home in suburban Rhode Island. If I had a choice, I’d absolutely rather sing about the Hudson River with Pete Seeger than hang out in Washington, D.C., bars with energy lobbyists.
— David Roberts (@drgrist) 29 Oct 12
But as a journalist, I grew into the habit of detaching my personal passions from my profession’s need to sort through arguments for some sense of bedrock. So I’m a member of the journalism tribe, as well. That hasn’t changed with my move to the Op-Ed side of the paper. My opinion is that reality matters, however inconvenient it may be.
I never obtained an advanced science degree, but in majoring in biology and working in marine fisheries science long ago, and then through decades of reading and reporting on science, I developed a passion for this endeavor as the most powerful tool yet devised to separate myths and spin from durable knowledge, including knowledge of uncertainty. So I’m in the “defenders of science” tribe, too.
So I think I exhibit what you might call intertribal tension syndrome more than the reverse tribalism trait.
There’s another factor in play, for sure. It’s what Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition project at Yale calls identity-protective cognition. In a fascinating post, coincidentally published today, he described this as “a species of motivated reasoning” that “reflects the tendency of individuals to form perceptions of fact that promote their connection to, and standing in, important groups.”
He goes on to say:
There are lots of instances of this. Consider sports fans who genuinely see contentious officiating calls as correct or incorrect depending on whether those calls go for or against their favorite team.Put those two traits together, in any person, and you’re bound to get some moments where one tribal affiliation wins out over another.
The cultural cognition thesis says that many contested issues of risk—from climate change to nuclear power, from gun control to the HPV vaccine—involve this same dynamic. The “teams,” in this setting, are the groups that subscribe to one or another of the cultural worldviews associated with “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism.”
To step outside what Randy Olson calls the “nerd loop” (the domain of those thinking a lot about climate, risk and communication), here’s a quick reprise of points that I’ve made through 25 years of covering the two-way relationship between humans and climate:
1. The unerring buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is bound to come with regrets.
2. Many parts of the planet, from sub-Saharan Africa to the northeastern United States, are subject to extreme storms, superdroughts or other climate-related disruptions with or without a push from greenhouse gases. Greenhouse heating will worsen some extremes and is almost assuredly contributing to some (but not all) now.
3. Limiting harm from inevitable hard knocks that come with such disruptions is job one on a crowding, busy planet.
4. Working to shift from energy norms that come with large emissions of carbon dioxide is an imperative in this century (along with bringing energy by any smart means to the billions of people without reasonable sources now). But even a crash effort to blunt the greenhouse-gas buildup wouldn’t avert the need for step 3.
The wind is howling ever louder here in the Hudson Valley, and the lights are flickering with greater frequency, so it’s time to end this post before my connection to The Times is lost.