Disagreement on controversial issues

I’ve been listening to a couple of philosophy podcasts through iTunes U. One was from a series of University of Alabama lectures. It was lecture #7, “Understanding Skepticism about Climate Change”, and it’s found here.

It asks the question: why are people’s view on climate change so closely correlated to their political views? Shouldn’t the science just decide the issue, regardless of what people believe politically?

He makes a couple of points that I think are very important.

First, almost no one except climate scientists really understands the topic well enough to make the decision based on direct scientific knowledge. We believe what we do because we trust scientists to tell us the truth about what they’ve found. Which scientists we trust affects what we believe the science says.

Second, when the climate change data is presented, it is usually attached to a bunch of statements that liberals agree with and conservatives disagree with. For example,

  • We are headed for environmental disaster. If it hadn’t been climate change, it would have been something else.
  • Climate change is one more example of rich first-world countries profiting off poor third-world countries. We need to stop that from happening.
  • Capitalism and consumerism are non-sustainable. We have to change to a way of life which lets go of the pursuit of more and more economic growth.
  • We need to let go of some national sovereignty and accept international authority in this issue.

When conservatives hear climate change connected with these four themes, they are going to be suspicious of the climate change data. It will look to them like an attempt to manipulate the data to push through a liberal agenda.

Third, given their initial suppositions, both sides are acting rationally when they are suspicious of the other side.

Fourth, the way to convince the other side is to work hard to decouple the scientific case from the liberal or conservative baggage that goes along with it. If you are liberal, don’t use climate change to press the four issues above. See if you can find someone who disagrees with those statements to make the case for you. There is no reason that climate change has to be solved by internationalization, or changing consumerism, or any of the other thematically liberal solutions.

Fifth — and the talk doesn’t make this point, but I believe it — once the political themes have been taken out of the equation, it may be possible to find compromises that respect the ideological commitments of both sides.

Now the speaker is liberal, and I’m pretty conservative, but I think his points are excellent. In fact, I think the same points apply to political controversies generally. Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal. That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.
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