When the facts don’t tell your story

Chris Mooney was out in Boulder last week talking about his most recent book, The Republican Brain.  I went to a two day workshop he ran at Caltech with Matt Nisbet several years ago on climate communication, and it was really good, so I was interested to hear what he’s been thinking about lately.  It sounds like the basic idea of the new book is that the liberal-conservative dichotomy is fairly persistent and widespread in humanity, though it’s been expressed differently throughout the millennia in different cultural contexts.  I think that several of the underlying characteristics of Mooney points out interact in our financially driven political landscape in an interesting (and distressing) way.  Given that:

Liberals:

  • are more tolerant of ambiguity — they don’t need there to be One True Answer to every question.
  • are more open to and even desirous of new experiences, and thus willing to accept the possibility or necessity of change generally.

Conservatives:

  • are more sensitive to issues of insubordination — to anything that upsets established hierarchies or trusted authorities.
  • place a high priority on in-group cohesion, whether it be a religious community or patriotism for the nation state.

Thus, we find that liberal groups are willing to accept the need for change and innovation, but tend to defeat themselves through in-fighting — they have a hard time staying “on message”, and will often get lost bickering in the weeds of policy detail, while their conservative opposition takes a simple, one-dimensional position, sticks to it, and wins.

Conservative groups on the other hand are more defensive and cohesive.  They can effectively vote together as a bloc, because naysayers from within their ranks tend to be punished quickly and severely, even whey they’ve got the facts on their side.

These dynamics suggest to me that any time an incumbent monied interest is not well served by new facts (think Big Tobacco or King Coal), their best hope is probably to ally themselves with conservatives preferentially.  This is different than what most industries do most of the time.  Given how cheap it is to influence policies and elections through lobbying and campaign contributions — the ROI is enormous on these activities — most industries simply donate to everyone, and thus maintain their access and influence.

Why would this asymmetry be advantageous?  Because if you can frame the issue at hand it conservative terms strongly enough, then it’s possible to trick conservatives into insulating themselves against facts that threaten their cohesion around the issue.  Up to a point, they’re willing to dismiss new information if it means bucking their political in group or trusted authorities, and they’ll do it as a bloc.

Everybody is prone to confirmation bias, but it’s much harder to get liberals to take up a causeen masse simply because it sounds like something they ought to agree with.  Instead you get internal disagreement — Mooney used the idea that vaccines cause autism as an example of an issue that hits some liberal buttons, and has some passionate activists around it on the left, but which won’t be taken up broadly, because it’s not supported by facts, and the left is willing to disagree with itself.

Many policy issues really aren’t intrinsically liberal or conservative — certainly there’s no shortage of ways to frame climate change as something conservatives would want to avoid — but once a particular frame has taken hold, it’s very difficult to dislodge.  This makes it imperative for interests not served by new facts to pre-emptively frame their position in conservative terms, and to do everything in their power to make sure that frame sticks.

And then the waiting game begins.  How long can they keep the facts from overwhelming the position they’ve put forward?  How can they gracefully exit, without make it obvious they’ve duped a huge fraction of the electorate into supporting them illegitimately?  For liberals, this ironically makes it all the more important to frame fact-based issues early, in terms that are attractive to conservatives.  We need to get better at developing pre-emptive consensus.

Oh, right, and we need to amend the US constitution to overturn Citizens United too.

UK Betrays Basic Values To Get Assange At Any Cost

Did the UK seriously just threaten to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London to retrieve Assange?  I mean, seriously?  They’re willing to violate longstanding international diplomatic norms to get someone who’s just wanted for questioning related to a relatively minor alleged crime?  Right.  This is all quite surreal.

Why climate change is a wicked moral problem

Dave Roberts at Grist picked over a recent Nature paper examining the fact that climate change doesn’t spark moral outrage, the same way terrorist attacks or even oil spills do. and the ways we might try and work around those cognitive issues if we’re going to get sustained political support for dealing with it seriously (original paper here).

In a related vein William Gibson recently commented:

I assume that we live in the first era in human history against which all posterity will have reason to hold a sad and bitter grudge.

Many people responded with things to the effect of “What about slavery?”, referring to past egregious social and economic injustices we’ve inflicted upon each other.  I thought his response was poetic:

The difference between knowing murders were committed in your ancestral home and knowing fools let it burn to the ground. Hence your tent.

Thankfully that Nature paper also included potential cognitive and messaging work arounds, so we can hopefully get people to react, and then respond appropriately.  Now if only we can bring ourselves to use them.

Notes from the Plan Boulder County Commissioner Election Forum

Garry and Elise Talking to Lynn

Two of the three Boulder County Commissioner’s seats are up for grab this year, and it’s all but given that whoever secures the Democratic Party’s nomination will end up winning the election.  In District 1 (which includes the city of Boulder as far east as Foothills, see this map) we are losing former Boulder mayor Will Toor, who has served two terms — the maximum allowed.  Vying for his place are Elise Jones and Garry Sanfaçon.  On June 1st, PLAN Boulder County held a lively candidate forum, moderated by Alan Boles.

My notes are necessarily an incomplete record of the exchange.  Unless otherwise indicated by quotation marks, the words below represent my paraphrasing of the candidates statements.

As an introduction, Boles first asked: Who are you, and why are you running?

Elise Jones responded that given the political situation at the state and national level, she felt local politics is where important changes are likely to happen.  She cited her 8 years on the Boulder Planning Board, and more than 20 years working on environmental protection statewide as relevant experience, giving her an intimate understanding of land use issues.  She stated that she is the only candidate with experience working to regulate the oil and gas industry, and that this has been one of her primary focuses over the last decade, “Ever since Dick Cheney declared war on the West.” She was supportive of ending GMO use on county open space, and highlighted climate change as the single largest looming issue facing us (and the world) today, especially given the occurrence this year of some of the warmest, driest spring months on record.

Garry Sanfaçon spoke about his son who just graduated from Nederland High School.  He wants his son to be able to move back to Boulder County some day, and the importance of making sure that we have both jobs and affordable housing to make it possible for regular folks to keep living here.  He highlighted his experience working for the county as the Fourmile Canyon Fire recovery director, as a member of the Boulder County Planning Commission, and as a visioning facilitator for various organizations.  Sanfaçon stated that he’s the candidate taking the “strongest positions” on GMOs and fracking, and said that if elected he “would vote to ban them on day one.”

From the looks exchanged during the introduction, it became clear pretty quickly that fracking was going to be a hot issue, and Boles went directly to it asking: Fracking appears to be a state regulatory issue, and the state is currently dropping the ball.  What can we really do about it, from a legal point of view?

Continue reading Notes from the Plan Boulder County Commissioner Election Forum

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of the Western welfare state

A great little thought from Nils Gilman on the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union for the Western welfare state.  Broken and horrible though it was, the Soviet Union served western socialism by framing the discussion.  Losing the “hard-left” peg for our Overton Window on social programs has led the entire discussion to slide quite a bit to the right.

Why Urban Farming is an Awful Idea

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Boulder County is looking at some kind of county-wide sustainability program, with an associated tax which will be on the ballot this fall.  The City of Boulder is revising its Climate Action Plan, looking toward a goal of climate neutrality in 2050.  An extension of the tax which supports our climate work will also be on the ballot in the fall.  One thing that none of that money should go toward?  Urban farming.

Continue reading Why Urban Farming is an Awful Idea

Clean energy will unfortunately be political

Conservative thinktanks step up attacks against Obama’s clean energy strategy, as revealed by ALEC bills and other PR documents.  This morning at the World Renewable Energy Forum, in response to a (long winded) question about how we might re-frame the energy discussion in light of the unfortunate hay which was made from Solyndra’s failure, US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu re-iterated that clean energy should not be a political issue — that it’s just common sense.  That may be true, but it doesn’t mean it will remain apolitical.  As Pericles once said… “Just because you do not take an interest in politics, does not mean that politics will not take an interest in you.”  Clean energy is political, as is climate change.  Yes, it’s stupid, but that’s the way it is.  We have to deal with it.  Though, I have to admit, if prices keep dropping like they have been, it will be fun to watch the right-wing culture warriors backpedal, as massive renewable deployments become profitable without subsidies of any kind in the next decade.