Monday, February 13, 2012

Chemtrails, Enemies, and the Climate Debate

Here's an interesting thought from Ken Caldiera (Stanford) on the Google geoengineering list. It's in response to Alan Robock (Rutgers), who wrote about his discussion with some protesters who believe "chemtrails" are a secret spraying program. (Debunk here.) Robock's discussion was posted to YouTube, and he got an inflammatory email from a viewer -- also posted on the thread.

Caldiera's comment is applicable to the larger climate debate and its stand-in as a proxy for other issues, as Mike Hulme writes.
"I think it is not helpful to think of them as "enemies". I see these people as victims of past government lies and, in many cases, their own mental instability.

"These people have been living under a government that has started secret wars, has secretly kidnapped and tortured people, and so on. They have lived under a government that has lied to them repeatedly.

"These people have no technical background to distinguish ordinary jet contrails from paranoiac visions of massive government conspiracies. They see jet trails becoming more numerous over the decades and are too innumerate to associate this increase with increase in jet travel.

"They have been taught that they cannot trust government statements, they certainly don't trust scientists, and now they are left with no source that they can trust (other than their like-minded fellow conspiracy theorists.)

"I prefer to see these ChemTrails folks as victims, both of past government lies and, in many cases I suspect, of some degree of mental illness. So, let's not look at them as "enemies", but as people who need help."


Ken Caldeira said...

The average believer in ChemTrails is very likely a well-meaning well-balanced person with some false beliefs

However, I tend to get emails and phone calls from belligerent, vaguely threatening, and rather impolite people who claim to know how I spend my day (apparently, commanding fleets of spraying airplanes) and who claim to know what I believe (apparently, that the rich should impose their will on the poor, even if that means destroying the planet). So, my remarks about mental instability refer to this small subset of belligerent ChemTrails believers with whom I come in contact most often. This characterization probably does not apply to ChemTrails believers in general.

Steve Bloom said...

The difficulty with people who believe in one conspiracy theory is that they're more prone to believe in another, which means they're a ready recruitment pool for AGW denial.

But in addition to the points Ken raises, IMO such people also tend to have a considerable sense of foreboding about the future. I'm unsure as to whether that can be bent in a positive direction.

I have no brilliant or (otherwise) suggestions about how to deal with them, although I've been devoting a lot of thought to the subject.

David, since you invoke Hulme here, how do you analyze the chemtrails business in terms of values and then relate it to climate denialism?

Dano said...

I agree with Ken's distinction between ignorance and self-identity.

I don't know if there is a way to get past the psychology of the denialist, but they are in the minority and the minority of the voting bloc. There is public support across the entire breadth of the planet for action.



Steve Bloom said...

Yes, Dano, but in combination with fossil fuel interests a blocking minority at the moment. But beyond them, I think many, many people who are mainly just ignorant have a problem with taking strong action on something they have a hard time perceiving in their daily lives. One might call it a sort of passive denialism. Some such analysis is needed to explain the low prioritization of climate change shown in polls, notwithstanding that the feedback loop with the media makes the phenomenon worse.

Dano said...

But beyond them, I think many, many people who are mainly just ignorant have a problem with taking strong action on something they have a hard time perceiving in their daily lives.

Well, of course. One of the tactics Big Oil took was to ensure that scientists can't speak out. Combine that with most scientists not having training in public speaking and you have a convenient communication problem.

Chris Mooney et al have recognized this, and maybe there is some movement toward rectifying the communications coming out of Unis. and directed toward the public. I think the recent revelations about Heartland and their strategies illustrate the gap in communications.

The corporate media don't help either.

The game is rigged.



Steve Bloom said...

I would suggest that a further component to the problem is that the personality type that makes for a good scientist has little overlap with the personality type that makes for a good campaigner. Beyond the obvious manifestations of that mismatch, I think the equability necessary to keep one's nose to the grindstone year after year working on tough problems for little reward is in direct conflict with feeling and acting personally alarmed. This is perhaps the more important "two cultures" problem.

Steve Bloom said...

Just to add, consider the response of the average person when seeing a scientist on the news describing a really bad problem in dry, measured terms. IMO such a delivery incorporates a subliminal message that there's really nothing to worry about. After all, if there really is a fire in the crowded theater, we would expect that fact to be communicated in an forceful and somewhat emotional manner. If it isn't, our first thought would be to wonder if there really is a fire, and even if so to expect that it must not be all that bad.

Later, in the burn ward, we can blame the scientists for not having sounded alarmed enough. :(