International Journal of Inactivism (now supplanted by Decoding SwiftHack)

2010/02/07

Understanding the inactivist mind — beyond seeking “common ground”

Filed under: climate cranks and climate inactivists — stepanovich @ 08:13

[cite as: S. Stepanovich. 2010. Understanding the inactivist mind — beyond seeking “common ground”. Intl. J. Inact., 3:6–7]

Michael Tobis brings our attention to a bunch of wingnut comments on a certain blog. Robert Grumbine proposes this exercise:

Take any one of those comments. Preferably work your way through all of them. Rule out cheap answers like ‘they’re just delusional/ignorant/irrational/…’ as explanations. Presume that the commenters are honest and rational by their lights and in their frame of reference. What is that frame of reference? What premises are they working from?

Ian says:

The hard part is establishing any sort of common ground, because each “side” of the conversation feels as if the other is disconnected from reality.

Au contraire, I think it’s precisely the part that’s not “common ground” that’s interesting. After all, Sun Tzu said “Know thy enemy”; he didn’t say “Know just the traits of thy enemy that are similar to thy own”. If we are to have any hope of engaging the inactivists, or even countering their noise campaigns, we should really try to get to know everything we can about them, not just the aspects which are “common ground”.

So, I’ll try out Grumbine’s exercise. Take this comment:

The fact that political agenda can so sway “scientific data” as to cause a near hysterical movement ought to give all those who value truth severe pause.

Those against the concept of man-made global warming we demonized- my own flesh and blood brother called me a “flat-earther”. Any deviation from the mantra was ridiculed, and the idea of questioning authority was squelched.

This I find more frightening than any carbon capping legislation that has been talked about.

Wow, that was a load of fact-free drivel. But if we try to discern the ‘logic’ underlying this drivel, it’s easy to see that our commenter was pretty much conflating “truth” with “freedom”. This may stem in part from the oft-repeated quotation from the Bible (John 8:32), “the truth shall make you free”, except it’s re-interpreted as “your truth shall be free”.

The idea that truth is internal to a person, rather than external in the outside world, is perhaps one of the most serious impediment one must reckon with when trying to lead a crank to reality. Similarly for the idea that oppression — the lack of freedom — comes from without, rather than within. The question then is this: can we meaningfully make use of this view that ‘truth is internal, freedom is external’ to engage with inactivists or the general public?

* * *

Incidentally, a reading of the context around “the truth shall make you free” in the Gospel of John suggests that the phrase doesn’t mean what it’s normally taken to mean (this is from KJV; underlines mine):

8:7 So when they continued asking him [Jesus], he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. […]
8:9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. […]
8:31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
8:33 They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
8:34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

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6 Comments »

  1. ‘Similarly for the idea that oppression — the lack of freedom — comes from *without*, rather than *within*.’

    Oh dear.

    American exceptionalism once more?

    Comment by Vinny Burgoo — 2010/02/08 @ 00:01 | Reply

    • Vinny Burgoo, read the Bible excerpt, which was certainly not translated by an American. Then maybe you’ll get what I’m getting at.

      Comment by stepanovich — 2010/02/08 @ 12:26 | Reply

  2. I completely agree that what’s not shared is the most interesting part. My comment was a response to MT’s proposal: How would you address these people if you met them in real life, say over a family dinner? In that case, if you really want them to listen, I’d say it’s necessary to begin with something that sounds like potential common ground – otherwise you’ll just get a bunch of dismissive talking points in response.

    Figuring out any sort of common ground does require you to understand something about the basis for their beliefs. Also, your thought about objective vs. subjective truth is interesting. Perhaps this is what’s behind people saying things such as “I know the science says x, but it just doesn’t ring true to me.” It’s spectacularly dismissive, and almost impossible to argue against. The obvious avenue of attack is to talk cognitive psychology about how confidence doesn’t correlate with accuracy, difficulty of perceiving long-term trends, etc., but in my experience that’s incredibly hard to do without people feeling insulted (“oh, now you’re telling me that my own intuitions are wrong…”). When you have a politically conservative US audience, they’re often sure that their “gut feelings” are their best source of information.

    Comment by Ian — 2010/02/08 @ 05:42 | Reply

    • I completely agree that what’s not shared is the most interesting part.

      OK, it seems I misunderstood… my bad.

      The obvious avenue of attack is to talk cognitive psychology about how confidence doesn’t correlate with accuracy,

      Except then you’ll be starting from a ‘truth is external’ frame, which is probably bound to fail.

      I think eventually what we need to do is to turn the inactivists’ ‘truth is internal’ mindset against itself. That is, start by appealing to their sense of truth as an internal construct, and then lead them to a place where they see how it all starts breaking down. (As for how to achieve this in practice, now that’s the hard part…)

      Comment by stepanovich — 2010/02/08 @ 12:19 | Reply

  3. My own conclusion is that my challenge is futile. Most of these people do not care about coherence. This means you CANNOT lead them to a place where they see how it all breaks down, because there is no such place.

    Therefore, the best we can do is to find out where such people come from, and to prevent that from happening. This is a very long term proposition, and we have been losing ground for a generation.

    Comment by Michael Tobis — 2010/02/09 @ 17:59 | Reply

    • My own conclusion is that my challenge is futile. Most of these people do not care about coherence.

      Well, I suspect they may care about the coherence of their core tenets and their core epistemology (even if they don’t care if their supporting ‘arguments’ are coherent or not). So I’ll say it’s a tricky task, but I’m not yet convinced that it’s impossible.

      And in any case, even if it is impossible, perhaps we can buy some time by trying to understand their epistemology and their language and using it. Which, hopefully, is a less difficult task.

      Comment by stepanovich — 2010/02/09 @ 22:38 | Reply


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