Impartially weighing up all the evidence or post hoc rationalisations?

climate explained header

The Conversation has a “Climate explained” series with articles centered around a (climate change related) question that get answered by an “expert”. The question of the article that is the subject of this post is “Why some people still think climate change isn’t real” and the expert who answers this question is David Hall, a Senior Researcher in, ahem, Politics.

He tries to explain in the article what drives the “deniers” and how to “undo” their denial.

My first question was: what is the definition of “climate change” (and “denier”) in the article? These were used extensively, but “climate change” and “denier” are very broad terms and could mean many thing to many people. The statement “Why some people still think climate change isn’t real” could be interpreted in different ways.

It could for example mean that those people don’t accept that the climate changes, but then the answer of the expert doesn’t make much sense.

It could also mean that those people don’t accept that humans have an impact (via our emissions), then the article makes somewhat more sense.

The author however also uses terms like “climate crisis”, “anthropogenic global heating” and “horrible reality”, so it makes perfect sense that the term “climate change” in the article would mean “dangerous anthropogenic climate change” or “catastrophic anthropogenic climate change”.

Extending a neutral term (climate change) beyond what the words actually mean (a crisis) is not exceptional, it is the sad norm in climate communication. For example, John Cook uses the same technique when he communicates the consensus to the public: he uses the words “97% consensus on humans causing global warming”, but tries to frame that a “97% consensus on humans causing dangerous global warming” was found. Therefor overstating what he actually found.

Back to the article. Hall elaborately describes the characteristics of the “deniers” throughout the article. They:

  • deny the climate crisis because it feels wrong
  • resist the very thought of the climate crisis
  • experience a clash between the facts of anthropogenic global heating and their personal projects
  • suppress the truth instead of living with and acting upon their worries
  • they reason around the facts because the facts of climate science are in conflict with their existing beliefs and values
  • are inclined toward hierarchy and against changes to the status quo
  • are less educated
  • are older
  • are more religious
  • are politically motivated (conservative)
  • are not committed to democratic values
  • are in service of the fossil-fuel companies or influenced by them
  • repress knowledge at both the psychological level and social level
  • need a reframing of the risks and realities of climate change to shift their views
  • are in the minority, so not all of them need to be won over in order to win on climate change.

That seems a caricature. It is possible that he describes specific people, but it is also possible that he consider as deniers all those who think differently than himself. That is not really clear from this article (or other articles), but reading the last paragraph, I think the latter is the most plausible.

There seem to be two groups. One group starts from the science, from reason, from the facts, therefor is by definition right (the side he is on). The other group is aware of the horrible reality, but represses the inconvenient truth and their view needs to be undone (the deniers).

With that in mind, these paragraphs caught my attention (my emphasis):

Contemporary social psychologists tend to talk about this in terms of “motivated reasoning”. Because the facts of climate science are in conflict with people’s existing beliefs and values, they reason around the facts.

When this happens – as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt memorably put it – they aren’t reasoning in the careful manner of a judge who impartially weighs up all the evidence. Instead, they’re reasoning in the manner of a defence lawyer who clutches for post hoc rationalisations to defend an initial gut instinct. This is why brow-beating deniers with further climate science is unlikely to succeed: their faculty of reason is motivated to defend itself from revising its beliefs.

I have been reading quite a lot about Jonathan Haidt recently and this quote doesn’t seem to fit in this specific story. I had the impression that Hall used it in a way that Haidt wouldn’t use it. Unfortunately, the link that Hall provides goes to the home page of Jonathan Haidt. That is not very specific. Looking deeper, Haidt seem to have made this comparison in the New York Times interview “Why won’t they listen?” about his book “The righteous mind” (my emphasis):

To the question many people ask about politics – Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? – Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.


The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.

That makes more sense. People tend to embrace conclusions that support their own world view. However, it is not just one side that Haidt is focusing on. This bias is going both ways. He explains that we all have a gut reaction when confronted with moral questions and try to justify it with reason later. It is not just one political ideology that falls into this trap. As far as I know, Haidt opposes such divides in his talks and writings. So Hall was most probably not referring to what Haidt actually meant by this expression, he was just borrowing the words and gave them his own twist.

Did he also gathered his “facts” this way? Hall seems to be absolutely convinced that he is right and his whole argument rests on “certain facts” that we need to “accept”. Unfortunately he doesn’t reveal what those “facts” are. Also in other articles he wrote, he referred several times to those “facts”, yet doesn’t explain what these are. I don’t believe for a moment that only the “deniers” are suffering from this kind of bias. How do we know that he is free of this bias? How do we know that he, as a senior researcher in political science, understood these (unnamed) facts correctly? How do we know whether he is impartially weighing up all the evidence or just clutches for post hoc rationalisations to defend his initial gut instinct?

4 thoughts on “Impartially weighing up all the evidence or post hoc rationalisations?

  1. vuurklip

    Jawellnofine. (A typical South African expression meaning something like “whatever”)

    Beware of political “scientists” and their study material: politicians. I recently heard that surgeons like operating on these creatures because, when opened up, there is no backbone, no heart and no stomach – and the head and backside may be interchanged and no one will notice.


  2. oiltranslator

    I recall the canvassing of scientist signatures whereby the Petition Project showed the Senate that well over 31000 verified scientists with at least a baccalaureate said warming was bullshit. For them alone to be the 3% you would need over a million warmunists with science degrees. So… where are they? Nevermind that the thermometers show no rising tendency either.



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