Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Categorical Thinking...and the Climate Debate...

Via reader and friend Doug W., an article by Craig Loehle exploring a notion that's new to me, though when I google the term I get a few bazillion hits.  My engineer's brain translates that notion into “binary thinking” vs. “analog thinking”.  Some might say “black and white thinking” vs. “more nuanced thinking”.  What's new in this article is connecting categorical thinking to the way the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) debate is polarized.  A key bit:
Categorical thinking is common in life. It is a critical mental shortcut that brings order to the chaos of sensory input—I do not claim it to be a defect. If someone lies to us once, they are now in the category of liar. This may work for judging likely human behavior but one hurricane is not a trend. If a person is in the clergy, we classify them as good. If they exhibit some defect such as shoplifting, we throw them down to the pits. They are either a saint or not a saint. We don’t say that a politician in the other party is misguided or has different goals from us, we call them evil (and they call each other evil). If some small thing goes wrong on a date or at a wedding, the event is “ruined”. In religion you are either “saved” or not, there is evidently no in-between category of semi-saved or saved part of the time or improved.

This categorical thinking permeates the climate change debate. A premise in categorical thinking about the environment that goes back before the current debate is that natural is good and artificial is bad, where artificial means anything affected by humans. In the case of nature this means that wilderness is good and trees planted in rows are bad (though birds don’t necessarily mind the rows). The categorical mindset means that any touch by humans ruins the wilderness, so humans in the US are being progressively excluded from wilderness (roads closed, no snowmobiles, horses banned, etc.) from the wilderness that they are supposed to value so highly. In the climate debate, it goes like this: “There is no doubt that humans have caused warming over the past 50 years. Therefore we must act now.” The question is posed as whether the climate has change, a categorical question. And of course it has changed and of course humans have had some effect even if tiny. The fact that there is some influence of humans is taken to mean that all the bad things one can imagine will consequently follow. In real life no one imagines that if their stock portfolio is yielding 0.1% annually that they are making money and therefore they are going to become rich and therefore they are already rich, but this is how the climate debate plays out, perhaps because climate is not something anyone has direct experience of so it is an abstraction, a “thing” not a process or continuum.
Mr. Loehle's argument resonates with me, mostly in the way it helps explain the arguments of those credulous of AGW.  It's a good read, and not very long...

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