Of Ingroups, Outgroups, and Global Climate Change

As I pointed out in my last post, “The outgroup have ye always with you.” Of all the very good reasons for mankind to give up the cobbling together of new moral systems once and for all, it’s probably the best. It’s more likely you’ll find a unicorn browsing in your back yard than one of the pathologically pious among us suffused with the milk of human kindness. One typically finds them in their “ground state,” frothing at the the mouth with virtuous indignation over the latest sins of their preferred outgroup.

So it is with Eugene Robinson, one of their number who happens to pen an occasional column in the Washington Post. He recently delivered himself of some observations concerning the phenomenon of global warming. As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last decade will be aware, no branch of the sciences has been more afflicted of late by the attentions of the professionally righteous than climatology. Robinson gives us a good example of how the neat separation of climate scientists into good guys and bad guys works in practice.

Hero of his piece is one Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley who, we learn, once dismissed “climate alarmism” as “shoddy science.” Not to worry. Though once lost, he is now found, and though once blind, he now sees. It turns out the scales fell from his eyes after he “launched his own comprehensive study (referred to as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, or BEST, study, ed.) to set the record straight,” and discovered that, lo and behold, “Global warming is real.” Well, perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. I happen to believe that the arguments as to why it should be real are plausible enough, but that’s beside the point as far as this post is concerned.

What is to the point is Robinson’s reaction to all this. For him, Muller’s study isn’t just another batch of data points relating to a very complex scientific issue. For him, global warming is an absolute and incontrovertable certainty, because it represents the “good.” Muller’s study is, therefore, not just a scientific study, but a victory in the eternal battle of good versus evil. In Robinson’s own words,

For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.

Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the neo-Luddites who are turning the GOP into the anti-science party should pay attention.

But Muller’s plain-spoken admonition that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer,” has reduced many deniers to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence.

and so on. As it happens, not all of the “skeptics” have been reduced to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence. Take, for example, Judith Curry, a distinguished climate researcher and Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. She was actually a member of Muller’s team, and so is presumably familiar with the copious data Robinson was so enthused about. However, in an interview for the Daily Mail, Curry accuses Muller of “trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.” She also says that, “Prof. Muller’s claim that he has proven global warming sceptics wrong was also a ‘huge mistake’, with no scientific basis,” and goes so far as to compare the affair to “Climategate.” This is strong stuff, but Prof. Curry has the goods. She notes that, in carefully sifting through, as Robinson informs us, “1.6 billion records,” Muller somehow failed to mention that, according to BEST’s own data, “there has been no significant increase in world temperatures since the end of the 90’s.” The following two graphs from the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation summarize that data:

Source: Global Warming Policy Foundation

It would seem that the good Prof. Muller, who had much to say about the first graph, complete with “hockey stick,” somehow forgot to mention the data in the second. In fact, as Prof. Curry put it, “…in the wake of the unexpected global warming standstill, many climate scientists who had previously rejected sceptics’ arguments were now taking them much more seriously.”

The Daily Mail article contains much else in the way of less than pleased reactions by a number of other climatologists at what was apparently a premature release of the BEST data before the peer review process was complete. Of course, all this fits very ill with the lurid picture of good triumphing over evil painted for us by Mr. Robinson. Predictably, while he was apparently observant enough to turn up any number of “grumbling and stunned” warming deniers, when it came to Prof. Curry and her equally chagrined colleagues, he didn’t notice a thing.

It should come as no surprise. Mr. Curry is merely acting as one might expect of a member of a species endowed with certain innate behavioral characteristics. Some of those traits give rise to what is commonly referred to as moral behavior, and none of us are free of their emotional grip. That’s why Hollywood still makes movies about good guys and bad guys. It is our subjective nature to perceive sublime good, but the yin of sublime good cannot exist without the yang of despicable evil. Every ingroup implies an outgroup. There is little we can do to change our nature, and we would probably be unwise to try given our current intellectual endowments. We can, however, while accepting it for what it is, seek to find ways of channeling its expression in ways less destructive than we have experienced in the past. At the very least we need to understand it and develop an awareness of how it affects our behavior. The results of failing to do so in the past have been destructive enough, and have certainly made a hash of the science of climatology. The results of failing to do so in the future are unlikely to be any more encouraging.

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