Skip to main content

Denial as a way of life

Dan Farber, professor of law | October 10, 2013

As it turns out, many of the same people who deny that climate change is a problem also deny that government default would be a problem.  No doubt there are several reasons: the fact that Barack Obama is on the opposite side of both issues; the general impermeability of ideologues to facts or expert opinion; a general suspicion of elite views.

three monkeysBut I’d like to suggest that there is also a deeper belief about the invulnerability of systems to outside shocks, either on the view that the system is very loosely linked or has a very strong tendency to return to equilibrium. These are actually a bit contradictory since strong corrective forces imply tight linkage, but most people don’t notice that.

For example, you might think that changing one atmospheric gas wouldn’t really have much impact on the world or that counteracting forces like increased use of CO2 by plants would come into play.  Or, you might think that making a few bondholders wait a bit to get paid wouldn’t be a big deal, or that it wouldn’t really happen because Treasury would come up with a response to avoid it.

There are actually some strong common elements here.  Both climate change and a significant U.S. default are unprecedented historically, so we can’t rely directly on past experience.  Both involve systemic risks, which by their nature are less frequent and less easily understood than an action’s immediate impacts. And in both cases, the deniers are not merely saying that the outcome is uncertain — which would still lead to serious precautions because the potential harm is so great — but denying that there’s any possibility of a bad outcome.

That means that all the experts are either incompetent or lying, but once we’re willing to leap over that problem, it’s not hard to reject their views. If you’re going to reject the views of nearly all climate scientists, why not reject the views of nearly all economists?  In for a penny, in for a pound.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Denial as a way of life


    1. “Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard evolutionary biologist, once said that far-off catastrophes engineered by our own species, are simply out of the range of human capacity for planning and action.”
    California magazine “Global Warning” Sept/Oct 2006 issue, “Can we adapt in time?”

    2. “I’ve actually been thinking about the question of purity because of reading Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”
    California magazine Summer 2013 issue, “Administering Change”

    3. “When a group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”
    “The Lessons of History” by Will and Ariel Durant

  2. I think there are 2 kinds of deniers. Those who believe and say they don’t to gain economic advantage and those who don’t know how anything really works in the larger context but generally are suffering and blame the smart guys for their pain. For the latter group there is an asymmetry. It’s worse to have someone lie to you and you believe it than to have someone tell you the truth and you don’t believe. Cynicism becomes the new smart for these folks. I don’t think the voice of Berkeley can reach these people.

    • William, we must find a better way to perpetuate acceptable long-term quality of life for all future generations today because nothing we are doing today is working.

      Politicians in America and around the world are a total failure at protecting our long-term future.

      The only other culture that can save us from increasingly unacceptable consequences of changes we are already experiencing today is our intellectual culture such as professors and scholars on the Berkeley Blog. If they can’t find a better way today, then the 21st century shall most certainly be the end of an acceptable quality of life for homo sapiens.

  3. Prof. Farber, relative to your point, yesterday Cato Institute published:
    “Just in Time for Halloween Come Some Scary Global Warming Predictions”

    Berkeley needs to find a way to educate the public, in America and around the world, using something like an MSNBC weekend TV show dedicated to a mission statement similar to that of our own California alumni magazine:
    “Since 1897, California magazine has ignited, disturbed, and informed Cal graduates about events at one of the world’s greatest universities.”

    California magazine does an excellent job igniting, disturbing and informing Cal graduates such as myself, and the magazine should be used as a role model for igniting, disturbing and informing the public on life threatening issues such as climate change that you have been discussing, using Berkeley professors and scholars such as yourself and your Berkeley Blog colleagues who have been warning us continuously about many extremely serious near and long-term threats to our quality of life.

Comments are closed.