On this blog, many of us have commented from time to time on the remarkable unanimity of politicians, the media, public institutions and, sadly, scientists about what they see as the clear truths that mankind’s Co2 emissions are the cause of potentially dangerous global warming (now “climate change”) and that painful action is essential to curb such emissions if we, and in particular our grandchildren, are to avoid a dreadful future. As many of us see it, it is extraordinary how these opinions are expressed with such utter certainty in view of the powerful arguments that question that thinking – arguments that rarely get even a hearing in mainstream public discourse. We wonder – how can this have happened?

Well, I have just read an article that may provide the answer. Entitled To become an extremist, hang around with people you agree with, it’s by Cass R Sunstein – who is author of the much admired “Nudge” and an adviser to Obama. It can be found here.

Using the rise of fascism, 1960s student radicalism, the growth of Islamic terrorism, the Rwandan genocide and the 2008 financial crisis as examples, Sunstein argues that there is a general fact of social life that:

Much of the time groups of people end up thinking and doing things that group members would never think or do on their own … when people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes. And when such groups include authorities who tell group members what to do, or who put them into certain social roles, very bad things can happen.

Yes, I thought, that may well explain the climate change scare. After all, the people I mentioned do comprise a group – the so-called “chattering classes” – and we see that group in action in blogs such as Joe Romm and RealClimate.

That is confirmed by these extracts from Sunstein’s article:

… a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society. The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about non-members. With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarisation as group members continue to talk.

Group polarisation often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction.

Reading this, I was wondering why he hadn’t mentioned climate change. And then he did:

Certainly this can happen in a group whose members tend to support aggressive government regulation to combat climate change. Group members will hear a number of arguments in favour of aggressive government regulation and fewer arguments the other way. If people are listening, they will have a stronger conviction, in the same direction from which they began, as a result of deliberation. If people are worried about climate change, the arguments they offer will incline them toward greater worry.

He adds:

If people start with the belief that climate change is a hoax and a myth, their discussions will amplify and intensify that belief.

That may be so. But I suggest there’s a significant difference: in contrast with alarmist groups and networks, most sceptical groups, e.g. this blog and others such as Climate Audit and Watts Up With That, do not bar those with dissenting opinions. Indeed, unusually perhaps, they welcome them as a means of testing, modifying and honing their views. It’s that, I suggest, that explains why, when dangerous antropogenic global warming (AGW) proponents meet sceptics in open debate, the former usually (always?) lose, often seeming not even to realize that opposing rational views exist and that insults and tactics such as ad hominem attacks do not impress an audience.

It’s important, therefore, that groups largely sceptical about dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are especially vigilant that properly argued differing views are not excluded. Sadly, urging groups that believe in dangerous AGW to do likewise is probably a waste of time.

Cass Sunstein’s article in The Spectator can be found here. It is an edited version ofGoing to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide’, to be published by Oxford University Press on 9th July 2009. More about Sunstein in the Wall Street Journal here.

14 Responses to “Obama adviser: ‘How to become an extremist’”

  1. If anything Climate Audit appears to block “supportive statements” although I’m still bemused as to the exact reason why. It keeps everyone their toes, I suppose.

  2. Robin

    The Sunstein article is very thought-provoking.

    Enthusiasts turn into extremists and then into fanatics through a self-driven escalation process based on in-bred interaction and reinforcement. In climate terminology this could be called “positive feedback”.

    The intellectual part is relatively easy to follow. But how can the extreme emotional part be explained?

    Taking one historical example, how could a generally enlightened and educated people such as the Germans of the 1930s become “willing executioners” as Danial Goldhagen dubbed them in his 1996 book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”?

    Goldhagen refers to a deep-rooted, virulent anti-Semitism that was widespread already long before Hitler’s arrival on the scene. If, as Sunstein describes, ordinary Germans could have spent time reinforcing this anti-Semitism by “hanging around with people they agreed with”, this could have led to strengthening the intellectual belief that Jews were bad or were the cause of all problems and failures of the German people, etc. It could have led to distrust, aversion or even hatred of Jews.

    But how could this turn ordinary people into monsters that murdered other human beings and even enjoyed doing it? In the case of Nazi Germany, Jews were dehumanized by the propaganda machine, so that the murderers were no longer killing other human beings, they were simply exterminating a lower species, much in the same way as an insect would be squashed if it became a nuisance.

    In Rwanda the Hutus “chopped tall wood” (Tutsis) rather than killing other human beings with their machetes.

    Fortunately, the fanaticism of the AGW crowd has not taken on these dimensions. Non-believers in the premise that AGW is a serious threat are not dehumanized. They are simply ridiculed as “climate deniers”, “flat earthers”, etc.

    Some of the more fanatical AGW groupies one meets on the pro-AGW sites resort to stronger ad hom attacks, which reveal that there is, indeed, an underlying hatred for those who dare to question their belief that AGW is a threat.

    But there is no question that extremism (and even fanaticism) are inbred as Sunstein shows.


  3. John A

    To your comment that CA blocks supportive comments, I would add that the site moderators go out of their way to avoid any “non-mainstream” critiques of the AGW premise from being discussed on the site.

    This probably makes sense.

    There is enough good and universally accepted empirical evidence questioning the premise that AGW is a serious threat, so one does not need to resort to more questionable lines of argumentation (which could be used by the other side to accuse the site of espousing “crackpot” hypotheses).

    But I would agree with you that CA errs on the side of caution here, if at all.


  4. Those statements about group behaviour apply to all of us all the time. The only way to prevent groups of like minded people forming is to have no social or other interaction at all.

    There are also positive examples of group behavious such as Amnesty International, Medicines Sans Frontieres, Greenpeace etc. And all left wing social governments are made up of like minded people.

  5. Roger:

    Sunstein isn’t condemning ‘group behavior’, only examining a particular mechanism that allows like-minded people who combine into certain kinds of groups to think in ways that they would probably consider quite unacceptable if they were not part of a group.

    An example might be to claim that there is some similarity between the behavior that led to the rise of fascism, the Rwandan genocide, Islamic terrorism and the banking crisis, as instanced by Sunstein, and Amnesty International Medicines Sans Frontier among the examples that you use.

    Group behavior is not the problem, only aberrant behavior that can, in some circumstances, result when the individual’s normal behavior is modified, in ways that would otherwise seem unacceptable, as a result of identifying with a group.

    An example might be the Royal Society’s attempt to cut off funding of think tanks that question the mainstream view on climate change.

  6. Over the past year the former and founding Director of the Tyndall Centre, Mike Hulme, has pleased many of the sceptical persuasion with his more balanced views on climate, typically represented here: (harmlesssky, June 6th, 2009, We should all listen to Mike Hulme).

    However after his book writing sabbatical, he is now back at UEA and has to earn his salary again after his year of freedom…

    “More evidence doesn’t change minds”

    “More and better scientific data on climate change will only convince the convinced – a new study shows that people will question the research behind climate change if the results clash with their beliefs.”

    “The difference in attitudes comes from the participants’ personal views:

    for the Denying group it’s easier to question the scientific data than to adjust their ideas about climate change, argue the authors.

    For the Engaging group, those already convinced of the dangers of climate change, it was not as difficult to assimilate another piece of scientific evidence.

    This means that ‘just more science or communicating science to people with louder voices will not change any minds – we have to engage with people’s beliefs and values to make a difference and change behaviours,’ says Hulme.”

    This is arrogant and patronising, how dare we deniers question “The Science”.

    It really says we are “thinking the wrong thoughts”, as with the Irish and the Lisbon Treaty.

    It also harks back to Hulme’s Guardian review of Singer and Avery’s book, “Global Warming, Every 1500 years” when he said: “Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking, although science will gain some insights into the question if it recognises the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists – and politicians – must trade (normal) truth for influence.” (quoted in Melanie Philips diary, March 2007, http://www.melaniephillips.com/diary/?p=1469)

    Anyway I’ve always thought of myself as quite an engaging sort of denier.

  7. Dennis:

    A discussion between Sunstein and Hulme would be quite interesting, wouldn’t it.

  8. This post at the New York Times website seems to be a very good example of the kind of pressures that can develop within a group:

    Researcher Condemns Conformity Among His Peers

    Dr Shiller’s use of the word ‘terminate’ is particularly chilling.

  9. You know, I didn’t even see Casper’s comment when I made mine (how could I miss that?). Sorry Casper, you had it first!

  10. I see that Sunstein has now expanded his paper into a short book, but with a slightly changed emphasis.

    On Rumours: How Falsehoods Spread, Why we Believe them, WHa can be Done, Cass Sunstein, Alen Lane/Penduin, £16.99, 112pp

    Better Price at Amazon

    Even better price at ABEBooks

  11. Welcome Terri.

  12. Brute,

    Don’t bother to talk to Terri. Its just a spam!

    You should learn to be more sceptical!

  13. “We wonder – how can this have happened?”

    Ever considered the possibility that its because the “remarkable unanimity of politicians, the media, public institutions and,….. scientists” are probably right?

  14. Don’t bother to talk to Terri. Its just a spam!

    How ya been Pete? Everything ok down under?

    Hope you haven’t become water logged from the manmade CO2 induced “drought” in Australia……….

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