Hiding the Social beneath Climate Change’s Rule of Thumb

The cognitive heuristic behaviour model has become very prevalent in the social science of public responses to climate change (Weber, 2006; Mooney, 2011: Biegler, 2012). This model has been inspired by the ideas of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist much lauded in the sphere of social science (Burkeman, 2011). His research has been based on identifying various reaction tendencies in how humans judge or problem-solve through the application of practical shortcuts or rules of thumb referred to as heuristics. These heuristics draw upon a variety of cognitive biases. Weber (2006) describes the heuristic of the “finite pool of worry” bias where people are deemed to limit their worries to a minimum amount of threats (p: 116). The model argues that when other threats, such as terrorism, become more salient people tend to neglect their fears concerning climate change (ibid).

Some of these cognitive biases offer useful descriptions of decision-making and judgement: most notably “confirmation bias” wherein people exhibit the “tendency to overemphasise anything that confirms what [they] already believe” (Douglas, 2011). Regarding climate change, the confirmation bias is exhibited when contrarians visit websites that only support the contrarian position or by “cherry-picking” supportive data such as viewing temperature declines during short time-periods as proof against global warming (Mooney, 2011).

Although heuristic models step beyond the ideas of the rational calculating person, they  often reproduce a similar uncritical biological determinism that overlooks the role of society. While the literature recognises that such heuristics can develop out of experience through “trial and error” (Douglas, 2011) advocates of the model often neglect this more socially sensitive genesis in favour of an evolutionary biological origin. Many view human biases as having been hard-wired in the brain as a result of evolutionary development (Winter and Koger, 2004: 5) and often as part of “fight-or-flight reflexes” (Gardner, 2008; Biegler, 2012). They generally support this explanation through the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. Starting with the premise of hunter-gatherer genetic leftovers or hard-wiring as explanation for responsiveness, they then invent or generalise some ancient hunter-gatherer recurrence to support specific claims about how we operate (Biegler, 2012; Camakaris, 2012). For some it seems the miniscule nature of civilisation’s 12,000 years on earth in comparison to the vast period spent in the Stone Age is treated as concrete proof that evolution has anachronistically locked the reflexes of our brain (Gardner, 2008; Camakaris, 2012). This evolutionary hard-wiring emphasis neglects how these reflexes might be influenced by socially and culturally induced dispositions (Bourdieu, 2005: 247).

Essentially the inherent weakness in this approach is the rendering of society as the ‘forgotten other’. The evolutionary psychology explanations and heuristic models often obliterate the role of societal contexts by standardising individual psychologies; over-emphasising ancient pre-civilisation legacies and selfish gene survival strategies. This nullifies the roles of class, institutions, infrastructure, social structure and community and thereby rendering invisible options for societal change. Therefore it is little wonder that the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology seem at least partially responsible for the sense of hopelessness found in the writings of some advocates, scientists and academics (e.g. Hagens, 2010). Gibbons (2011) views behavioural change as largely trapped by the supposedly self-interested survival predispositions of our “reptilian brain” (Rees, 2010).(1) The scientist Lovelock (2009) harbours obvious views on a human nature evolving too slowly for to respond sufficiently to the ecological crisis (p: 80), adding to the overwhelming bleakness of his future climate change imaginary (Vince, 2009b).

Potentially the rigid views on human behaviour promoted by heuristic models and evolutionary psychology will play a potent role in influencing climate change debates in the years to come. This is especially so now that rational choice or conscious calculation explanations are so easily exposed. Bourdieu recognised how the dominance of a particular vision of the world is supported by the close fit between objective structures and cognitive structures in order to conceal its arbitrariness: e.g., gender domination is aided by the distinctions between male/female. There is much in these heuristics and evolutionary psychology theories that is likely to be a close fit to the objective and cognitive structures of elite players in decarbonisation. High-ranking environmentalists, policy-makers, and especially the array of geoscientists schooled in the art of studying the material world will likely see legitimacy in the scientificity (apparent rather than actual science) of the Darwinian-backed hard materiality of reptilian brain, hardwiring and dopamine receptor type explanations.

 

1. Although Rees describes a co-evolutionary relationship between culture and biologically determined behaviour – calling for a rewriting of the cultural narrative away from destructive economic growth and towards sustainable equality – the meme effect of reptilian brain itself is potential fodder for promoting ideas of an immutable humanity.

Bibliography

Biegler P (2012) How we evolved to reject climate science. The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.edu.au/how-we-evolved-to-reject-climate-science-10711 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Bourdieu P (2005) The Social Structures of the Economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Burkeman O (2011) Daniel Kahneman: ‘We’re beautiful devices’. The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/nov/14/daniel-kahneman-psychologist [Accessed 12/03/2012].
Camakaris H (2012) Don’t trust your Stone Age brain: it’s unsustainable The Conversation [Online]. Available at: https://theconversation.com/dont-trust-your-stone-age-brain-its-unsustainable-9075 [Accessed 21/04/2013].
Douglas K (2011) Decision time: How subtle forces shape your choices New Scientist, 2838.
Gardner D (2008) Risk. London: Virgin Books Limited.
Gibbons J (2011) The decline and fall of the Human Empire. ThinkorSwim.ie [Online]. Available at: http://www.thinkorswim.ie/index.php/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-human-empire/.
Hagens N (2010) The Psychological Roots of Resource Overconsumption. In: Douthwaite R & Fallon G (eds.) Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic collapse Dublin: Feasta,
Lovelock J (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. New York: Basic Books.
Mooney C (2011) The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones, May/June
Rees W (2010) Whats blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy [Online], 6. Available at: http://sspp.proquest.com/archives/vol6iss2/1001-012.rees.html [Accessed 02/02/2014].
Vince G (2009) One last chance to save mankind New Scientist (2692).
Weber E U (2006) Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: why global warming does not scare us (yet) Climatic Change 77: 103-120.
Winter D D N, Koger S M (2004) The Psychology of Environmental Problems. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 

Piketty’s Praise for Social Science in his Criticism of US Economists

His comment on the self-deluding properties of the prestige (symbolic capital) of the US economists and the mention of ‘scientificity’ reminds me so much of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

From page 32 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. This, in any case, is the charm of the discipline and of the social sciences in general: one starts from square one, so that there is some hope of making major progress. In France, I believe, economists are slightly more interested in persuading historians and sociologists, as well as people outside the academic world, that what they are doing is interesting (although they are not always successful). My dream when I was teaching in Boston was to teach at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, whose faculty has included such leading lights as Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Françoise Héritier, and Maurice Godelier, to name a few. Dare I admit this, at the risk of seeming chauvinistic in my view of the social sciences? I probably admire these scholars more than Robert Solow or even Simon Kuznets, even though I regret the fact that the social sciences have largely lost interest in the distribution of wealth and questions of social class since the 1970s. Before that, statistics about income, wages, prices, and wealth played an important part in historical and sociological research. In any case, I hope that both professional social scientists and amateurs of all fields will find something of interest in this book, starting with those who claim to “know nothing about economics” but who nevertheless have very strong opinions about in equality of income and wealth, as is only natural.

Note the nod to Bourdieu

Bourdieu on Sex and Domination

A political sociology of the sexual act would show that, as is always the case in a relation of domination, the practices and representations of the two sexes are in no way symmetrical. Not only because, even in contemporary European and American societies, young men and women have very different points of view on the love relation, which men most often conceive in terms of conquest (especially in conversations between friends, which give a prominent place to boasting about female conquests), but also because the sexual act itself is seen by men as a form of domination, appropriation, ‘possession’. Hence the discrepancy between the probable expectations of men and women as regards sexuality -and the misunderstandings, linked to misinterpretation of sometimes deliberately ambiguous or deceptive ‘signals’, which result from this. In contrast to women, who are socially prepared to see sexuality as an intimate and emotionally highly charged experience which does not necessarily include penetration but which can contain a wide range of activities (talking, touching, caressing, embracing, etc.), men are inclined to compartmentalize sexuality, which is conceived as an aggressive and essentially physical act of conquest oriented towards penetration and orgasm. And although, on this point like all the others, there are of course very great variations according to social position, age -and previous experience -it can be inferred from a series of interviews that apparently symmetrical practices (such as fellatio and cunnilingus) tend to have very different significance for men (who are inclined to see them as acts of domination, through the submission and pleasure obtained) and for women. Male pleasure is, in part, enjoyment of female pleasure, of the power to give pleasure; and so Catherine MacKinnon is no doubt right to see the faking of orgasm as a perfect example of the male power to make the interaction between the sexes conform to the view of it held by men, who expect the female orgasm to provide a proof of their virility and the pleasure derived from this extreme form of submission. Similarly, sexual harassment does not always aim at the sexual possession that seems to be its exclusive goal: in some cases it may aim at sheer possession, the pure affirmation of domination in its pure state…
…If the sexual relation appears as a social relation of domination, this is because it is constructed through the fundamental principle of division between the active male and the passive female and because this principle creates, organizes, expresses and directs desire -male desire as the desire for possession, eroticized domination, and female desire as the desire for masculine domination, as eroticized subordination or even, in the limiting case, as the eroticized recognition of domination” (Bourdieu, 2001: 20-1)

BOURDIEU, P. 2001. Masculine Domination, Stanford University Press.

 

Bourdieu and the ‘Mind-forg’d Manacles’ of Journalism

Bourdieu defined the media as comprised of “doxosophers” in that they disseminate doxa: a set of “presuppositions that are regarded as self-evident and so outside the field of discussion” (McCullagh, 2007: 140). Often lacking the necessary critical training, journalists operate as merely the public voice of doxa, parroting its presumptions. In this way, they create and distribute a particular worldview in the guise of analysis, description and discussion, which unwittingly and uncritically reinforces pre-existing categories of perception (Bourdieu, 1998: 7), along with cultural and social hierarchies. Thus they define for many what is salient, relevant, worthy of consideration. They also delineate between what is good/bad, polite/vulgar, male/female, worthy/unworthy, expert/non-expert – the list is endless.

 

Bibliography

Bourdieu P (1998) Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

McCullagh C (2007) Modern Ireland, Modern Media, Same Old Story. In: O’sullivan S (ed.) Contemporary Ireland: A Sociological Map. Dublin: UCD Press.

A Summary of My Research on Public Receptivity to Climate Change

SmallerA strangely metaphorical photo of an oil tank that blew over during an extreme weather event: when ‘Storm Darwin’ hit Ireland at the start of 2014.

Somehow I have whittled down my doctoral thesis of over 300 pages on public receptivity to climate change  into a two-page summary which can be found by clicking here on the following link: Executive summary of a study of Irish public climate change receptivity.

As this is just a two-page summary it but touches on the substance of the thesis. For example I had to leave out the work on how broad societal power relations manifested within the focus group discussions, which was too complex to reduce to one or two sentences. For a more in-depth reading of the research an online copy of the thesis itself can be found by clicking here. For a quicker route through the thesis I would recommend reading the findings chapters 5 to 8. I would argue that chapter 4 is also an essential chapter while sections 2.3 to 2.3.5 provide my interpretation of Bourdieu’s main concepts which are used throughout. Chapter 1 may have to be read if you find yourself getting lost.

Part 1 of my Introductory Lecture on Bourdieu

A while back I took the liberty of recording on a Dictaphone my first ever lecture. I attached the recording to a video composed of the lecture’s slides. I uploaded it to YouTube and recently it went over 10,000 views. Now I know that the viewcount is seriously flawed – people only have to watch a short period of a video before it counts as a view, but I have noticed in the stats that some people have watched it in its entirety.

As it is my first lecture there are a few ahhs and amms and I say ‘such that’ for some reason way too much – I don’t believe I use the phrase in everyday conversation. Also it was done during cold and flu season there is also the problem of the background coughing, which my Dictaphone picked up way too clearly.

For part 2 I forgot to turn on the voice-recorder but I have been meaning to piece the second part together. Perhaps I’ll sit down over Christmas and get it sorted.

Anyway this is my first time linking to the lecture on this blog. I feel it makes for a useful introduction for newcomers to Bourdieu whose work can so easily remain convoluted and abstract if it’s not grounded in illustrative examples from the world of the everyday:

“Citizens need to understand that they are consumers”: Irish Water and the Language of Disenfranchisement

Nonameef

The above slide is taken from a presentation called Building Irish Water. After Kerrigan’s article spoke of its existence I did some googling and sure enough I found the slide in two versions of Irish Water presentations online: one bearing the name of Jerry Grant Head of Asset Management for Irish Water, and the other copy is part of an EPA conference presentation given by Dr John Tierney, Irish Water’s Managing Director. The slide lays out their basic marketing objective which is to shift public perceptions of their relationship to water services from that of citizens with water rights to the more compliant role of “consumers” and then “customers”. So much for civic engagement, sounds more like civic disenfranchisement. Continue reading