Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why are so many IT workers climate change denialists?

Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems that climate change denialism is even more common among programmer and sysadmin types than among engineers and applied scientists more generally. Without diving into climate science*, here are a few brief hypotheses.

  • Computers teach you to think in logic. Climate change modeling relies on the synthesis of a large number of statistical correlations rather than crisp rules of inference. Although logic and statistics are related (probability strictly generalizes logic, in a precise mathematical sense), a mind too narrowly conditioned to thinking in syllogisms may find it hard to reason statistically.
  • Computing workers spend a lot of time on the Internet, and are disproportionately likely to be white, male, and libertarian. Climate change denialism is seen as not only respectable but intellectually heroic by (a significant faction of) the tribe of white, male, libertarian Internet users. (Arguably this merely begs the question, however, as the direction of causality may go the other way.)
  • Computing workers are more socially isolated than people belonging to the same socioeconomic class. Because they spend less time around an intelligent, well-educated peer group, they are less socialized to defer to the knowledge of others.
  • Computing workers spend all their time around intricate machines which (a) they understand better than the general public, and (b) the general public has become heavily reliant upon. This breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds disrespect for expertise in general. Disrespect for climatologists is simply a special case of this phenomenon. This, however, is true of almost any profession involving specialized knowledge, from plumbing to physical therapy to nursing; so this factor might not prove decisive, except for the next bullet...
  • Computing workers are, on average, more "autistic" and less "empathetic" on the autism/empathy spectrum. That is, they are unusually incompetent at modeling the mental and emotional states of other people. As a result, they fail to place themselves in the shoes of professional climatologists. That is, they do not imagine that most professional climatologists have worked hard to become experts in an esoteric and demanding (which is to say nerdy) intellectual discipline; might be driven by passion and curiosity and a desire to get it right; might along the way have been exposed to vast volumes of knowledge with which the lay observer is not familiar. In short, it is much easier to view literally thousands of scientists worldwide as a species of fools, liars, and conspirators when one assumes that they are nothing like oneself. (I strongly suspect that fewer IT workers would be climate change denialists if they realized that climate scientists are natural science geeks like them, whereas the primary beneficiaries of climate change denialism are corporate suits who were probably shoving geeks into lockers in high school.)

*About which, er, you can say whatever you like, but I'm going to listen to this guy.


  1. Never commented here before but have been suckin' on the feed for quite a while (years).

    All I have to say is, yep. In fact since I'm apparently guilty of some of the socialization observations you describe above, I wasn't aware of the prevalence of denialist views among IT people till I started attending a linux user's group in rural Arizona. They're almost all nuts, and it's not at all confined to climate science. Aggresive about it too. Big big puzzle.

    So I started reading Deltoid et al, but after half a decade, I'm no closer to understanding. It just seems to be the way it is.

  2. I don't especially want to get myself labeled as a "denialist," but it it possible that greater familiarity with computer software leads to greater distrust of computer models? I think there's a general tendency among non-programmers to venerate computers and software: if the computer says something, that counts as strong evidence that it's correct. (See: e-voting) People who know what's going on under the hood understand that software, and especially complex simulations, embed a large number of assumptions that may or may not be correct. Given that simulation results are one of the key bits of evidence for the catastrophic climate change narrative, it doesn't seem crazy that computer programmers would be harder to convince.

    Since you weren't very specific about what you mean by "climate change denialism," it's a little hard to be sure whether this explanation applies to the people you have in mind. Obviously, people who think the Earth hasn't warmed, or that man-made greenhouse gasses haven't contributed to it, are not going to be motivated by skepticism of computer models. But if you count as "denialists" people who think global warming is happening, but won't be as catastrophic as the consensus models suggest, I think their skepticism could be motivated in part by suspicion of simulation results.

  3. Why is your intuitive skepticism (and general skepticism among IT workers) so strongly asymmetric? That is, why are most skeptics so certain that it will be less severe than the median simulated prediction, not more severe?

    And if we believe the error's symmetric, then, as Posner states here---

    ---that's just more reason to act.

    Of course, that is itself a good explanation for asymmetric skepticism. If IT workers view environmentalists as a tribal enemy, then, by reasoning backwards from the goal of opposing environmentalist policy prescriptions, one can arrive at the belief that consensus climate models universally exhibit error in only one direction.

  4. Models that can exhibit large errors tend to exhibit them in the direction that the modellers would prefer. That's why real sciences use double-blind testing.

    Anyone who doesn't know what results climate "scientists" are looking for isn't paying attention.

  5. My guess it that IT people have a libertarian streak that makes them reject statist solutions. Of course, the irony is that inaction on climate change might lead to more intrusive government intervention later on.