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Heartland Billboards on Climate Change. The Dangerous Ignorance of Ideology

       This is just stunning. In fact, it’s hard to believe it’s true. But the Heartland Institute, a fiercely conservative and libertarian think tank that champions denial of climate change, is running billboards in Chicago featuring pictures of notorious criminals, like Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) and Charles Manson, next to the message “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” Heartland says they may feature Osama bin Laden on future ads.

            Can they be serious? Can they possibly think that this will persuade anyone to doubt the overwhelming evidence about climate change, because a few people who are not only criminals, but mentally ill, believe it’s real? Can you imagine anyone with a shred of self-respect for his or her intelligence, even arch conservative climate change deniers, buying the case that climate change can’t be real because Charles Manson and the Unabomber think it is!?

            But what’s really going on here is not about intellect, or even persuasion. In fact, it teaches a scary lesson about how little our intellect, and how much our passions, have to do with our views, and how much that impedes progress. On their face these billboards, and Heartland’s explanation for them (in the run-up to their 7th annual climate change denial conference), seem to be part of an earnest effort to deny climate change. They reiterate standard denialist claims, like “the best available science says about two-thirds of the warming in the 1990s was due to natural causes, not human activities; the warming trend of the second half of the twentieth century already has stopped and forecasts of future warming are unreliable; and the benefits of a moderate warming are likely to outweigh the costs.”

        But the bulk of Heartland’s justification for this campaign veers far from the facts of climate change, and falls deeply into chasm of closed-minded passionate ideology. The designers of the campaign might not have even realized it themselves, but this isn’t designed to persuade others as much as it is to reinforce the existing beliefs of the already-established true believers. It is far less an appeal to reason, and far more a campaign to preach to the choir, to circle the ideological wagons of the members of the tribe, and rally the troops around Heartland’s views on climate change and their deeply conservative and libertarian ideals.

     There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and of course, every tribe does it. Such passionate closed-minded denial of the evidence is certainly true of the extreme and apocalyptic claims about nuclear power or genetically modified food from some who call themselves environmentalists. But this campaign goes further, because the ideological passion here is so virulent that it has left credibility in the dust and ultimately makes Heartland, and the tribe it represents, seem more ignorant in their visceral passion than thoughtful, credible, or persuasive about the views they’d like others to adopt.

     That may seem harsh. But take a moment to consider these statements from Heartland’s justification for their billboards. They suggest that associating Kaczynski and Manson with climate change undercuts the whole case for global warming because “…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.” So, because a couple notorious whackos so it’s so, don’t believe anybody who does!? How utterly ridiculous! And if that tortured argument doesn’t stun any reasonable thinker – even intelligent climate change doubters – try this one. Heartland goes on to charge that “The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”  Good lord, how childishly, embarrassingly foolish! Some more prominent advocates of global warming than Kaczynski and Manson include such ‘murders, tyrants, and madmen’ as the Pope, the Dalai Lama, most Nobel Prize winners, the heads of pretty much every university on the planet, etc. 

     There is a message here for all of us, and it goes far beyond the issue of climate change. To some degree, we all behave this way. We argue our beliefs based on the facts, but in fact we subconsciously shape our beliefs so they agree with the group, the tribe, with which we most strongly identify. That strengthens our tribe’s acceptance of us as a member in good standing, and produces social cohesion that strengthens our tribe’s dominance in overall society. This is a powerful subconscious imperative because acceptance by our tribe and our tribe’s overall dominance are both important for the safety and survival of social animals like us. (This phenomenon has been called Cultural Cognition.)

     But this Heartland campaign should make dramatically clear how dangerously far beyond reason this tendency can take us. The more driven we are to circle the wagons in pursuit of the safety of social cohesion, the more we abandon intellect and careful critical thinking, and the dumber we get (and the dumber, and less influential, we look and sound to others). And the more closed our minds become!  The utter abandonment of reason demonstrated in this Heartland billboard campaign is just one example of a lot of the fiercely polarized, virulently closed-minded no-room-for-compromise, no-hope-for-progress combat that passes for ‘debate’ in American society these days. What a much MUCH more dangerous world that makes it, for all of us.


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