Thursday, July 1, 2010


I read Joe Romm’s post last night, which speculates on the outcome of the public having “perfect climate information”.  Romm, who writes the widely applauded blog Climate Progress, was responding to a post by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth, another widely read green blog.

The discussion is about climate science and its trajectory.  Romm’s thesis in a nutshell says that if we had “perfect” climate information and if there didn’t exist the campaign of disinformation against climate science, we’d be looking at a far more encouraging scenario today.  In his opening remarks, he says that
“If the entire public had perfect information on all matters related to climate — the science and the solutions — we would certainly be on a path to below 450 ppm.”
To take the second part of the argument first: I believe that Joe is correct in identifying the destruction wrought by the disinformation campaign against climate science, and its enabling media coverage, whose oxymoronic low point was for me marked by Sarah Palin’s op-ed (the logical contradiction of such a concept boggles the mind) on cap-and-trade in the Washington Post. 

However, I don’t think the matter is really as simple as Romm suggests. 

The fundamental debate I see here is between the point of view of classical economics which sees the public as a homogeneous group of rational economic actors motivated by a combination of information, facts and their logically projected outcomes, and behavioral economics – which sees the public as an entirely different kettle of fish.

The problem (and the logical dilemma in Romm’s argument) I think is exemplified by the part of his post that, referring to the eventual death of the debate about global cooling in the 1970s at the hands of robust scientific information, says (emphasis mine):
“Obviously, if everybody had even that amount of information in 1979, we would have charted a very different course.  We would have immediately started investing heavily in low-carbon RD&D — a strategy many embrace today based on imperfect information.

Ironically, President Carter did start such heavy alternative energy investment (though not aimed at carbon), but Reagan tragically slashed the budget 70% to 90%, from which it never recovered.”
The first part of the quote reveals a logical optimism straight out of the handbook of classical economics.  The second part is also instructive.  It’s fair to presume that Carter took the action he did in part because he was well informed – he had access to good (if not perfect) information.  So the question is: why did Reagan take the action he did?  Obviously (since his action was subsequent to Carter’s), he had access to the same information that Carter had used to make his decision.  But, Reagan essentially took the opposite action.

This, to me, is the crux of the matter.

Access to information is a condition that’s necessary, but not sufficient, to produce the outcome that classical economics would predict.  People given good information about present actions and their influence on future outcomes do not necessarily do the right thing.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes, they don’t.

Take the problem of obesity, for example.  The causes of non-pathological weight gain are well known; so is information on the necessary offsetting actions.  With the advent of the internet, there has been, for the past decade, widespread public access to near-perfect information on how to avoid this particular problem.  But, according to the World Health Organization, obesity is a growing problem, now of epidemic proportions globally. 

On the other side of the coin, the other important point here is that: I have never heard of a program of disinformation against the evils of obesity (clearly there’s a program of persuasion, by way of advertising and so on, to convince hapless burger-eaters to add layers of cheese and bacon to their already bulging double-decker burgers, but that’s not the same thing).  So, by Romm’s argument, the existence of good information on the one hand and the absence of disinformation on the other should naturally tip the scales towards a slim, healthy population.  This of course is the opposite of what has actually happened. 

A question is raised here.  Is it that climate information is somehow different to information about other important stuff – so that perfect information in this realm would produce the desired outcome?  I don’t know of any evidence to suggest this.

A complicating factor I think is the possibility that there’s a sort of cognitive imbalance where information is concerned.  The effects of the two extremes are not equivalent; and the negative effect of disinformation tends to be greater than the positive effect of perfect information (isn’t that one reason why many political scare tactics are effective?). 

Is this so?  According to TIME’s November 26, 2006 cover story on risk:
“Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we'd get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. We agonize over avian flu, which to date has killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger and worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.

We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities, building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones.”
I believe this represents a facet of the human condition, which isn’t perfect and is unlikely, anytime soon, to be changed by perfect information alone.

A commenter on Joe’s post sums it up thus:
“Information? Learn from the advertising industry. The general rule of thumb is that people must see or hear your message at least 23 times before they even recognise a brand name or a key word.  And then what do you do if someone else is delivering an opposing message during this time? And if a couple of hundred someonelses are delivering undermining or opposing or swamping messages? A couple of thousands?  The only way is to keep doing it and get better at it.”
So, what’s needed?  Better information: definitely.  Stronger fights against disinformation: absolutely.  A mistake I think President Obama made in the so-called health care ‘debate’ was that he did not immediately and repeatedly call out the idiotic 'death panels' lie for what it was.  But our information also needs to be better presented, vividly and repeatedly.  At least twenty three times?

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