06 Dec 2007

The Cascading Consensus Behind Global Warming

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Holman Jenkins, in the Wall Street Journal, describes the way the popular culture of the mainstream media forms its consensus of intellectual conformity, and how some clever people respond.

Availability cascade” has been coined for the way a proposition can become irresistible simply by the media repeating it; “informational cascade” for the tendency to replace our beliefs with the crowd’s beliefs; and “reputational cascade” for the rational incentive to do so.

Mr. Gore clearly understands the game he’s playing, judging by his resort to such nondispositive arguments as: “The people who dispute the international consensus on global warming are in the same category now with the people who think the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona.”

Here’s exactly the problem that availability cascades pose: What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged “consensus” arrived at their positions by counting heads?

It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon. It shouldn’t. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof; many devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses (especially well-funded hypotheses) they’ve chosen to believe.

Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy. For them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.

With politicians and lobbyists, of course, you are dealing with sophisticated people versed in the ways of public opinion whose very prosperity depends on positioning themselves via such cascades. Their reactions tend to be, for that reason, on a higher intellectual level.

Take John Dingell. He told an environmental publication last year that the “world . . . is great at having consensuses that are in great error.” Yet he turned around a few months later and introduced a sweeping carbon tax bill, which would confront Congress more frontally than Congress cares to be confronted with a rational approach to climate change if Congress really believes human activity is responsible.

Mr. Dingell is no fool. Is he merely trying to embarrass those who offer fake cures for climate change at the expense of out-of-favor industries such as Mr. Dingell’s beloved Detroit?

Take Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist working with Kleiner Perkins, a firm Mr. Gore joined last month to promote alternative energy investments. Mr. Khosla told a recent Senate hearing: “One does not need to believe in climate change to support climate change legislation. . . . Many executives would prefer to deal with known legislation even if unwarranted.”

Mr. Khosla is no fool either. His argument is that the cascade itself is a reason that politicians can gain comfort by getting aboard his agenda.

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