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Rage against the dying light and its effect on public opinion in the internet age

October 19, 2010

“Our response to disturbing information is very complex. We negotiate it. We don’t just take it in and respond in a rational way”.

Kari Norgaard

The negotiation takes different forms, as do the policy responses that sociologist Kari Norgaard considers in her World Bank white paper “Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change.”

As in all things, we humans are complex both in our aims and ambitions, a point I started to think about when poster ‘watching the deniers’ offered this observation in response to my article Is Science Inherently Socialist?

 “Essentially, the argument the deniers put forward is that climate science is political. They’ve made this category mistake because our response to AGW is public policy. They therefore assume that the science MUST be political, a kind of genetic fallacy”.

 The observation I want to make is that, in the main, I don’t think climate change denial is quite what it appears to be, and consequently I don’t think the precepts, the drivers of denial, are thoughtfully developed. They may have more to do with reaction – and demographics – than ‘a category mistake’.

Denialism in the wide-angle lens

With no originality whatever, I have observed that climate change denial has many features in common with many regressive movements, agenda or objectives, from creationism to foreign policy via socialised medicine and fear of the ‘other’ (e.g. immigration). The conservative agenda is always laced with anxiety, just as the socialist one is laced with patronisingly paternal good intentions. This kind of conservatism is as much of a problem in business as it is in policy: if you have an interest in the broader topic of denial, you might enjoy this article from the Harvard School of Business: Is Denial Endemic to Management?, including the science-affirming observation that “What gets measured is what gets managed.”

It’s very notable how climate change denial is incoherent as a movement. Ask any denier what’s driving ‘fake’ AGW and the answers are likely to be as diverse as the things that make us anxious – from energy concerns to evil communism, via elitist science, conspiratorial bankers and proponents of world government. More splinters than a wood yard.  

The same is true of other demographics. Denial doesn’t depend on race, creed, nationality or religion, employment or social status. In fact, there may be very little common ground between deniers, which is why they don’t actually work very well together – and perhaps that’s just as well. (As an aside, many commentators observe how diffuse the US Tea Party movement seems to be – from disaffected conservative centrists all the way down to the KKK wannabees – hard to ascribe any specific views to the movement as a whole. Only their anger really unites them – and possibly their love of guns – but I anticipate the movement falling apart when there’s something serious to win or lose, and the various factions turn on each other. Christ, I hope so, anyway).

Early Retirement

There is one demographic that unites many expressions of dissent, and that is age. It has come to dominate much discourse in the developed nations through an influence whose effects on society we cannot yet accurately assess: the internet.

I used to post a lot in the Guardian climate change threads – not so much now, because the arguments are so silly and so circular. It’s like arguing with my dad, and that’s my point. These people are there every day, all day long. It’s like they are on a mission. Clearly they don’t have jobs, and over time you get to know a little about these folk. They mention grandchildren or pensions. They refer to their profession in the past tense. They are often bad-tempered and irascible, plainly and deliberately contrarian, and occasionally quite confused. As I’ve written elsewhere, I deal a lot with patterns, and here’s one we can all recognise.

So let’s compile a few well-known patterns to paint a picture. A retired male, probably middle-management. Kids have gone, don’t call much. The pension is worth 10% of what he expected, or has evaporated completely. He’s not sure if his life is a success or a failure, but he knows for sure it’s largely behind him. His joints ache and he isn’t steady on his feet like he used to be. Gets his glasses confused and can’t see more than a few feet half the time. He is lonely, bored out of his mind, scared of the future and risk averse, longing for a mythical past he was never really happy in. He doesn’t like to go out so much because he feels like a potential victim. Disillusion, anger, anxiety, resources diminishing as fast as his body is failing. Not much to look forward to, and few alternatives to the mind-pap afternoon TV to occupy him.

Enter the internet.  Adopt a nice pseudonym, track down those lefties, and pick a fight. It’s the perfect scenario for those whose minds are rusting up, who can’t take in all this new information, who distrust authority and believe government – along with everyone else – is out to ‘get’ them, one way or another. It doesn’t matter what the agenda is, what the argument is about. There will be liberals to chastise, socialists to taunt, environmentalists to abuse, and of course science to dismiss.

Quite how pervasive is this influence of the aged? Hard to tell, but I’m not merely speculating. I wrote recently about the demographics of environmental sites: I was surprised to find how much the 65+ group were over-represented. But it makes sense. This isn’t something sinister, it’s a combination of obvious effects. Increased life-expectancy means that while my grandfather died at a respectable 65 and was considered to have done well, my parents are still going strong mid-80s, and expect to keep going for a while.

As the retirees multiplied and the pension funds looked increasingly fragile, simultaneously the internet infiltrated homes and offices with a speed that, for once, didn’t quite phase the old folk because they found an immediate affinity with it, an armchair liberation that saved them from decrepitude and uselessness. No longer waiting to die, the internet gives old people a world in which their age doesn’t matter, a re-engagement that makes them feel like an active part of society. Their influence may be profound, but it will also embed the same inflexibilities, the same aversion to risks, the embittered viewpoints tainted with reactionary longing. I’m sorry if my generalisation offends those who feel this is some kind of ageist rant, but before you condemn my analysis, consider in your own experience how many people you know over 70 who retain an open and flexible mind? I find from my own experience that they are in the minority, exceptions that affirm the rule.

My generation expects to live 25 years longer than my grandparents’ generation. We may live longer, but whether we really enjoy the struggle with the decaying machinery of our bodies is another matter. I’m starting to feel pissed off about it, even as I look for the right pair of glasses to read what I’m writing. I need something physically sedentary but mentally challenging. An arena in which I can still fight, still strut my stuff, but one where I can’t get hurt and if things get ugly I can just turn it all off and watch a soap opera. I throw the dice, and today it’s climate change.

Tomorrow? Sorry, not sure I have one, but if I’m still alive I’ll find something to rail at. To paraphrase Brando’s Wild One: “What are you rebelling against, Graham?”

 “What do you got?”  

13 Comments leave one →
  1. adelady permalink
    October 19, 2010 10:56 am

    I’m not (quite) as pessimistic as you, Graham. Being over 60 and married to an almost 70, unsurprisingly most of our friends are in the same age range or a bit older. None of us is fully retired.

    One big difference between current generations and the following ones is the age at which we have children. Children **do** keep you young. Having children mid 30s rather than mid 20s makes for a different family and personal dynamic. And being fit and healthy means that you keep working longer. Coming from families with a history of very long life, I have no intention of us subsiding into 30 years of pointless retirement. I feel that this will become a more common way of life among people who do not have the kind of jobs that exhaust the body – shearing, mining, old-style factory work.

    I know it’s a problem, but I doubt it will worsen much as time marches on.

  2. Dr. Tom permalink
    October 19, 2010 8:05 pm

    I’m in the age group that you talk about in the above post. I’m 73 and try and keep up with what’s going on in the world and with science in general. I read Science and Nature on a weekly basis. I’m trained as a geologist (Ph.D., 1968) but am active in climate research. I have a 2000 page manuscript on climate science with 25 6 pages of references in addition and without the glossary (which I’m working on now). I know that climate is our biggest concern for the 21st Century. I also know that our biggest problem is and will be conservatives who may be educated but haven’t had an original thought in a long time; possibly still think that the continents are stable and the Earth is flat. They deny that AGW is happening because we are headed for another “ice age” as one geologist (who taught for 30 years) stated in this morning’s local paper. Others recently have stated that climate science is a “hoax” and all scientists are “money hungry” for grants. These peoples are the “enemy” but wield political power, and are more likely than not to be even more powerful after the mid-term US election. I’m worried about that but I only have one vote.
    All the enlightened ones who keep active minds and continue to read widely and objectively and appreciate facts have to keep fighting the ignorant, stupid, and uneducated. There are powerful interests and money supporting deniers of AGW. Most of us elder folks do not have these resources but we need to keep communicating and fighting the good fight!
    Thanks for this blog and for John Cook and the work you and others are doing.

  3. October 19, 2010 10:56 pm

    Good piece.

    Did you see Monbiot’s encomium to “Terror Managemetn Theory”, which is basically arguing the same point – it’s the fear of mortality that drives the rage…

  4. Watching the Deniers permalink
    October 20, 2010 3:28 am


    Some interesting comments.

    I tend to agree there demographics play a part in determining one’s acceptance of the science. But it is not age alone: class, income, nationality and culture play a part.

    Let’s consider the US, a country whose population that may be ageing but whose average age is offset by births and immigration. Scepticism is realtively high there.

    Compare this to Europe with an ageing population, but where there is greater acceptance of the science than in the US. Europe is far less market orientated in its views than the US – is this what drives the difference in opinion?

    Some interesting statistics here:

    This report brings together polling date from around the world, so is a useful indicator.

    In some less developed parts of the world with much a much younger demographic rejecting AGW as a threat is higher than the US (Armenia)…

    Mexicans believe AGW is much more than a threat than their US counter parts. However, a large % of Israeli’s don’t accept AGW as a threat worth considering (perhaps they believe issues with their neighbours are more pressing?).

    Once you start to look you will see that acceptance of the science varies greatly in countries in surprising ways. In some developed countries acceptance is high (Australia and S. Korea). In others it is lower (USA).

    The reasons for denial are complex, and I don’t for a minute suggest it is simply a “category mistake”. Indeed, in my writings (see my blog, Google “watching the deniers”) I’ve tried to stress the role of an individuals values in making them susceptible to denial.

    Being a conservative, pro-market libertarian does not mean you have to deny climate change. However, the probabilities that you will reject the findings of the science are more likely.

    It also depends on access to media, education, Internet usage and social networks play a crucial role.

    I may have not been clear in my original point: I don’t see denial as simply a logical error. Many of the arguments used by climate sceptics demonstrate faulty reasoning. We know that.

    As to *why* they reject the science, we need to look at the psychology, culture and values of an individual more than anything else.

    Maybe the values of an older generation is at play?

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 20, 2010 8:01 am

    What thoughtful comments – my thanks to you all.

    Adelady: I’m two years short of my 60th, but my circle of acquaintances is similar to yours. It is of course the case that retired people have time to engage in many very constructive projects or issues, using that time in a manner you and I might admire. (In my investigation of internet demographics, the same age group was heavily over-represented on sites like Greenpeace and WWF). But in the same way we seem to be outnumbered by denialists in the debates, I suspect that proportion of retirees who maintain an active life, an enquiring an open mind and a tolerance for change are far outweighed by those who succumb to all the ravages of that dying light, and in doing so seek to express their disaffection by adopting a cause, whether its big government, the shadow of Marxism, climate change, healthcare, immigration and so on – the right wing causes that so many seem to favour as they get older.

    I don’t believe this is a process that changes much from generation to generation, and there is another factor I left out, which I think about a great deal: the speed of change. My generation has seen a most remarkable acceleration, mainly in the speed of communication. This means financial markets can collapse world-wide in a matter of hours. War crimes find their way to our living rooms minutes after being committed. Consumer values shift and realign at speeds designed to energise the young, leaving the rest of us baffled and bemused. Lies are propagated, defended and debunked in the course of a news cycle. Economies rise and fall, shares go up and down like a tart’s drawers. Protests spring up out of nowhere, only to dissipate even before we’ve understood what they were about.

    Computers have changed the very fabric of society, and I’m one of those who has brought this about (in a bloody modest way, mark you – my point being I’m all for computers, not despairing of them). But the level of vague, formless anxiety has, in my opinion, increased a great deal over my lifetime, as the comfort of limited information has been replaced by the uneasy relationship we have to vast amounts of the stuff. What to trust, where to look, which to select? I think many older people find this deeply disturbing, this lack of consistency, the sheer volatility of it all.

    My point is this: where a certain amount of ignorant bliss was fostered on the back of us not really knowing what was going on, between the media and the internet, we no longer have the luxury of that ignorance, nor the bliss we found within it. But neither do we have an explanation for what goes on, just dodgy reports from all and sundry, most of which we should not, or cannot, trust. The rate of change increases daily – and not in ways that are clearly beneficial – but our capacity to understand or control those changes seems to diminish along with those capacities we lose through the aging process itself. In such a world, such a threatening and volatile place where so few values beyond immediate gratification are promoted by the great and good (by example as much as anything), it isn’t surprising that so many older people hitch their wagons to the kind of unthinking dissent that rails against the very light they feel is slipping away from them.

    Dr. Tom: you speak of ‘the enemy’ but are deniers really bad people? Can we afford to paint them in such terribly broad brush-strokes? I think people like Beck, Limbaugh, Monckton, Griffin, Booker, Delingpole and their ilk are pretty disgusting, since they are so blatantly dishonest, but for the most part I find denialists to be confused and driven to irrationality. It is that which drives them to such foolishness that I am trying to understand, but demonising people will neither lead to better understanding, nor any kind of rapproachment. I’m am largely committed to the notion that no meeting of minds is possible, but that will not stop me from trying, and that is why I write this blog.

    Dwight: indeed, – really interesting and quite congruent in many respects with my own views. Interesting that he names a few ‘old’ hands; this is something else I’ve noticed that lent itself to my current analysis – the number of retired scientists, pundits and others, who support climate change scepticism or outright denial. Monbiot mentions Clive James, but consider also Lindzen, Plimer, Morner, Lawson, and the sorry mess of curmudgeonly nonsense coughed up by Lovelock recently (all that was missing from his scathing dismissal of ‘young scientists’ was to finish off with a resounding bit of BAH! HUMBUG!). And who but those closest to it really understand the profound and visceral fear of death, of the one thing none of us can argue with? Perhaps in some ways the anger I feel myself is a product of finding something I cannot defeat, I cannot argue with, cannot delay past my allotted time, and no amount of contrarian sophistry will fool for a second. I can’t play chess either, dammit!

    Watching the Deniers: I agree of course that other demographics come into play, but perhaps I didn’t really quite make clear that I was considering the effects of mass communication after the advent of the internet, combined with the change in demographics brought about by increased life-expectancy. It is true that many economic and social groupings, classes, nationalities and professions reflect a broad range of views, but they do not in my opinion have the influence over the public discourse available to those whose time isn’t limited by employment or family demands. The blogs and fora are not dominated by Mexican factory workers or Thai farmers, but by people who have dedicated their retirement to defeating socialism (etc).

  6. adelady permalink
    October 20, 2010 11:16 am

    G “But the level of vague, formless anxiety has, in my opinion, increased a great deal over my lifetime, as the comfort of limited information has been replaced by the uneasy relationship we have to vast amounts of the stuff.”

    Blame the media. And I mean it. That anxiety is reflected in the manufactured fear of paedophiles, home invasions and crime generally promoted by constant repetitions of events when the incidence of such things has barely changed or even improved. The classic is child sexual abuse. I read a survey result 10+ years ago – showing that men over 60 reported nearly double the rate of abuse as a child that men under 30 did. But the tone of the media leads people to believe that abuse is increasing – always and everywhere.

    The general media thrives on sensationalism. That usually requires something negative. That constant negativity which has absolutely no relevance to a person’s daily life undermines their contentment with a satisfactory standard of living in a peaceful community.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 20, 2010 11:35 am

    Adelady – spot on! Same with crime figures. We have scurrilous rags like the Daily Mail, who constantly rachet up the fear levels by making every mother believe their child will be abducted and abused if they don’t ferry them back and forth on the school run (and then wonder why their kids are getting fat). Same with robberies, violent crime and so on – crime stats say many types of crime are diminishing, while the newspapers tell us the exact opposite. Then again (and as you point out), since when did good news sell papers?

    I touch on the issue of free speech quite often, and of the broader civil liberties that enshrine such values. But unless the media is brought to heel and obliged to demonstrate some kind of responsibility towards what they print – something you and I have seen diminished over our lifetimes because when I was young there was no way the press would churn out the crap and lies they do now (not in any quantity, at least). When we confuse free speech with cheap speech, we are all diminished as a result.

  8. Dr. Tom permalink
    October 20, 2010 9:13 pm

    Graham, Thanks for your comment on my recent post. Those that you mentioned are definitely “enemies.” They have a preconceived agenda. Those with closed minds can be and are more likely to be bad people; witness the right wingers, Nazis, Neo-Nazis, skinheads, militias, etc. They purposefully are deniers of reality and constitute enemies to me, at least. In the US we are entering the crazy season, two weeks before the midterm elections and the conservatives are ranting and raving about taking the country back. They are motivated by conservative principles and many are paranoid. How can one talk facts with these people. It does no good.
    But not all conservatives are bad people. Most people have some values which are conservative. Many are confused and have no one to tell them the facts about AGW and many are professional people too busy to read much about the overwhelming evidence.
    I don’t mean to categorize deniers as any or all of the above, but they are guided by some of the same principles, i.e., conservatism. I used to believe that the answer to most idiotic ideas could be cured by education, and most can; then after 13 years as a professor I learned that not everyone is able to be educated.
    I am trying my best to be a climate scientist and read everything I can about the subject. Not all papers are good but most are. I also try to read some anti-AGW blogs like Anthony Watt’s “What’s up with That.” But I wonder how many deniers and skeptics read this blog and John Cook’s. How many people attempt to keep an open mind?
    Sorry about my broad brush about deniers. They just “get under my skin.”

  9. October 21, 2010 1:13 am

    My research is (amongst other things) trying to find ways of comportment towards death and loss that don’t result in the kinds of fears that cause ethical paralysis.

  10. October 24, 2010 12:48 pm

    “KKK wannabees” ??? You mean the Klan have an entrance bar? WTF

  11. adelady permalink
    October 25, 2010 4:06 am

    Byron, one thing occurred to me the other day when talking with my 85 year old mother.

    There’s a problem with some elderly people being diagnosed with dementia when their real problem is depression. Depression has several causes among older people (declining thyroid function being a biggie) but one that is often overlooked is the effect of accumulated grief. The longer you live, the more often you’ve lost a friend, relative, partner, child or even a grandchild.

    Being sad about someone’s terminal illness, and then being saddened next week by someone else’s death is a challenge even to those in the best psychological health.

    From what I’ve seen, maintaining an active interest in social, community or political activities is the best way to keep yourself safe from encroaching grumpy-old-sod-ness. You have to be involved in the life around you and accept that that means you’ll have to face and deal with other people’s illness, death and distress. But if you’re involved with other people, they’ll help you through it. Don’t retreat to save yourself the pain, you’ll just acquire the pain of isolation and rejection.

    Having watched my grandparents live very long lives of which the last 15-20 years were blighted by them never accepting aging. They never moved on to new or more appropriate activities or attitudes to suit their age and circumstances, they just did less and less of what they’d always done. In the end they were doing very, very little.

    I’m a bit of a grumpy-old-sod when it comes to education and a couple of other matters.
    I. will. not. let my g-o-s attitude sour my life in general.

  12. October 25, 2010 5:49 am

    Adelady – Thanks for sharing your experiences and wisdom.
    You have to be involved in the life around you and accept that that means you’ll have to face and deal with other people’s illness, death and distress.
    Yes, I think this is quite profoundly important. I would add that you have to face and deal with your own illnesses, mortality and distress as well. You are right that retreating from the pain is no solution, merely a deferral of the problem.

  13. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 25, 2010 7:43 am

    And I believe that if you put a grumpy old sod on the end of a broadband connection, you end up with a denier – and it doesn’t matter much what you’re denying so long as it can be an outlet for your depression (and anger is like hot blood running through tired veins, isn’t it). It’s a displacement activity for those more constructive things one can do in later life, but do require the effort and willingness to acknowledge the hard truths about mortality and ageing.

    But having said all that in my piece and in comments, let’s bear in mind too this is a gross generalisation. However, in the context of climate change my opinion is that people latching on to the issue to assuage or vent their own feelings cannot be moved or substantially changed – in which case they are not the right target for activism.

    Question is: what is the right target? I think it’s the money:

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