Since the dawn of time mankind has been faced with two brute facts: Nothing is straightforward and entropy is a bitch. To address the former, and in apparent defiance of the latter, our species has benefitted from two developments that have broadly co-evolved: Complex brains and complex societies. So much has been written about these two phenomena that one truly doesn’t know where to start evaluating the literature. So I won’t. Instead, I would like to share with you just a couple of papers I came across recently that illustrate how consideration of these two complexities tends to pan out in the hands of the climate concerned. Firstly, let us take a peek at the world of cognition.
Two Short Planks
As climate change ‘deniers’ we are all familiar with the stirling work undertaken by Lewandowsky et al in revealing the extent to which our cognitive abilities are ultimately limited by our conspiracist obsessions. Even so, back in October 2019, two business school lecturers succeeded in publishing a paper so ground-breaking and full of insights that even The Big Lewandowsky would surely be forced into meek genuflexion. The paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, has a number highlights. I know this because the authors say so even before they present their abstract. The first ‘highlight’ reads as follows:
“Cognitive complexity is positively related to climate change belief.”
The second ‘highlight’ advances the above revelation as follows:
“Cognitive simplicity leads people to be skeptical about human-caused climate change.”
Which is to say, it fails to advance it at all. In fact, I think it is fair to say we are still on our first highlight. Then comes the third (second) ‘highlight’:
“Cognitive simplicity is a precondition when framing positive arguments is effective.”
To make sense of this gobbledygook you need to have first read the abstract that follows, which explains:
“We compared the two most common types of arguments in discussions of climate change: 1) Presenting facts about climate change on their own (one-sided); 2) Presenting opposing arguments (i.e., misinformation) together with the correct climate change facts (two-sided). Participants with lower cognitive complexity were more likely to believe in climate change when exposed to facts of climate change on their own compared to the two-sided, refutational [sic] combination of misinformation and facts…”
Basically, the cognitively simple respond better if you just say “because I say so!” The intelligent children, on the other hand, respond better if you reason with them. Something like: “Can you now see were you went wrong? Okay, run along and try to be a good boy/girl/it from now on.” Or, to put it in the authors’ own words:
“…but those with higher cognitive complexity were more likely to believe in climate change when exposed to the refutational combination rather than facts alone.”
Which goes to explain the authors’ final ‘highlight’:
“Cognitive complexity can help deter the damaging impact of conflicting arguments.”
Now, if you are anything like me, there will be a number of questions in your head at this point. For example:
- What do the authors think they mean by ‘cognitive complexity’ and how did they go about measuring it?
- In what way does the concept of cognition lend itself to the demarcation of individuals into two neat groups: complex and simple?
- What is it that they teach you in business school that qualifies you to make any of the above assessments?
- What is it that they teach you in business school that qualifies you to determine that all opposing arguments to climate change belief can be assumed to be “misinformation”?
- How do I get a grant to study the effects of cognitive complexity when attempting to overcome the misinformation that lies at the heart of many of today’s climate concerns?
But, moreover, you are likely to be bristling over the fact that here, yet again, we have a study that treats climate change sceptics not as a group with which to engage but one to be studied like lab rats (bless them) struggling to escape a scientifically constructed maze. In fact, the authors (our two short planks, magically carved from the finest business school woodland) would no more consider listening to their experimental subjects than they would the squeaking of rats struggling with a pair of electrodes stuck up their arse. Admittedly, in this instance, their subjects were actually primates. But, even so, the scientific code is quite clear on this matter: Never have intercourse with your experiment. Or, as Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains explained indelicately, you can’t fuck a gorilla!
Thankfully, the paper itself is behind a paywall and so the pecuniary gods have stepped in to protect me from further self-harm. Maybe, the paper provides answers to all my questions but, in lieu of that, I have to be satisfied with the closing statement within the authors’ abstract:
“Media and scientists need to consider the cognitive complexity of their audience when dealing with climate change.”
What it must be to enjoy such an evolutionary advantage.
I move on now to the second paper that caught my eye. But, before I do, I need to introduce a bit of background theory. This means I have to use some big words and (thanks to our business school duo) I am now conscious of the potentially knuckle-dragging nature of my audience. So, unless you are at the cognitively complex end of the pig shit spectrum, you might want to leave the room now.
Still with me? Great, but don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.
Ever since sociology first dare speak its name, it has been anxious to adopt whatever has been the scientific paradigm du jour, in order to bolster its scientific kudos. Accordingly, for many years it adopted the Newtonian paradigm of a clockwork universe full of agents acting in a strictly deterministic manner amenable to reductionist analysis – basically because that is what the physicists were doing. Of course, physicists were not saying that all systems could be treated in this manner – only that those that couldn’t, lay outside of their capacity to investigate and predict. However, the fact that social groups would be one such class of system did not deter sociologists who, doing their best, came up with the notion of ‘methodological individualism’, in which the properties and behaviours of groups could be statistically determined from the properties of their constituent individuals.
Then the new scientific paradigm of complexity came along, in which disciplines such as network analysis, systems theory and non-linear dynamics started to play an important role. In this new world view, reductionism and analysis were to be replaced by a holistic approach based upon synthesis. Importantly, the relationships between agents became at least as pertinent as their inherent properties, and otherwise mysterious self-organization and emergent behaviours could be explained using concepts such as the open, driven, non-linear system far from equilibrium.
That sounds good, thought the sociologists, and so was born the discipline of Social Complexity Theory, in which all things from the outbreak of social conflict to the emergence and demise of cultures and belief systems could be explained using mathematical models employing complexity theory’s precepts. Given the nature of your average social agent, this newfound interest in complexity theory was understandable; it was an approach that seemed to throw light on how organization and social structure can spontaneously arise without the presence of a ‘guiding hand’. And it didn’t take too long before those sociologists and anthropologists with an eye on environmentalism took note.
Which brings me to my second paper, Making Complexity Your Friend: Reframing Social Theory for the Anthropocene, by Sandi Smith-Nonini of the Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina. As an overview of the development of complexity theory and its application within the fields of sociology and social anthropology it’s not such a bad paper. It is erudite, well-researched and clearly written and provides an interesting discourse on how homo sapiens, interacting with its ecological niche, can be viewed as a complex system. To that extent, it is a worthy piece of work; which already places it well above the efforts of our two business school Woodentops. That’s not to say that I agree with its thesis, which is basically an anti-capitalist inspired attempt to persuade that Social Complexity Theory will provide the insights required to free ourselves from the yoke of self-interested economic growth, establish a new environmental justice and see us through our current ‘existential crisis’. As the author says:
“Networked politics is a politics of scale, and scaling must be “glocal” (simultaneously up and down) in order to transform new awareness into political capital and accelerate the cultural shift that we now know is inevitable.”
Stirring stuff, but there is one problem as far as I can see. I discern nothing in the author’s thesis that acknowledges that applying the principles of complexity theory can not only help bring about the cultural shift required to solve the problem, it could have also brought about a cultural shift that contrived an unreliable belief in the existence of the problem in the first place. In that sense, the paper is no better than that produced by our cognitively simple business school chums. The reality of ‘the problem’ is taken as axiomatic rather than something to be proven. Consequently, the full might of the intellectual apparatus at the author’s disposal is used against the naysayer without recognizing how it can, and perhaps should, be self-directed.
So I am afraid complexity, whether it be cognitive or social, is destined to remain a concept wielded in the name of the good fight, and forever withheld from those who would wish to counterbalance the arguments of the climate concerned. If we sceptics have any cognitive complexity, it is just there to enable the concerned to better educate us. And if we have any views regarding social complexity and how it, rather than solid science, may have brought about our current eschatological convictions, then we are perfectly entitled to keep them to ourselves. Certainly, the other side has no use of them.