Philosophy professor Neil Levy has a new article out in a preprint form: “Science gone wild: explaining irrational beliefs,”

which explains philosophically why we’re wrong to feel comfy about the climate.

[Why do so many professors feel the need to write scientific papers explaining what’s wrong with us? Why don’t they just accept that we don’t agree with them? Maybe we could invent a pronoun for ourselves and get them prosecuted for hate crimes?]

Ever since his encounters with the Cliscep mob here and here Professor Levy has been wondering how a group of people as obviously intelligent and well-informed as Paul Matthews, John Shade, Ben Pile, Barry Woods, Brandon Shellenberger, Ian Woolley, John Ridgway, Andy West, Jaime Jessop, George Cruickshank and me, could be so wrong. We’ve tried to explain in a couple of articles here and here but with no success.

He rejects the explanation that we’re thick, possibly because of our lively debates on the Oxford University Practical Ethics blog, which ended with him threatening to delete comments by deniers. (It didn’t happen. Possibly someone at Oxford University remembered that the whole point of philosophy is that you don’t delete opposing points of view. You attempt to rebut them.)

Professor Levy’s new article acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with our reasoning, referencing several times Kahan, and places the blame for our incorrigible cussedness elsewhere:

The available evidence suggests that the views of those who reject the scientific consensus are the product neither of distinctive personality traits nor of a deficit of information or of reasoning skills. On average, conservatives who reject the expert view on global warming or on evolution do not reason any worse than liberals who accept it. In fact, those who reject the consensus most strongly may be on average betterinformed and more capable reasoners than those who accept the consensus. I shall suggest that the explanation lies elsewhere, in conservatives’ epistemic individualism and their patterns of deference. Epistemic individualism becomes pathological when it not constrained by appropriate deference. 

The first third of the article is a canter through the psychological literature on individual and group reasoning, with much of interest, if you like that sort of thing. Then comes:

Explaining the rejection of the scientific consensus (1): Epistemic Individualism.

If group deliberation is very much more powerful than individual, why do many come to reject the consensus views of relevant experts? In this section, I will examine a tempting answer to this question: we are epistemic individualists, who attach more value to the product of our individual deliberation than is warranted (and very much less to group deliberation). I will suggest that epistemic individualism does indeed play a role in explaining why some people reject the expert consensus, but the role it plays is secondary. While epistemic individualism is a genuine phenomenon, it is too broadly shared to explain the differencebetween those who reject the expert consensus and those who accept it. Epistemic individualism, I will argue, plays a supporting role, with different patterns of deference the star of the show.

And further on in the argument:

The overestimation of the value of individual reasoning seems to provide a straightforward explanation of the rejection of scientific expertise. Given the widespread overvaluation of individual reasoning over group deliberation, individuals who reject the scientific consensus may do so, in part, because they judge that they are at least as well placed to evaluate the evidence (for climate change, or for the safety and efficacy of vaccines, say) as the scientists who together form the consensus. They may prefer their own assessment over that of the experts, because they (rightly) take the latter to be the product of collective deliberation, while holding (wrongly) that individual deliberation outperforms or is at least as powerful as collective. But given that group deliberation is often very much more successful than individual, why is it the case that we overestimate the relative worth of individual deliberation?

The well-supported (in the literature, though not on this blog) hypothesis that climate sceptics tend to be conservative, and Kahan’s findings that we’re not more ignorant than climate believers, seem to be at odds with our lack of deference to domain experts. (Conservatives are supposed to bow down to authority, right?) Levy is to be congratulated for tackling this paradox head on, while acknowledging that accusing us of being differently-made epistemically won’t hack it, because we’re all the same under the skin, epidermically. That is, we all start out as epistemical individualists and end up bowing to group pressure. But why?

Levy’s answer is that we differ in our deference; we defer differently:

I suggest that the explanation of the different views of different groups lies in their patterns of deference. Despite our epistemic individualism, we do defer. In fact, our deference is a central fact about us. It explains our epistemic success, and thereby our success as a species… In any case, there is ample evidence that we do defer: most of us accept the findings of science across multiple domains in which we lack competence to assess them for ourselves. Epistemic individualism is not, in fact, sufficient for wild science: cognition becomes wild science only when epistemic individualism is not constrained by group deliberation and appropriate deference. Whereas deference on one side appropriately constrains epistemic individualism, on the other short chains of deference cause the emergence of wild science.

In the above extract Levy has jumped the gun rather, introducing the idea of “appropriate deference” (i.e. to those who are worth being deferred to) as opposed to “epistemic individualism… not constrained by group deliberation” based on “short chains of deference” causing “the emergence of wild science.”

I wonder what Christy and Spencer at the university of Alabama, or professor Judith Curry, or professor Richard Lindzen, would make of the idea that they’ve been practising “wild science”? And what makes my “chain of deference” to the above shorter than, say, Joe Biden’s chain of deference to Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, or Greta Thunberg? Let Professor Levy explain: 

Acquiring behaviour through imitation is a kind of deference to others… This epistemic deference is not blind. Even from a very young age, children show a preference for informants who show signs of being benevolent and competent; scrutiny of informers intensifies around the age of four.

After a lengthy discussion of infants and Australian explorers who failed to benefit from the superior wisdom of the natives, we come back to Kahan and his awkward finding that conservative climate sceptics are not stupid:

Thus, conservative Americans who lack the capacity to come to an informed judgment with regard to evolution and climate change adopt the views of better informed and more capable conservatives. This disposition to defer to those who are better informed but share our general outlook is probably an extension of our early-emerging disposition to use benevolence as a cue to reliability; rightly or wrongly, people see those with whom they share a political outlook as those who are benevolent toward them and their interests. Conservative Americans (for instance) may thus come to their anti-consensus views on these topics in precisely the same way in which their liberal counterparts come to their views: by deferring to those they rightly take to be more knowledgeable than (as well as well disposed toward) them.

Here Levy is justly accepting the reasonable default position that the same explanatory schema must apply to both sides in an argument, suggesting that he is light years away from a Lewandowsky, who believes that cognitive wonkiness is for thee but not for me.

But then:

Both sides are disposed to acquire their beliefs by deference to those who are (somewhat) more competent than them. For conservatives, though (and on this question), chains of deference end in ‘merchants of doubt’ (Oreskes & Conway 2010), or maverick scientists (to the extent to which there is a distinction to be drawn between these scientists and the merchants of doubt). They do not defer to scientists, or to their think-tank intermediaries or more local representatives, because while they exhibit cues of competence they fail to pass tests for benevolence. 

Uh-oh. All the benevolence I felt for Levy up to then dissolves when he claims that I have acquired my beliefs from the oil and tobacco companies cited by Oreskes and Conway, when I should have been deferring to “scientists, or to their think-tank intermediaries or more local representatives,” but haven’t been, “because while they exhibit cues of competence they fail to pass tests for benevolence.” 

There’s a grain of truth here, which I’ll reveal, though it’s not much use to Professor Levy because it’s not been peer reviewed. When I first became interested in the climate thing, I looked around, and happened on a discussion at Climate Audit on sea temperature measurements and the problem of the passage from oaken buckets to leather buckets, (or possibly vice versa.) I can’t say that I understood it, but at least I could see that Steve McIntyre and his cronies were benevolent – light-hearted even. I then turned to RealClimate, where Gavin Schmidt offered an introductory essay on the basics of climate science “that even my great aunt can understand.” I read it, and didn’t understand it. It’s possible that Gavin’s great aunt’s IQ exceeds mine by a parsec or two, but that’s no excuse for being so snotty about it. Gavin, I decided, was not being benevolent.

Professor Levy continues:

Liberals are epistemically luckier: they are disposed to defer to the most competent individuals and institutions (or, perhaps more typically, to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent) because these individuals and institutions pass tests for benevolence as well as for competence.

I’ve omitted the hugest hole in his argument, which is the absence of any definition of the consensus opinion on climate, vaccination, or evolution. Is it the consensus view that vaccination is utterly safe and has never caused a single blood clot? Is climate change going to kill us all? Did we descend from monkeys six thousand years ago? Levy doesn’t say. There are plenty of references for his assertions on the state of play in the psychology of belief, but nothing at all on scientific consensus. Consensus is what Levy thinks it is. and what he thinks it is, he doesn’t tell us. Socrates would have made mincemeat of him.

I am the very model of a modern academical

I analyse the reasons for divergence epistemical.

For my philosophic theorising I don’t need no reference

‘Cos I’m fairly overflowing with the proper sort of deference..

The quote above about the luck of the liberals stopped me in my tracks. I’m a liberal, by the kind of vague criteria applicable in this kind of vague pseudo-philosophical debate. So, according to Levy, I should count myself epistemically luckier because I am disposed to defer to the most competent individuals and institutions (or, perhaps more typically, to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent) because these individuals and institutions pass tests for benevolence as well as for competence. 

Well I don’t. Defer I mean. I think (therefore I am the lucky one, dixit Descartes.)

We’ve all read 1984 I suppose, and are pretty fed up with references to that venerable screed. But I must say that the idea of being lucky to be able to defer to more competent individuals and institutions, who defer to the most competent, doesn’t do it for me. You can kiss Greta’s arse if you like Neil, but I won’t.


  1. Quote: “If group deliberation is very much more powerful than individual,….”

    But is it though? In some contexts, maybe, but what about “Groupthink”? And nowadays, I’d say we have “Crowdthink” (although we probably always had that too).

    As Shaw wrote:

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”


    Levy spends a lot of time and effort explaining why we need both group think and individual reflection, and how the one feeds the other. True or false, it’s properly argued with references, even if they seem to come from a very narrow range of thinking (cognitive psychology as far as I can see.)

    The problem is that the argument hangs in the air. There’s no indication of who he’s arguing against, because there’s no attempt to define the consensus or what it means to be sceptical of it. People who don’t agree with him are wrong because they defer to the wrong people, apparently, and the nearest he gets to defining these wrong people is a casual mention of Oreskes’ and Conway’s Big Oil conspiracy tome “Merchants of Doubt.” It’s 25 pages of nothing.


  3. Professor Neil Levy seems to be puzzled how seemingly intelligent people can get something so wrong.

    Well I don’t know, Neil. How did you do it?

    One way, of course, is to turn up to a debate armed to the teeth with prejudgement.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is just propaganda on steroids ! The Net Zero lot are worried that the
    latest satellite figures show global cooling despite continued manmade CO2. Latest UAH satellite data show this is true.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to be lazy here and simply repeat a statement I made back in July, 2018 when discussing a different subject with Andy West:

    “In the meantime, I observe that you seem to share my view that the cognitive and behavioural scientists apply their insights into cognitive bias tendentiously. Personally, I find myself less interested in what they have to say and more interested in why they should say it. It is inconceivable that they are making a professional mistake by failing to understand the universality of cognitive biases — they surely understand. My opinion, therefore, is that they have simply failed to understand the extent to which social and cultural factors contribute towards the establishment of scientific consensus, i.e. they hold to a naïve view regarding the role of the ‘scientific method’. Having made that mistake, they interpret scepticism in the face of scientific consensus as a form of irrationality, and so they seek an explanation based solely upon posited cognitive impairment. (There is probably also a degree of professional deformation involved, since they are restricting their analysis purely to the methods of their profession. From their perspective, it is a happy coincidence that CAGW scepticism is a form of ‘denialism’, since they are the self-professed experts on that subject.)”

    I don’t know what further I need to add, other than to point out that the same applies to professors of philosophy who dabble in cognitive psychology.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Geoff, great post.

    I need to digest this properly (and haven’t the time just now), but initial thoughts are:

    1) Kahan’s work is almost exclusively in the US, where indeed Rep/Con versus Dem/Lib tribal sides dominate the climate debate, and *neither* side is working from scientific knowledge. As Kahan himself says, it is not about ‘what they know’ but ‘who they are’, in terms of cultural identity. It is demonstrably the case outside the US that political views are a very poor predictor of attitudes to climate-change in all other nations.
    2) To wit the bulk skepticism of CC in publics outside the US does not come primarily from conservatism. Any explanation relying upon conservatism as a main driver outside the US, is already wrong.
    3) …and ultimately individualistic assessments re ‘wild science’ cannot be the explanation for the massive proportions of publics that reject various scientific consensuses, in or out of the US. Indeed the 45% of the US population rejecting evolutionary origin. And across most nations the large percentages who don’t buy the climate consensus too. Because the publics are simply not science (wild or orthodox or any other type) literate in any of these conflicted domains, and indeed spend approximately no time on any such assessments.

    Bulk beliefs in non-literate publics come from cultural mechanisms (cultural belief and innate / instinctive skepticism (which is *not* reasoned skepticism), with which science has become entangled. Finding out whether a supposed scientific consensus is a real scientific consensus and not a cultural one, hence requires at minimum navigating the total cultural mechanics of the domain. Such analysis cannot say what is scientifically right, but it can say what is culturally wrong.

    What happens in the quantitively miniscule domain of science and associated science-knowledgeable blogs, probably bears little or no relationship to what motivates publics. Neither can one easily measure what’s happening here like one can with publics (via many surveys and studies). To extrapolate potential individual motivations within this domain (like leaning to wild science where such occurs) to cover whole publics, is likely straight wrong, but at the least would require very robust evidence / measurement of far wider applicability. While Levy cites various studies and papers, these are circumstantial rather than direct measurements expected from the theory. I like Kahan’s work because he *does* provide direct measurements that tie to his theories. I have attempted same regarding my cultural explanations regarding attitudes to climate-change across nations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Addition / clarification to above – the *public* consensus about what it is perceived the science says, and a consensus somewhere deep inside the enterprise of science, may not be at all the same. Indeed are demonstrably *not* the same wrt climate-change.


  8. Did someone mention Lew?

    He has just received a €2.5 million grant from the European Commission to establish and lead a ‘truth taskforce’ that will search Twitter for fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech and develop ‘sophisticated interventions’ that will ‘combat misinformation and champion democracy in Europe’.

    The project is to be called ‘Protecting the Democratic Information Space in Europe’. Official acronym: PRODEMINFO.

    Unofficial anagram: MONIED PROF. For Lew is indeed very monied at the mo. In February he got €2.7 million from the European Commission to establish and lead a different taskforce, one that will attempt to counter COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Project title: ‘Jiu-jitsu With Misinformation In The Age Of Covid’. Acronym: JITSUVAX. Anagram: Er…

    Start date: 1st April.

    The principal objective of JITSUVAX is to leverage misinformation about vaccinations into an opportunity by training HCPs through inoculation and refutational learning, thereby neutralizing misinformation among HCPs and enabling them to communicate more effectively with patients.


    Has Lew spent several years tweeting fake news, conspiracy theories and hate speech about Brexit and pushing for Brexit to be cancelled and citizens’ assemblies to be established that would rigformulate a second referendum to get the right result – has he been tweeting all that bigoted blather in the hope that it would win him favour with the EU apparatchiks who distribute such mind-boggling largesse? (€5.2m!)

    No. I think his bigotry is sincere, if a bit tediously tribal.

    I do, however, wonder whether such bigotry makes him an appropriate person to lead such projects, even when not funded by the EU.

    *Examples on request. Or you could just read his Twitter.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. A similar motif in an article by Lawrence Krauss a couple of days ago:

    As a theoretical physicist whose primary research has been in what is often called “fundamental physics” I am acutely aware that my colleagues can project an air of superiority in being dismissive of other disciplines and the scientists who labor in them. My late friend and colleague Freeman Dyson was an example. Freeman was one of the smartest physicists I have known, and we spoke at length on a few occasions about climate change. His views, while creative and novel, like almost all of his ideas, were nevertheless woefully uninformed. I suspect he felt that because he was smarter than climate scientists, he distrusted their work.

    It makes no sense to me that anyone would defer to experts in a purely intellectual matter. We all have our area of expertise, in which we are able to recognise errors. The frequency of errors we see in matters we know should make us equally distrusting in matters we know nothing about. Instead we exhibit “Gell-Mann amnesia.” We read an article in our area of expertise and scoff at how absurd it is. Then we turn the page and blithely accept what we read in the next article on a subject we have only a passing understanding of.

    Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts, as someone once said.

    Liked by 2 people

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