Self-esteem and the misplaced fervour of climate scientists

It is not a new idea, but it was a surprise to see the ‘environmentalism is the new religion’ meme in a popular psychology book.  In Willpower – Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success, Roy  F. Baumeister and John Tierney discuss religion in the context of a societal need to follow rules.

“It’s probably no coincidence that environmentalism is especially strong in rich countries where traditional religion has waned. The devotion to God seems to give way to a reverence for nature’s beauty and transcendence.”

The book is a very enjoyable read and explains how and why attitudes to self-control have changed over the last century. IMHO the way the story is told shows how this societal change may have contributed to the strength of the CAGW movement, allowing strong personalities to emerge and dominate.

The book starts out by explaining that willpower, or self-control, became an unfashionable concept in the 20th century, with society eager to cast off Victorian rigidity and prudery. Only in socialist Germany did it remain a virtue, and that was no recommendation, thus western society was only too happy to try out other paths to self-fulfillment such as the 1960’s mantra “If it feels good, do it”.  Nonetheless man seems to desire a set of rules for behaviour and goals for achievement and a void is readily filled.

“Environmentalists’ exhortations to reduce consumption and waste are teaching children some of the self-control lessons offered in religious sermons and Victorian Primers.  Secular greens seem to be instinctively replacing one form of self-discipline with another, and one kind on rules with another: organic instead of kosher, sustainability instead of salvation.”

Whether it is traditional faith or modern secular ‘religion’, it becomes personal, part of who a person is, therefore anyone questioning their chosen path is not just in disagreement, but is undermining the foundation of their personal belief system.

“…the believers’ self-control comes [...] from the system of values they’ve absorbed, which gives their personal goals an aura of sacredness.”

What is perhaps even more telling, is that confidence was promoted to boost learning and achievement in the following decades:  self-esteem came to be regarded as the key to success, and positive thinking was imparted to children, neglecting tough goals and replacing them with rewards for all – “Everyone’s a winner”. We have an entire generation that has grown up and matured with this thinking.  However, encouraging the growth of self-esteem is not been the panacea it seemed – there are several down sides.

“People with high self-esteem are more likely to act on their beliefs, to stand up for what they believe in, to approach others, to risk new undertakings. (This unfortunately includes being extra willing to do stupid or destructive things, even when everyone advises against them.)”

All other things being equal, increasing self-esteem apparently tends to decrease performance – people think they are better than they actually are. Not only that but they develop an expectation of entitlement, expect ease of achievement, and display a tendency towards narcissism.

Where I suggest all this is relevant to climate science is the timing:

  • It is a young science that has grown in academic circles under the influence of this educational promotion of self-esteem.
  • It has been allowed to develop by setting its own rules and standards, in many cases falling between the cracks of many related disciplines, and without the historic standards and norms that govern them.
  • It fell into company with post-normal science, which again encouraged science to disregard old values, setting new rules.
  • It is coincidental perhaps, but it does seem to a have a great preponderance of strong personalities with high self-esteem.

Image: Wikipedia

“On the whole, benefits of high self-esteem accrue to the self while its costs are borne by others, who must deal with side effects like arrogance and conceit. At worst, self-esteem becomes narcissism, the self-adsorbed conviction of personal superiority.  Narcissists are legends in their own mind and addicted to their grandiose images. They have a deep craving to be admired by other people (but don’t feel a special need to be liked – it is adulation they require). They expect to be treated as special beings and will turn nasty when criticized. “

Now don’t think for a moment this book is saying that self-esteem and self-control are mutually exclusive, certainly they are not. Academic high achievers in climate science (or any discipline) have used plenty of self-control to get to where they are, but the esteem thing has led individuals to be flattered by the attentions of policy-makers and the need to deliver science in support of policy, even if that has meant crossing lines that should be uncomfortable for scientists. The rewards have of course flowed – awards, fame, Nobel Prizes, grant money. For the narcissist, accolades are more addictive than opium.

As the seams of the CAGW story unravel, is it any wonder that those who have thrived on this heady mixture defend their position or react so badly to critiques that do not agree with their expert opinion?

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15 Responses to Self-esteem and the misplaced fervour of climate scientists

  1. catweazle666 says:

    You might find this interesting, in the UK belief in AGW is officially recognised as a “religion”:

    “In today’s ruling, Mr Justice Michael Burton decided that: “A belief in man-made climate change, and the alleged resulting moral imperatives, is capable if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.” Under those regulations it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/03/tim-nicholson-climate-change-belief

  2. Fascinating. Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

  3. Verity Jones says:

    It was all I could think about as I read the book.

  4. j ferguson says:

    When I read that CAGW had been recognized as a religion, I had hoped that the same might happen here in the states. Then our excellent proscription of mixing religion and government 9at least mostly) might settle the whole thing down a bit.

    Unfortunately, my history of Civilisation (UK, don’t you know) gets shaky after Hume and Macaulay, but I suspect that despite all the bad experience you had in the 17th century, you still haven’t definitively separated the two.

    This is admittedly a naive suggestion, but gauging self-esteem might be a bit tricky. Suppose one constructs a life where he will never confront error – say soft-science, or faith based? One’s self esteem might really blossom if he was never wrong.

    If one makes his/her way trying to do things that don’t always work – can be tested, one might hedge the self-esteem with a bit of humility.

    I apologize for making less of this than is probably there.

    There was a wonderful piano recording from abut 1920, Kitten on the Keys.

  5. Bloke down the pub says:

    As with most religions, the believers may hold private doubts, but as soon as an outsider raises criticism they will fight to the end to defend it.

  6. j ferguson says:

    to wit: http://www.jazz-on-line.com/download/index.php?id=46396&type=rm

    There is an excellent more recent performance of this piece on a Claude Bolling record in which he mimics (with astonishing skill) the styles of various departed pianists.

  7. Verity Jones says:

    Ah, now I wonder if you meant Kitten on the keys in relation to the kittens on the keyboard on the Heat-Seeking Cat post? Anyway great Jazz archive – thanks.

  8. j ferguson says:

    Verity, it’s possible that jazz-on-line has all the django reinhardt. Lonnie Johnson is also amazing and Eddie Lang. It’s possible I have it in the genes. Dad played sax and I used to hear this stuff when I was a kid. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lot of these guys were really good.

    • Verity Jones says:

      My ‘Wow’ wasn’t for the music (well that too of course) but at the size of the resource. This household has very catholic tastes in music, but with an emphasis on ‘real musicians’. OK I can see I’m going to have to do a music post one of these days.

  9. argylesock says:

    Is CAGW Citizens Against Government Waste?

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