Travelling North

Article – Who’s Out of Step?


Who’s out of step?

We all know the story.  A mother is looking fondly on as her son marches past with the members of his scouting group. “Look”, she says, “everyone is out of step except my Johnny!”  The problem with the story is that sometimes you feel like the one who is out of step!

A few months ago, I felt a bit like that when several people said to me “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.  It seemed so patently silly that I quickly lost the energy and enthusiasm to keep on disagreeing – surely it is self-evident that it is people with guns who have the capability to kill people.  Without guns, people are far less likely to kill one another.  But it kept on being said.  It was a neat way of moving the debate away from gun control to people problems.

More recently, the horrific typhoon that tore across the southern islands of the Philippines provoked another interesting set of comments.  A lot of commentators quickly focussed on the fact that the homes were poorly built with substandard materials.  If the homes had been better, then the number of deaths would have been less.  Yes, that’s true.  However, isn’t it equally true that typhoons are increasing in intensity and frequency?  That is an issue about global warming.  Once again, I am beginning to feel like Johnny.  I thought it was obvious:  ever since I read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring there is more and more evidence of our polluting rivers and seas, land, and the atmosphere and the consequences for the planet:  global warming is real.  Yet I hear so much denial about there being any kind of human impact on our world.

I guess I started this post because I was trying to deal with a question.  My question centres on a very simple point:  why are there so many ‘deniers’, to the extent that I sometimes feel that I am Johnny?  Deniers about guns, deniers about climate change. How can people deny the things that are obvious?

I am not talking about representatives of companies who are frightened about losing markets or having to pay the costs of polluting.  They are not deniers, they are simply liars.  When a gun maker, or the NRA for that matter, parrots out the line about guns not killing people, it is obvious that their mercenary concerns are to the forefront.  They may sell less, or lose members.

When it comes to climate change, there are two categories of deniers who interest me:  some are scientists, and some are ‘ordinary folks’.

Scientists are trained to test their ideas against empirical data:  good science is always concerned with the importance of verification.  In practice, the practice of science rubs up against the practice of people.  As people, many scientists are looking for evidence of achievement and recognition, as this is the way in which you can stand out among your peers, get money for further research, or gain a promotion.  In some cases, this means that they will look for results that confirm what they are hoping to find.  The history of science is littered with research where the researcher has practiced a kind of myopia, not seeing those things that would disconfirm his or her theories, but latching on to those things that “prove their case”.  In some cases, of course, it is worse than that, and a scientist fabricates results.  In recent years there have been such high profile cases as Hwang Woo-suk at the Seoul National University, who fraudulently claimed to have cloned stem cells; and Diederik Stapel in the Netherlands, who faked several studies in social psychology that appeared to show important influences on perceptions and behaviour.

Such fraud appears to be uncommon, although we never know how extensive fraud is in scientific research.  The scientific community acts to try to uncover deliberate fraud and even unconscious mistakes.  Often the stories that result are as much sad reflections on the reality of researchers as people as they are of anything else.  The discovery, after he died, that the distinguished educational psychologies, Cyril Burt, had fabricated data late in his career on the inheritance of IQ in looking at twins could only lead to asking “why?”

However, while important, my focus here is on a second category, deniers in science.  We have to be careful with words, of course.   Skepticism is a central virtue in science.  It is exactly the basis on which scientific results are held up to scrutiny: “persuade me”.  However, while skepticism is valid, denying that research has demonstrated something is not.  Climate change is a particularly potent example.  After decades of research, constantly scrutinised and reviewed, there is no doubt that global warming is taking place, and that while this is a complex phenomenon there is also overwhelming evidence that such warming is a result of human activity, especially through the significant increase of carbon dioxide.

Why deny this?  There seem to be two strands of thinking.  Some deny what is happening because they believe it is based on conclusions that are unwarranted, as it does not fit with their broader perspective.  This is a form of selective perception.  Rather than skeptics, such scientists are doubters, always seeking more evidence to be convinced, but unwilling to accept the evidence that has been put forward.  Why do they do this?  Perhaps their prior training had given them unwarranted confidence about “the way things are”?  It may be unfair to call these deniers – just slow acceptors!

Far more worrying are those scientists who actually argue against data because their agenda is to contradict the scientific consensus.  These deniers are far more worrying.  Their denial is not motivated by unreasonable doubt, but because they are motivated to contradict.  Such motivation often comes from the rather sad fact that their research is sponsored or supported by companies or advocacy groups that do not want to allow acceptance of evidence – in the past, tobacco companies who would prefer there is no evidence of the carcinogenic effects of smoking; today, fossil fuel energy companies that would prefer there is no evidence of effects resulting from increased carbon dioxide levels.

How can “good scientists” be deniers of this kind?  How can they sustain their views apart from the views of so many of their colleagues?


Perhaps the beginning of this reflection made a fundamental mistake.  In the story, Johnny is marching with the others – and is out of step.  Today we do not march together, and so we don’t see that some are out of step with others.  It is as if we live in separate worlds, almost hermetically sealed off from one another.  Some live in a world of Democrats, some Republicans.  Some are gun users, some are not.  Sot it goes on.  If we do not actually mix with those unlike ourselves, we have less opportunity to reflect on whether or not we are really in touch with what is going on.

This was what Robert Putnam wrote about all those years ago in his article in the Journal of Democracy on ‘Bowling Alone’ (which later became part of his book with the same name).  Putnam was writing about civic engagement and social connectedness, which he saw as key elements of social capital.  There was a time when we interacted with those around us, irrespective of differences in political, religious or scientific views:  perhaps we idealised that past, but certainly when I was young my parents know all their neighbours, went to local meetings, were members of various local leisure clubs and so on.  All that interaction meant that the amount of social capital was high; we were less isolated into different groups, and more aware of the values and expectations of those around us.

Today, we are more likely to live apart from others whose world view is different.  Declining social capital is a function, I suspect, of new technologies that allow us to keep links with those we like (people like us) and avoid much interaction with others (even if they live next door).  It started with television, so that entertainment moved into the home, and now is exacerbated by Facebook and an ever-growing body of digital social media.  I am in step with those whom I know; I only feel out of step when I look outside, and realise others have a different world view.

Does that matter?  Well we do seem to live in a very polarized world.  Here in the US, Democrat and Republican Senators and Representatives could not be further apart.  The most dangerous place for them appears being seen as ‘moderate’.  In the same terms, this is part of the explanation of deniers among ordinary folk (i.e. for the sake of this discussion, non-scientists).  It is easy to sustain denial if you are cut off from hearing views other than those you hold.  As civic engagement and social connectedness diminishes at the face-to-face level, so society seems more splintered, and the likelihood of self-reinforcing groups increases.  It is one way of making sense of deniers.

However, I may be just as much out of step as others.  A lot of what I think about may poorly reflect on my understanding of the changing nature of society.  If I am claiming that social capital is declining, then what about the “fast food friendliness” phenomenon?  You don’t know about that?  Like me, you don’t go to fast food outlets – don’t get out enough?  Well, an increasing situation is being seen in drive-thru fast food outlets:  you order your food, and when you drive to the window to collect and pay, you are told, “the person in front paid for your meal”.  At the same outlets this can happen not just once, but time and time again.  We do care about each other:  we just don’t seem to spend time talking to others to find out how and why they think the way we do.  In line, caring, but out of step.

November 2013

You can find more earlier articles on politics – if you want to read my thoughts from a few years ago!

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