David Siegel, a self-proclaimed Democrat & environmentalist.
You are a self-proclaimed Democrat and an initial believer in global warming yet you decided to look more deeply at the issue, which in most liberal circles is an article of faith. Tell us a little about your background and explain what motivated you to study the issue. How did you go about your quest for the truth about global warming?
I have been studying rationality and decision science for four years now, spending a lot of time at sites like www.lesswrong.com. I have an amazing mentor who answers my questions. What I’ve discovered is that what most people (including me) believe tends to be a very distorted version of the facts, and that in general our mental models of the world are not very reliable. Reading “Thinking Fast and Slow,” by Danny Khaneman was also a turning point for me. What we usually call thinking is usually just reacting. At some point, I emailed my mentor and said “So, I suppose you’re going to tell me that global warming is also a load of BS,” and he replied “Do you want to take the red pill, or the blue pill?” As it turns out, he had spent a lot of time sorting this out several years ago, and he started pointing me toward the sources I cite in my essay. I had lunch with a “green” friend, and I asked her about global warming. She said “Really, the science is settled, trust me,” and that made me look deeper. Soon I was upset enough that I started to write. The first drafts were pretty confused, but eventually, with the help of Richard Lindzen, Willie Soon, and others I reached out to, it came together. My goal wasn’t to really interpret the science, only to try to explain clearly what we think we know at this point.
Tell us about what happened when your blog post hit the internet. Did you lose friends? Gain new ones?
I was told I was going to lose friends. I did. About five long-time friends took one look at my essay and decided they didn’t want to hear from me again. I got some very angry emails from people saying I was simply wrong. It’s amazing how the people who are with me talk about the data and the science, while the people who think I’m wrong simply resort to name calling and trying to discredit me. They never talk about the science, not even really in the rebuttal that group published, which weighed in at around 7,000 words. It was simply reiterating their position and trying to use psychology to discredit me, rather than addressing the scientific claims in the papers I cite.
One interesting thing happened. I was contacted by quite a few retired engineers, who said they had figured this out for themselves and were astonished that it wasn’t more mainstream. Many of them offered to help me and said I was brave to launch a piece like that while trying to start a new consulting company. It’s interesting that people who have spent their lives solving problems have decided to spend their time looking into this and trying to do something about it, now that they don’t fear retribution from bosses and peers.
You have noticed that the mainstream press and major liberal-leaning internet sites have all but ignored your blog post. While this blackout isn’t surprising to conservatives used to the MSM ignoring non-liberal narratives, did it surprise you? Did it open your eyes to the way the liberal media operates?
I don’t think it’s a black-out. I think it’s a blind spot. Listen, no media outlet wants to run too much on creationism, because they don’t think that issue should be given “balanced” coverage. They are right. Since they have been told so many times that the science is settled, they simply have no incentive to even read my pitch or my essay, let alone think about publishing it or reviewing it. Bill McKibben at The Rolling Stone got back to me immediately, saying (he writes in lower case, which I like): “i think the likelihood that jim hansen etc have made up global warming is…unlikely.” They have no incentive to open any cans of worms, even though it’s really their job to do so.
I was hoping that the more neutral organizations (Slate, The Atlantic, Huffington Post) would be interested in a two-sided debate, but no such luck. They all ignored my emails.
Considering you have drilled down and reached what you consider the best truth possible about the global warming question and it is being summarily rejected by so many so-called “authoritative sources,” does it make you question other conventional wisdoms and narratives?
I am collecting them in a file I have and also on my blog, which I hope people will discover. I would write a book about applied rationality if book economics weren’t so bad these days (I’ve written six books and my books used to really sell and make money – these days it’s much harder). I try to teach this to business people in my seminars. I have a YouTube channel dedicated to Bayeisan Reasoning. But it’s very difficult to get people to change their fundamental view of the world. If Bill Gates would give me $10m, I’d start a new nonprofit to do just that and get the word out. I think people should at the very least study decision science and behavioral economics, to learn that their view of the world may not be that much aligned with reality.
What is your next step? Do you have a plan to further highlight this issue, or is your experience so disheartening you are simply moving on to more pressing matters in your life and your work?
I’ve encountered several people who have given up. I still think my role is to be a communicator, not a front-line researcher. I would like to do something similar for nutrition, which is equally misunderstood. The evidence-based medical movement fascinates me. And professionally, I hope to help managers and executives understand that their personal view of the world may not be optimal and that cognitive diversity is a powerful business weapon. This is the new field of evidence-based management, which I think can really change the world. If more people made evidence-based decisions, we might be able to have a smarter conversation on energy. But I’d like to be part of the energy solution somehow. If I can see a way to add my particular talent – explaining – to the cause, I will continue to do so. Perhaps I’ll end up creating a seminar that I can take to various cities to help people be less wrong and more open to new ideas. That would be fun.