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Scientific American

When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs

published October 2013 | comments (43)
Then ideology needs to give way
magazine cover

Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. Knowing about the existence of motivated reasoning, however, can help us overcome it when it is at odds with evidence.

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won’t work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn’t fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in.

My libertarianism also once clouded my analysis of climate change. I was a longtime skeptic, mainly because it seemed to me that liberals were exaggerating the case for global warming as a kind of secular Millenarianism—an environmental apocalypse requiring drastic government action to save us from doomsday through countless regulations that would handcuff the economy and restrain capitalism, which I hold to be the greatest enemy of poverty. Then I went to the primary scientific literature on climate and discovered that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused: temperatures increasing, glaciers melting, Arctic ice vanishing, Antarctic ice cap shrinking, sea-level rise corresponding with the amount of melting ice and thermal expansion, carbon dioxide touching the level of 400 parts per million (the highest in at least 800,000 years and the fastest increase ever), and the confirmed prediction that if anthropogenic global warming is real the stratosphere and upper troposphere should cool while the lower troposphere should warm, which is the case.

The clash between scientific facts and ideologies was on display at the 2013 FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas—the largest gathering of libertarians in the world—where I participated in two debates, one on gun control and the other on climate change. I love FreedomFest because it supercharges my belief engine. But this year I was so discouraged by the rampant denial of science that I wanted to turn in my libertarian membership card. At the gun-control debate (as in my debates with Lott around the country), proposing even modest measures that would have almost no effect on freedom—such as background checks—brought on opprobrium as if I had burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution on stage. In the climate debate, when I showed that between 90 and 98 percent of climate scientists accept anthropogenic global warming, someone shouted, “LIAR!” and stormed out of the room.

Liberals and conservatives are motivated reasoners, too, of course, and not all libertarians deny science, but all of us are subject to the psychological forces at play when it comes to choosing between facts and beliefs when they do not mesh. In the long run, it is better to understand the way the world really is rather than how we would like it to be.

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43 Comments to “When Science Doesn’t Support Beliefs”

  1. Ivan Says:

    Michael, I am a big fan of your work and I really enjoyed this post, particularly your willingness to admit and reflect on your own instances of motivated reasoning.

    While you mention that both liberals and conservatives engage in this tactic, it would be good to acknowledge that various biases around motivated reasoning and epistemic closure tend to correlate with low openness to experience. This is one of the personality dimensions that are measured by the five factor personality model.

    Studies also show that there is significant correlation between low openness and political conservatism. So while both liberals and conservatives tend to engage in these types of “reality denying” biases, the fact is that conservatives do it more frequently.

    Chris Mooney provides a really good overview of research in this area. Additionally, research undertaken by Robert Altemeyer (his book is available for free online) on right wing authoritarian personality also very much supports this point of view.

  2. Peter Says:

    In the words of Billy Joel, “Honesty, is such a lonely word…”

    Thank you for taking the time to outline your thinking and provide an honest approach to resolving these conflicts. The reality is, we think ideologically. Science is about removing biases so it’s going to cross both ideological boundaries at some point, both liberal and conservative. And that’s a good thing.

    We don’t get to chose our own reality. For thousands of years, humanity has buried it’s head in the sand in denial when confronted with religious or ideological conflicts. Thankfully, science has given us away of avoiding such pigheadedness.

    Keep up the great work.

  3. Louise Dotter Says:


  4. Bill Morgan Says:

    So why has the arctic ice cap grown in the last year? What if that trend continues? Will we then move into a cooling period? Why have there been no hurricanes this season, when many were predicted a year ago?

  5. Steve Scarborough Says:

    I almost always enjoy your writings but we need more. People with Progressive tendencies tend to be reflective and polite in the face of the antagonistic ranting of conservative ideologues. A piece like this one is excellent is demonstrating what is wrong and what needs to change but not one single word of it tells us how. There is a science to changing minds and opinions. It is time for us to accept our understanding of the apocalyptic path this country is on and develop the tools, methods, and, yes, sound bites to change the course of this impending train wreck.

  6. david Says:

    Good thought provoking article, I will have to search for more motivated reasoning in my own life. Your account of the FreedomFest makes it sound like there is a strong convergence between Republican voices and Libertarian ones on polarizing issues like guns and Climate, do you see similar convergence on Abortion, Gay Rights or how Evolution (and the rest of science) is taught in schools in the USA?

  7. Dave UK Says:

    Interesting article. As an outsider to the USA, I am always amazed at how easily the gun control lobby and the apparent majority of Americans there dismiss the facts in front of their faces.

    I personally feel more secure in a generally non-gun owning culture than I ever would in one with such free access to firearms.

  8. Peter Says:

    Thank you Michael for your excellent article on individual liberty and personal responsibility. The trouble with you science guys is that you want to stop at the edge of the universe! :-)
    Certainly there can be conflict between liberties and responsibilities, as also between hard science and what can be equally hard ideologies. On the Titanic, science indicated that giving up a place on a life boat for women and children would result in the ultimate personal harm of drowning, yet a different source of belief caused many men to take that road. Were those men wrong to give up their lives, for softer, more helpless women? Or are there laws stronger than gravity which, just as or even more mysteriously, reach out and bind us? Gravity can be ignored of course, at out peril, as also with every ideology.
    I love science as you do, Michael. But I don’t stop there. The world of science stops, as I said above, at the edge of the universe. Today science itself is at the edge of the universe. Quantum physics shows us marvels which take us past science. Is “entanglement” and quantum information science, or the edge the next universe, and I don’t mean a multi-verse universe.
    “Religion,” (how that word has been spoilt!) may be the somewhat misunderstood entanglement with the source of all the mysteries of Existence, among them “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Hold on to you “beliefs” and “ideological convictions” is my advice.
    Thanks for your patience.


  9. Siva Ratnam Says:

    Wonderful post; to be a science minded person the first thing required is “humbleness”. “Humbleness”, because science is outside of us, it is greater than our knowledge, education and analytic thinking and intellect. Man did not “invent” science-the science that we practice is based on scientific laws and scientific designs already in the universe-naturally created. Therefore all of manmade science must bow down in humility to this natural science that is already there. Whether it is Intelligent Design or chance based, we do not know but it is out there and it is 100% perfect-be it the physics, chemistry or biology of the science in this universe. Therefore Michael is very right in having the humility to move away from ideologies and accept science. However, he and science itself must have the humility to accept existing scientific theories on reality as being not true and be willing to accept something else as being a possibility, which science might have totally denied before. Therefore all of science must have that humility too-to accept the mistakes and wrong theories of science, when new evidence points towards other possibilities, even if they are only hypothesis and theories. In regard to understanding “reality”, that is all we have, theories and hypothesis. As for “Libertarian thinking”, in my opinion that intellectual and philosophical paradigm was created with good intentions, but the political rightwing has taken over that. It has just become yet another platform for rightwing politics and free-thinkers like Michael should stay away from it. As for “fiscal conservatism”, extremism in that direction definitely leads to rightwing thinking. A civilized nation cannot be without welfare for the needy. Yes, there will be cheats who will try to exploit such a system, but such criminality can very easily be controlled and even eradicated by using proper control systems. Also, Libertarian thinking leads to nationalism and patriotism, which too cannot be equated with science. It is not religion, which created all the wars in the world, it was patriotism and nationalism. Whether such nationalism and patriotism is directed towards religion, race, language, country or even family, does not matter-it is not a healthy mental attitude. Scientifically we HAVE to think of humanity as a global family and all countries as being without borders. Anyway, thank you Michael for being honest towards your intuitive thinking.

  10. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    First, Michael, that was magnificent! You have touch upon one thing I have found in my life – every time I re-examine my core beliefs I ‘lose friends.’ Well, I am alienated from some of my social circles. [I used to be Libertarian, I used to be Mormon, I used to as Democrat, I used to be a hard-partier... there is a long list of "I used to be"s] Each time I ‘recalibrate’ I upset some people. This used to bother me very much – I *liked* these people even though I no longer shared those beliefs… but now I am merely sad about losing a friend who cannot accept that even old dogs can learn new tricks.

    Second, Peter, you *do* have a point but I’m not sure that you have articulated it well. The way you presented it will probably not be very effective in this community. I think we can all agree that there are limits to the application of evidence-based (scientific) reasoning.
    I’d say when you’re holding your newborn child (or grandchild) if you are calculating the probability of your genetic material being passed down X more generations then you’re in trouble (if you think _that_ way how did you pass along your genetic code?). Just as the act of observing affects the observed, over-analyzing emotional moments spoil the moment.

    Then there’s situations when there’s ‘no time to think’ – when you’re riding your motorcycle along a beautiful Sierra highway and a deer jumps out in front of you – you’d better *react* not draw vector diagrams! [If you want your reactions to be effective then take Motorcycle Safety Classes and *practice* safe riding!]

    And finally, a few years back the Stanford football team played USC and were 40-point underdogs and yet they managed to win – some (Stanford) folks call it the biggest upset in CFB history. I don’t know for certain, but I seriously, doubt coach Harbaugh used ‘facts’ to motivate his team.

    That all said, I am assuming at the end of your post you didn’t mean to use those physics terms in such a pseudo-scientific manner… you just wanted to point out that there are other aspects of human existence that simply are not amenable to empirical analysis. [One problem with posting in certain forums is no opportunity to edit out things we shouldn't have said.]

  11. Reese M Says:

    Hi Michael ….agree with your analysis vis a vis bias….with regard to gun control, i think you are missing the point though…my friends and I are all educated professionals,very much part of the mainstream and all are doing well in this great country…HOWEVER, we have a real misstrust of big government,not much different from the misstrust of our founding fathers. This is not a scientific fact that one could study like particle physics, but is rooted in historical facts of the evil that government is capable of inflicting,either systematically or through inability to control thugs…do you remember the LA race riots and the absence of police? Similary, we are now witnessing how government individuals can abuse info that the are privy to even if no evil laws are passed…IRS, EPA etc targeting individuals based on political beliefs. This is not the sphere of science, it is history.

  12. another point of view Says:

    There are a couple points I take issue with.

    First Gun control, even registering guns means the government knows who owns guns, so if there is a takeover of government, finding gun owners is easy. That means defending the country from a takeover by force becomes much harder. Just the existence of citizens with weapons decreases the likelihood of a takeover.

    The second point is climate change. I will not disagree that there is and always has been climate change. Predicting the effects is subject to so many errors in the model that it is not likely to be accurate. Even if the forecast were right, whether the changes are good or bad is indeterminate. If New York City and other coastal cities go below sea level, perhaps the Sahara will start getting more rain and become like the scriptural “Garden of Eden”.

  13. tcement Says:

    Yes, but the prophet Ayn (PBUH) is quite clear on this. NO regulations. None. Nada–oops, that’s Spanish, isn’t it? (BUILD THAT FENCE. Now, now, now!)

    Repent, sinner, repent!

  14. tcement Says:

    And furthermore…

    Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
    Against stupidity the very gods
    Themselves contend in vain.
    – Schiller

  15. Mike V. Says:

    Great post, but while you’re examining your ideology, you should take a closer look at this one: “capitalism, which I hold to be the greatest enemy of poverty”.

  16. jaxkincaid Says:

    I believe in the right to bear arms. But I’m not against common-sense measures to lower gun violence, which is very high in the US. Ending the drug war would probably be the most effective step, another libertarian position. I am okay with expanded background checks. Magazine limits are silly, as are most other proposed fixes.

    I am not qualified for the global warming debate. But a temperature is a temperature and is independent of ideology. Assuming there is warming, what, if anything, do we do? Unfortunately, that is a polical question, and proposed “answers” generally carry more bovine waste than science.

  17. todd hooper Says:

    Now if only you would stop equating poverty with irresponsibility

  18. Bjørn Østman Says:

    Clapping my hands raw.

  19. Robscoffs Says:

    As a socially liberal and fiscally conservative Brit, I find the US attitude to gun control incomprehensible. In the UK and I think in much of Europe it is pretty much impossible to own a gun legally. Causes us no problems and we have much lower murder rate.

  20. JD Mumma Says:

    More gun violence data for your perusal:
    “Nearly two mass shootings per month since 2009, study finds”

  21. awc Says:

    Yes, we all somewhere along the way cling to our beliefs in the face of contradictory science.

    Your two topics of conflict are interesting.

    Guns: Yup us here in Canada look down (geographically) at the US and shake our heads at the gun problem. Unfortunately no matter what the science says that genie has left the lamp. Even the argument above from “another point of view” is silly you would need tanks to defend against any modern war machine that came at you with force not light firearms.

    Climate: most of the people on either side of the argument don’t understand the science nor what it means. Also unless it effects them directly, it ain’t happenin (in their mind). The scientists when it comes to the climate always get themselves in trouble by predicting dates and such. They seem to forget that when you make a statement like “under the current conditions the icecap will melt in X years”. Unfortunately humans have ingenuity and will do something to move the bar to X+n years which could be 2X years away. By that time even if they are still right about the basic science their credibility is ruined.

    Yes we all do this suspension of science… I just cant remember when I did it last.

  22. Robert Neary Says:

    Michael: I don’t know if you read the commentary following your posts but I hope you do. I too am a fan and very gratified that you have acknowledged “motivated reasoning” has played a role in your ideology with respect to gun control and climate change. I would also suggest perhaps examining even the core belief of personal responsibility. Allow me to explain…

    I was a Reagan Republican working in banking. I believed strongly in personal responsibility and that there were those in society who were essentially leaches on my back; I resented my hard-earned money going to support people who chose not to be self-sufficient. However, within a year of Reagan’s election, I found myself laid off for the first time in my career through no fault of my own. I fortunately ended up working, of all places, for our state’s Department of Human Services as a Welfare and Food Stamp Caseworker. Much of my personal Motivated Reasoning about “The Takers” as Romney later referred to them, fell to the wayside; not so much from science, but from working experience in my new career. When we picture these faceless people who are not taking personal responsibility, we don’t see who most of them really are – children. Welfare was formerly called Aid To Dependent Children; no children in a household means no eligibility for Welfare.

    Now of course we expect the parents to be responsible for the burden of caring and providing for their children; and it is toward the parents that the attentions of our programs, policies and expectations are directed. But the harsh reality is that few of these people are capable, for a myriad of reasons including physical and mental disabilities, educational and literacy issues, criminal involvement, substance abuse; physical, emotional and sexual abuse… a long list, to shoulder that burden. Most never will in spite of our best efforts.

    I took the test that was once offered on the Libertarian web site to determine where my leanings fell within the political spectrum. There is much I agree with in the Libertarian perspective. However, when I answered the questions about what role government should play within the social contract regarding the poorest in our society, I answered the questions based on my professional and practical experience, not ideology. The test termed me a “Liberal”.

    I too believe that capitalism provides the most opportunity for success; but there are some in our society who will never be able to have a place at the table without help from those of us for whom the game has been fortuitous. I would invite you to also examine your “motivated reasoning” regarding the poor and underclass of this country. For a good many of our population, the barriers to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are anything but academic.

  23. Dorothy Thrower Says:

    My personal best example of the U.S.A.’s internecine ‘arms race’ — cops vs. a well-armed criminal element — is simple.

    One anti-gun-control spokesman said that we in Canada are in the pitiable condition of being easy targets for home invasions and burglaries and murderous rapists is non-existent.

    Still, in spite of this, we Canadians have a marked advantage somewhere. Because our per-capita death rate is much lower than that in the U.S.A.

    I have a .22 for my hobby, target shooting. And a beauty of a Remington shotgun for bears and raccoons which in my remote area are a problem if you have fruit trees and chickens. Both weapons are licensed, and I had to take a firearm-acquisition training test before I could legally acquire them. The courses were interesting and fun.

    (Put up electric fence this summer, so don’t even need the shotgun any more.)

    Can’t imagine ever needing to use either gun on a human.

    I’ve lived alone in a remote area for the past seven years, and with only one other person for the previous thirteen years. Not one theft, even when I left rather expensive tools and yard equipment outdoors overnight. Not one annoying or threatening visitor, either. I leave my car unlocked in my driveway. No items stolen, not even the parking loonies* in the ashtray.

    I believe the Scandinavian countries, also New Zealand and Australia, have similar laws and track records.

    (Or am I thinking of murder rates ? Hmmm. Must look that up.)

    * loonie: a 1$ coin minted here in Canada; has an image of a waterfowl on one side.

  24. Dorothy Thrower Says:

    Meant to say
    “Evidence for

    one anti-gun-control spokesman’s statement, that we in Canada are in the pitiable condition of being easy targets for home invasions and burglaries and murderous rapists

    is non-existent.”

  25. Mike Wasdin Says:

    I think Michael Shermer is a great critical thinker and I admire his work and also Michael as a person. I enjoyed having him on our radio show last month:

    But, I disagree with him on this issue. All one has to do is look at History to see what happens when governments are the ones who are in control of the guns. Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens is not the problem. Thinking that putting controls on guns will somehow keep criminals from getting guns makes as much sense as thinking making drugs illegal will keep drugs off our streets.

    Prohibition does not work … it does not work with alcohol, drugs, sex or even guns. There will always be criminals, we can’t do anything about that fact, but disarming law abiding citizens or putting restrictions on their ability to protect themselves from these types of people is not the answer.

  26. Tim Says:

    Logical rational analysis is no doubt be the best way to UNDERSTAND our lives and the world around us and scientific method is among the most important discoveries of Mankind, but if that was all we used we’d never get out of bed LOL. Silly optimism, irrational judgments are unrealistic dreams are what motivate us to DO the “impossible”. However, the majority of Libertarian “Objectivists” I HAVE EXPERIENCED DEBATING are among the most SUBJECTIVE people I’ve ever met. They prove that the Libertarian motto of “Rational Selfinterest” should more properly be labelled “Rationalization of Selfishness”. Most rational people who live in the real world grow out of their teens to mature beyond Libertarianism unless they lead a life sheltered by their ideology.

  27. Tim Says:

    TYPO “irrational judgments AND unrealistic dreams” not “ARE” – a big difference in final meaning! ;-) Tim

  28. Justin Johnson Says:

    While some aspects of the gun control debate do in fact delve into facts, ultimately decisions on what laws should or should not be passed are value judgments. Positions on the subject require one to weigh the value of various things against each other. It is however very true that both sides do in fact manipulate the data quite severely. While I can’t say I’m in favor of large scale gun restrictions the small ones recently considered would likely accomplish very little if anything. Therefor I can understand why some would agree with widespread gun restrictions I fail to see the value of the ones you mentioned.

  29. Rick Says:

    Bill Morgan says: “So why has the arctic ice cap grown in the last year? What if that trend continues? Will we then move into a cooling period? Why have there been no hurricanes this season, when many were predicted a year ago?”

    Good questions Bill! But, the first think we have to remember is that the definition of climate is “weather over time”, which is usually on 30-year time-period in climate science. Now, the Arctic ice cap DID grow, but it’s also very thin. Climate scientists measure the ice cap by area AND volume. The volume has continue to decrease and even if it grows ONE year, that does not constitute evidence against global warming or evidence for GLOBAL cooling. Also remember you describing a LOCAL condition. The trend for the planet is steadily going upwards. The trend over the Arctic would have to last more than one year and be more than local to provide evidence that we’re going in a different direction climate-wise.

    Also, climate science predicts FEWER hurricanes (for a number of reasons), but stronger ones as the planet’s continues to rise. Many factors go into favorable conditions for hurricane formation, but if one factor is missing or skewed, storms won’t form even if other conditions are favorable. The number of named storms this year stands at 13, which is in line with NOAA’s predictions for the year so far.

    Lastly, I would consider anything written in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal on this topic suspect; maybe not in reporting the facts, but the context and framing of the issue. Both of these outlets are notorious for cherry picking in the reporting of climate science.

  30. Rick Says:

    Sorry, meant to say: Also, climate science predicts FEWER hurricanes (for a number of reasons), but stronger ones as the planet’s temperature continues to rise.

  31. Brian Swinehart Says:

    I don’t understand how in America one can be both a Skeptic (science-based thinker) and a gun-nut (no restrictions whatsoever on firearms) at the same time – as evidenced by some of the comments here.

  32. Bill Says:

    I agree with others that you need to reexamine your core belief that capitalism is the greatest enemy of poverty. That sounds like an unconditional and absolute belief.

    I a perfect word, you would probably be correct. But we live in an imperfect world and, at least in the US, capitalism tends to be “make the rich even richer”. In other words, there is no room for those that are not fortunate enough to already at the top of the ladder.

    I can give an example: Hewlett Packard, when run by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, was what I would consider a close to ideal capitalistic company. They cared about their employees and families and HP shared the companies fortunes with them. If all capitalistic businesses believed and acted like Bill and Dave, then I would agree with you.

    Unfortunately, around 20 years ago, that started to change. First, they went public, so outside investors got involved. Then they were named a DJIA company – and started to become concerned with meeting market analyst expectations for short term results and less about what was good for the company over the long term. Ultimately, the company became what it is now, just another business that exploits their employees and cares little about their welfare or future.

    I see far too much of this in large business – the primary goal is to build the wealth of those that are already wealthy. Upper management gets huge salaries and even larger bonuses, while the rank and file worker gets little to improve their financial situation.

    Even the tax laws are skewed towards the wealthy. For example, passive income (investment) is taxed at a lower rate than income from actually working. Why isn’t it the other way around – or at least with both types of income taxed equally.

    And when large companies get into financial difficulties, what happens? The government bales them (and thus the investors) out, rather than letting them fail.

    That is NOT free market capitalism. Nor are all the tax incentives and laws written to limit or block competition.

  33. Greg Camp Says:

    Science tells us what is. For example, we know that the Earth is warming up due to human activity. We know that in the United States, there are some 30,000 deaths per annum due to gun fire.—the majority of which are suicides. But you’re confusing science with morality or public policy.

    In other words, science tells us what is, but not what we ought to do about it. Since we know about global warming, we are now left with the choice of how we should respond. I’ve seen many types of suggested responses, everything from doing nothing to taking human civilization back to the seventeenth century. Science can tell us what the consequences of those choices may be, but it’s up to us to decide which would be the best.

    In the case of guns, the situation is even less clear, since we’re dealing with human beings, not the inanimate physical world. The National Academies of Science this year published a report stating that at least 800,000 Americans defend themselves with a firearm in a given year. That was referred to as the most conservative estimate. But even if that number isn’t accurate, we still are dealing with the rights of individuals in opposition to the power of government. We don’t have a good science of predicting human behavior with much precision in general or in the specific case of politics and authority–other than to cite cases where people in power tend to abuse that power.

    The bottom line is that science offers us no clear answer with regard to gun policy. I discuss the question of gun rights and much more here:

  34. T Paine Says:

    Siva says;
    “Libertarian thinking leads to nationalism and patriotism, which too cannot be equated with science. It is not religion, which created all the wars in the world, it was patriotism and nationalism”
    I say;
    Your first statement seems to be the opposite of what I observe, and I would add that a majority of the responsibility for all the wars the USA has been involved in for the last one hundred plus years was created by the ideals of progressivism, not patriotism, nationalism, or libertarianism.

  35. Jim Hull Says:

    It’s easy to conclude that, if the data agrees with what the liberals believe, then the liberals will automatically have their way in the public policy debate. It’s as if the science were dictating the political outcome. But proving that there’s a problem doesn’t also determine the solution.

    I’d bet a lot of libertarians would side with Dr. Shermer on climate and guns, except they fear that reasonable accommodations would be taken as capitulation to their liberal opponents, who’d then move in for the kill. Any talk of compromise would smack of appeasement. The motivation for that reasoning is fear, rather than, say, garden-variety confirmation bias.

    Libertarians need better arguments with respect to climate change and guns, both of which can impinge on the rights of others. Dr. Shermer could point out that, much like voting, guns are a pushback against tyranny, yet voting requires registration, so signing up one’s weapons might also be proper. Framing it this way makes clear to liberal opponents that registration enshrines, rather than limits, gun rights. (As for public safety, it could be left up to the states just how much gun training might be required, and the variety of those outcomes would improve the science and better inform the debate.)

    Meanwhile, libertarians fear that admitting to climate change becomes the same thing as accepting an onerous regulatory regime. But the science for climate change doesn’t dictate a particular public policy outcome. Libertarians can argue that draconian regulations would likely damage economies and, ironically, throttle anti-pollution efforts.

    Don’t give up on libertarians! Sometimes they just don’t know how to express things cogently. If anyone can clarify these distinctions between evidence and policy, Dr. Shermer can.

  36. Greg Camp Says:

    Climate change is a clear situation. We’re heating up the planet, and if we don’t do something to stop that, bad results will follow. The argument to be made there is that with some modest changes, we can preserve the most freedom for our people, as opposed to a world of mass migration from flooded areas or lands ruined by desertification and competition for increasingly scarce resources.

    Guns aren’t so clear. The evidence is murkier, and unlike CO2, a gun can be owned and carried in a way that harms no one.

  37. Steve Says:

    “Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

    That’s not what a libertarian is, and you article makes it clear that you are lying about being one.

  38. Randy Grein Says:

    Excellent article Michael. I particularly appreciate the honesty in discussing your personal views and how hard it is to change them, even with compelling evidence. Much easier, if unproductive to rail at ‘the other guy needing to change’. I went through similar changes – while young (1968) I considered myself a Republican, opposed abortion, supported nuclear power, distrusted unions and was a strong proponent for what we laughingly call ‘the social safety net’. Over time I found sufficient evidence to change all those positions but the last, no change was easy. It has, at least taught me to try very hard to listen to others before ascribing their positions to error. There is a fine line between excessive acceptance and too rigid rejection of fringe ideas that we walk, and should expect to miss occasionally.

  39. Tom Fishbeck Says:

    Michael, libertarianism is the moral-legal framework that promotes scientific solutions better than any other. As Lott points out, more guns = less crime. This is most vividly shown when the crime in question is genocidal tyranny by collectivist dictators.

    The task of science, then, is to fine-tune the policies and rules by which voluntary communities choose to self-regulate individual access to guns, cars and other potentially destructive technologies. Those communities that choose wisely will have better results than those who choose foolishly. Libertarianism alone is the system that allows people to test every conceivable idea (or mutation) that can allow the society to evolve.

    The ideological in-breeding effect of self-reinforcing governments is contrary to the survival value of freedom. Libertarianism not only permits the people to experiment, but it, in the minds of most libertarians, celebrates experimentation.

    Science and libertarianism are far from being enemies. They are thoroughly interdependent and synergistic.

  40. un tacons Says:

    Nice article and interesting comments. Agree very wholeheartedly with those who question your faith in capitalism. A couple of questions: Why do people living in democracies trust the elected government less than the major corporations (powerful but unelected property owners)? Perhaps the vestigial hatred of the hierarchical and oppressive feudal system, overthrown in the American revolution, has been turned on the very government that was meant to protect citizens from exploitation by powerful landowners (substitute capitalists today). Why is giving a poor individual and her children a hand in the form of welfare abhorrent to people who would gladly throw millions of tax dollars to mega corporations, especially to people who are supposed to value charitability?

    Second, I think sometimes sceptic’s comments on religion are ill-informed. If I wanted to critique a scientific point of view, I wouldn’t take apart the common understanding of what religion is but I’d look at academic research in the field. For instance, would Mr. Shermer be open to reading Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution or similar works? Religion hasn’t been and isn’t mostly about cosmology but has for millennia been and shaped the basis for our entire relationship to each other and the world, social institutions and rituals. The cosmological aspects are neither here nor there, for most educated religious people today.

    The limits of a method (what is provable), no matter how successful, does not mark the limits of what exists. It is arbitrary to think that the limits coincide.

  41. Kate in DC Says:

    Oh, Michael! I hope you are now realizing that Libertarian beliefs lead to really awful policy. Ayn Rand recommends no government (or minimal), self-determinism, and holds the belief that the poor are responsible for their own status. Where and when did people stop being empathetic, stop being self-centered? And when did global warming become political? What is it that makes the conservatives, esp. the Tea Party, deny scientific evidence and even deride the scientists who have spent their lives studying it? Libertarianism has a bad rap, and for good reason. Selfishness, no empathy, no real education in history, finance, the constitution, sociology, etc. A mighty stupid group of people (at least those I know), who eschew the efforts of underpaid scientists endeavoring to find Truth. As for guns? Who needs a lot of guns? And a lot of ammunition? Are you aware that the suicide rate increases many fold if there is a gun in the house? If you watch Crime TV (a real waste, but…) there isn’t a show that doesn’t have a huge gun involved in a murder. And, really, look at who buys guns. Fairly dumb guys, one of whom showed his little son how to use an assault rifle, who then killed himself with it. Dumb? Stupid? Unfit? They don’t lock the guns up and they give guns to their little boys for Christmas. There is a sickness somewhere in all of this, and the NRA needs to be stopped. Why do they control our legislative branch? The NRA has deep pockets, that is why, and all those guys there, mostly Republican or Tea Party rats love that extra jolt of cash, taxfree, of course.

  42. Oliver K. Manuel Says:

    Binary thinking (either, or) has blocked recognition that leaders of Allied and Fascist nations, Communists and Capitalists, Democrats and Republicans faced a harsh reality at the end of the Second World War:

    Unite nations and take totalitarian control of the world or face possible death in a war of nuclear annihilation.

    Not surprisingly, they agreed to cooperate to control the world. In 1946, George Orwell realized what had happened and tried to warn the public in his futuristic novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,”

    This video conveys the same message:

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

  43. Leonard Weinstein, ScD Says:

    I am also closest to libertarian, and am also a scientist (physics and aerospace engineering). I am sorry but the literature you have read on the global warming issue is incomplete, biased, and leads to a wrong conclusion. This is a massively complicated issue, and I was initially convinced by the reports also the way you were. However, I went much deeper and concluded there was a major error taking place, that will turn out to be the largest scientific mistake made in modern times. The number of MSM, governments, scientific societies, and climatologists that jumped on this bandwagon when the temperature was rising rapidly is astonishing, but the number of scientists that saw through the error is also huge. You appear to be unaware of the number and caliber of these skeptics, and their discussion and arguments. There are some nut cases on both sides of the position, but don’t get sidetracked by being exposed to those on the skeptic side.

    The first thing you need to understand is that main scientific skeptics do not disagree with the fact that it has been warming the last 150 years or so. They also do not disagree that human activity has some effect on climate. The big issue of skeptics is the size and even sign of the feedback effects, and dominance of human activity vs. mostly “natural” variation. The drivers of natural variation include solar activity (not direct intensity variation, but magnetic field interaction and UV production), long period ocean current variations (PDO and AMDO, and others), volcanic eruptions, and some other effect we may not have details of.

    The real data does NOT support dominate human cause for warming (note the word dominate). In addition, there is no support for the small human effect being anything but good. It has been shown that human production of the excess CO2 is a major factor for INCREASED food production and global greening, and there is no down side. If you indicate that you actually want information, I would be glad to send as much as you want. The clearest evidence for the mistake of supporters that human activity is the dominate cause of warming and that it will become a problem is the present lack of warming the last 16 or so years AND THE FORCAST THAT THE NEXT SEVERAL DECADES WILL BE COOLING. This forcast has been made even by several people that previously supported the warming claims. If this happens, the supporters of human dominated warming are totally falsified.

    I await your response to these comments if you are actually a seeker of truth.