Common knowledge, preference falsification, and preference cascades

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science for they often endure long; but false hypotheses [theories] do little harm, as everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to the truth is often at the same time opened.

— Charles Darwin, from the preface to The Origin of Species

Most people don’t want to be an oddball. That means they may not always be truthful about their beliefs, especially political beliefs. Perhaps you believed all the predictions about a new age of global cooling that were going around in the 1980’s. It did seem to make sense, didn’t it. But then when the prognosticators suddenly shifted to dire warnings of global warming you might have begun to wonder if they really knew what they were talking about. When you noticed that seemingly everyone was fully on board with all the global warming hype it might have seemed to you that nobody else shared your skepticism, and so you became reluctant to speak out on it. You didn’t want to get into an argument, and you didn’t want to appear to be an oddball.

Now, many years later,  you know that you aren’t alone in your skepticism. There have been so many cracks in the global warming argument, the true believers have been forced to make another shift, this time from global warming to “climate change.” You can openly disagree with it now without being a weirdo. It’s okay to be a skeptic now. Probably a majority of the public is skeptical of the wild claims being made about “climate change.”

What is happening is called a “preference cascade.” It’s what happens when people who thought they were alone in their beliefs suddenly find out a lot of other people agree with them.  It’s when you realize you can be open about what you think without being shunned by your friends, at least not the ones worthy of friendship.  It’s when you find out who are the “true believers” who will cling to something they need to believe against all evidence and common sense.

I use the global warming ballyhoo merely as an example. There are many other popular ideas that are actually widespread delusions, but almost nobody wants to challenge them for fear of being labeled by others as the deluded ones. There is also the phenomenon of “preference falsification” in which people not only hold back on saying they really believe but may even profess to believe the opposite just to avoid what they perceive to be the likely condemnation by others if they spoke truthfully.  A great book has been written on this: Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, by Timur Kuran.

This highlights why freedom of speech is so important. People already self regulate their own speech to a large degree. When social sanctions are imposed common knowledge is threatened with becoming unknowable.  Global warming hype is a good example because now that the cat is out of the bag the true believers are doing everything possible to try to silence the skeptics.  First they labeled them “deniers,” a transparent attempt to compare global warming skeptics to holocaust deniers.  The media regularly ridicules anyone who dares to disagree with the climate change dogma. Michael Mann, the author of the phony “hockey stick” graph, is suing people who speak out in print about the hoax he created.  While these suits will no doubt eventually be dismissed the defendants will suffer untold inconvenience and expense defending them. Mann probably knows he won’t win the suits, but figures it’s worth losing the battle to win the war. He’s probably going to win the war since no one wants to turn their hard earned money over to expensive lawyers. Settlement looks attractive if if will end the threat of bankruptcy. The purpose of all this is to make the skeptics shut up. 

All this does enormous damage to freedom of speech and to science.  As Darwin says, false facts are only harmful if they aren’t refuted.  In a climate of open inquiry where others are free to disagree, the path to error can be closed and the road to truth opened.

In a seminal article, Steven Pinker has written of the twin pillars of conjecture and refutation as being necessary to the advancement of knowledge. The global warming hoaxers claim to have science on their side all the while they try to prevent any refutation of their wild conjecture.  If they were truly confident in their theories and truly cared about knowledge and truth, they would debate the skeptics instead of suing them.

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