Ezra Klein’s first big piece for his new venture (heretofore known as Project X) at Vox is on a topic that quite naturally worries the former Wonkblogger: the limits of evidence-based reasoning when it conflicts with political allegiances increasingly based on polarized ideologies.
Klein will almost certainly get some blowback from progressives for projecting a false equivalency of Left and Right in exhibiting “identity protection” in the face of inconvenient evidence, though it’s pretty clear where he stands on the leading example, reactions to climate change science. He also revealingly cites Justice Antonin Scalia as the archetype of the highly intelligent ideologue who admits he limits his exposure to information emanating from the organs of the opposition tribe.
My own main reaction to the piece is that the phenomenon Ezra is talking about may have its roots in impulses a bit less complex than epistemology. The rejection of climate science by conservatives may in part flow from a rejection of the liberal clans who promote its findings. But there are two more immediate factors: the practical needs of a very powerful fossil fuel industry, and of a Republican Party for whom intensified exploitation of fossil fuels is the closest thing it has to a “populist” issue appeal. To put it another way, even if there was little or no intellectual warfare going on over greenhouse gases, there’s no question GOP pols and their donors would be chanting “drill baby drill!” (or perhaps “frack baby frack”) as the only obvious way to regenerate economic growth without an egregious upward redistribution of wealth to “job creators.”
As it happens, energy policy is one of the rare areas where partisan polarization has not been consummated, as is obvious if you listen to Democrats from energy producing areas. That this issue area tends to rebut the idea of a vast and increasingly rigid epistemological gulf between Left and Right, and between Ds and Rs, is cold comfort to those of us worried about a challenge where “action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly,” as Klein aptly puts it. But if, somehow, the GOP found a different strategy for appealing to the economic interests of middle-class Americans, or to swing voters in places like Louisiana and West Virginia, I suspect its investment in climate change obscurantism would decline accordingly.