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The Heartland Billboard Embarrassment and the Dangers of Ideological Ignorance

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The Heartland Institute, a fiercely conservative/libertarian think tank that champions denial of climate change, briefly ran a billboard in Chicago last week featuring a photo of notorious criminal Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) next to the message "I still believe in global warming. Do you?" Heartland allegedly promised future ads featuring Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but pulled the billboard (it was electronic) after it was universally derided, even by those who deny climate change, some of whom said they will no longer participate in Heartland's annual climate denial conference. Heartland's decision to quickly pull the ad may also have been influenced by a flood of negative feedback from their funders. The Diageo Beverage Company and State Farm Insurance say they will no longer support the group, as did General Motors recently, because of it's extremism and climate denial.

Heartland explained their effort as "an experiment" necessary to raise the issue. That's 'cover our ass' hogwash. Anthony Watts, a leader of the climate denial cause, apologized that Heartland was just experiencing "battle fatigue." Watts was closer to the truth than he probably realized. This billboard, and the accompanying explanation on Heartland's website, are in fact a clarion demonstration of how climate change is not a battle about facts and evidence as much as it is an ideological fight over whose tribe will win, and how the more one side feels it's losing ground, the more passionate/louder/uglier/dumber they get.

Any fair-minded reader of Heartland's online justification for this campaign can easily see that it veers far from the facts about climate change, and falls deeply into chasm of closed-minded passionate ideology. Consider these statements: Heartland suggests that associating Kaczynski and Manson with climate change undercuts the whole case for global warming because "... what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the "mainstream" media, and liberal politicians say about global warming." If that tortured argument doesn't stun any reasonable thinker -- even climate change doubters who still have a bit of self-respect for their own intelligence -- try this one. Heartland goes on to charge that "The most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen." Some arguably more prominent advocates of global warming than Kaczynski and Manson include such 'murders, tyrants, and madmen' as the Pope, the Dalai Lama, most Nobel Prize winners, the heads of pretty much every university on the planet, etc.

The designers of the campaign might not have even realized it themselves, but their effort to raise the volume with this embarrassing billboard isn't designed to persuade others about climate change as much as it is to reinforce the existing beliefs of the already-established true believers. It is far less an appeal to reason, and far more a campaign to preach to the choir, to circle the ideological wagons of the members of the tribe, and rally the troops around Heartland's deeply conservative and libertarian ideals.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and of course, every tribe does it. Such passionate closed-minded denial of the evidence is certainly true of the extreme and apocalyptic claims about nuclear power or genetically modified food from some who call themselves environmentalists. But this campaign goes further, because the ideological passion here is so virulent that it has left credibility in the dust and ultimately makes Heartland, and the tribe it represents, seem more ignorant in their visceral passion than thoughtful, credible, or persuasive about the views they'd like others to adopt.

There is a message here for all of us, and it goes far beyond the issue of climate change. To some degree, we all behave this way. We argue our beliefs based on the facts, but in fact we subconsciously shape our beliefs so they agree with the group, the tribe, with which we most strongly identify. This strengthens our tribe's acceptance of us as a member in good standing, and produces social cohesion that strengthens our tribe's dominance in overall society. This is a powerful subconscious imperative because acceptance by our tribe and our tribe's overall dominance are both important for the safety and survival of social animals like us. (This phenomenon has been called Cultural Cognition.)

This Heartland campaign isn't just battle fatigue. It's what true believers do when they are challenged and feel like they may be losing the argument, which feels threatening in a very deep way. It should make dramatically clear to all of us, on any side of any issue, how counterproductively far beyond reason this tendency can take us. The more driven we are to circle the wagons in pursuit of the safety of social cohesion, the more we abandon intellect and careful critical thinking, and the dumber we get, and the more closed our minds become... and the less influential we look and sound to others. The utter abandonment of reason demonstrated in this Heartland billboard campaign is just one example of a lot of the fiercely polarized, virulently closed-minded no-room-for-compromise, no-hope-for-progress combat that passes for 'debate' in American society these days. What a much MUCH more dangerous world that makes it, for all of us.

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