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Skepticism cynicism lies and hypocrisy

Written By: - Date published: 7:30 am, July 8th, 2017 - 17 comments
Categories: climate change, Deep stuff, Dirty Politics, global warming, Propaganda, spin - Tags: , , , ,

There’s a very interesting long read in The Guardian on the dangerous “weaponising” of cynicism by climate change deniers. It’s a worrying but insightful piece, well worth your time. I have some issues with aspects of the framing – it seems to give too much credence to “political realities” and not enough to physical realities. There are two sides to the political debate, but only one to the facts and their consequences.

Anyway. One of the most interesting sections was a discussion of the way that voters are more forgiving of lies than hypocrisy:

The people who made the case that smoking causes cancer were not generally thought of as hypocrites. It’s true that some of them still smoked, even after they knew the dangers. But there were far more smokers inside the tobacco industry, where being seen with a cigarette in hand was positively encouraged as a signal that there was nothing to worry about.

Climate science is different. Ever since it became a political issue, it has been bedevilled by accusations of hypocrisy. The internet is awash with tales of Al Gore and his monstrous double standards: he racks up enormous air-conditioning bills in his multiple homes; he leaves his private jet idling on the runway as he spreads the message that flying is wrong; he sells his television network for megabucks to al-Jazeera, where the money to buy it comes from Qatari oil. In the words of the National Review in 2016: “The [climate] hysterics are hypocrites. It’s austerity for thee but not for me as they jet around the world to speak to adoring audiences about the need for sacrifice.” Until wealthy liberal New Yorkers start selling up their Manhattan real estate and moving to higher ground, the cynics say, there’s really nothing to worry about.

Recent research by a group of psychologists shows why this is such a problem: we dislike hypocrites because we hate they way they seem to be signalling their superior virtue. Take two kinds of claims about environmental activism. Under one set of conditions, a speaker claims to recycle his rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does no such thing. Under the other, a speaker tell his listeners they should recycle their rubbish, after which it is revealed that he does not do it himself. The first is a liar. The second is a hypocrite, but not a liar, since what he says is still true (people should recycle their rubbish). Most people respond with relative equanimity to the lie. But they loathe the hypocrisy, because the hypocrite seems to be patronising them.

This is terrible news for environmentalism. Doctors who smoke are not really patronising their patients: if anything, they are revealing sympathetic human weakness. But environmental activists who leave the engine running are easily portrayed as dreadful elitists: they think the rules don’t apply to them. The populist rabble-rousers of the right have exploited this fact mercilessly. Hypocrisy is hard to avoid when it comes to the politics of climate change, since it is a collective-action problem. It’s far from clear what difference any individual action will make. What matters is what we do together. This makes it practically impossible for any one individual to match words to deeds. Yet the failure to do so provides the perfect stick for the climate cynics to beat their opponents with.

If we dislike hypocrisy more than we dislike lying, then it is not just a problem for climate politics. It is a problem for democracy. It gives the liars their chance. During the presidential campaign, it was widely hoped that Trump’s relentless record of untruths would be his undoing. In the New York Times, David Leonhardt painstakingly listed the 26 lies Trump told in the first presidential debate, which ought to have been enough for anyone. But Trump has always been careful not to come across as the wrong sort of hypocrite: the kind who seems to be talking down to people. Hillary Clinton was not so careful. And when the voters get to choose between the two, the hypocrite loses to the liar.

I don’t think that our recent Nat PMs and dirty politics bloggers had any formal understanding of this effect, but I think they certainly had an intuitive one. It does seem to contribute a useful perspective on what has been going on in NZ politics these last few years.

17 comments on “Skepticism cynicism lies and hypocrisy ”

  1. greywarshark 1

    Interest, commitment, discussion, thought all needed in democracies. One thing is to get out and about and experience, talk, listen, reflect, for YOURSELF. Not to sit down and watch tv and let some demagogue speak straight into your half-asleep brain. So some in Wellington who are interested in encouraging vitality and discussion and thought and questions in politics might like to take up a TOPS party idea.

    If you are based in Wellington, come along to The Backbencher pub on Wednesday night at 5.30pm. (This would be Wednesday, 12 July as I received this on 7/7/17.)

    The Backbenches are having a youth show and despite polling better than ACT, United Future and the Maori Party we weren’t invited to the show.

    If we can’t get attention the traditional way, the next best thing we can do is to dominate the crowd and force our way on TV.

    The first 50 people to show up will get a FREE TOP t-shirt! Come along and have some fun.

    These are subjects that have had discussion and comment on recently:

    A medical professionals view of the damage alcohol does

    Can we Develop Land and Improve the Environment?

    Drugs & Alcohol, It’s All About Consistency

    The Evidence For Real Action on Alcohol

  2. greywarshark 2

    Interesting post. How can we learn to think rationally when the matter is important. Making a decision on which political party is going to shape our lives for instance.
    Compared to which of two pop concerts we should go to. Or whether if we go to vote, will we have time to travel to the concert of our choice? Do we discern the difference in importance?

    Do we want everything to yield to an easy peasy shifting line in the sand about what rules we want to see applied, and apply to ourselves?

    If so, we can be very understanding about fraud, lies etc. and demand sanctions or excuse as we feel appropriate, and never see our own hypocrisies while using the argument of hypocrisy against anyone who annoys us by demanding some behaviour change they deem necessary? Such people are patronising jerks, as everyone knows, and probably getting a backhand. some advantage, from someone for spouting their message. /sarc

  3. Incognito 3

    Interesting post on a topic that has been bothering me a little since I believe it’s also relevant to TS – I might raise the ire of some here.

    To call out hypocrisy is a good thing IMO as is ‘genuinely’ being called out a hypocrite. Often we’re not aware of the inconsistencies in/of our own behaviour and communications. We can obsess in (focus on) one area but completely lack (ignore and/or neglect) in other aspects. For example, we claim to want to save power and do the right thing for the environment but leave the lights on in the kitchen all night and the towel racks on all day or drive around on soft tyres, etc.

    So, on the one hand we may honestly believe we have the best at heart and in mind but on the other hand our actions (or lack thereof) contradict our beliefs about ourselves. But we may not always realise this; we people are conundrums, i.e. walking collections of contradictions, embodiments of inconsistency, and personifications of paradoxes as well as masters of irrational thinking!

    So, if somebody points out these inconsistencies, makes us aware of these, we realise that we can and perhaps should change our ways. At least, we have an opportunity to do so.

    Here on TS commenters sometimes (!) get accused of hypocrisy, which is fine in itself. However, when they get accused because they are a “usual suspect” then I believe we’re starting to tread on a slippery slope.

    One of the advantages of using a nom de plume is that the online community knows nothing about you other than what you post. They should (and can) only respond to what you write and judge the merit of the style & contents rather than judge you on what you write – a subtle but important issue IMO. Even when there are inconsistencies in one’s writings, e.g. here on TS, then that is not necessarily being hypocritical but could be due to poor wording/phrasing (ambiguity) or simply that the person has ‘changed’ (God forbid that you break the mould and don’t ‘conform’).

    Accusing somebody of being hypocritical is too often used to try and shut down that person. It’s near-impossible to know the (real) intent from written words only and without the patronising aspect it becomes a mere inconsistency at worst. Even being patronising is not always conscious or deliberate even, as is being arrogant for that matter.

    We generally have no idea how we come across online and we have no way of knowing or finding out other than from the (online) reactions we’re getting – and thus the (feedback) loop is closed.

  4. Incognito 4

    BTW, I seem to have missed a link to the Guardian article 😉

    • Andre 4.1

      I couldn’t find it either. But if someone’s given you a nice long quote it’s easy to just select a decent chunk of the quote and google it. Usually takes you straight to the original.

  5. Yep sanctimonious hypocrites are the worst imo.

    It is a tough one because we want people, re cc, to do the best they can, make changes, incremental improvements and so on and we also know that the effort being put in is woeful in terms of actually having an effect and changing anything other than the feel good factor of doing something.

    This is the truth of it – western capitalist societies are unable to effect change because it would require people to change and they don’t want to, they actually can’t in some ways.

    If governments had done their job then there would be a pathway for people to see how to move forward – and sure that pathway may have been slippery or even dangerous.

    There is no pathway and ‘people’ are perched on a very steep slope – can’t go up, can’t go down. Wait for rescue? Wait to fall? Wait for something to change and it will, night is coming and the wind is picking up…

    • Incognito 5.1

      … are unable to effect change because it would require people to change and they don’t want to, they actually can’t in some ways.

      I’ve lifted this out of your sentence as I don’t want to dwell on the preceding part 😉

      I do believe that people want to change, (baby) step by (baby) step, but that they are (too) easily discouraged. They tend to give up to quickly because of lack or resilience and stamina but often also because of external (peer) pressure and messages that they are falling short, not doing enough, it’s too little too late, it won’t make a difference, they are hypocrites, etc.

      These messages become part of the internal narrative and (self-)belief system and thus self-fulfilling.

      Instead of calling people hypocrites it would be more helpful to praise them for the little they do do and do achieve like we do when we see a baby take his/her first steps. If we yell and hold back a baby each time he/she gets up to try again this person will never learn to walk well and with confidence. What’s more is that this person is unlikely to be a good role model for others.

      I see a nice cross-over to the comment @ 1 by Ant in OM.

      • marty mars 5.1.1

        If a person was using baby steps to move across the road and cars and trucks were coming – we could see them, the person could see them and they still kept taking little baby steps – what would you do?

        Yes encouragement is fantastic – but it is not so that people will do more (a hope always that they will) it is so they don’t become so discouraged from not doing enough that they toss the baby and bathwater out and in a fit of pique go, “well I’m not going to do anything then!!!”

        we are all hypocrites me included – my devices are made by child slave labour – yep I’m a big fucken hypocrite AND I’m still trying to move in a positive direction.

        • Incognito

          Yes, I’m a hypocrite too and I struggle with this more and more often than I’d like to share here on TS.

          There’s a limit to the usefulness of metaphors and analogies but I will still try to respond to your question as to what to do when a baby crawls/walks onto a road of national significance and is about to be run over.

          The last thing to do is walk away in frustration or to tell them that their baby steps are pathetic. You’d encourage them, in any way you can, to keep going and walk faster, run, and then jump out of the way of (the) pending disaster. Keep in mind that if they get run over you will suffer the same fate; a weird case of “entanglement”; in some ways you’re holding the hand of the person taking the baby steps but you cannot make them go faster, only they can.

          My question is: do you and the ‘baby’ see the same ‘truck’ approaching in the same way with the same speed and direction?

          • marty mars

            They could take baby steps in alignment with the traffic and never get run over. We could try to push them out of the way of the impending traffic and get run over ourselves. We could just close our eyes and walk away leaving them to whatever happens.

            What about if there were 10 or 100 people – what would/could we do then? Frankly, do we really care? If someone is not interested in getting out of the traffic then isn’t the their right. Aren’t we really the people dawdling, the people walking into traffic?

            There are many dilemmas including all of the horrible moral ones.

            We do our best and that is that.

            • Poission

              There are many dilemmas including all of the horrible moral ones.

              Firstly with the hypocrisy problem,this is a well documented aspect of human behavior as Horace noted Ipsi testudines edite, qui cepistis ( you who caught the turtles better eat them)

              The origin of the expression is as follows. It was said that a group of fishermen caught a large number of turtles. After cooking them, they found out at the communal meal that these sea animals were much less edible that they thought: not many members of the group were willing to eat them. But Mercury happened to be passing by –Mercury was the most multitasking, sort of put-together god, as he was the boss of commerce, abundance, messengers, the underworld, as well as the patron of thieves and brigands and, not surprisingly, luck. The group invited him to join them and offered him the turtles to eat. Detecting that he was only invited to relieve them of the unwanted food, he forced them all to eat the turtles, thus establishing the principle that you need to eat what you feed others.


              The second part of moral dilemmas under scientific uncertainty is not so clear cut.

              The scientific issues (read problems with mathematical uncertainty) was in an invited paper for the 250 Euler conferences,


              • Interesting indeed. Expected utility hypothesis does offer some insights – I can’t remember the name but when I was an investment adviser I read a great book on the psychology of investing – not called that though – which was fascinating in explaining why people did what they did even with great information and knowledge – they still did things that would not help them longer term.

                Does remind me of the CC debate and peoples attitudes a bit.

              • Incognito

                The paper in Physica D was a particularly interesting read, thank you.

                One take-home message: we have to rely on and trust in scientists to do their bit because it is something only they can do (well).

                It does feel though that the authors have shied away from addressing the issue of how the cost-benefit analyses in the framework of Expected Utility Theory are disseminated to the general public and by whom:

                By bringing these issues to the attention of the scientific community, we hope to improve communication between this community, the broader public, and decision makers. [my bold]

                I found the following noteworthy albeit off-topic to this thread:

                Various environmentalists have criticized valuing the environment solely as a basic resource for humanity, as done in the present paper.

                Their positions are genuinely non-anthropocentric: either nature as a whole or parts of (nonhuman) nature are assigned some moral value. Hence the whole ecosystems or even the climate system have to be valued for their own sake, i.e. not merely due to their value for a sentient being.

                The metaphysical background shared by different cultures – or, within one culture, over several generations – seems rather limited. The assumptions of a welfare-based approach are the most likely to be shared by people from different cultural backgrounds.

                In my mind, to draw a line between sentient and non-sentient beings is subjective and arbitrary. I also like to think that there’s ample evidence for the contrary position on the commonalities between people from different cultures and generations. For example, I recently wrote:

                [A]rchetypes are universal ‘bridges’ between the spiritual and material worlds and not taught or created by socio-cultural forces. So, we all share (and contribute to) them but in daily life they get ‘expressed & shaped’ by our personal circumstances.

                Open Mike 02/07/2017

                I guess this is a different discussion altogether …

            • Incognito

              Not sure that I quite follow but I’ll give it a go.

              We do our best and that is that.

              No, not all of us and not all of the time. We may have the best intentions but more often than not they not don’t result in tangible actions and even when they do these tend to fizzle out because we give up so quickly, e.g. because we get discouraged or distracted or whatever. BTW, it leaves open what is “do our best”.

              Frankly, do we really care?

              Well, we should because we’re all in it together, in the same boat. This is what I meant by “entanglement” although I believe there’s a lot more to it but this is neither the place nor time to elaborate on that again.

              • My ethos is that people do do their best. Their best may not be enough or may be useless compared to others or even what potentially the person could do but it is, at the time, the best they could do. Therefore encouragement.

                Everyone doing their best may have very little outcome on results, even worldwide – this is because doing our best is an internal state and externally nature and life/death continues. We have no control and very little influence over those external events.

                I use the ‘we are in the same waka’ position and it is true for some debates but I wonder if we are really a mass of individual vessels huddled in groups like some waterworld concoction.

                I just don’t see us acting like we are all in the same boat. Maybe we don’t see the boat itself.

                I agree about the entanglement – whichever way it is cut, we are entangled with others, with life itself – until we die – then we get entangled differently.

                • Incognito

                  Good, we are on the same page then.

                  Quite possibly this thread has run its course but I’ve been known to go on for too long 😉

                  As you said before @ there are many dilemmas incl. moral ones.

                  Having the best intentions presupposes that we have sufficient and correct information to make the right decisions and take the right actions.

                  This brings me back to being unaware of your own inconsistencies, for example, and getting pulled up on being a “hypocrite”.

                  There’s another inconvenient issue, which is that of “unintended consequences”, i.e. when our good intentions backfire and actually make things worse.

                  Your ethos is mine too but it requires that we make sure we’re properly informed and don’t take things for granted; eternal vigilance a requirement for a healthy functioning democracy for the exact same reason.

                  The OP stated that our dislike of hypocrisy is a problem for democracy and it seemed that the emphasis was on hypocrisy per se but I now think it is our dislike that’s the real issue. We should embrace hypocrisy as a means to stay vigilant so that we can indeed do our best and the right thing.

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