The dangers of under-estimating complexity

Research shows that climate skepticism comes from a distinct part of the political spectrum. But is journalism making those same connections?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Complexity is, well, complex. Obvs, as the young people say. I've been re-reading James Bridle's excellent book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, and one of its underlying points — the source of the darkness of the title — is that we've built networks of digital communication that are now so complex that we over-estimate our ability to understand them. Complexity is on my mind.

However, it seems clear that one of the issues that's driving our current age of polarisation is an unwillingness to accept that complexity, and the impact it has on our political discussions and identity, along with an unwillingness to report on it. Politicians love to propose simple solutions which simplify issues, because that way votes lie. We have a duty to stop them obfuscating the complexity of the world.

For example, a piece from the New Republic suggests that there is good evidence that climate skepticism is deeply tied up in other belief sets:

In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”

Note: that's five years ago. This research has been floating around for half a decade - but how often have you seen it referred to?

Tribal thought patterns

There's a strong suggestion in the research that political issues are often more complex and inter-twined than our reporting makes allowance for. The tribal nature of human thought processes is under-discussed:

The connection has to do with a sense of group identity under threat, Hultman told me—an identity they perceive to be under threat from all sides. Besieged, as they see it, both by developing gender equality—Hultman pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement—and now climate activism’s challenge to their way of life, male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap, the three reactions feeding off of one another.

The connection between "group identity under threat" and the behaviors of various pro- and anti-Brexit groups is left as an exercise for the reader, although The Guardian's piece on the radicalisation of remain is probably a good start…


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.