In 1980, a country music artist named Mac Davis had a hit with a song called “It’s Hard to be Humble.” The opening lines were “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble / When you’re perfect in every way.” The song was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but when it comes to understanding today’s volatile political world, the sentiment in the title is more true than we like to think. Because we humans are forced to make decisions in the absence of complete information, our brains have evolved to make us feel comfortable with the decisions we make — in part, by making us less humble (and more confident) about those choices than we ought to be.

I titled Part 2 of Climate of Contempt (chapters 4-6) “Complexity, Centrifugal Forces, and the Energy Transition.” Previous blog posts have talked a lot about those centrifugal forces and how they apply to the politics of the energy transition. This post is about complexity, and how we misunderstand and under-appreciate it in predictable ways.

Here’s the takeaway: We are much too susceptible to the suggestion that when our political opponents make decisions we don’t like, those decision are driven by nefarious motives or forces.

It probably goes without saying that climate and energy policymaking is a wickedly complex problem, one that implicates all sorts of disagreements about the technological and economic past, present and future, and about how the costs and benefits of a transition to a lower carbon economy ought to be distributed. Climate and energy policy scholars attend to these dimensions of complexity, but we often overlook the baseline complexity inherent in all collective choices. This is the type of complexity with which political scientists concern themselves.

The governance of any organization involves representation, a set of leaders making decisions on behalf of the organization’s members. In corporations and non-governmental organizations the key leaders are often selected by a board of directors, who in turn are selected by the organization’s members. And in democratic societies leaders in government are selected by a vote of the citizens. When the leaders make decisions, those decisions reflect the cross-cutting pressures and preferences of the the people who selected those leaders, along with other factors that are personal to each decision-maker: that person’s sense of their situational duty, their values, their ambition, their professional norms, and more.

For any given decision, the particular mix of motives are hidden inside the brains of each decision-maker. From the outside, parsing the effects of all the possible drivers of any decision is very difficult, and is made even more difficult by the fact that decision-makers are often presented with a binary choice. The politician or voter may have mixed feelings about that choice, or may prefer a third option that is not on the table. But under majority or plurality voting, we strip away all that complexity in favor of an up or down choice.* Am I for or against this politician? This piece of legislation? This candidate for the board of directors? This energy project? This policy instrument? This company? This interest group? This political party?

When it comes to elected politicians, political scientists have long used the working assumption that most of them are motivated to protect their reelection prospects. But beyond that there are substantial disagreements about what drives their decisions. When it comes to voters, we know from experience that party affiliation is the strongest indicator of how people will vote. But since the American electorate is fairly evenly divided between the two parties, all of the interesting action concerns of the shrinking number of swayable voters. And predicting their behavior has become increasingly difficult for experts and scholars. (See here and here.)

So, we make more or less educated guesses about why other people make the decisions that we don’t like. The fundamental attribution error can skew those interpretations, and there have always been politicians and interest groups who urge us to ascribe the worst motives to “the other side.” But in the internet age that sort of lobbying is omnipresent. As a consequence, we are more likely than ever to infer nefarious motives when they aren’t necessarily present. (See here, here, and here.) This is a part of the engine of negative partisanship.

When we read that Sierra Club chapters oppose a solar farm or a transmission line that brings more green energy to the grid, should we infer something nefarious about the motives of the Sierra Club as an organization, or about the motives of its membership? No we should not. Those actions are artifacts of the heterogeneity of group beliefs and preferences.

What should we infer when the national Sierra Club makes a choice we don’t like? Can we ascribe that choice to the entire membership? Again, no. Members choose to belong to the club for all sorts of reasons, and probably disagree with some club decisions. The fact that the national organization made Decision X doesn’t even imply that most members endorse Decision X.  Leaders make lots of choices, and as long as enough members are happy with the leaders’ overall performance they may have leeway to make some upopular ones.

This is true in politics and corporate governance too, but we sometimes miss this truth. Online lobbyists use the fallacy of division and the fallacy of composition to turn us against a party or other organization. They try to get us to impute the motives of one member to the whole collective, or they suggest that an individual member must therefore endorse a specific decision made by the organization.

The ease with which lobbyists and persuaders can trigger these attribution errors in voters damages our politics. It undermines democratic representation, and further amplifies voter frustrations.

It also poses a risk for business firms when their employees or political action committees support a particular candidate for a multiplicity of reasons, but online lobbyists urge their followers to ascribe unpopular candidate preferences to the firm — even in the face of contrary evidence. Likewise, members of trade associations that lobby on behalf of an industry face this same problem. Members choose annually whether to remain members or to exit the trade group, and that decision presumably turns on their assessment of the overall net benefits of membership. But online lobbyists will impute to each member the most objectionable decisions made by the organization. For that reason, Shell and BP each announced their exit from the American Petroleum Institute, reasoning that they could no longer be associated with API’s lobbying on climate policy.

We voters have to adjust constant suggestions that we ought to think the worst of political adversaries, because too often it works. To be clear, if your goal is to maximize pressure on politicians and firms in support of some sort of social or political change, this approach makes strategic sense. It is tactically smart. But it invokes a logical error (read: it misleads people) in service of that political goal. If on the other hand your goal is to educate, you ought to resist the the temptation to exploit these logical fallacies.

Meanwhile, we voters need to become more savvy about filtering and interpreting the barrage of misleading messages we receive through our electronic devices. It takes more work than it used to to avoid jumping to faulty conclusions. It is much harder to be humble, but we will be collectively better off if we can figure out how to be. — David Spence


*Approval voting and forms of ranked choice voting can capture more of that complexity, but are not the dominant voting rules in governance of U.S. institutions.