Posted by: Barry Bickmore | August 24, 2013

Willful Blindness

I just watched a TED video of Margaret Heffernan talking about “The Dangers of Willful Blindness”.  (She’s also written a book called Willful Blindness, apparently.  See her official website.)  Heffernan talks about why some people turn a blind eye to glaring problems, while others choose to become “whistleblowers”.

Her introductory example was the case of Libby, Montana, where one woman, Gayla Benefield, started asking questions when both her parents died young, and she noticed an abnormal number of older men on oxygen tanks in the town.  She wondered whether the problem could have anything to do with the vermiculite mine that was the main economic engine of the town, and came to find out that the vermiculite mined there actually contains some asbestos.  [Note:  Heffernan says that vermiculite is a highly toxic form of asbestos, but that’s not true.  Vermiculite is pretty harmless–it’s just that this particular deposit also contained the minerals tremolite and actinolite, which are asbestos minerals.  Sorry, I’m a mineralogy teacher.]  At first, Benefield mostly just annoyed her neighbors, who didn’t want to look at the issue seriously, but that ticked her off and she kept at it.  Some of the neighbors even printed bumper stickers that said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana.  No, I don’t have asbestosis.”  When the government finally stepped in and started screening the residents of the town, they found out that there was an asbestosis problem, and as a result the mortality rate in the town was 80 TIMES HIGHER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE COUNTRY.  Not 80% higher.  80 TIMES higher.  Not 80 times higher than average.  80 times higher than ANYWHERE ELSE in the country.

Now, I don’t have to tell my readers how I think this story relates to being a Republican Earth scientist who takes climate change seriously.  But watch the video and pay attention to how Heffernan describes the excuses people make for remaining willfully blind.  See if you don’t find eerie similarities with the excuses you hear coming from the “Do-Nothing-About-Climate” crowd.

Climate change wasn’t the first issue about which I had encountered willful blindness, though.  Back in 2000-2001, I worked on a project having to do with leaked nuclear waste at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington.  This is where most of the plutonium for US nuclear weapons was produced since the 40’s, and production stopped in the late 80’s after a safety inspector blew the whistle on some of the UNBELIEVABLY unsafe things that were being done.  Since it was part of the weapons complex, all this stuff never came out before then because it was all hush-hush, national defense kind of stuff.  Maybe a couple million gallons of high-level nuclear waste have been released into the subsurface, a few miles by groundwater flow away from the Columbia River.  When I started the project, I decided to read up on the history of the site, and let me tell you, it cured quite a bit of my aversion to environmental regulation.  If you want to read a good historical account, see Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal, by Michael D’Antonio.

This isn’t a uniquely Republican, or American problem.  It’s just the way people are.  But while I can use this fact of life to make myself feel a little more kindly toward people who brush off serious concerns about things like climate change, it also makes me want to give them a good shake and a couple backhanded slaps.  If facing the truth is going to make people fly into a panic, well maybe they just need to buck up.


  1. There is an odd connection of:
    a) cigarettes
    b) asbestos
    c) Climate change

    All were identified as long-term problems, with the Surgeon General report in 1964 being the clearest singe example. After that, most doctors did not start smoking, and any could quit, but to this day, ~19% of American adults still smoke, although it varies strongly by state. UT has the lowest rate, CA second, although for different reasons, but each is less than half the rates of the highest states.

    As reported in Golden Holocaust, for some years in the 1950s, Kent “Micronite” filters used asbestos.

    And finally, many fo the thinktanks that do their best to confuse people on climate and other environmental issues, have a long history of helping the tobacco companies. See Fakery 2, pp.37-46. many of these call themselves conservatives, but act more like PR/lobbyists for companies who privatize profits and socialize costs, not very much like classic conservatives of the old sort. (I think of people like Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY Rep, retired) or George Shultz, or some of the other folks at the Hoover Institution.

    Some of these thinktanks have for decades helped tobacco companies, who only stay in business by addicting children to something that will kill many, slowly. UT residents especially might think on that.

  2. You left off, d) Pedophilia.

    I’m not sure what the link is, but I’m sure if I look hard enough I’ll find (conjure) it.

    • The same (creepy) people and “think-tanks” advocate against environmental regulations in all three cases. Because, magically, the science is just way too uncertain to know whether any of those things are really causing problems.

  3. I was trying to highlight the folly (unchecked bias?) in comparing skeptism of CAGW with ignoring the reallity of (not modelled) smoking/asbestos related diseases.

    Obviously you being an authority on the subject of CAGW, you no doubt have very good reasons to object to my skeptism. The link you made above I don’t believe is one of them and probably falls somewhere in your first and second law of being reasonable.

    • Hi Colin,

      I’m not following you. The topic is willfully ignoring evidence about things like environmental problems. John M. noted that certain entities have been pushing to ignore the science with to respect to the three environmental problems he mentioned. Why is it a bad argument in the context of this post to note that some people are willfully blind about a whole suite of environmental problems? Neither John nor I ever said that all people who argue against the science in one of those cases, necessarily do so in all of those cases.

      You came back with a snark about pedophilia, but since that has nothing to do with anything anyone was talking about here, I don’t see how it highlights the absurdity of anything but failed attempts at snarkiness.

      And the fact is that there is good paleoclimate evidence for the approximate range of climate sensitivity, and greenhouse gas physics isn’t complicated, so the only thing that relies solely on models is projections of the future. You could also argue that just because smoking seems to have caused many deaths in the past, that doesn’t mean it will in the future. Those are just model projections, after all.

      • Colin is wilfully ignoring the point and doing a “LOOK! SQUIRRELS!!!!” moment.

        It’s pretty pathetic, really.

        Can’t find a cogent argument, so tries distraction instead.

        • Now, you must wear the cone of shame.

          • Sorry, you’ve evidently had it destroyed because you kept getting handed it.

            (But a smiley for noting the reference)

  4. You say the topic is about willfully ignoring evidence about things like environmental problems. That of course depends on the veracity of the evidence.

    “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

    My snarkiness was due to the similarities I found with a recent radio program on the Australian public broacaster’s, The Science Show. See transcript.

    Now if anyone needed to be slapped it’s this Robyn Williams bloke. Maybe that will make him buck up.

    • So, Col, why do you think that Robyn, rather than you, deserves a slap?

      Apparently only because he says something you don’t like to hear is the “reason” you think he deserves a slap.

      Rather anti-freespeech of you, isn’t it.

      • Read Professor Bickmore’s last paragraph again.

        • Nope, I want you to answer it. YOU make the claim that “something” in that link indicates Robin needs a slap.

          ***I*** am not going to try and work out what the hell you’re talking about. YOU made a claim he needs a slap but NOTHING appears in that link to say why and NOT EVEN YOU can explain what it is, but have to insinuate that “it’s there, honest”.

          • “What if I told you that paedophilia is good for children, or that asbestos is an excellent inhalant for those with asthma? Or that smoking crack is a normal part and a healthy one of teenage life, to be encouraged? You’d rightly find it outrageous. But there have been similar statements coming out of inexpert mouths again and again in recent times, distorting the science.” – Robyn Williams (Australian public servant).

            “They are also rejecting the link between smoking and lung cancer, they are rejecting the link between HIV and AIDS. So there seems to be something about an extremist free-market ideology that prevents people from accepting scientific evidence.” – Stephan Lewandowsky (who else?). Pot kettle.

            • Colin,

              Robyn Williams was simply saying that the people he was criticizing were making outrageous and anti-scientific statements, and he listed a number of statements he thought were similarly outrageous and anti-scientific. He never implied that climate change contrarians believe pedophilia, crack smoking, or asbestos breathing is good.

              On the other hand, many people have rightly pointed out that many of the free-market think tanks that have been pushing climate contrarianism the hardest have also done the same thing for tobacco. I have never seen anyone (including Stephan Lewandowsky) say that ALL climate contrarians deny the links between second-hand smoke and various diseases, or anything like that.

              If you are one of those contrarians who are fine with the science about smoking, etc., but still listen to organizations like the Heartland Institute about climate, perhaps you ought to reconsider whom you’re willing to trust.

            • “He never implied that climate change contrarians believe pedophilia, crack smoking, or asbestos breathing is good.” Of course he did. It appears to me he wasn’t using these specific examples as an analogy but as a moral equivalence.

              You accussed me of being snarky (fair enough), but appear comfortable with the outrageous comparisons Mr Willimas used.

              I have tried to access many different views on climate change, including yours, but fail to see how ‘listening’ to the views from one organisation defines my viewpoint. The same argument could be used against those that listen to Dr Lewandowsky.

              But I will continue to visit your website as I do enjoy your posts, and I do find them educational, along with those by Dr Curry, Dr Spencer, Steve McIntyre etc.

            • Hi Colin,

              I agree that it is a bad idea to compare people to Nazis or pedophiles in any way, unless you really mean it. It’s too potentially offensive. But John Mashey didn’t do anything like that, and Robyn Williams isn’t my problem.

              John DID note that some of the same people were pushing contrarian positions with regard to a trio of environmental issues, which he named, and linked to documentation. In other words, it was a plain fact, not a gratuitous smear.

              You’re welcome around here, anytime.

            • I believe the link between the 3 are weak at best and are only there for those that wish to see it.

              This is still an association fallacy and no matter how hard you try to justify it with the qualifications like ‘not all’ and ‘some’, I believe a broader nefarious intent was there.

              Maybe that’s just the contrarian in me. (:

            • > I believe the link between the 3 are weak at best and are only there for those that wish to see it.

              There is belief, and then there is actually reading up on the evidence presented. You might want to try the latter, it’s good for the soul 😉

            • So you can quote him.

              Have a bikkit. Well done.

              Now, again, I ask you: what was it he said that gets him to deserve a slap?

    • Sorry, I should have wrote “click on show transcript”.

      • Sorry, you should have written what the hell you’re talking about.

        Not require everyone else try to guess what wibbling moronity you’re peddling today.

        • “…wibbling moronity…”. Oh dear. Yet again, you really are oblivious to the irony.

          Maurice Newman (former chairman of the ABC responds)

          It might be behind a paywall so putting “ABC clique in control of climate” into the Google machine might be required.

          • No, col, you don’t seem to know what irony means, but have learned that this doesn’t matter as long as you claim someone doesn’t get it.

            Exaclty what purpose that has, is an exercise you leave to everyone else, because as long as you never make a concrete statement, you can never be found wrong: just challenge them to make up what you “really” meant and assert that it wasn’t the last guess.

  5. I wonder where col was when the Heartland made out that the IPCC were like mass murderers and molestors?

    Concern troll is trolling.

  6. Barry, it’s obvious that, like irony, “analogy” is just a word that Col has seen written down.

    • They call me the Hiphopopotamus. My vocabulary is bottomless…
      ……..(Clear throat)…….

      Apologies to FoTC

      • Reality is something that passed you by years ago, isn’t it…

  7. […] you present you will encounter a condition called 'willful blindness'. Here's an explanation, Willful Blindness | Climate Asylum, So, good luck, but keep at it, because constantly highlighting the facts will eventually yield […]

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