Here is a sweet metaphor from The Economist article ‘The clouds of unknowing‘ last month:
Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down.
When I read this quote I really dug it and didn’t know why until I realized the house-of-cards-ists reminded me of biblical literalists. But the article is about views on climate science between the scientists and deniers.
The defenders of the consensus tend to stress the general consilience of their efforts…the way that data, theory and modelling back each other up. Doubters see this as a thoroughgoing version of “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to select the evidence that agrees with their original outlook. But although there is undoubtedly some degree of that (the errors in the IPCC, such as they are, all make the problem look worse, not better) there is still genuine power to the way different arguments and datasets in climate science tend to reinforce each other.
The doubters tend to focus on specific bits of empirical evidence, not on the whole picture. This is worthwhile…facts do need to be well grounded…but it can make the doubts seem more fundamental than they are. People often assume that data are simple, graspable and trustworthy, whereas theory is complex, recondite and slippery, and so give the former priority. In the case of climate change, as in much of science, the reverse is at least as fair a picture. Data are vexatious; theory is quite straightforward.
At least one person made the connection before me. Jonathan Hiskes from Grist made a similar observation in the ‘bonus point’ in his post on The Economist piece:
One reason why some people adopt the house-of-cards view is that they transfer the metaphor from fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism requires that every single tenet of a holy scripture be true. If not, the whole apparatus topples. Hence the Biblical inerrancy view…the Bible is true not just as a whole, but in every single historical and scientific detail. Most Christians I know don’t have this literalist view of the Bible. And I’ll leave it to theologians to explain whether this view of scripture makes sense. But if your faith rides on such a belief, you’re likely to look at climate change in the same way.
It’s an intriguing observation concerning the overlap between (fundamentalist) evangelicals and global warming deniers. But I don’t know if it’s simply transfered from religion. That’s a chicken and egg scenario if I’ve ever seen one. House-of-cards tendencies can be found outside of religion and are probably deeply embedded in the human psyche. On the other hand, it might be reinforced through the conditioning of dogmatic teaching. My sense is that it has more to do with one’s circumstances in relationship to a given topic, whether it’s healthcare, economic injustice, LGBT issues, environmental policies … you get the idea. People can be house-of-cards types when it comes to the facts on one issue and jigsaw types on other issues.