Voters Confuse Weather with Climate

by Benjamin Studebaker

Look and ye shall find–today I have run across yet another piece of evidence that the average citizen is a poor judge of what the state should do. It turns out that while most democratic-leaning Americans believe climate change is happening and most republicans believe it is not, independent voters, which are the largest group, change their minds about climate change depending on whether the temperature on the day they are asked the question is higher or lower than is usual for that date.

Here’s the data:

Here we see that independents are very nearly as skeptical of climate change as republicans on days in which it’s colder than usual, but they are nearly as uniform in their belief as democrats when it’s warmer.

This method of determining one’s opinion is highly irrational and deeply ignorant. I recall in 7th grade learning the difference between the “weather”, the conditions on any given day, and the “climate”, the average conditions over time. The question of whether or not climate change is happening is a question about what the climate is doing–it cannot be answered by sticking your hand out the window and seeing how it feels.

To answer this question the way the independents do is to rely on anecdotal evidence (is the weather unusual today?) when determining a question that, by its very definition, cannot be decided with a single anecdote (is the weather unusual most of the time, or moreso than before?). Climate change does not preclude having anomalously cold days, it merely indicates, depending on whom you ask, either that the number of anomalously warm days relative to cold days will increase, or that there will simply be more anomalous days of higher anomaly in general. There’s a reason the phrase “climate change” is usually used instead of “global warming”–an increase in the incidence and/or severity blizzards is still evidence for climate change.

What’s more, if we were to hold a referendum on whether or not the US government ought to recognize climate change or take some action on it, these independents would decide the outcome of that referendum, because they are 40% of the population:

If we assume that democrats all vote to recognize and republicans all vote against, the referendum would be 31 to 28 with 40% undecided. That 40% would make its decision based on what the weather conditions were on the date of the referendum. Temperatures fluctuate wildly. One day it might be 6 degrees below normal, the next it might be 6 above, and that fact alone would determine the outcome. If climate change should become a highly influential issue at election time, we can expect the weather to play not merely a role, but the most decisive role in determining which candidates are elected. Furthermore, whether you believe climate change is happening or you don’t, roughly 70% of the population could, from your point of view, at any given point in time, be deeply ignorant. Roughly 30% are ignorant as a point of dogma all the time, but the remaining 40% are ignorant by happenstance, depending on the weather. This means that you can only trust 30% of the population to vote intelligently on this issue regardless of what the weather is like.

Theoretically, if one side or the other had the capacity to predict or influence the weather with sufficient accuracy in time, an election or referendum in which climate change played a major role could be decided in advance.

How many other issues are to some degree like this? There certainly could be others. Take gun control–whether or not Americans believe they need gun control is dependent on whether or not, on the particular day you ask the question, Americans feel as though there has been a lot of gun violence lately. Take a look at Gallup’s long-term polling figures for gun control:

In December 2012, right after Sandy Hook, support for gun control went up 14 points to 58%, the highest it had been since 2000. By the time Gallup measured again in October 2013, 9 points of that bump had vanished. What’s more, the number supporting “less strict” laws rose 13% from a December low of 6%, the highest figure since Gallup began taking this data in 1990. We also saw a brief 5-point boost in support for gun control 1999–that’s the Columbine shooting. The Sandy Hook bump would have been the difference between gun control passing and failing were a nationwide referendum taken on the issue. Voters are subject to current events and whims of the moment. Defeating gun control was merely a matter of putting enough days between Sandy Hook and the point at which legislation would be passed. Defeating efforts to combat climate change is merely a matter of picking an unusually cold day on which to hold the vote. Statistics and scientific evidence do not so much as enter the debate.

When proponents of direct democracy complain that the government is insufficiently response to the will of the people, they are advocating for government by mood swing. When defenders of our current system claim that voters know what’s good for them, they are not only assuming that voters have well-informed views of what is good for them, they are assuming that voters have fixed views about their own good in the first place. This evidence suggests that voters not only embrace faulty opinions, but that they often fail to develop consistent or coherent opinions of any kind. The average voter is either so thoroughly indifferent or so poorly informed that he makes his decisions based on whims and feelings, on what it felt like outside or what was on the news last night.

It is possible for these whims to be understood by political parties and interest groups and used to manipulate the outcome of the political process. If I am regarded as a strong anti-crime candidate, I want voters to be acutely aware of crime and to feel especially unsafe so that they will give that issue precedence. It would be in my interest, if I could get away with it, to hire thugs or mobsters to commit crimes, to pay journalists and writers to report excessively on them and to encourage public hysteria about them. There’s a near infinite number of ways to apply this thinking. If I am a candidate who promises to prevent X bad thing from happening, the best way to get votes is to make X happen a lot, to rub the faces of the voters in X such that they are unable to view that issue with perspective. While candidates today are generally too afraid of being caught to employ these strategies, the mere fact that these strategies would be reasonable if candidates could get away with them should give us cause for pause. Even more importantly, the fact that voters are so incompetent and oblivious as to fall victim to these strategies were they to be used should make us skeptical of the efficacy of political systems that assume a high level of political involvement and/or expertise from the average citizen.