Not two weeks ago, I was floating on a noodle, beer in hand, life and conversation good, when the topic of climate change came up and suddenly the world seemed full of short-sighted ignorant people.
It started when a new friend seemed untroubled that 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record, making it the third year in a row to set this record. When I asked if he believed climate change was happening, he said he did, but quickly added that climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s history and this is just another one of those times. It got interesting when I pointed out the difference with the current climate change phenomenon. “Human activity,” he countered, “has nothing to do with it.” Then I, in higher octave, countered with “But the scientific community is united about this. We are the cause of this …” Before I could finish he replied,
“That’s not true, there are plenty of scientists who don’t agree that climate change is man-made.”
I wanted to explode with the quotes, facts, figures to clearly refute his position, when a curious thing happened: I had nothing. I found myself reaching for my intellectual “piece” and realized that it had no bullets. While I was certain he was blaspheming atop a glass mountain, I had no stone to throw, nothing peltable. I could not name this scientific community or say anything about the consensus. All I had was,
“Oh yeah! Well my scientists are smarter than your scientists. So there!”
Who was the ignorant one? It made me wonder how two smart people could see the same things so differently, and be so woefully unprepared to support our positions.
We both trust our experts
I, like my new friend, was reacting in the same way to defend a closely held belief that neither of us had really taken the time to validate. Neither of us had done the research to be sure that we weren’t being lied to. And why should we?
We both trusted our experts, the people who were telling us what we now defend in our social conversations. A long time ago, someone we trusted and respected took a position on an important issue and we accepted it. Ever since then we’ve been shutting out contrary speakers and judging them as crazy or having a hidden agenda.
Do you trust this man?
For me, my climate change expert, the one who made me a believer was Al Gore. I listened to his first Ted talk on the topic and was sold. I believed him because his arguments, to me, were sound and I also believed the platform he was speaking on: TED. I also had a strong science background and understood the delicate balance of an ecosystem. I aways liked Al’s vibe and voted for his presidency; I also was a big Bill Clinton fan.
No doubt my friend’s position on climate change, began similarly. We never got to a place where he could safely share how it began for him, but I’m sure it was just like mine. Someone he trusted took a position against climate change and his own background gave him a reason to believe that human activity could never be on a scale to affect global weather. I’ll bet he didn’t vote for Gore and supported Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Never the twain shall meet
What we believe, what we accept as true depends on what we already believe and accept as true; and what we accept as true makes us want to believe anything supporting it, and dismiss anything against it. We live in a Star Wars world of light and dark forces and we give Jedi status to anyone who can defend our beliefs.
In the TED talk below Julia Galef describes “motivated reasoning” as the phenomenon of readily accepting evidence for stuff we believe and attacking any evidence to the contrary. In sports, it’s what has us question any call the referee makes against our team and embrace every call he makes against the opposing team. It’s the phenomenon that has driven many a witch burning, crucifixion and lynching.
This last American presidential election is another case in point. Clinton supporters were as unwilling to accept the “locker room talk” explanation as Trump supporters were unwilling to see the grey in Clinton’s claim that she did not handle any classified information on her private server.
Closed or open minds
The real danger of our current education is that it allows motivated reasoning to thrive and doesn’t build our capacity to be OK with getting it wrong. Instead, we filter for supporters only, the rest falling into the enemy camp. Everyday most of us practice winning arguments vs. seeking truth, and if we don’t correct this quickly, the rhetoric may get so hot we will see red, literally.
Powerful persuade for their benefit
Profit seeking entities are finding ways to fool us all the time. The poster child for corporate evil is still the tobacco industry which, in the face of overwhelming evidence that cigarette smoking causes cancer, paid scientists to say it wasn’t true and published “scientific studies” proving their case.
Alarmingly the tobacco industry is not an isolated case. The sugar industry paid scientists to shift the blame to fat, the NFL lied about the risk from concussive injuries, drug companies use free speech to profit from dangerous drugs, and it seems every week there is another example of corporations seeking profit at the cost of the public good: Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Purdue Chicken, Mitsubishi, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson etc.
It’s up to us
There will always be MD’s to support any marketing claim regardless of the science behind it, especially since—with enough money at stake—the science behind it can be created. Also, corporations mask their interests in greater principles e.g. the right to bear arms, or protecting American jobs. This means that we must be vigilant against lies and mis-direction. We must be open to being wrong and to ask ourselves one of the fundamental philosophical problems “How do I know what I know.
Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true. Robert Brault
I took on the question by asking how did I come to believe that climate change is because of human activity? Next time, I’ll describe if I found a better answer than “My scientists are smarter than yours.”