The Limits of Reason

I’ve been absent from the climate change wars for a while — disheartened by the whole Gleick – Heartland affair. I won’t go into it in much detail — aren’t we all extremely tired of it?

Sisyphys (1548-1549) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

I’ve been rethinking my role in these debates since the whole business. Gleick’s actions, whatever they were, served to illustrate what is wrong with the whole climate change wars. Evidence, in the end, doesn’t matter. Power matters.

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Peter Watts in which he laments the sorry state of humanity that I think is worth considering in this context:

I realized, at that point, that you just can’t reason with some people. It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why this should be so. I think it comes down to the oft-revisited theme that natural selection has shaped our brains not for logic but for inclusive fitness. We can use logic when we want to, of course. We have tools of reason at our command; but according to at least some experts[1] we have those tools not to glean truth from falsehood but to help us win arguments; to make others do what we want; to use as a weapon. It’s rhetoric and manipulation that evolution selected for: logic just tagged along as a side effect. Sweeping oratory, rational debate, it’s all just a way to bend others to your will.

In that light, it shouldn’t surprise us that our brains have developed countermeasures to so-called reasoned argument. A seemingly-endless list of cognitive glitches compromise the brain’s inability to perceive reality— but maybe they aren’t so much glitches as adaptations, meant to counter the pernicious effects of the silver-tongued. Confirmation bias, for example, leads us to cherry-pick facts which support our own beliefs; the Semmelweis reflex makes us automatically reject findings that contradict our expectations. And perhaps most radically, the Backfire Effect. You’d think a rational person, confronted with evidence contradicting their beliefs on a given subject, would at the very least grow less confident in those beliefs. In fact, such contrary evidence often reinforces the very belief being undermined.

These adaptations, if that’s what they are — these defenses against social manipulation — would make rational discourse difficult enough. But it gets worse. We know from the work of Kruger and Dunning[2] that not only do people tend to overestimate their own smarts, but that this effect is especially pronounced among the incompetent. Furthermore, incompetent people tend not only to regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid, even when shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.

It explains so much, these counter-rhetorical biases. It explains why climate-change deniers dig their heels in even deeper with each new study confirming the reality of climate change.

Science is so wonderful because it attempts to remove these influences and stick with the facts and the implications of them, rather than ego-driven wish fulfilment clouded by bias and desire. But it seems to me, if we take Watts insights, that this means people are adapted to ignore science – ignore evidence – when it suits them. Hence, you have deniers who refuse to accept the science — not because the science is wrong, but because it is inconvenient to their economic self-interest. Or because they want to remain ideologically pure (Ayn Randians forex).

Facts and evidence won’t sway these folks. Science is wasted on them. They just shut off the part of their brains that can be swayed by evidence and stick with comfortable delusions.

The rest of the population is ready to accept what science tells them. They generally respect scientists. The problem is that journalism, as an industry reliant on selling newspapers or getting eyes on websites or advertisements, tends to present such a dizzying array of conflicting headlines and messages that it seems that science is up its own arse. Scientists appear to be a psychotic lot who speak in tongues and have multiple personalities. One week it’s good to eat this and then the next it’s bad, one week this causes cancer, the next it doesn’t. No wonder people are confused. I don’t blame the scientists, but the industry of journalism. Even journalists are victims of the system which forces headline writers to write the fantastic to draw readers. Not only are there conflicting messages; there are just too many messages. The average person is overwhelmed and does not have the skills necessary to sort through the dreck to find what’s worthy of thought.

Deniers rely on this confusion. They play it up, spouting alternative theories that do not make the grade. This leads to uncertainty in the minds of the public about what to believe. Uncertainty on the part of the electorate means that politicians, those weak-kneed lily-livered lot, can stall or ignore or sidestep making hard choices.

It comes down to a question, not of truth, but power. Power and those who exercise it and monopolize it, is what matters. Only when those who can make policy — politicians — feel under the gun enough, face a loss at the ballot box, and get the message loud and clear that it is time to act, will we see serious concerted action to mitigate fossil fuel-produced CO2 induced global warming.

It’s sad to say but I agree with Sir John Houghton:

If we want a good environmental policy in the future we’ll have to have a disaster. It’s like safety on public transport. The only way humans will act is if there’s been an accident.

Think of the 2004 Tsunami or the recent Tsunami in Japan. There were folks warning about the risks but no one listened. Humans procrastinate until it’s too late. Until we have disasters, we humans are too short-sighted to act, too self-interested, and too willing to ignore evidence in order to avoid making uncomfortable decisions. Because of vested interests, it’s all the harder. Because of the corruption of our political systems, it is even harder still.

The cards are stacked against rational action. At this time. Rational action will take political will and so far, there isn’t enough despite the growing evidence that we must act — and soon.

My little corner of the internet has been dedicated to poking fun at deniers, looking at their arguments and narratives and making fun, using sarcasm and satire to try to make a point. I’ve been preaching to the choir, and I thank everyone who has visited Policy Lass blog over the past couple of years. I have many regular readers who check in every day to see if I’ve updated. I know where you’re from and appreciate your interest. I feel somewhat pleased to have readers from NOAA, NASA, JPL, and dozens of universities and research institutes. People from around the world – amazing for one small person of no import. Thank you for reading. Hell, even Husky Oil — glad to see you. 🙂

This isn’t a swan song. I’m just going to focus less on snark and more on exploring how to build a political movement. Twice in my life I’ve been involved in small-scale political movements that had some measure of success. I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about this and reading about it and finding people who have ideas on how to move this forward. That includes finding public figures who are already or who can become climate champions, encouraging them to speak out, to use their sway with the public, to use social media to reach the electorate, to reach young people, and those who vote, and make it so that the decision makers and policy makers have to listen.

It’s the only way anything will change.

I don’t yet know how to do this, or what avenues to pursue, but I think those of us who spend our time attacking the deniers or even simply trying to push the truth will not achieve what we desire — serious action on climate change. There’s just too much noise and too much disinformation to succeed by either using satire or science to effect change. Satire is lost on all but those who are receptive to the message and science alone is not enough to sway.

We have to seize the discourse among the public using the tools that reach the public. It will be an uphill battle because corporations like EXXON Mobil have so much wealth and the fossil fuel industry has so much wealth and can afford to put on sexy ads about jobs and energy independence and economic security. Until we have voices as big and compelling who can reach into the lives and minds of Joe Public and show them the truth and what they can do to deal with it, we will remain locked in this Sisyphean struggle, expending a whole lot of energy without getting anywhere – fast.

I’m tired and frustrated by it.

The Gleick – Heartland affair and the whole debate that arose around it made this clear to me.

So that’s it for me for a while.

As usual, I will continue to read your blogs and keep up with the climate deniers, but I’m out of heart for what I’ve been doing for the past two years here.