Big Red Flag for Cognitive Dissonance
Big Red Flag for Cognitive Dissonance
April 20, 2017
When I see an obvious case of cognitive dissonance in the news, I like to point it out so you can see reality through what I call the Persuasion Filter. Today’s example comes from an article in SLATE about climate change.
The author, Tim Requarth, correctly points out that facts and logic have limited value in changing anyone’s mind about climate science, or anything else. He speaks from experience because he teaches workshops on how to better communicate science. I like this guy. He’s on the right path.
But the thing that got my attention was this bit from the article:
“Kahan found that increased scientific literacy actually had a small negative effect: The conservative-leaning respondents who knew the most about science thought climate change posed the least risk. Scientific literacy, it seemed, increased polarization. In a later study, Kahan added a twist: He asked respondents what climate scientists believed. Respondents who knew more about science generally, regardless of political leaning, were better able to identify the scientific consensus—in other words, the polarization disappeared. Yet, when the same people were asked for their own opinions about climate change, the polarization returned. It showed that even when people understand the scientific consensus, they may not accept it.”
Notice how the author slips in his unsupported interpretation of the data: Greater knowledge about science causes more polarization.
Well, maybe. That’s a reasonable hypothesis, but it seems incomplete. Here’s another hypothesis that fits the same observed data: The people who know the most about science don’t think complex climate prediction models are credible science, and they are right.
For my purposes today, we don’t need to know which hypothesis is correct. Maybe knowledge does nothing but make you more confident that your “side” is right. But maybe the people with the most knowledge on the topic of science are – wait for it – good at judging the validity of science in any particular area.
Keep in mind that the entire public argument in favor of climate change alarmism is that the people who know the most (climate scientists) are largely on the same page. But that conflicts with the idea that the conservative-leaning citizens who know the most about science don’t find their ideas entirely credible – at least in terms of the prediction models.
And what would historians say about this situation? I think they would say that the people who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. (Because that’s what they always say.) In my opinion, the conservatives who know the most about science are looking at it from an historical perspective, and they see a pattern here: Complicated prediction models rarely work.
That’s how I see it.
In order to change my mind on climate science, you would need to show me that in this one special case, history is not repeating. You’d have to show me that this one time in history is when complicated prediction models got it right. And I’m not sure that argument can be made, even if true.
I would like to add one more hypothesis to the SLATE article. Let’s consider the possibility that the only reason any non-scientist believes climate change is a danger to civilization is because of fear persuasion, not because of facts or logic, and not because of a citizen-level understanding of science. If you fear the world will become uninhabitable in your lifetime, you’re more likely to embrace the experts who say they know what is wrong and they know how to stop it.
Climate scientists probably believe they have convinced about half of the public to their side using their graphs and logic and facts. That’s not the case. They convinced half the public by using fear persuasion disguised as facts and logic. And it probably worked best with the people who have the least knowledge of how often complicated prediction models have failed in the past.
For the purpose of this blog post, you don’t need to know who is right and who is wrong about climate science. My point today is that cognitive dissonance is preventing scientists from seeing what is actually happening here with their messaging. Scientists believe their facts and logic convinced all the smart people to their side already, so now they need a new strategy for the dumb ones. A different version of reality, as seen through the Persuasion Filter, is that citizens who don’t understand history are doomed to believe whatever the experts tell them. Half the country has been persuaded to climate alarmism by fear, not an understanding of the issue. At the same time, those who know the most about both history and science realize that complex climate models are generally not credible, so they are not persuaded by fear.
I remind new readers of this blog that I’m not a climate science denier. The consensus of climate scientists might be totally right, but I have no practical way to know. My point here, and in past posts, is that you can’t sell a truth by packaging it to look exactly like a huge lie. And those complicated climate prediction models look exactly like lies we have seen before, albeit in unrelated fields.
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