The Illusion of Knowledge
The Illusion of Knowledge
December 29, 2016
Yesterday I kicked the hornet’s nest by suggesting that no scientist really believes that complicated models with lots of variables can reliably predict the future. This is a subset of my larger point that no non-scientist can evaluate the claims of climate science because BOTH sides look 100% convincing to the under-informed.
So how did the public respond to my claim that BOTH sides of the debate look convincing? They berated me for not sufficiently researching materials from ONE side of the debate that happens to be their side. Many people suggested that I could simply do some homework, on my own, and get to the bottom of climate science.
That is a massive public illusion.
For starters, when I say BOTH sides of the debate look 100% convincing to a non-scientist such as myself, it does not advance the debate to call me insulting names and direct me to a link supporting ONE side of the debate. I promise I have seen convincing arguments on your side no matter which side you are on. The problem is that both sides are just as convincing to a non-scientist.
You can’t change my mind by telling me exactly what I just told YOU. We both agree with you that your argument is 100% convincing. Just like the argument that says you are totally wrong. Both excellent.
And so we have an odd situation in which both sides of the debate are in deep illusion, even if one side is right and the other is wrong. The illusion is that one side is obviously correct – and the belief that you could see that too, if only you would spend a little energy looking into it on your own. If you hold that belief, no matter which side you are on, you can be sure you are experiencing an illusion.
Non-scientists don’t have the tools to form a useful opinion on climate science. What we usually do instead is look at one side of the debate, ignore the other side, and use confirmation bias to harden our illusion of certainty. That’s how normal brains work. So if you are both normal and you have a strong opinion about climate science, I can say with confidence that you are hallucinating about your certainty.
I don’t know the underlying truth of climate science. But I do know a lot about persuasion. And I can say with complete confidence that if you are a non-scientist, and you have certainty about your opinion on climate science, you are hallucinating about the capacity of your own brain.
You’re wondering how I can know that other people are hallucinating and not me. That’s where it comes in handy to study persuasion and hypnosis. Delusional people leave tells.
One of the tells in this case is an ad hominem attack on whoever disagrees with you on climate science. You can see that happening on my Twitter feed today as the pro-climate-science types are coming after me in numbers. When you see an oversized reaction to what should be nothing but competing scientific claims, that’s usually a tell that someone slipped into cognitive dissonance.
What is the trigger in this case? The trigger is that someone smart (me) pointed out the weakness in their argument. If you believe you are smart, and a smart person disagrees with you with a solid argument, it forces you to either change your mind (which humans don’t like to do) or to enter an hallucination that explains away the new argument as total nonsense.
Another tell involves sending me links to one side of the argument to debate my point that both sides are good. That makes no sense at all.
Another tell is an emotional argument against some related point I did not make and would not make.
Another tell involves claiming non-scientists can dig into the science and figure out how credible it is on their own. If that were true we wouldn’t need highly trained scientists. We could all just wing it using our common sense and whatnot. We can’t. Non-scientists can understand a simple argument from scientists but we don’t have enough context to know what is MISSING from the scientist’s argument. Without that bit of context there can be no credibility.
For example, if you did not have a deep understanding of the science of persuasion you would have no basis to judge the credibility of climate scientists. You might mistakenly believe it is deeply unlikely for so many professionals to be wrong, and your misunderstanding would bias you toward agreeing with the majority. But trained persuaders who understand economics, incentives, and confirmation bias would put less credibility in the majority opinion because we know how often the majority has hallucinated in ways that look a lot like the climate science situation.
Now suppose one side shows me ten solid pieces of evidence in support of their side. Should I be convinced by that? Well, not if the other side has fifty pieces of evidence that is just as convincing but I don’t know any of it exists. As a non-scientist, I don’t know what I don’t know. You’re probably in the same boat. Until about a minute ago you didn’t think the science of persuasion was important to your opinion on climate science. But it is.
Based on my knowledge of persuasion, I’m probably NOT hallucinating in this particular case because I see both sides as equals. And I have explored both sides of the argument at least as far as my non-scientist brain can take me – and that isn’t far. My assessment is that a bright, well-informed non-scientist has no realistic chance of reaching an independent opinion on climate change that is better than a guess.
If I were the one experiencing confirmation bias in this situation, my perception would be that one side of the debate was solid and the other was rubbish, no matter what facts I observed. And I would also be under the illusion that my non-scientist brain can use its “common sense” to evaluate the credibility of experts in the field. Your brain doesn’t have that feature. What you do have is an illusion that makes you think your brain has that feature.
For further context, keep in mind that I was a lonely voice in 2015 saying the political experts and the polls were wrong, and that Trump would win the presidency. I used what I call the Persuasion Filter to make that prediction. I’m using the same filter for my claim that any non-scientist with a strong opinion on climate science is experiencing an illusion of certainty supported by lots of confirmation bias.
I could be wrong about everything I’ve said about climate science and credibility. But would you feel confident betting against me?
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