Friday, May 8, 2015

Denial Psychology

The National Climate Assessment was released one year ago this week. It was an interesting, if disturbing, report but the interactive website is very nice with lots of good information along with links to the science and data used. It has been a busy year and a lot has happened since then. Two of the authors of the assessment published an editorial, reprinted here by Eos (with permission).

In light of recent developments, I thought one of their comments was particularly interesting,
But good news can be found in recent studies that show the value of reducing emissions. Not only will such emissions cuts reduce future climate change, they will also improve our health in other ways, and save us money.

For example, a new study examining the true costs to society of continuing to burn fossil fuels finds that when the effects of air quality on human health from energy production are included, the actual costs of burning coal, oil and natural gas are far higher than the use of solar and wind power. This is important information that can inform our energy choices.
Now, contrast that to the statement by West Virgina Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, speaking before a clean air subcommittee of the Senate Environment Committee about the EPA's emissions standards,
Make no mistake about it: finalizing this proposal would have a devastating impact on my state, other coal-producing states and citizens from across the country who will feel the impact of high electricity prices and reduced reliability of the power grid.
According to the scientists, we have learned cutting fossil fuel emissions will improve our health, save us money and provide us with less expensive energy. According to lawyers, cutting fossil fuel emissions will increase the cost of electricity. Which one do you believe? The sad truth is this question has already been answered. If you understand climate change is real, you believe the scientists. If you are a denier, you reject science and believe lawyers (and others) instead.

The public distrust of science is not new, though it seems to me to be getting worse. People deny evolution, vaccines and, of course, climate change. Don't forget the way medical research on smoking was rejected by many for decades. Why this distrust? I wish I knew, but I don't think there is any one, simple reason. Some of it is religious with some people feeling science is somehow a threat to their beliefs. For some it is is due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect where people feel they are much smarter and knowledgeable than they really are. Some of it is due to, or at least exacerbated by, confirmation bias where people only see what supports their previously drawn conclusion.

I was reading an article in Scientific American, written by a pair of psychologist, that says when we feel very strongly about something, confirmation bias transitions into motivated reasoning, a condition where people cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I can personally attest that this condition is prevalent among climate change deniers. Many of the deniers I have encountered, here and elsewhere, are extremely emotional about their beliefs and no amount of scientific evidence will change their minds. I truthfully believe they are incapable of seeing anything that refutes their worldviews.

The authors of the article go on to say this can be overcome by expert consensus,
Our research shows that highlighting how many experts agree on a controversial issue has a far-reaching psychological influence. In particular, it has the surprising ability to “neutralize” polarizing worldviews and can lead to greater science acceptance.
Their studies and research showed even a simple message can result in significant changes in people's perception of an issue.

Ahhh! This would explain why the denier lobby industry works so hard to undermine the truth of scientific consensus, even going so far as to push the highly questionable Petition Project. On one hand, they reject the consensus of 97% of the climate science community, while advocating the opinion of .09% of the scientific community. The lobbyists are afraid the consensus will 'neutralize' their climate change denial position. At the same time, every time they make the claim there is dispute among scientists, it will cause doubt in people's minds.

The battle lines are getting clearer.

No comments:

Post a Comment