Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker explains why facts don’t matter to people, when it comes to persuasion, belief and arguments. Ultimately, research shows that most people’s views are more about securing tribal-type cooperation among their social groups than dispassionate, reasoned analysis.
That’s all fine and good when it comes to organizing a group hunt or — in the modern day — relying on other people’s expertise to run basic infrastructure or business transactions. But that group thinking has major pitfalls when it comes to achieving positive policy outcomes, particularly on climate change.
Kolbert’s piece offers a number of examples of how people are terrible at reasoning:
Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)
But there may be a glimmer of hope to force more careful thought and opinion:
In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
Following this logic, perhaps one way to open up some daylight among closed minds on climate science is to ask people to explain the impacts of their opposition to climate change efforts. What if they’re wrong on the science? What if countries like China take the lead on manufacturing clean technologies like solar panels? Why not work to reduce pollution from the electricity and transportation sectors?
With some focused questions like these challenging pre-determined beliefs, perhaps we could make some headway opening minds.
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