We Don’t Want to Believe What We Know

In the words of The Doors, People Are Strange.

Take the phrase; ’face the facts.

We probably wouldn’t need a phrase for it, if there wasn’t any choice about it. Hard to imagine Star Trek’s logical Vulcan Mr Spock, or Lt Data ever choosing to do anything other than ‘facing the facts’. But we humans are strange.

It turns out that very often, we do exactly that – simply refusing to accept the facts. Rather than change our actions and behaviours in response to new information, we change our beliefs instead.

In 1954 the social psychologist Leon Festinger and a colleague infiltrated The Seekers, a small Chicago cult, which believed the end of the world was imminent. He wanted to document what happened when, presumably, the end of the world didn’t take place on December 21st 1954 as they had predicted. Expecting the disillusionment and fragmentation of the group, what actually happened surprised Leon and his colleagues – almost all the group changed their beliefs, deciding instead that the actions of their group had actually saved the world from destruction. Rather than accept their view of the world was wrong, they changed their beliefs to accommodate the ‘new facts’.

In his subsequent book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘, Leon coined the phrase Cognitive Dissonance to describe this process of the mind becoming aware that it holds two contradictory views at the same time, naturally wanting to resolve this ‘dissonance’, and so tending to modify the ‘less strongly held belief’ so it no longer contradicts the other – and very often this might mean refusing to accept new information that challenges a particularly strongly held belief.

We all do it.

- We don’t want to believe that eating junk food and not exercising will make us unhealthy, so we convince ourselves that there’s not that many calories in chocolate or wine, and anyway they has lots of other good health benefits.

- We don’t want to accept our holiday to our dream destination actually turned out a bit rubbish, so we focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and tell everyone how great it was.

- We don’t want to accept that we didn’t study enough for the test, so we tell ourselves the exam was particularly hard this year.

Leon wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

It’s not that we ignore logic, just that our emotions work faster than our reason, so it’s our emotions that control our initial responses, and we just don’t like to admit to ourselves we were wrong . . .

It’s not hard to see how this applies to many of the world’s problems today – a couple of recent examples stand out:

- A group of climate sceptics in New Zealand have been legally challenging temperature records that show a warming trend.

- And in North Carolina legislators voted to ignore predictions of coastal impacts from sea level rise in planning decisions.

I can’t imagine there are too many climate sceptics who regularly read Next Starfish, and the rest of us might find it easy to scorn and laugh at stories like these, but perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to judge.

Spend ninety minutes watching Yann Arthus Bernard’s exceptional HD film Home below (you’ll need to open it in new browser), and then ask yourself – is my lifestyle really in tune with my beliefs ?

Cognitive dissonance affects us all, to a greater or lesser extent – it’s part of the human condition.

The good news is ‘we all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for ?’


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Photo from NASA

The War of Ideas

In our hyper-connected 24 hour media global internet age, it’s sometimes hard to remember back to when we had to read a textbook, visit a library, or talk to ‘an expert’ in order to find anything out.

Things have changed.

We now have instant access to virtually endless amounts of information on almost every conceivable subject – deliverable right to the smart phone in our pocket, no matter where we are, via the touch of a few buttons.

In the space of a decade or so our problem has changed from one of having too little information available to us, to one of having far too much!

This means we are overwhelmed, inundated and bombarded with information – the only response is to spread our attention a little more thinly; scanning, skimming, screening and simply ignoring, many of the messages and inputs we receive.

We can easily feel that because we have so much information available to us, we’re also obliged to have an opinion about just about everything . . . But having spent relatively little time reading, checking and digesting the facts, we risk having only a superficial understanding of an issue, but of course, once we’ve committed to ‘an opinion’ it can be hard for us to change our minds – no matter what new information we subsequently encounter.

Very often we’re faced with ideas or opinions in opposition – wind turbines: good or bad, gay marriage: good or bad, nuclear power: good or bad, more austerity: good or bad ?

It’s as if we’re being encouraged to ignore any subtleties or complexity and simply choose a side and cheer our team on.

And is everything that is presented to us as fact really true ? No, clearly not. Truth is interspersed with lies, mistakes, approximations, previously truth, wishful thinking, urban myth, selective facts, one-sided arguments, emotional blackmail, smears on the messenger and any number of other things. It’s not that things aren’t checkable, it’s just that there’s too much checking to do, and mostly we don’t bother.

This is the ‘post-fact’ battleground of the various wars of ideas being fought out for our support .

Two examples caught my attention over the last few weeks: climate change (again), and the overseas aid budget (also again).

The Guardian published a piece titled Don’t Give Climate Heretics a Chance. It broadly argues that as most climate skeptics are not climate scientists we should be less willing to listen to their views, and goes as far as proposing some kind of ‘certification scheme’ for use of accurate climate facts in articles and reporting.

Much as I share the frustration of the author, Jay Griffiths (an author and English graduate – if that matters to you), with inaccurate and misleading representations of science being presented on an equal basis to peer reviewed articles and research, surely the answer isn’t some kind of ‘ministry of truth kitemark’ on all published opinions ?

The real problem is the absence of a single recognised and accepted authority on climate change science – our information age has democratised truth, we’re all free to choose our own authority, and believe their pronouncements: whether it’s James Delingpole, in the red corner, or  almost all the World’s scientists in the blue.

Until someone develops an online truth filter, we’ll just have to rely on our common sense and judgement.

The other story that caught my eye a few weeks ago was on the front page of the UK newspaper The Express: We Pay For India’s Rocket to Mars. The story, by the journalist Macer Hall, contrasts India’s planned unmaned space mission to Mars, with the UK’s aid contribution, also claiming ‘Anger has been growing since David Cameron pledged to continue increasing the overseas aid budget despite cuts’. Interestingly the article also reports “British aid is not used to fund India’s space programme. Our development aid to India is earmarked for specific purposes like tackling child malnutrition, providing malaria bednets and secondary education for Dalit girls” - which does make the article’s title seem more than a little misleading” ?

I’m a strong supporter of well targeted international aid, and broadly speaking would like the UK to not only maintain it’s overseas aid contribution, but actually increase it. The stories we often see stirring-up resentment and claiming misuse of aid donations are often misleading (as in this case), or even when accurate I would argue the solution is to better target the aid involved, rather than to cut it, an alternate ‘solution’ to the problem of ‘bad aid’ I rarely see offered in certain sections of the press.

If you want to see how divisive these kind of issues and debates have now become, you simply have to scroll down through the comments below each story – wading through the abuse, self-righteousness, hostility and rage of the full-on Troll Warfare ! Online debating doesn’t seem to be constrained by any of the social niceties we observe in the real world.

So what the answer ?

Clearly I’m not saying don’t have opinions . . . but do have a couple of suggestions:

Firstly, we should all be a little more critical and questioning of pretty much everything we read – whether we’re naturally inclined to support or oppose them. The world is a complicated place, and things are rarely back and white, we should delve a little more deeply into what we see and hear, resisting the temptations of polarisation. . . . in other words we should be smart.

Secondly, and just as importantly, we should have the modesty to sometimes profess a little less certainty about our own opinions – accepting we rarely are so expert to have considered all the full facts in detail. We should try to listen respectfully to the opinions of others, and be willing to accept new evidence, if it seems reliable, even if it goes against our previously held views. . . in other words we should be nice.

I believe it is important for those of us seeking to sway opinion and make a positive difference in the world to engage in the ‘war of ideas’ – but we won’t get anywhere by being trolls about it !


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Photo by Cali4Beach, via Flickr

Canada’s Tar Sands

Alberta in Canada is home to what is now considered one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves – the Athabasca Tar Sands.

At room temperature the oil saturated soils and sands are semi-solid with a consistency of cold molasses, meaning they cannot flow freely, and heated steam or solvents are required to extract usable hydrocarbons. This makes oil from tar sands sources far more energy intensive to obtain, and potentially far more polluting.

Covering a huge area, to date only a small fraction of the total tar sands reserves have been exploited.

Even so, significant environmental impacts have already occurred, including pollution of sensitive ecosystems and water resources, and elevated levels of local air pollution, with the resulting fuel oil producing between 5 and 15% more carbon over it’s production-use lifetime than most conventional crude oils.

Some campaigners have labelled the tar sands project as The Biggest Environmental Crime in History.

Though championed by the Canadian Government, the tar sands extraction project is strongly criticised by numerous organisations and individuals, including Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, Naomi Klein and the WWF, as well as many local groups set-up in opposition, such as Dirty Oil Sands and Oil Sands Truth.

In the talk below conservation photographer and anti-tar sands campaigner Garth Lenz is moved to the point of tears describing local families having to feed potentially carcinogenic food to their children.

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Photo from Wikicommons

Retreat of the Glaciers

It’s often claimed by some of those skeptical of global warming and climate change that there is no evidence the world is in fact getting warmer.

There is of course a huge amount of observational data which confirms this, but in addition, you only have to look at the ‘then and now’ photos of the world’s glaciers to see that they are melting.

Glacier mass results from the accumulated balance of new snowfall, minus annual melt. While snowfall is a product of complex localised precipitation patterns, melt is almost entirely influenced by temperature. The hotter it is on average, the more ice will melt. Simple physics !

It’s a fact that the majority of the world’s glaciers are in retreat, and have been for over 150 years.

Apart from being an obvious visual indicator of global warming, this large scale loss of stored frozen fresh water is causing concern due to increasing drinking water shortages, flooding risks, and global sea level rise.

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Photo by via Wikicommons

The Future of Energy

Before sitting down to write this post I made myself a cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast, and now I’m sat on the sofa with the lights on, my TV recorder whirring and my laptop plugged in.

Elsewhere in the house the kids are listening to their fully charged mp3 players, the fridge is humming, the dishwasher is taking care of the washing up and various plugged in electrical things are happily flashing their blue and red lights. A couple of months ago my gas central heating would also have been on, and tomorrow I’ll drive to work in my car.

As well as remembering where all the energy is going, it’s also worth considering that virtually all our energy is originally solar in origin. We should be grateful to the plants and algae of a few million years ago for chemically locking this energy up for us like some huge biological battery – after all these tiny organisms have built our modern civilisation.

Use of fossil fuels has always caused localised problems – from London’s pea soupers to LA’s smogs, along with acid rain, oil slicks, and the appalling moonscapes, so often the legacy of coal mining. But we’re now also well aware there are another two, far more serious, concerns caused by our reliance on fossil fuels: climate change and peak oil.

Perhaps back in the 1970s we could be forgiven for not seeing the first one coming, but it’s difficult to understand how we didn’t prepare for the second!

It’s almost forty years since Wally Broecker published his paper ‘Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?‘ in Nature, often cited as the first concern that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion could add to the greenhouse effect and result in global warming. Despite the best attempts of a small group of skeptics, most of the world now accepts the scientific assessment that continuing to use fossil fuels risks will increase the rate of man made climate change.

The problem is that we’re addicted !

Our entire civilisation is reliant on cheap energy – to grow and transport our food, take us to our jobs, produce our material goods and power all our services. Many commentators have pointed out the massive shifts to our economy and indeed way of life that will occur when fossil fuels run out. Of course, it’s not exactly a question of running out – there’s quite a lot left in the ground, but its becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain. All the easy to get at oil is long gone, leading to ever more novel and expensive sources being exploited: such as shale gas frackingdeep seabed oil extraction (as with Deepwater Horizon) and drilling the Arctic.

That we’re running out of fossil fuels is a fundamental point often overlooked by climate skeptics and those opposing windfarms. There might be enough uranium for a few hundred years at current usage rates, but it will only last a fraction of that if nuclear widely replaces fossil fuels.

What should we do ?

It doesn’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the only reliable long term option is renewable energy – the clue’s in the name. If it isn’t renewable it will eventually run out, and with seven billion of us and rising, and everyone wanting to live like a New Yorker, that’s likely to be much sooner than we’d like.

The only truly renewable energy is that delivered every day by the sun – solar, wind, biomass, or by the moon in the case of tidal. The longstanding, but as yet unobtainable, dream of nuclear fusion (the same energy that powers the sun) would use seawater as fuel, and is therefore probably close enough to renewable to also qualify.

So how do we get from where we are now to a renewable future ?

We’re living in a time of transition, and it seems increasingly likely it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

We’re going to need to strike all kinds of balances:

- Doing what we can to manage the inevitable rise in the cost of energy to minimise the effects on  the most vulnerable in our society and around the world. At the same time we also need to discourage profligate energy use,

- Finding the money to invest in renewable infrastructure in a time of austerity, without further burdening the most vulnerable,

- Making difficult decisions in a pragmatic way about transition technologies, like shale gas fracking and nuclear power – both of which have significant risks and costs,

- Doing everything we can to reduce our energy usage; from increasing insulation and efficiency, to reducing travel and consumption,

- Investing heavily in scientific and technological development of sustainable technologies,

- Preparing possible plan Bs and even plan Cs in case we don’t manage to get to sustainable in time – such as carbon capture or geo-engineering,

- and perhaps most importantly avoiding a potentially devastating military grab for the dwindling energy supplies that are left

If we’re to stand any chance at all we’ll need to raise both the level of awareness and honesty in the current debate. As with any period of change, some people feel threatened, are in denial or have a vested interest in the status quo . . . those of us interested in a brighter future should try to ‘shine some real light into the debate’ wherever possible.

I know many of my readers have strong emotions on issues like fracking and nuclear power, but my own view is that unfortunately we’ve probably left it too late to manage a smooth transition to sustainable without both more nuclear and more shale gas fracking in the short term.

I’d love to be wrong, but I’m not alone in this assessment. It’s not that I’m some kind of a big nuclear or fracking fan, quite the opposite, but I don’t want affordable energy to just be the preserve of the wealthy or powerful either – with thousands more people dying from the cold every winter in the UK, not to mention millions more forced further into poverty and struggling to eat around the world as a result.

In the meantime it seems blindingly obvious to me that every rich country should be investing far more in sustainable infrastructure and measures to reduce demand.

If you haven’t yet done your good deed for the day, why not email your friendly neighbourhood politician and encourage them to do just that.

And then perhaps unplug some of your stuff.


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Photo by Charles Cook, via Flickr