Archive for July, 2012

Using insights from social science in presentations on climate change

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

I learned some years ago that climate change is not a popular subject for presentations. Groups with so-called climate skeptics find that the doubters and deniers, often a small minority, take over the discussion with arguments that shift over time, and many groups just don’t want to deal with them, or haven’t figured out how to do so. Groups without dissenters often feel that they already know climate change is important, although very few in the audience, no matter how much they accept climate science, have internalized how fast and profound the changes might be. I’ve met people my age and younger who expect not to see harsh changes in their lifetime and as a result lose any sense of urgency. Others may have an alarmist or fatalistic reaction that makes them want to give up and go party. These groups tend to prefer reducing the focus on harsh realities in favor of solutions, preferably those they already believe in or are attracted by.

Presentations focusing on solutions are hard because so often we are mainly looking for something to allay our anxiety. Unfortunately, most solutions are problematic in one way or another, which people aren’t all that glad to hear; all solutions are partial. Nuclear power is a topic many prefer, because it gives us a chance to take sides, saying YES! or NO THANKS!

For a number of years, due to these group preferences, my presentations on climate change have ostensibly been about nuclear power; the majority of the slides have been on nuclear, certainly. For climate change, I usually include only about 2 slides explaining why scientists and national security types are worried, plus 3 slides on changes we might see in the next half century, both changes we cannot prevent and future harm we can reduce. I then introduce nuclear power as a necessary and relatively safe partial solution to climate change, according to energy scientists and policy experts. The core of the presentation focuses on answering the concerns of those who oppose nuclear, and listing the advantages of nuclear, from low greenhouse gas emissions to low pollution to reliability.

In two presentations in Philadelphia in June, I added another component: what social scientists say about the reasons why many people reject scientific consensus, whether it’s in climate science or nuclear energy. As usual, the presentations were billed as being mostly about nuclear energy. Both groups, one large and one small, accept climate change for the most part, with the large group divided on nuclear power, while the small group was mostly anti-nuclear.

In the past, my presentations on nuclear energy in a warming world were generally appreciated by people open to scientific information, and a few who became open. But most, on all sides, wondered, why do I need this information, and what do I do with it? This is in part because the science in isolation is insufficient to inspire action, whether on climate change or particular solutions; it doesn’t tell me what my role is.

Interestingly, the addition of the social science perspective helped in both groups. I worried that people would feel insulted about generalizations that they, like everyone, see what they want to see, and that what we want to see is largely determined by what our group believes. Instead, most felt that it helped make sense of the confusion in the public discussion of controversial social issues.

Social scientists say (a few examples):
• We react from the gut, often in less than 1 second, on topics for which we have no background. Those who read more become even more polarized, as almost all of us find information that confirms our gut reaction. One person in the polarized group said, questioning information I had presented, “I’ve read that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl.” It is easy to find sources that agree with our own preconceptions, and to believe, as one person wrote years ago in attacking the sources I rely on, “Any source that disagrees with me lacks integrity.”

• According to Jonathan Haidt and others, a primary evolutionary advantage of reasoning is to support opinions that show that we are good and trustworthy members of the group. A less common use of reasoning is to explore open-mindedly issues which require us to move into a state of tension, where we might be wrong, where there is nuance. Most avoid exploratory reasoning, especially where our group takes a stand, where exploration could challenge group expertise.

• It’s easier to attack people I don’t know than people like ourselves who use energy and products in the home. Who wants to alienate our friends?

• We all make a number of common critical thinking errors, which we can learn to do less often. Here are a few:
—failing to make direct comparisons: looking at nuclear waste rather than comparing the waste stream of various energy sources.
—question substitution: “How long does nuclear waste last,” rather than “Does anyone die?”
—the halo effect: if I like/dislike something or someone, I like/dislike all aspects. If I want renewables, I insist they are safe, sufficient, and cheap (or will be by a week from Tuesday).

• The media quote those who disagree with the best understanding of scientists on climate change and nuclear power, no matter how odd their opinions or how few agree with them. The media feel that they are covering the political controversy, but readers assume they are covering the scientific controversy, giving credence to both sides. And then there are those who get their information from unapologetically biased sources, which consciously or unconsciously make claims that sound scientific, but are no more so than Creationism.

What We Can Do
While we all want to do something about climate change, I’m not sure that we can move as fast as we would like. The one thing in our immediate control is to continue reducing our own greenhouse gas footprint. This helps reduce our cognitive dissonance (if I believe the climate is important, then I want to live as if it were important) and gives us better understanding of policies that encourage us to change our behavior.

Harder but more urgent is to begin working with society to encourage implementing good policies. Before we can accomplish much, however, two steps seem critical: move our planet’s accelerating climate change and the need for a steep cost on greenhouse gas emissions onto the list of what we all pay attention to. And secondly, tone down the rhetoric: instead of polarizing the discussion by attacking those who disagree with us, start questioning and testing our own assumptions and those of like-minded people in our group. Working with like-minded people, to help bring the discussion of controversial social issues to a better place, can be difficult; it is also where we are most likely to be successful.

Both steps require us to consider which sources are trustworthy, and to study those that point to possible errors in our thinking. Learning that we might be wrong feels awful, but it’s in a good cause, increasing the chance we will find actual solutions to problems such as climate change.