There's a terrific feature story in the current issue of Mother Jones that should be required reading for anyone engaged in the art and science of persuasion, and it's a must-read in particular for climate activists. It's called The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science, and it's one of the best single-link introductions I've found to the neuroscientific underpinnings for that common activist's dilemma: the facts that so compel you to act fail utterly to compel others to do so.
The piece centers on "an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience [that have] demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions." In particular, there's a phenomenon that neuroscientists call "motivated reasoning," which refers to a vast array of emotions, biases, and other point-of-view tics we all use to filter new information. Even when — maybe especially when — we think we're bringing our intellect most fully to bear on an issue, at the very moments we believe reason is our copilot, we're actually looking for ways to deflect and deny, to counter-argue and dissuade, to stuff this new data into the worldview we already hold dear.
"It would seem," Mother Jones' Chris Mooney explains, "that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts."
What's more, the impact of this motivated reasoning is sometimes strongest when we encounter the most passionate arguments. Mooney: "In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts — they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever."
As Mooney notes, this is not a partisan thing. Though it can be found in the entrenched views of death penalty diehards and Iraq warhawks, it's just as big a factor in the uncompromising stances of those who take to the Huffington Post with counterfactual arguments about the link between vaccines and autism.
One of Mooney's strongest cases in point is the rational gulf between climate activists and climate denialists. "If you wanted to show how and why fact is ditched in favor of motivated reasoning," he writes, "you could find no better test case than climate change."
Reading the article, I was reminded of a couple of other long(ish) reads/watches well worth your time. The first is the report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change, which runs through a lengthy checklist of the many cognitive and perceptive biases that discourage many people from feeling the fight-or-flight urgency so evident among climate activists.
If APA Task Force reports aren't your cup of tea, I highly recommend checking out a series of videos posted recently at Climate Change Denial, a website run by George Marshall, head of the U.K.-based Climate Outreach Information Network. Here's Marshall on his website's raison d'etre: "It seeks to answer a question that has puzzled me for years: why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?"
I first met Marshall at a climate-and-peak-oil conference five years ago, when he'd just begun his investigation of what he calls "the psychology of denial." (I can report, among other things, that I've rarely had the good fortune to meet a conference-goer who makes as engaging and entertaining between-session company as he does.) These most recent videos are from a 2009 lecture he gave on the topic, which he introduces like this: "When we look at climate change, we actually have something that you could say is in many ways perfectly designed to confound our immediate risk and threat assessment process. This therefore means that when it comes to climate change, our perception of risk or threat has to be generated. And it leads us into a world of belief."
I'll let George explain how to navigate that world for those interested. The takeaway from all of this, for now, is that the key challenge facing climate activists is ultimately one of innovation. They need to reinvent the way they engage the general public on the topic. They need to recognize, first of all, that more facts, delivered more forcefully, might very well be counterproductive. They are engaged not in the Green civil rights movement but in something more akin to a Green New Deal (or better yet in catalyzing the Second Industrial Revolution).
How you do that is a topic beyond the scope of one humble blog post; it's one I intend to return to often in this space.
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