The Way Scientists Try to Convince People Is Hopeless

Prof. Kahneman … thinks, for instance, that it will be ‘miraculous’ if we manage to do anything to stop global warming. ‘Let’s suppose that the scientific consensus is correct: global warming is happening, and it will have some catastrophic consequences. By the time it becomes obvious to everyone that it’s a danger, it will probably be too late to do anything that will be effective in combating it. As a species, our brains have just not evolved to deal with threats whose effects will be felt in what, for us, counts as the remote future. We respond to them by ignoring them.’

‘The way scientists try to convince people is hopeless,’ he states with a broad grin, ‘because they present evidence, figures, tables, arguments, and so on. But that’s not how to convince people. People aren’t convinced by arguments. They don’t believe conclusions because they believe in the arguments that they read in favour of them. They’re convinced because they read or hear the conclusions coming from people they trust. You trust someone and you believe what they say. That’s how ideas are communicated. The arguments come later.’

Alasdair Palmer in The Spectator with a big hat tip to my homey, Willard.

Comments:

  1. I'm wondering again about what happened with smoking. I know a lot of work's been done on the psychology of attitude and the role campaigns took (e.g. in Australia) - some links for that:

    http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/The_Factors_that_Determine_Success_in_Attitude_Change_Programs

    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.64.7113

    But the legal spread of smoking bans - what exactly happened there? What relation, if any, did the softening of attitudes take in making that an open door that legislatures could push on? What factors successfully locked tobacco lobbyists out of that process in so many different countries?

    There's obviously an important story about attitude change and how that links to political change, but how important is the link between the two?

    Interesting (old) article at crooked timber on norms (and how fragile they may or may not be). I haven't trawled the comments yet, but I like the idea that 'small ideas in incubating in laboratories of democracy' can play an important part, even though we might think (for carbon) that local action may be globally irrelevant.

  2. Our species, the brain, and evolution... What a lame excuse! So, Columbus couldn't think and plan ahead to make it across the Atlantic (yes he could)? Alexander the Great couldn't think and plan ahead to march from Greece to India (yes, his army marched that distance). And what about the early hominins that conquered the Planet from out of Africa? They even made it into Arctic realms, which needs lots of foresight and planning to survive there. It seems today we would be too stupid and short sighted to even cross the Bering Strait.

    The problem is not our biology and brains. We just got decadent and demented. This is not my species anymore.

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  4. Four years ago, i was rather shocked when two of my old college friends told me they did not believe in "global warming" at all... one of them, who took all the same geology courses i did, proclaimed he had a paper that completely exposed the fraud...

    ... i spent a weekend writing a 286 page "rebuttal" of the various claims they had made... and over several years with the geologist, i traded emails, with numerous graphs and charts to clarify my points... these i mostly took from Joe Romm, John Cook (skeptical science), Real Climate, and James Hansen's NASA site...

    ... a while ago my geologist friend told me that i can "send him all the charts, graphs, and data that I want to" but it doesn't mean anything to him... all of that could be totally made up, as far as he's concerned... and in truth, he assumes it is... and there's nothing i can do to prove otherwise...

    he is one of my oldest and best friends... we took all the same geology classes together... he always said i was one of the smartest guys he ever knew (i helped him a lot in college)...

    yet, that day he asked "you don't believe that climate change hoax, do you?" in 2008 and i answered that it was not a hoax at all... that it was all based on sound physics developed over more than a century...

    ... well from that very moment... he ceased believing in me as a "friend" or "one of the smartest guys he knew"... but he has not yet given up his belief that this "global warming" is a hoax...

    so... it isn't like i'm some anonymous scientist writing some paper that's behind a firewall or appears in the IPCC... i'm the best friend he's known for years who helped him get through college exams... and as soon as i said that i believed in AGW... he instantly disbelieved and disrespected me...

  5. i spent a weekend writing a 286 page “rebuttal”...

    286 pages yikes!!!

    My personal experience with the few friends I have that deny climate change is that the biggest hurdle to overcome is convincing people to take the time to be skeptical of their preconceived notions. If I handed those friends a 286 page document I guarantee that they wouldn't read it, and I am not sure I could blame them.

  6. Yes, an awful lot of stuff which will stiffen the resistance in most cases. One way to look at it might be from the other side. The big problem is to help people understand what they don't know. Famously, teenagers think they know it all, and with the gaining of wisdom many acquire the knowledge of their limitations.

    But how to do that with a convinced "knower" I don't know.

  7. Yeah, Dan... 286 was a bit much... though that was after he and another friend attempted running single "myths" past me one email at a time for 5 or 6 emails, and after i rebutted each one via email (patiently, i thought), then they sent a list of like 20 all at once...

    ... i spent about 60 pages specfically rebutting those... so like 3 pages per comment... still long (should have had a resource like Skeptical Science back then to pull a consise rebuttal to each)... i think i spent another 20 or so discussing 10 or so "experts" they offered up (the usual skeptics)...

    ... then i spent about 200 pages discussing the 'history' from Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, etc. (mostly condensed from Spencer Weart's), carbon cycle, "greenhouse effect", surface temp record, satellite record, sea ice, etc....spread it on a bit thick...

    but, i think brief and simple or complex and wind-baggy... either way, they already have their minds made up, and there really is nothing i could say or present to change their minds... oh, and re-reading my first post, i worded something poorly - we are still friends... he just now considers me to be a "tree hugging liberal" who really doesn't look at "both sides" of the "debate."

    but was not a bad exercise for myself in organizing sources and references and such.

    I'm an environmental and geological engineer, and part of my job in the last ten years or so has been supporting renewable energy projects, sustainable development and green infrastructure... i've helped VPs put together market assessments, and i've given presentations internally and externally on landfill gas to energy, carbon markets, relevant regulations... so at least i got myself sort of a good base source, and found numerous excellent sites, including this one, where i can keep periodically updating my information.

  8. either way, they already have their minds made up

    That is the first hurdle. If they are willing to take the time and examine why they believe what they do (this almost never happens though) then I find it helpful to explicitly state where the goal posts are. Tell them what it would take to change your mind, and why you chose those criteria and then ask them what any their criteria are. This quickly lets both parties know if the other is being reasonable and prevents the goal posts from being moved later on in the discussion.

  9. I bet your friend is a petroleum/coal geologist. (Or at least spends too much time with petroleum geologists.) Then, naturally, his Ego needs to rationalize away the CO2 thing. (Just like many old Germans (not necessarily Nazi) had to rationalize away the Auschwitz thing - for the rest of their life. Yeah, the psychology looks strikingly similar to me.)

    It is incredible how folks can spend most of their brain power to protect their Ego. That's why I suggest to make clear that climate denialism is absolutely ridiculous (but don't tell them directly that they are fools). That's the thing that might have a chance to convince them, not the science thing. Nobody wants to look like a fool.


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