Thursday, 26 March 2009

Why do people believe things despite evidence?

In this article, I’m going to avoid discussing religion, and have a look at another area of life involving sometimes bitter disagreements which often generate more heat than light. Today, I’m going to talk about climate change.

Amongst scientists in the field, the fact of climate change is pretty thoroughly established. Equally well-established is the connection between man-made CO2 emissions and climate change, as is the fact that positive feedback means that small changes in initial conditions can lead (and have led in the past) to large and quite rapid changes in the climate until a new equilibrium is reached.

What is still uncertain in the scientific community is how rapid the effects of the current man-made increase in CO2 will be on the climate, and what precisely will be the new equilibrium. Estimates vary, and it seems that every time there is new data, things seem to get that bit more alarming.

And yet, among the public, the mere existence of man-made climate change is still very much a debated issue. Why do so many people still seem to believe that the warnings aren’t genuine? I can think of a number of possibilities that contribute to such beliefs.

All people in public life (scientists included) are out for themselves, and will lie if necessary in their own interest.

This is a fairly widespread belief, resulting in part from having seen many people in public life, from politicians to estate agents, who will shade the truth in ways advantageous to them, and many people assume that scientists are no better. The suggestion is that scientists aren’t interested in the truth, they are only interested in their next research grant, and they will lie to get it by producing results that suggest there is a big problem that requires more research funding in order to investigate it properly. This enables people to ignore anything reported in the press which they find inconvenient to believe. That there is nobody who is interested in the truth seems to be a rather bleak assessment of human nature, but I have to admit that a lot of people believe it.

Climate change is a threat to my livelihood.

If warnings about climate change are true, then it has profound consequences for a number of industries, from oil companies to electricity generators to airlines. And we must realise that a lot of people work in those industries. It is uncomfortable to believe that what you have been making an honest penny working at all your life is likely to destroy the world as we know it. Easier to think that the evidence is all overblown and it is not such a big issue after all.

Government action in almost all fields is inherently bad and inefficient, and individual autonomy is the best way forward.

This belief is quite strongly held among many people, more so in America than here, and the facts of climate change are very threatening to the ideology of individualism. If the threat of climate change turns out to be as bad as predicted, then this is not an issue which will be solved by individualism. Individualism in this respect is part of the problem, and the solution will have to come in large part from governments, and moreover by international co-operation between governments. This is such a threat to the concept of rugged individualism that many people would prefer to believe that climate change isn’t happening rather than believe that some of their precious individualism may have to go.

It is all too big for me to cope with, and I can’t make any difference, so I’m going to ignore it.

This is not so much a refusal to accept evidence as a decision towards apathy, but some people who have this underlying view will argue against the evidence of climate change, particularly citing the present uncertainty as to where the climate is headed. You will hear such people saying things like “until the scientists really know what’s going on, anything we do might only make things worse”.

In order to succeed in preventing the worst effects of climate change, these forms of resistance to the evidence will have to be overcome in order to get sufficient people to take action. Because this resistance isn’t based on evidence about climate change, merely producing better evidence about climate change isn’t likely to change people’s minds. The underlying causes of the resistance need to be addressed.