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Evidence and Belief: The Link Isn't Linear

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Sunday, November 11, 2012

Will the "Frankenstorm" that devastated much of the Northeast and the recent hurricanes, droughts, disastrous heat waves and fires in other parts of the U.S. produce a critical mass of extreme weather awareness that generates broad public support for action on global warming? Psychology and social science scholars say don't count on it.

Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, writes that the military knows the evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming and is working hard to develop renewable sources of energy and plan for huge refugee crises and enhanced competition for arable land, water and fuel. The insurance companies know it, too, he says, and are raising rates. So what is to doubt?

Yale Professor of Law and Psychology Dan Kahan in his essay "Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change" says people don't ignore science because they are irrational, "it is that their reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science communication environment." As he puts it, people are quite rational to filter out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers. Positions on climate change have come to say a great deal about who we are and what values we hold. The personal cost of holding a view that's at odds with scientific consensus is zero, but the cost of a view at odds with our friends, colleagues or customers could be very high. Even some scientifically literate people may find greater value in being attuned to their social environments.

While accurate climate information is readily accessible, Kahan comments, "trouble starts when the communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings-ones that effectively announce 'if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise we'll know you are one of them.'"

In his New York Times DotEarth blog, Andrew Revkin provides thoughtful analysis on why successive climate disasters may not engage the public in the enormous challenge of "getting carbon out of the world's energy system." He quotes George Marshall, an expert on climate and communication, on what he learned from interviewing people in Bastrop County, Texas, where the worst wildfires in the state's history destroyed 1,691 homes in September and October 2011. People connected the extreme heat and drought with the fires, but didn't relate it to climate. They stressed their pride in community and collective ability to overcome challenge.

Marshall writes in his blog that when natural disasters increase social confidence and reinforce social networks, it may be actually more difficult for people to contemplate information that challenges their existing world view, so there's an even greater obstacle for accepting climate change if the prevailing attitude is skeptical. Disasters may in fact reinforce existing views. He notes that the area struck by "Frankenstorm" Sandy is largely Democratic, and attitudes about climate change are often part of political identity. So if residents of New York and New Jersey emerge with stronger belief in climate change, it doesn't necessarily prove extreme events change views.

Marshall compares two narratives about the fires:

  • One: We're tough, we're a community that pulls together with love and kindness, we face our challenges, support each other, and get through.

  • Two: The fires may have been caused in part by weather conditions, which may have been caused in part by climate change, which might have been caused in part by the culture and behavior of Bastrop residents.

As Marshall says, the first is very attractive and easy to sell. The second is neither.

Professor Blumstein says it's urgent for policy makers and citizens to act. Environmentalist Bill McKibbon, who has been warning about climate change for decades, told Time magazine that 74 percent of the U.S. public thinks the planet is warming, but that politicians of both parties haven't wanted to take on the fossil fuel industry.

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