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How the Debate About Whether Climate Change is Real, Isn't Really About Climate Change

December 7, 2011, 1:06 PM
Handsholdingearth

     A couple days ago I posted a piece, The Climate Change Winds May Be Shifting, about how the evidence linking climate change and extreme weather events is getting stronger, and how that is deepening public concern about the issue by turning a threat that was abstract and global and delayed into a danger that is concrete and local and now. I have had the opportunity to write about  the psychology of risk perception and climate change in several venues, and each time it sparks what my Big Think blog did, a lively/heated argument over whether climate change is real. Which is fine, except that debate is not what I write about.

    But what is really wonderful about the debate, which you can read in the comment string attached to the "Climate Change Winds" piece, is how dramatically it confirms something I DO write about, the phenomenon of Cultural Cognition, which describes the way we shape our views so they support and confirm the views of the groups with which we most strongly identify. The comments to the "Climate Change Winds" piece are thick with references to 'liberals' and 'conservatives' and 'cults' and a barely polite name-calling which has little to do with the evidence about climate change per se, and much more to do with the tribal interpretations of that evidence, by all sides.

     With what's going on in Durban South Africa, as the world leaders fail once again to find international agreement on how to deal with the threat of climate change, I draw your attention to the climate change debate/argument below the "Climate Change Winds" blog, by way of making the larger case that "Risk. Reason and Reality" is about; that our perception of risk is a subjective process that leads to interpretations of the evidence,which produce perceptions that sometimes do not not match the facts (on ANY risk)...and THAT creates what I label in my book "How Risky Is it Really?" The Perception Gap, a gap between our feelings and the facts that may feel right but which conflicts with the evidence in ways that lead to dangerous choices, stress, social policy that protects us more from what we're afraid of than what threatens us the most, and arguments and polarization that impede compromise and progress.

   I also include here my contribution to the "Clime Change Winds" comment discussion, offering these thoughts.

Dear All,   

   I am delighted that my post helped spark a lively conversation about climate change. May I observe that a great deal of the conversation, while it seems at first to be about the facts of climate change, seems more profoundly about something else...one's underlying group identification. In fact, the conversation resoundingly reinforces the phenomenon of Cultural Cogntion about which I've written, the way we subconsciously shape our views so they conform to those of the groups with which we most strongly identify. We adopt and parrot the perspectives of our group's leaders, and denigrate the leaders of any other group. We cherry pick the facts, and emphasize those that support our particular view and refute the facts that don't. If you go back and read the comment conversation, I think you'll see this quite clearly, on ALL sides, though I must say it seems the group/tribal driver behind the perspective seems more a part of the conservative case.      I myself am persuaded by the overwhelming evidence that the case for anthropogenic climate change is far more likely than not to be true, and convincing enough to take seriously, just in case. But I don't write here to take sides in that debate. I write here to draw your attention to another blog I posted a couple days ago...The Roots and Dangers of Pig-Headed Closed Minded Ideological Thinking ...which is about another topic altogether, the election in Egypt. While that piece certainly does denigrate a conservative friend's ideological closed mindedness on that issue, it is intended not to castigate one side or another but to demonstrate how Cultural Cognition is potentially harmful to ALL our thinking. As I put it; "  This is not open minded, fair, careful thinking. It’s not thinking to get at what may actually be the truth. It’s the abandonment of independent thought, a ‘ditto-head’ deference to the tribal view in the name of the reassuring safety of social cohesion. We are social animals who depend on the tribe for our survival, so the tighter the tribe, and the more the tribe accepts us as a member in good standing, the safer we are. As important as survival is, we are all prone to think like this, and the more threatened we are, the more we seem to do it….the more closed and polarized and angry at ‘others’ our thinking becomes."    I hope your conversation continues. But even more, I hope you might check out the recent blog, and another one on the topic of Cultural Cognition,The Real Roots of the Debt Ceiling Debate. Tribalism versus Reason, from last July , because I think there is an important larger issue here we all need to consider, no matter what side of the surface political divide on which we fall.

More from the Big Idea for Tuesday, January 03 2012

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