An aggressively contested social norm is at work in the swarms of comments that follow every article on climate change. Experiments have shown that the insertion of aggressive comments into descriptions of controversial issues does nothing to change people’s views but greatly increases their in-group identification with the view they already hold.”
“Don’t Even Think About It: How Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall
From time to time, some articles are subject to the rants of particular individuals who clearly have a divergent point of view from most of the people reading things on the AIMN. And I don’t just mean a difference like the Labor Party and The Greens arguing about who’s most in bed with the Liberal Party.
Ok, it’s a free country and all and they have a right to express an opinion, but some have a different world view in the same way that Gandhi and Hitler didn’t agree on the best way to effect change in the world. I’ve often wondered what possesses people to go onto a site and spew forth vitriol. Sure I can understand that you want to point out the errors of other people. But as I once asked a class who were very enthusiastic when discussing the issues of the day, “Has anyone ever changed your mind by shouting at you?”
“No,” they replied.
“Then why do you lot always start shouting when you’re disagreeing with someone?” I inquired.
“It feels good,” said one girl.
Ok, she may have had her reasons, but at least one boy told me that it was a good point. Mind you, he did it later when nobody was around to shout that he was wrong and it wasn’t a good point.
Yep, they may be like the girl who liked to shout at people she doesn’t agree with; they may just think that it feels good, but they surely can’t think that they’re changing anyone’s mind. Could actually believe that simply repeating the same stuff ad infintum and refusing to actually respond to any of the points raised beyond telling the other person that they’re a moron would make them rethink their position?
But today, while reading George Marshall’s book, “Don’t Even Think About It: How Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change”, I came across the quote at the top of this page. It seems that rather than weaken the resolve of the opposition, a tirade may actually help to cement their views.
On one level I guess this is obvious. I’m not someone who identifies with climate deniers, but as I’ve pointed out before, I’m naturally sceptical about headlines and I realise that the actual science is likely to be sensationalised when it’s placed on the front page of a newspaper. Having said that, I’d have to say that it seems pretty obvious that the evidence suggests that there is man-made climate change and we need to be concerned about the effects. Even if I were to be at my most cynical, I’d have to argue that it needs more investigation. Now if you were to write a comment about that previous position where you argued that the time for investigation was past and that we need urgent action, and you backed this up with facts and figures, I might be persuaded to consider that perhaps the CSIRO is correct to place more emphasis on mitigating the effects of climate change and their recent decision was correct. However, just calling me an ignorant climate denier who’s probably being paid by the fossil fuel industry makes me even surer that I’m the calm, rational person in this debate and you’re the one who thinks that “The X-files” is a documentary made at the same studio where they faked the moon landing so that we’d fail to notice the chemtrails because of our vaccine-induced autism.
As Marshall’s book points out, one problem with any discussion on climate change is confirmation bias. That’s where we have a tendency to find the evidence that supports our view, and ignore the evidence which doesn’t. Obviously one hot day doesn’t prove the existence of climate change any more than it being cold in the middle of winter shows that there’s no such thing as global warming. To make any judgements, one needs to look at patterns over a longer period than a few days or even a few years. Andrew Bolt (and others) assert that there’s been no warming since 1996 – a hotter than average year, and seem to want everyone to ignore data from before that date. However, they then dismiss any recent evidence of record temperatures as being over too short a time period.
But Marshall sees a greater problem in the idea that communications from people they regard as similar is likely to have far more effect than the opinion of experts. While many climate change deniers have a distrust of authority, the same is true for people on the left of the policital spectrum. When a company assures everyone that their product has been tested by the government and found to be completely safe, both the left and right of the political divide are quite likely to disbelieve the claim if their peers express concern.
Is it possible to overcome these natural tendencies and enable people to examine the evidence thoughtfully and rationally?
Possibly not, but Marshall suggests that it’s the people you don’t want to be like that form your opinion, as much as those you do. So when an attractive, Hollywood star like Leonardo suggests that we need to do more about climate change, it may put some off, but it’s more likely that people will identify with their favourite star than when Lord Monckton opens his mouth. Of course, there’s a big difference between the two. One is paid money and pretends to be someone he’s not, while the other won an Oscar for his role in “The Revenant”.
So it seems the trick to actually getting people onside is not to appeal to their logic, but to make them want to identify with the people on your side of the argument. Failing that, you can trying making them want to distance themselves from those who hold the opposing view. Certain commentators have been good at casting climate scientists as either Marxist greenies or avaricious capitalists trying to con people into funding their research, while suggesting that its the fossil fuel companies who are fighting the good fight against the dark forces who would oppress us. This green agenda, some argue, is part of a hidden plot and we’d do well to resist it.
Whatever, whenever you’re confronted with one of those individuals who frustrate you with their inability to concede even the most minor point… You know the ones who – like Neil of Sydney – merely change the subject and, if that doesn’t work, change the facts to suit their argument… Whenever you’re next confronted with someone like that, smile and realise what a great job they’re doing for your side of the argument and for building group solidarity. Just as Tony Abbott seemed to unite the Left – relatively speaking – trolls and those making aggressive meaningless comments give certainty and satisfaction to all those who may have been momentarily contemplating that they may have been wrong.
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