Facts don’t matter

Written By: - Date published: 11:24 am, March 28th, 2010 - 18 comments
Categories: climate change, Deep stuff, science - Tags:

Anyone who has ever seriously debated opinions with other people, especially via online forums like newsgroups and blogs, has probably developed a pretty firm suspicion that facts don’t matter. I’ve been watching online forums since the early 1980s, reading usenet with rn when there were only a few dozen groups. I have seen any number of debates where Side B has been clinically and comprehensively demolished by Side A, but B has carried on believing that they are right and claiming “victory”. The futility of it all kept me from ever participating online until The Standard in 2007. I got involved then because although you’ll never change the minds of the people you debate with (far too much ego involved), I think you can change the minds of those who aren’t participating, those who (like I used to) just lurk and read the debates.

Anyway, back to the original point, for a majority of people facts don’t matter. Opinions are formed as a result of many influences, facts are only one of them, and not the most important. (I was reminded of this yet again by the usual crop of deniers commenting on the Earth hour post.) I’ve been meaning for a long time to dig into this a bit, and find some relevant psychological research, but George Monbiot has saved me the trouble. He wrote this piece about the climate change “debate”, but the underlying point applies everywhere:

There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway

There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us. The new study by the Met Office, which paints an even grimmer picture than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will do nothing to change this view. The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. …

Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. “We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince We need to be taught to believe by a true believer.” Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.

In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January. It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”. Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for instance, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire”. Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted”.

These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.” The conservatives in the Iraq experiment might have reacted against something they associated with the Duelfer report, rather than the information it contained.

… my beliefs oblige me to try to make sense of the [climate] science and to explain its implications. This turns out to be the most divisive project I’ve ever engaged in. The more I stick to the facts, the more virulent the abuse becomes. This doesn’t bother me I have a hide like a glyptodon but it reinforces the disturbing possibility that nothing works. …

Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.

Now there’s a depressing conclusion. Here’s another – facts do matter. We can ignore the facts all we like, but the facts aren’t going to ignore us.

18 comments on “Facts don’t matter”

  1. Bill 1

    There are no facts associated with religious belief and people adhere to the various worldviews presented by religions. And they switch from one to another.

    It follows then, that lessons can be learned from looking at whichever religious sect is enjoying most growth and adopting their techniques.

    Alternatively, climate change is sold in Judeo- Christian wrapping to Judeo-Christians and in whatever terms necessary to any particular constituency that needs to be reached.

    Or attractive alternatives to all the behaviours and habits that drive climate change are proposed, constructed and developed by those who accept the facts. As the viability and ‘common sense’ of these alternatives become apparent, then people from all walks and of all world views might be drawn to them for their own sake. Not because of climate change…which could be a good thing insofar as it might moderate the influence and destructive capabilities of well meaning zealots…while ensuring that catastrophe is avoided.

    So yet again, revolution seems to be the only practical way forward. So when you’ve finished with the liberal wringing of the hands and the throwing of the hands in the air in despair, you think we could get started?

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    I’ve been saying for awhile that the political right are delusional. Now there’s even more research to back that up.

    Give them an argument with facts backing it up and they always turn around and say something like “no, that’s not right” or “that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it”. The facts have no meaning for the political right as they always go against what they want which is more and more wealth accumulated to themselves and no restrictions on what they can do.

    Sooner or later we are going to have to have Bills revolution because this socio-economic system (Capitalism) we live under was designed by them and is just as delusional.

    • Bill 2.1

      Unfortunately, the political left is just as delusional.

      Think of certain sections of the left who wax lyrical on ‘if’s and and’s’ in relation to certain revolutionary events from 90 odd years ago…their ‘if only’ so-and-so hadn’t died and ‘if only’ so-and-so hadn’t been exiled alongside their ‘if it hadn’t been for the civil war’….all the while ignoring the fact that the dungeon built atop shattered revolutionary dreams was the inevitable consequence of the structures and systems employed by the revolutionary actors.

      By the way. Bills revolution is an ongoing affair.( Began around ’82 from memory) Join in any time you like!

      • Draco T Bastard 2.1.1

        Oh, I don’t think the left are delusional – they can be brought round by argument but it takes awhile as the learning has to go against decades of the status quo.

        • Bill

          Aw c’mon.

          Leaving aside the delusional belief, that persists in spite of a couple of hundred years worth of evidence to the contrary, that reform will, of and by itself, be sufficient to set our political, cultural and economic ills to rights, I could give you a whole shopping list of ‘left’ cults or so-called ‘schools of thought’ that are delusional to the core; whose adherents ignore facts just as adeptly as any deluded advocate of right wing politics.

          And I could run through a list of left cults where intelligent dissent is countered, first of all by use of derision and mockery, followed by expulsion soon after. ( Why else you think the left is riven with splits and schisms and god knows what, if it’s not due to the dynamics of authoritarian structures perpetuating and reinforcing ‘correct’ thoughts?)

          And then there are the studies showing that the tendency to be a thoughtless follower of authoritarian systems or thought is independent of right and left wing political views…Bob Altemeyer, ‘The Authoritarians’ is an online book dealing with the matter and worth downloading.

          • Ianmac

            Bill. I enjoy the discussions on both sides on this blog. But both of your posts are unintellible to me. The only thing I can draw from it is that you know stuff that prove that you know of many issues that prove that those on the liberal side are bigoted or close minded or based on no “proof”. Meaningless rubbish Bill.

            • Bill

              Liberals who embrace the social democratic view of our polities…who ascribe solely to the ‘civilised’ ,’let’s sit down and talk about it’ mentality…a demonstratively ineffective approach to societies ills, do indeed spout ‘meaningless rubbish’ when that is promoted as the ‘be all and end all’.

              Witness the interminable discussions about ‘what to do ‘ and the wringing of the liberal hands while countless millions of us succumb to the immediate realities of the systems we live by and (by proxy) promote. It’s all perhaps epitomised by the imaginary ( yet all too common) individual who proclaims.. ‘I drip sweat from my wrenching palms on questions of racism or sexism or class because there is nothing else I can do beyond despair.’

              Now, I suspect that you favour reform of our present political reality. I think that’s good. But I don’t think it’s enough.

              Here’s he rub. I’ll support you in your reformist efforts…that almost goes without question…. but are you going to set me up as an adversary when I look to push the envelope or are you going to lend your shoulder?

  3. Bill you are not making any sense.

    Climate change “believers” are not “zealots”, their belief is based on the mountain of evidence that has been studied and examined over the past 40 years.

    Deniers on the other hand are “zealots”. They choose a mistake in a footnote or an email offered in jest or exasperation as proof that the mountain of evidence is false.

    They do not bother to analyse all of the evidence. They throw “zealot” at those who think there is a problem to denigrate them and trivialise the basis for their concerns.

    I am not a “believer”. I am pretty sure the huge majority of scientists have it right however because the climate model appears to be correct and there is evidence of warming.

    And even if they are not right the consequences of inaction are too big to countenance.

    • Bill 3.1

      I agree with everything you say, but can see no point in denying that fanatics exist in the climate change camp too.

      Not everybody is swayed to their stance by rational argument ( the point of the post I thought). Emotive appeals work. There are climate change believers who have not thought things through…who are happy to have their beliefs dictated by others or who are swayed by appeals to emotion.

      I find such people dangerous.

      They tend to be unstoppable in their ‘enthusiasm’ for whichever cause they have latched on to. And given certain political circumstances, their ‘enthusiasm’ winds up exhibiting itself negatively as only they embody ‘correct’ attitudes in sufficient measure (as formulated by a charismatic leader, not scientists). Then they run around exacting escalating punishments on the heretics and iconoclasts….which, ironically, will include you and me.

      Again. Think back 90 odd years. Really good idea. Loads of enthusiasm. Then, a charismatic leader and a whole mass of people ready and willing to follow and obey to the letter pulling everything into a screaming heap.

      Any number of illustrative examples if you reflect for a second or two.

  4. Hyperstition – ‘fictions make themselves real’

    nothing is perfect
    in the space where nothing exists
    will one find perfection
    the perfect nothing

    accept nothing as fact
    question everything
    determine your own truth
    define your own reality






  5. DeepRed 5

    The ‘facts are stupid’ brigade are not far removed from what Johann Hari calls followers of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Mecca‘, or ‘Eurabia’.

  6. Nick C 6

    Its true that many on the right reject scientific evidence on global warming, and i dont agree with them on that. However politically the debate tends to be about two things:

    1) To what extent is it economically beneficial to reduce emmissions (i.e. cost of reduction vs cost of not reducing)
    2) What is the most efficient way to reduce emmissions

    I think overwelmingly the evidence suggests that its too late to reverse the major trends of global warming (pretty much every year we are told that damage will be irreversable if we dont do something this year), and that we should adapt to it. The left seem far more interested in making massive emmissions cuts which do not stand up to a cost benefit analysis.

    • lprent 6.1

      The problem is that our emissions world wide are rising almost exponentially. The majority of the emissions are buffered, effectively stored, and of those the majority will within a relatively short period will eventually re-emit.

      The issue is how to reduce the rate of increase. Otherwise our ability to adjust to the climate changes will eventually not be sufficient.

    • Con 6.2

      You are drawing a false dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation – we don’t have to choose between one and the other. We can in fact walk and chew gum at the same time. Or as Mao Zedong used to say, “walk on two legs”.

      It is indeed too late to avoid dangerous climate change, but the sooner drastic cuts in emissions are made, the less disastrous it will be. Certainly if cuts are NOT made, then no amount of adaptation is going to save us from collapse.

  7. B 7

    Climate change deniers are similar to Creationists in their astounding ability to look at incontrovertible evidence and ignore it. When people operate from a mindset that says I know the truth already and I am right, no amount of evidence will sway them. I agree with Bill though when he says people across the political spectrum can suffer from the same fact-blindness. Righties are just wrong more often ay ; )

  8. deemac 8

    Paul Morris put it well when he said that you can’t use reason to dissuade people from a position that they didn’t use reason to reach (or words to that effect). Sometimes politicians (and others)just have to show leadership (the current govt couldn’t even spell it) – eg the nuclear-free issue -though of course there are also dangers associated with THAT concept.

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