Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Psychology of Climate Denialism

Probably more than anything else on this blog, I have posted about the denial of certain scientific facts (like global warming, evolution, and the safety of vaccines).  Second to that, I tend to post about the psychology that underlies such disbelief, like this post, where I recommend the ultimate resource in understanding why we tend to reject certain types of data.  Along these lines, I have been curious for a long time why research and data concerning how to persuade people, or to disabuse them of these mind blocks, is not more prevalent in discussions about things like global warming and the safety of vaccines.  While for most scientists, the data are the data, and these facts are readily accepted as such, there is clearly a disconnect with a substantial portion of the population.  For most scientists, myself included, simply repeating the facts, or shouting louder and louder, or finally name calling in frustration are the most common recourse when we are confronted with those who flatly deny the evidence (or worse, refuse to listen to or look at the evidence, claiming instead that it has all been fabricated).  Of course, hammering home the facts tends to work in lab meetings or at scientific conferences, but it doesn't seem to work at all in with climate deniers, evolution deniers, flat earthers, whatever.  So how do we convince the general public (or this proportion of it) that policies need to be enacted to stop global warming, or that they need to get their children vaccinated, etc.  It seems to me this problem is just as critical, if not more so, than the problems of global warming and autism themselves.  Because if people don't think global warming is real, they won't support public policies for change or for more research.  If people believe that the cause for autism is vaccines, they will harm others by not getting vaccinated, and, again, they may refuse to support publicly funded research to find the real causes of autism spectrum disorders.  So what can be done?  Well, I don't have any solid answers, but there are two interesting items I have come across recently that offer some hope.  The first is the cultural cognition project at Yale law school.  If you click on the link and go to the website, you can find several articles and scientific studies that have been sponsored by the program, like this one, which reviewed some of the experiments and showed that people's core beliefs are a major factor in determining how they view a particular scientific or technological issue.  This effect is particularly strong when the issue requires some additional level of expertise, causing us to rely on experts to explain things to us, or to tell us how to feel about a particular issue.  In these cases, the average person is much more likely to believe the "experts" that they feel they can identify with on core values.  This is very clearly illustrated by the fact that many will take Rush Limbaugh's opinions on global warming as fact despite his complete and utter lack of any scientific credentials.  People who identify with Limbaugh's conservative political and religious values see him as more of an "expert" than scientists who they may see as elitist, overly liberal, or atheistic, even when the issues at hand are scientific in nature.  Which, I guess, debunks the "shouting loudly and calling people stupid" method for persuading people of the veracity of scientific facts (sorry, PZ Myers).
Anyway, the second item that I found was much more directly related to climate denialism.  Recently, the American Psychological Association put out a report including "studies of human responses to natural and technological disasters, efforts to encourage environmentally responsible behavior, and research on the psychosocial impacts of climate change."  If you don't want to read the whole report (and I don't blame you) you can listen to an interview with a couple of the psychologists who helped to put together this report, here.  I don't know if this report really offers any solid answers, but it seems to do a decent job of identifying the problems we face with a public that does not accept or does not want to accept the consequences of it's polluting lifestyle.  It is encouraging to see that researchers are identifying these problems and trying to find solutions. Hopefully, this type of research and the resultant findings will gain a higher profile, and scientists and science reporters will have the tools they need to communicate most effectively with the public.  And beyond that, hopefully we will see a brighter future where society acts upon factual information (backed by mounds of scientific evidence) to make our world a better, safer place for future generations.  

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