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Could a Climate Science Expert Change Your Opinion? - Dilbert Blog

Could a Climate Science Expert Change Your Opinion?

It seems to me that the big problem with the climate change debate is that no one would recognize a good argument if they saw one. We only think we have the ability to recognize a good argument. What actually happens is that cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias generally keep a wall between us and reality. We live in our own little movies in our heads while being sure everyone else is watching the same movie. They aren’t.

Here’s a thought experiment:

Let’s say you are new to the debate about climate change and I put you in a room with the most well-informed climate scientist in the world. The scientist spends as much time with you as you want, answering every question and making her case that climate change is a human-caused disaster in the making. Let’s say this scientists is also the best communicator in the world, unlike most scientists. So now you have the best information, from the most knowledgeable person in the world on this topic, communicated in the best possible way, and answering all of your questions. Would you be persuaded by all of that credibility and good communication?

We know that a die-hard climate change skeptic would not be persuaded by this excellent source of information because humans rarely change their minds about important things. Instead we hallucinate reasons for why we were right all along. But in my thought experiment I said you are new to the climate change debate. So let’s assume you came to it without bias. Would you be convinced by the scientist?

Probably yes. If your first introduction to a topic involved a clear and detailed explanation from the top expert in the world, you would probably be persuaded because there is nothing stopping that persuasion from happening. You have no bias to overcome and the scientist is both credible and clear in her message. 

The unbiased mind is likely to be totally convinced in this thought experiment. And that mind would also think it had engaged in rational behavior. After all, what could be more rational than getting the best information on a topic, from the best expert in the world, communicated in the clearest possible way?

But your new certainty about climate change would be a fraud that you perpetrated on yourself. If you don’t yet see in my thought experiment why the best information from the best source is still unreliable, even when clearly communicated, you probably don’t understand enough about the world to participate in decision-making.

I’ll simplify this even further so you can test your hallucination. Here’s the summary of the situation. Tell me why you should not automatically trust the scientist in this thought experiment. Assume the following three things ARE true. What’s missing?

  • Best expert in the world on Climate Science.
  • Currently works in the field.
  • Great communicator, answers all of your questions.
  • See what’s missing yet?

    The thing that is missing is that you can’t know what the expert didn’t tell you. If you are not an expert in the field yourself, how could you possibly know what has been left out?

    You also don’t know if the scientist is suffering from cognitive dissonance. It would look exactly the same to you. And cognitive dissonance is common to all humans, including scientists.

    But wait, you say. The whole point of science is that the scientific process controls for human bias. The peer review process scrubs away bias over time, and climate science has been around for long enough that lots of scrubbing has happened. The peer-reviewed science is heavily on the side of temperatures being influenced by CO2 in a potentially disastrous way. If you believe in science, shouldn’t that tell you all you need to know?

    Well, it might. Except for the fact that prediction models are not actually science. Correct me if I am wrong (and that is likely in this case) but it seems to me that the prediction models are just tools that scientists use. They are not derived from the highly-credible scientific method any more than stock-picking models are. And stock-picking models generally don’t work over time even though they are great at hindcasting (predicting the past, basically).

    How about political forecast models? Those aren’t science either. And we observed in the recent presidential election that they performed worse than “cartoonist has an opinion.” Yet political models perform great in hindcasts.

    I’m also confused by the fact that apparently there is more than one climate model that gets the “right” answer for climate scientists. Shouldn’t there only be one? Why wouldn’t science pick the best one and call it a day? And if they can’t agree on which one is best, what does that tell us?

    My position on climate change is that BOTH sides of the debate are completely credible to the people already on their side, thanks to confirmation bias. But that’s where the persuasion ends. Neither side has the tools or talent to sell their beliefs to the other side in any wholesale way. 

    Imagine putting the leading expert from both sides on a TV show or a podcast with an objective moderator who is trying to get to the truth for viewers. Would that work? I doubt it. It would look like this:

    Moderator: Explain why your side is right.

    Expert 1: Look at my chart here.

    Expert 2: That chart is wrong. You forgot to include the (whatever).

    Expert 1: It wouldn’t make any difference.

    Expert 2: Yes it would.

    Moderator: Okay,  I guess we’re done here.

    If you are frustrated with the people who are on the other side of the debate, no matter which side that is, I think you should give them some slack. There is no way for this sort of information to be credibly conveyed to human beings. And the problem is not always on the receiving end. 

    That said, I’ve ordered some new studio equipment for doing podcasts and live streaming. If I can figure out how to make it all work (which is harder than it seems) I’ll bring on some guests to show you how they fail to communicate this topic to me. We won’t learn anything about climate science but you might enjoy watching me dismantle both sides.

    You might find great value in using WhenHub (my startup) because I keep mentioning it in my blog.