I often hear from people who are on one side or the other on the topic of climate change. And I think I spotted a new cognitive phenomenon that might not have a name.* I’ll call it cognitive blindness, defined as the inability to see the strong form of the other side of a debate.
The setup for cognitive blindness looks like this:
1. An issue has the public divided into two sides.
2. You read an article that agrees with your side and provides solid evidence to support it. That article mentions the argument on the other side in summary form but dismisses it as unworthy of consideration.
3. You remember (falsely) having seen both sides of the argument. What you really saw was one side of the argument plus a misleading summary of the other side.
4. When someone sends you links to better arguments on the other side you skip them because you think you already know what they will say, and you assume it must be nonsense. For all practical purposes you are blind to the other argument. It isn’t that you disagree with the strong form of the argument on the other side so much as you don’t know it exists no matter how many times it is put right in front of you.
I noticed this phenomenon when I started blogging about climate change. The citizens who side with the majority of scientists in saying climate change is influenced by humans and the prediction models about doom are accurate have – as far as I can tell – never seen the strong versions of the argument on the other side. (I know because I ask about it.) They have only seen the weak versions presented by their own side. And the weak version of the argument goes like this: “The other side are science deniers and quacks.”
My bottom-line belief about climate science is that non-scientists such as myself have no reliable way to evaluate any of this stuff. Our brains and experience are not up to the task. When I apply my tiny brain to sniffing out the truth about climate science I see rock-solid arguments on both sides of the debate.
Trained scientists might be able to sort out the truth from the B.S. in climate change science, although I’m skeptical about that too. But non-scientists have no chance whatsoever to discern which side is right. I consider myself to be bright and well-educated, and from my perspective both sides of the debate are 100% persuasive if you look at them in isolation. And apparently that’s what most citizens do.
The best way to know if a non-scientist is under-informed is to ask if they have a firm opinion on climate change. If that firm opinion is anything but “I don’t know” it probably means they are experiencing cognitive blindness about the existence of a strong argument on the other side.
Some people deal with the uncertainty around the climate prediction models by saying that even if there is only a tiny risk of global catastrophe, we still need to do all we can to avoid it. But that isn’t as wise as it first sounds. Your life is full of worst-case scenarios that you ignore because you have to. You can’t live a life that manages to the worst-case scenario or else you would never have sex, apply for a job, or drive your car. The worst-case scenario for you EVERY SINGLE DAY involves you getting zika, AIDS, and bird flu right before the brakes on your car fail and you plunge into a ravine.
Does the worst-case scenario on climate change sound catastrophic to me? Absolutely. But so does the worst-case scenario for EVERYTHING. You can’t manage your life to the worst-case scenario. That would be no life at all.
The same applies to governments. Nearly everything a government does has a catastrophic risk in one way or another. Would it make sense to put full effort into avoiding all the imagined worst cases? If we did, we’d be wearing gas masks and protective bubble wrap instead of clothing.
But what if the worst-case scenario is really, really likely, as in the case of climate change disaster? In that case, shouldn’t you manage to the worst case? Well, yes, but only if you are sure the risk is as high as you think. And I don’t see any way a non-scientist could be exposed to both sides of the argument and assign a risk to it.
Given the wildly different assessments of climate change risks within the non-scientist community, perhaps we need some sort of insurance/betting market. That would allow the climate science alarmists to buy “insurance” from the climate science skeptics. That way if the climate goes bad at least the alarmists will have extra cash to build their underground homes. And that cash will come out of the pockets of the science-deniers. Sweet!
But if the deniers are right, and they want to be rewarded by the alarmists for their rightness, the insurance/betting market would make that possible.
It would also be fascinating to see where the public put the betting odds for climate science. Would people expose themselves to both sides of the debate before betting?
*It probably does have a name. It’s a mix of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias at the least, but a special case in my opinion.
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