Believing what we believe

“You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts” – This quote has been widely attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and several others, and is widely used when arguing politics, economics, the environment, and virtually any other topic.   Pretty much a polite way of saying “you’re just making that $*&! up”

But the problem is that each of us does have our own “facts”.  The world is a complex place where facts are often contradictory and open to interpretation, and we (all of us) tend to interpret facts in a way that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs.  When I studied group dynamics as part of my MBA, this was referred to as the “Confirmation Bias” and I saw it in all aspects of my life.  Think about it.  How many times have you been debriefing an event or a meeting, and the people you are talking to seem to have been somewhere else.  They didn’t see  or hear the things you did, and they saw and heard things you didn’t.  That’s the confirmation bias at work. We believe information that is consistent with our beliefs and reject information that is inconsistent with our beliefs. 

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote. – See more at: http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=full#sthash.rhSbD2G1.dpuf

And that’s when facts are reasonably well established and clear.   But what happens when the facts are contradictory? Look for example at the polar ice caps.  Arctic Ice is in clear retreat. The 2016 maximum extent is the lowest on record.

mar24_N_daily_extent_hires-350x417 asina_N_stddev_timeseries1-350x280

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

 

OK  – That seems clear. But Antarctic sea ice is growing, in fact last year it hit a record high maximum extent. So what’s up?  Well, the truth is that no one is sure. Now, to be clear, when you add arctic and antarctic sea ice, there is an absolute decline.  Even so, the increase in Antarctic ice doesn’t fit our current models, and people who want to use this fact to cast doubt on global warming can do so.

And that leads us to the last part of the story.  As reported in the journal Nature Climate Change:

Polarization on climate change risks is strongest in countries where a contrarian social movement funded by fossil fuel and related interests has been most active in raising doubts about the scientific consensus10, 11, 12, 13. Polarization seems to depend not only on individuals’ stable values or world-views, but also on organized influence attempts, which have proved most effective with receptive subpopulations holding particular political and social values. In the US, where these influence attempts are strongest, polarization has increased over time, affecting mainly political conservatives6. It is worth noting that many contrarian arguments generate mistrust of mainstream climate scientists10, a strategy that past research suggests affects risk perceptions14.

And we know that in the U.S. there has been a lot of money spent to raise doubts about climate change. Exxon Mobil was actively involved in spreading skepticism about global warming while making plans for how to respond for their advantage.

I don’t have an easy answer.  We all need to check our biases, and at the same time, we need to be sensitive that the people we are trying to convince may not even be aware that they have a bias

 

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