Friday, September 16, 2011

One of us is an Idiot: Persuasion and Climate Change

As a hockey referee, I would often find myself entertaining unsolicited advice from coaches.

“You are an idiot,” they would helpfully suggest. This tended to result in more penalties for the team in question, at which point the coach would, rethinking his strategy, attempt to deepen it (“You are a giant idiot”) reframe it (“Have you considered the possibility that you are an idiot?”) or broaden it (“You are an idiot and a moron”). I have to confess that none of these strategies was particularly effective in altering my decisions. Indeed, owing to my years of experience, I am prepared to categorically state that telling someone they are an idiot is a singularly ineffective way to influence human behaviour.

But at least the coaches were open and honest about it. It’s one thing to be called an idiot, but quite another to be treated like one. The latter tends to be even less effective in influencing behaviour, which is why I am surprised that environmentalists continually resort to it.

I understand the frustration. I believe that climate change is a very real and present danger which has already begun to make itself felt in certain regions, and which requires decisive and widespread action at all political levels around the world. But it doesn’t always feel like people are listening and when people don’t listen to you, sometimes you try to ramp up your message. This is where climate advocates get themselves into trouble, like a coach yelling from the bench.

The particularly tricky thing about climate change is that both the science and the policy are complex and uncertain and require a lot of diversified input. There are very few easy answers, there are no right answers and anyone who claims otherwise is blowing smoke. Climate scientists know this, of course, but “the details just aren’t settled” does not make for a very compelling headline, and climate deniers have been jumping on this, twisting and distorting it in an attempt to disguise the wide consensus that does exist. Let’s be realistic: there are large swaths of the USA in which evolution has been successfully dismissed as a mere “theory”; there is probably no degree of climatic certainty that could withstand a concerted denial.

Nevertheless, a desire to make believers of deniers and the belief that political consensus hinges on wider public consensus has pushed scientists to attempt to control the message and to emphasize the impacts beyond what the science can support.  Some of these messages have begun to disseminate among the general public, and it is becoming popular wisdom that natural disasters and related insurance claims are on the rise due to climate change. Neither claim has much in the way of scientific evidence behind it. Suddenly, scientists are treating people like idiots.

Now, I am not saying that you are not an idiot. For all I know, you and everyone you love is an idiot. But whether you are or are not an idiot is immaterial, because the second that you perceive you are being treated like one, you will lose interest in the cause at hand.

It’s difficult to control a message and even more difficult when the facts must be presented in journals, where anyone can read them and judge the evidence for themselves. Not everyone will, of course, but enough people that a scientific claim that goes beyond what the evidence can support will not remain a secret for long. Now you’ve been caught manipulating the public and your cause is even worse off than before.

Some have taken a slightly different direction on this, declaring that others are idiots and proposing that their small group of non-idiots just fix the damn problem themselves (e.g.

There are two problems here:

1.      From a normative perspective, the population at large should be involved in choosing the course of its own future.

2.     Climate change is too complex and multi-faceted a problem to be solved through anything other than a relatively widespread commitment to environmental principles.

So if people can’t be tricked, insulted, looked down on, manipulated or shanghaied into solving the climate change problem, I would offer that they need to be convinced the old-fashioned way: through a straightforward discussion of what the science does indicate and what we should do about it.

The alternative – treating people as idiots – is ineffective in changing opinions and also ignores the necessity of consensus building.

You may be an idiot, but it remains to be seen how many penalties climate advocates will need to incur before they start to get the message.

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