A spate of research suggests that Harvey and Irma will make no difference at all to climate change deniers.

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds Some excerpts:

To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats … it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own. 

[emphasis mine]

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This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

… the “illusion of explanatory depth,” [is] just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. … someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at.

So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

“One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group.

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. 

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. 

In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful.

… Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, … cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” they observe. [emphasis mine]


New research finds attitudes toward climate-change mitigation are only minimally and fleetingly affected by severe weather.

Harvey and climate change: why it won't change minds

... Harvey could become a flashpoint in the public's views on climate change, yet simultaneously fail to move the needle much, partly because humans have short attention spans, are too wedded to preconceived notions, and are in denial about the real consequences of the issue.

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Most interesting. Does it vary with socio-economic class and the pressures felt by those in different classes?

I ask that because I grew up with blue-collar grandfathers, entrepreneur and sometimes white-collar fathers and their friends. Of my ten siblings and cousins, I had the GI Bill and was the second to go to college. While there, studying math, science and economics I knew I was leaving the class into which I'd been born. I started paying more attention to my social surroundings.

For years then, a metaphor kept me from talking myself into embarrassing dead ends; I resolved to not charge out onto planks over shark-infested waters.


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