When discussing with the many people I encounter, I sometimes deal with people who will argue against or comment “bullshit” on scientific fact, who will, in order to “counter” the facts, bring up arguments with no connection to the discussion, and sometimes no connection to reality.
Now, I am not saying that science is infallible or cannot be wrong, I am just saying that peer-reviewed science is a much better way and a much more reliable model for understanding the world around us than relying on our intuition or preconceived notions alone. This is especially true when we are dealing with long term and complex processes like climate, enzymes, ecosystems, evolution, and genetics.
Why do people not only deny facts, but feel the need to argue defending their disbelief, or blow facts which support their opinion out of proportion? Why do they sometimes just ignore the information entirely, as if it had never been uttered?
I think I am not alone in noticing that anyone speaking about world, national, or local problems tends to get less attention than those who are showering glory on whatever picture of utopia they happen to subscribe to, or whatever sport team they support. This is because sport teams and utopia do not tend to create cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is that moment, that feeling, when your brain reacts defensively to new information which threatens existing beliefs, or when you do something which you are consciously opposed to, or when two attitudes or thoughts contradict: that feeling of inner tension which every one of us knows.
Really, dissonance is tied together with our desire to feel that we are right, that we make good decisions, that our actions reflect our values, and that our point of view is reliable. This is why studies have shown that complementing someone before presenting threatening information is an effective way of decreasing the chances of them reacting with dissonance (Nyhan, 2011).
Dissonance can also be created by disappointment, which is why we sometimes feel the need to rationalize our behavior and the situation in inner dialogue. This can even happen unconsciously: for instance liking a group more because it was hard to get into (Aronson, 1959).
It is a shame that earlier generations chose to label environmental problems as “climate change” and “global warming,” instead of “ecological collapse” and “ocean acidification”. Statistics like “75% more acidic than it was 150 years ago” and “150% more acidic by 2100” (NOAA) sound more alarm bells than “an increase of 1 degree Celsius in the last 150 years” or “an increase of 3-4 degrees Celsius by 2100” (IPCC). The first argument about acidification is almost impossible to debate scientifically, but global climate systems and solar cycles make discussion of average temperature more difficult. This means dissonance may possibly be avoided by talking about acidification instead of global warming. Although both involve CO2.
But, when we do wind up talking about global warming, we hear people react with statements about Antarctic ice growth. This fails to take into effect that the Arctic is losing approximately three times as much as the Antarctic is gaining in the same time period. We hear people talk about the 26,000 year solar cycles and the 11 year solar maximum-minimum. This is another form of dissonance reduction: they are finding arguments to support their current view to compensate for the opposing information in your arguments, regardless of the actual value of their arguments. Sometimes people will even attack the person giving the information to explain why it cannot be true.
Similarly, when you try to inform mainstream climate activists that the Arctic ice loss is actually indicative of a bigger problem, specifically the exponential increase of atmospheric methane (>300% increase in 100 years e.g Barrow, Alaska, Greenland, or Norway, 2012. Update: Septeber 2013 readings showing methane at over 2500 ppb making the situation actually worse than when this text was first written), they tend to just ignore this information and/or talk about cows. The focus is put on the 40% increase in CO2 in the last 100 years, despite the fact methane (CH4) has 20x greater warming potential and has risen far more proportionally.
I am not saying the CO2 level should be ignored, but we cannot forget there are other problems which we have even less control over. If you ask many climate activists about the methane they tell you it comes from cows and termites, even though more than enough evidence exists that it is coming from permafrost and the ocean around Greenland and in the Arctic (methane hydrates/clathrates).
Of course, another way of reducing dissonance is to straight up decide that the new information is not true, or that the person is lying to you. You see this all the time when someone actively refuses to believe something, or attacks you for telling them. Sometimes people even invent reasons that the fact could not be true, just to calm themselves.
So, other than complementing someone, which is not always possible, how do you help people understand hard facts? Well, using diagrams and charts help, as does patience in explaining the facts without getting upset or calling them an idiot. Some concepts, like the fact ecosystems work based on dynamic tipping points -stable states- and not linearly, are hard to understand at first.
In the end, we are all human, and dissonance can and does affect all of us sometimes. The question is how we deal with it. Do we ignore the new information or fight against it, or do we stop, think, and evaluate it objectively? Do we use the inner tension created by dissonance to research the subject and learn more, or to demonize and insult those who disagree with us?
Personally, I think doing research into opposing arguments and into criticism of my own arguments is the best solution: creating knowledge out of tension.
2. Nyhan, Brendan. 2011. “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions”
3. Aronson, E. 1959. The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group.