UQx DENIAL101x 6.7.4.1 Full interview with Michael Ranney

UQx DENIAL101x 6.7.4.1 Full interview with Michael Ranney


My name is Michael Ranney. I’m a professor
here at the University of California at Berkeley. I tend to do research on things that basically
are the intersection of three different realms: one realm is science cognition; the other
one is about mathematical cognition, particularly numeracy; and, finally, I’m also interested
in things that are really important to people and society. If you look at the triple intersection
point between those three realms, climate cognition, which is what I’m most interested
in right now, is right at the center of them. I think that science denialism, in general,
is really quite rare because most people will accept that cellphones work and won’t deny
it as a tool of the devil or something that just isn’t functional. You can actually see
scientific principles implemented in a lot of our technology that we use. Maybe Amish
might be as close as you get to science deniers in a practical way, why people deny certain
pockets of science like evolution and global warming. To my mind, I think it’s because
it violates some of our cultural elements. I think that part of the cultural cognition
perspective is appropriate. I have this model that is called Reinforced
Theistic Manifest Destiny that purports to explain why it is that Americans are different,
or why you get a clustering of acceptance in the concepts that relate to religiosity
and nationalism on one side, and then global warming and evolution on the other. I think
why people deny science in general is often very particular. In the United States, we have this phrase:
“All politics is local.” I think that’s relatively true—that is, that the reasons that people
deny evolution are correlated with the reasons that people deny global warming, but they’re
not perfectly congruent. You might even see some religiosity involved in this. For instance, if you really denied evolution,
you could do that from the sense of accepting Genesis relatively verbatim. Also, there are
religious reasons why you might not accept global warming because if you really believed
in a god of miracles, how hard would it be for a heavenly entity to just take all the
greenhouse gases and throw them into the sun? I mean, if an entity could generate the entire
universe, how hard would it be for that entity to fix global warming? You might also think
that a benevolent deity wouldn’t allow us to burn ourselves up. You get a religious
element there. In fact, there are even some very small fringe groups that are anticipating
with gusto global warming because they are thinking this is one of the harbingers of
the Rapture or the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, like, “Bring it on. This global warming is
great. That means that the Messiah is coming back.” I think that there are lots of reasons. Some
of it is fear, like with respect to global warming. One of the things that I point out
is it’s a very scary thing. In fact, I prefer that global warming would not be true. In
fact, it’s sort of in contrast to a lot of the things that the deniers suggest, I would
be so happy. I actually put this into my talks now. I have a pledge that if someone could actually
convince me that global warming were not true, I would rent the largest SUV I could find,
I would drive it to where that person was, kiss them on the mouth or whatever body part
they want, and I would stop doing work on global warming entirely, and I would give
back any dollar I ever got in funding related to climate change because I don’t want it
to be true. I would be so happy. The other thing that I should point out, and
I realize this is a roundabout answer to your question, is that the people who suggest,
as we pointed out earlier, that scientists are just accepting global warming because
they’re on the dole, that they want this money that comes with global warming and funding,
whether it’s from our national science foundation or from other nations—that is so wrong.
That is just not how science works. I mean, if I thought that I could disconfirm global
warming, I would do it. I would anticipate being the most famous scientist who ever lived. I mean, imagine if you could deny, if you
could point out that global was a myth, not only would the fossil-fuel companies love
you and lavish you with prizes, and you’d probably win a Nobel Prize for Physics or
whatever the relevant degree would be, but you could go into any bar in the world and
they say, “You’re the guy that made it so that I didn’t have to drive my SUV into the
river. Come here. I’ll give you a pint.” I mean, you would be so famous. That is what real scientists look for. They
want to overturn paradigms and and gain great fame. I believe those Australian researchers
who found out that ulcers are primarily caused by bacteria and not by stress as previously
thought, I mean, they’re terribly famous and celebrated because they overturned the paradigm.
They showed the truth. It is completely incorrect to think that climate
scientists would really rather global warming be true. I mean, maybe in like a little e-mail
or something like that, but in big picture, no. No one wants it. I mean, any parent wouldn’t
want it to be true, right? If you think about distaste for global warming,
they can be something as simple as inconvenience that Al Gore sort of pointed out. “I don’t
want to trade in my vehicle and have to get a plug-in.” “I don’t want to change my voltage
from AC to DC.” “I don’t want to put solar panels on my house. It’s sort of a pain.”
Or they can be more deeply fear-based with respect to what might happen to your children. I have a friend, a dear friend of mine, who
accepts that global warming is happening, but I mean, he said, “My theory is that it’s
too late, and we’re screwed.” As a father of three, he said, “You know, that’s really
disturbing for me.” I mean, I see that as like energizing us, like, “Well, that’s why
I’m in this game. I want to retard global warming because I don’t want bad things to
happen.” I think some people can—there’s a proverb
that—ostriches don’t do this, but the notion of putting your head in the sand is part of
it. Also, you know, what will happen in our economy if we don’t have growth in the way
we’re used to it? What are we going to do with our dollars if we are afraid of rebound
effects? How can we actually invest? What’s going to happen to my pension, if my pension
plan is anticipating that it’ll get like six percent per year, and that’s what’s going
to keep me alive in my old age? What happens if we can’t do that? I think there are a lot
of fears that deal with one’s health, which I think Ed Maibach points out, being oriented
for that convenience and even in sometimes existential things. What would it mean for
us to do this? Where is our creator if we could actually be destroying our species or
reducing our numbers so dramatically? I think there are a number of dimensions,
maybe two or three. I mean, psychologists usually find that any field comes down to
two-and-a-half dimensions on average, like emotions and so forth. Imagine there is something
like two-and-a-half different dimensions that accounts for denial. Some of them might probably
correlate with fear, and some of them might correlate with inconvenience. I think part of it is that—especially in
the digital age, people are able to sequester their information-gathering to a relatively
small number of channels. I think there is evidence for this that people who watch Fox
News are less likely to even sample media outlets that are more liberal in character. It used to be in the United States you had
three networks. You were going to watch ABC, CBS, or NBC. They were all basically the same
thing. They were all basically normative with respect to science. Well now, you can go on
the Internet, and you can find people who might believe the most bizarre thing that
certain ethnic groups are terrible or fantastic, or that certain genders are terrible or fantastic.
There are all manner of ways in which you can find really peculiar notions, including
this idea that we want global warming to be true so that Rapture envelopes us and the
most noble of us will arise into heaven. I think part of the difference is that this
fragmentation, oddly, which came out of the Internet age in which we have these grand
dreams of wonderful information being passed around and everyone would be articulate, actually
means you could find your own bin of ignorance. I think that’s part of the difficulty. My
hope is that that will not last too much longer for climate change. I mean, we don’t see it
so much in others in which there are many websites that suggest that smoking tobacco
is benign, or there hasn’t been much inroad into the idea that the Earth might be planer.
I’m hoping that eventually I will find that fewer and fewer of these sites and outlets
will be denying climate change. I think the evidence will mount up so quickly that they
won’t be able to continue that. My fear is that by the time that evidence
is so salient that we could have done a lot more than we have done, and so we’ll have
lost some opportunities for easy fixes for global warming, and we’ll have to take a little
bit more of the Draconian or more difficult fixes. For instance, one of the ways one can protect
yourself is by trying to disconfirm hypothesis. What we often find is like in a numerically
driven inferencing that people often know things, but they don’t know them coherently
enough. Actually, rarely, even on Berkeley’s campus with really bright undergraduates,
if you ask people what they think the population of the United States is, there’ll be one person
who will write down 100,000, which sounds bizarre. If you get that person in the room
and you say, “Okay, so there are 100,000 people on Earth. How many people do you think are
in LA?” They’ll say, “Well, I’m from LA. They’re about ten million.” I say, “Okay, so there
are ten million in LA, but only 100,000 on Earth.” Then they’re going, “Yes. That can’t
be true.” If you get people to sort of try to disconfirm
your hypotheses to—for instance, one of the techniques we use with our journalists
is we had them, whenever they estimated a number, try to imagine a friend of theirs
who might estimate the number much higher and why that might be the case, or another
friend who might estimate the number to be much lower and why that might be the case.
It turns out that in my work in science cognition in general, there are many times in which
people have conflicting belief at the same time, these sort of memes that don’t coordinate.
It’s only when you point out that there’s a conflict that they realize that. For instance, some people know things about
playground swings that are actually in conflict with their understanding of pendulums, while
they’re really the same physical phenomenon. When you point out, “You said this about the
playground swing. How does that work in a pendulum?” They’ll go, “Oh yes. That can’t
be the case.” Then they have to sort of reconcile it. The other thing I think is quite useful is
reason to the extreme. I think, well, “Were that the case, what if this were 100 percent
or zero percent?” Often reason to the extreme allows one to realize that you’ve made an
incorrect assumption somewhere along the ways that you can kind of show that you generate
an absurd conclusion. I think really the kind of critical-reasoning
skills that you’d find in a good textbook about judgment and decision-making or problem-solving
or ones that people can employ—the problem is we only have so much time in our lives.
One thing I’ve written about is that we don’t have the time or the processing power to be
perfectly coherent. If I told you my mother’s maiden name, you
could actually spend a long time trying to compare that bit of information with everything
else you know, like whether or not you shouldn’t move your car or whether or not you should
buy IBM or something like that. In fact, it’s probably a better use of your time and say,
“That’s nice to know,” and move on because otherwise you’d never get out of bed in the
morning. We have to sort of pick our battles about
which are the things that are worth us spending our precious processing on our type two cognition
in our non-heuristic sort of cognition to work on this problem. I think global warming
is so important for this one that everyone should be spending their precious cognition
on. You have to identify the particular places
where there is a point of conflict. This is often difficult. For instance, I’ve interviewed
a number of people who accept global warming perfectly fine and yet didn’t know the mechanism.
In fact, some studies indicate that people who teach global warming to undergraduates
barely have a better model of global warming than the undergraduates they are teaching. One of the concepts that I point out to people
that’s problematic is there’s a particular misconception that sunlight comes in and it
goes through the greenhouse gases, and then bounces off the earth and then gets trapped
by the greenhouse gases. I say, “Well, why does that have to go through? Why doesn’t
it just get trapped on the way in? How does a greenhouse gas molecule know which way is
up or down?” At this point, even some people who published
on global warming go, “Wow. That is a good question.” What they’re missing there is this
notion that light is being transformed, as I said in 35 words, from visible light to
infrared light, and then it’s sent off. In fact, one of the ways I try to reify this
for people is I’ll say, “Of every ten photons that gets shot off the asphalt on a hot summer
day toward outer space, only one of them actually reaches outer space. Nine out of ten of them
actually get captured by greenhouse gas and recycled in the atmosphere.” We actually have cards that we’ve now generated
with the mechanism concentrated down to 35 words. We haven’t actually assessed whether
or not 35 words is enough to change people’s minds, but certainly the 400 words—we’ve
replicated this several times with a number of different samples. We think it’s pretty
practical. For instance, it only takes a person maybe
two or three minutes to read our 400 words with relatively good amount of comprehension
going on. We think that it’s pretty replicable. On our website, howglobalwarmingworks.org,
even though we really haven’t had much chance to promote it, we’ve had about 140,000 page
views, looking at our website and our videos. When you look at what other people have written
about it, I mean, some of the pieces that have been written about our stuff, and it’s
for solely about our work, gets 100,000 page views. I calculate that maybe close to a million
have looked at our information involving the statistics or probably a little more, particularly,
the mechanism. We also have five different lengths of video,
so people who don’t have the time to spend five minutes looking at our longest video,
which we might send to, say, a middle school teacher, let’s say, “Do you have a crazy uncle
that only has time to look at cat videos? You can send him the 52-second video and see
if that floats his boat.” One reason that the mechanism is compelling
is because there’s no alternative theory. I mean, when you think about creation, there
was an alternative theory to evolution. I mean, we have this book. It says how in six
days, this is the mechanism of our planet rising in the universe and so forth. There’s
not really a stasis theory, that is that there are not really many people who are saying,
“This is why our planet has to stay in the same tiny temperature bin forever,” or to
effectively negate the idea that greenhouse gases are absorbing infrared light that is
being radiated off the earth, and we have this sort of asymmetry of light that causes
this basically leaky one-way valve. There really isn’t an alternative mechanism. Once
you know the mechanism, it’s not like deniers can come up with this other one that effectively
combats it. Let’s say you are a denier, and you’re trying
to minimize the danger of greenhouse gases. You’ll focus on what a small proportion of
our atmosphere is actually comprised of greenhouse gases. That’s sort of missing the point, because
when you’re looking at a tall column of air that goes miles and miles into space, you
don’t need that many of them to capture an individual photon. That’s why nine out of
ten of them don’t get shot off into space. I call that one-tenth the goldilocks tithing.
The sort of biblical notion that we need to give back ten percent of our photons to space
because if that ten percent window narrows more toward nine percent, then we’re going
to get too hot. I think what you can do is you negate the
people who are saying that the amount of greenhouse gases is so small that we shouldn’t worry
about that. You could say, “Do you feel that way about arsenic also? Would you drink something
that has that number of arsenic molecules mixed in water?” I’m not sure if that would
be a danger with arsenic, but I’ll bet it would be. Even if not, you could find something
like plutonium. That wouldn’t definitely be the case. For each particular element that a denier
comes up with, there can be a targeted response to that. That’s one of the things that we’re
sort of moving toward in our website, howglobalwarmingworks.org. We’re trying to develop some FAQs slowly that
will—some people can click on it and say, “Well, if you think it’s the solar cycles
that account for global warming, click here.” I think that’s one of the difficulties that
you don’t want to introduce misconceptions to people. If they already hold them, then
you can address them because what we know from memory research is that you don’t want
to tell people things that are wrong because five years later, who knows that they’re going
to remember the one thing or the other. More often, people say that Obama is not a
Muslim. More often they’re associating Muslim and Obama. So in ten years, who knows that
they’ll think, “Yes, Obama. He was our first Muslim president.” What we want is to have a set of representatives
in our governments that cannot deny global warming. That is, even in the United States,
as wild and woolly as it is, you can’t find a single representative or senator who says
that the Earth is flat. They would be laughed off the stage in any debate, and they’d lose
the election. We do, in fact, have representatives and senators that will claim that global warming
is a hoax. What we need is the population, in perhaps
even a grassroots way, to understand so much about global warming that they realize that
someone who would assert that in a debate is a crackpot and they won’t be elected. Then
we can move more toward the questions of, “Well, how dangerous is it? How fast is it
happening? What can we do about it? How much are we willing to spend to change that?” One of the subtle things that we found in
one of our studies was that we were trying very hard, and this was in an 11th grade chemistry
classroom, middle way through high school, kind of. We were giving them a little bit
of a curriculum that mostly worked, but there is one way in which we weren’t as effective
as we might have been. That is that it was almost statistically significant that some
of the students thought that global warming was natural. The reason is that they were employing kind
of a broken syllogism, because we told them that the greenhouse effect is natural, and
indeed it’s been around for many, many millions of years and perhaps billion or more, but
that the global warming is an unnatural addition to that greenhouse effect, that is there is—this
amount of greenhouse effect that was predating human evolution, but we’ve been adding this
much and therefore it’s too much. In the end, some of them remembered that the greenhouse
effect was natural. They knew that global warming was an extra greenhouse effect, so
they inferred that it also is natural. You have to be very careful with the way you
discuss it. I think that’s one of the nice things about research is you can find out
things that are just close enough to being cognitively similar that people can make incorrect
inferences about them. I guess one of the reasons we termed it “wisdom
deficit” is because I think knowledge deficit is—it’s got some negative connotations.
For one thing, in the realm of education, it often got even more negative connotations
probably in climate science. I think the difference is that wisdom, I think,
should actually be about practical knowledge and the utility of that knowledge not just
information. I think the knowledge deficit sort of suggests that people just don’t know
enough, which is certainly part of the lack of wisdom, but also it’s the sense of how
that knowledge is actionable. For instance, in real life, we might know
a lot of things, but they don’t make sense. They’re not coherently pieced together. We
wouldn’t know necessarily how to act on them. Whereas I think if you understand enough about
climate change, then you can actually move legislators and rulers into action. You can
think about what particularly would be useful for you to do rather than more sort of an
inert knowledge or information that one might regurgitate. For instance in misinformation, often what
people are given are, say, statistics that might be misleading or information that’s
cherry-picked in such a way that sort of suggests that the truth of the matter is some are different
than it really is in terms of the science. I think part of the wisdom one needs is to
be able to analyze those sorts of bits of agnotology or misinformation and say, “So,
they chose April of this particular year because it’s the only month that there is more sea
ice in 1999 than there was in 1940,” or something like that. I think the wisdom is also part of critical
reasoning in that it allows you to disconfirm things that may not be accurate by knowing
how to poke them. Sometimes it’s by reasoning to extremes and say, “Well, by that measure,
we would all be covered in ice right now,” or, “By that measure, there’d be a beach on
the arctic.” It’s sort of that kind of BS detection in some respects. We have found a particular niche in our group
with respect to closing the wisdom deficit. We’ve come up with two different ways that
we think is probably useful, perhaps most useful in terms of bang per buck. For instance,
it turns out in our research that basically zero percent of people know the mechanism
of global warming. If you ask them what’s the physical-chemical mechanism by which the
Earth is purportedly heating up, people draw a blank. They may be able to recognize parts
of it, but they’re really not good at generating it. One of the things we thought we’d do is just
explain what the mechanism is. We’ve done that in 400 words. Now, we have some videos
on our website, which is howglobalwarmingworks.org, so people can very quickly sort of get a sense
of how it is that climate scientists would explain why the Earth is warming up. That’s
one way that I think you can help people’s wisdom reduce that deficit is by using a proper
understanding of a mechanism as sort of a tiebreaker. The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve used
some statistics. In this case, we call them our seven representative statistics. Sometimes
informally we’ve called them saintly statistics. Generally, they’re statistics that are meant
to indicate relatively quickly to people some of the effects of global warming that really
seem quite apt and salient. The third thing we’ve been working on lately
are just sort of graphs that show that the temperature of the Earth has been increasing. What I’ve got here are two graphs. One of
them is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, adjusted for inflation. The other one is the
Earth’s surface temperature according to data that we got from NASA. What we’ve done is
we’ve averaged them to take out sort of the sawtooth kind of nature of them. You’re looking
at 16-year averages. Each datum aggregates for 16 years. I’ve asked the three people
in the room who are interviewing me which one they think is the Dow Jones Industrial
Average and which one is the temperature. Right. Well, it turns out that the top one
actually is temperature. One thing I should point out is that I asked this of 35 participants
who are really quite financially sophisticated. Only 16 out of the 35 chose the correct one,
so it was non-significantly less than zero. The notion is like if you look at these, and
they’re clearly going up like we ask people: “Do you think these graphs are going up or
going down? Are they flat?” They look at me like, “Duh. Of course they’re going up.” Now
I’d say, “Well, one of these is the temperature graph and one of them is Dow Jones. I mean,
at that point, how many people could deny that the temperature is going up? That’s why
we think this is a good chance for being the third leg of our tripod in addition to the
mechanism and the seven statistics. We’re hoping that this is compelling to folks.
It does show a little bit of a plateau. Actually if you look at the graph more closely and
do moving average, you can—it’s a little easier to tell because there’s actually like
this little almost sine wave-looking thing that indicates when the stock market took
quite a tumble, which was really around 1965 to 1981 or so. You don’t always win in the stock market,
as it turns out when you adjust for inflation, but the—actually, it turns out that if you
do a 60-year moving average of a temperature, then it is completely monotonic. It goes up.
Every successive average in year, it goes higher and higher and higher. It just looks
like a jet plane taking off, basically. Whereas in a 16-year moving average as we have there,
then I think every year from 1974 on is monotonic, so that every successive averaged year is
higher than the one before it, which I think is pretty compelling. I think all three of those—I sort of describe
it as our tripod of interventions that help people understand what’s going on with global
warming. I think that those three legs of the tripod are pretty good at helping folks
gain enough wisdom to overcome those sort of misinformation or agnotology that they
may be getting from other sources. We found the zero polarization. By that, I
should sort of describe what we mean by polarization. It turns out that many people use it sort
of informally in the way that— like in the United States, Democrats and Republicans kind
of a sort where Democrats find global warming both more plausible and more scary. They have
greater concern than Republicans, so that at minimal level of asymmetry among Liberals
and Conservatives, that’s pretty clear. Then there is another sort of level of polarization
where by which you might generate an intervention for someone, and you find slightly differential
effects between Liberals and Conservatives, but they’re both changed in the direction
that one would expect. With our mechanisms, we’d expect both Liberals and Conservatives
to increase their acceptance of global warning, which they do. The third level of polarization which is sometimes
purported to occur in social psychological situations, is when—some information sort
of differentially affects Liberals and Conservatives where you find perhaps Liberals being more
compelled by some of our information, but Conservatives are less compelled. In fact,
they’re so much less compelled that they actually have this sort of propaganda sort of sensation
that they’re being gamed somehow and somehow they’re being worked over. Purportedly, if they were polarized at that
level, then they’d accept global warming even less than they did before you even gave them
the information. We don’t find that. We find that our information both in terms of mechanism
and with our seven representative statistics increases acceptance of both Liberals than
Conservatives. We don’t find polarization in that more classical
sense that was sort of spawned by Lord, Ross and Lepper. Although frankly, they didn’t
find polarization quite the way they—it’s been recast over the years. One of the things they did, for instance,
in that paper was they excluded all the middle people. They just looked at folks at the extremes.
They found that indeed, I believe it was a death penalty case, they did find that when
you gave people information, that the folks kind of had a sense that there is a bit of
propaganda in it, which was true. I mean, they basically jury rigged their interventions
to some degree. It was relatively light on evidence. It was also clearly written in a,
well, kind of a rhetorical way as a newspaper article, but with a bend. People can tell
when they’re reading something. This is from Fox News versus CBS or CNN or something like
that, but they never actually tested to see if the people in the middle were polarized. In fact, a past graduate student did his dissertation
with me. He basically ran a similar experiment even with death penalty, and we didn’t find
polarization either when we gave them, for instance, statistics or other information
about the death penalty. I think polarization is actually rather rare even for people in
that tradition of Lord, Ross and Lepper. We also make it very clear to our participants
that we’re really giving them honest information that there are no deceptions involved. We’d
say, “Look, you can share these statistics with your family. Tonight, you can go home
and tell your kids about this mechanism. There are no deceptions involved.” I think that’s part of it. Whereas in a classical
social psychological experiment, if you’ve got a 19-year old psych major, they have a
sense that what you’re getting might not be God’s honest truth, as they say. We’re finding that Conservatives are compelled
by it as well. Now, I imagine that there’s some limit to that. If we just looked at the
very tail of the distribution, like people that are employed by fossil fuel company and
are married to a Republican senator or something like that, it’s going to be harder and harder.
I forget the particular source in the 30s said it’s very hard to get someone to believe
something, or very hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends
on them not understanding it. Generally, we find a great deal of receptivity and relatively
few people that we get comments from that are denying it. In fact, we get more criticism actually from
people who accept global warming, but want us to tweak just a particular way we deal
with the physics involved to—into a way that might be more palatable for their background
and such. We’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of the response. The other thing I might say regarding convincing
people is that it doesn’t even matter that much to us if people go to our site and don’t
remember that specific set of constraints regarding the nature of the mechanism of global
warming. What I like in it, too, is when people are talking about or thinking about the Pythagorean
Theorem. If I ask you right now to prove the Pythagorean Theorem, if you’re like me, it’ll
take you a little while. There was this one crystal moment undoubtedly
in your background when you were in the geometry or a course like that and you saw this proof,
maybe multiple proofs, and they were elegant and you understood them. In that beautiful
moment, you became a believer in the Pythagorean Theorem in a way that even though you can’t
regenerate it at a moment’s notice, it’s part of you. We hope that the effect will be about our
mechanisms and our statistics is that even a month later or a year later when people
ask them in a bar, “So, what is that mechanism?” They’ll say, “Well, you know, I can’t remember
exactly, but it involved infrared light. If you look at the video, you’ll know.” That’s
what we’re hoping. Part of our desire is just to get seven billion
people to come to our website. They don’t even have to come back as long as they leave
and they accept global warming, presuming that that belief is warranted. We’re not so
concerned that in a posttest a year later, they’d get 100 percent correct on the subtleties
about whether or not greenhouse gases are the asymmetrical ones or the symmetrical molecules. I guess what we’ve done is we’ve sort of projected
onto one particular person, it’s written in the literature, suggesting that people aren’t
likely to change based upon information, whether it’s scientific information or whatnot. I
think that that just can’t be true. I mean, historically, it seems quite unlikely given
that people used to think that the Earth was flat or that the sun revolves around the Earth
or that smoking tobacco was benign for you. Doesn’t it seem that over time societies eventually
approximate toward information that is scientifically more normative? I still think that it’s an unfortunate political
move in some respects to suggest that, well, there’s not much we can do on the front of
changing people’s minds via information, because sometimes the suggestion is, well, you just
have to change their culture or wait for the culture to change, which would be terribly
long and certainly wasn’t necessary for some of these other changes, at least not in a
dramatic way. I think that in some respects, the idea that
people can’t change, which is sort of the kernel of stasis, contrast with a whole bunch
of data we have now that indicates that people do change when you give them the mechanism
or the seven statistics in all warrant that they’ll change even if they seed two functions
that are going up and they’re told the one is the temperature of the Earth and the other
one is the Dow Jones and they can’t tell which is which, and they believe that the Dow Jones
is going up. By inference they’d have to accept it. I think that the problem that stasis theorists—and
I think that by that I include a whole host of just plain folks who say, “People won’t
change. They just believe what they want to believe,” which is generally not true. I think
humans generally are really quite good at being empiricists. One sort of ribald example I have is that,
if you were to come home and find your partner in bed with someone else, you could go fully
rationalistic and not believe the data. You could say, “Well, for all I know, I’m sleeping
and this is a dream, or I’m hallucinating, or maybe I’m just a brain in a vat. Maybe
the mail carrier came here to change a light bulb, and through some odd chance they just
ended up in this situation.” No. Mostly like you’re going to accept it as a datum that
really changes your understanding about the fidelity of your partner. I think we tend to be empiricists when you
come down to it. The other thing that I think is unfortunate is the sort of suggestion that
there’s an either/or relationship, that is, that either people are compelled by science
information or they’re compelled by their culture when clearly it’s both of those. I
mean, it’s sort of like the “nature/nurture debate.” The nature/nurture debate I think is clearly
obviated as well. When you think about the extreme conditions of like a baby Einstein
sort of raised in a closet, that child wouldn’t be the Einstein that the world came to know.
Similarly, if you have a really severely brain damaged child, no matter what sort of tutoring
you could give that child with today’s technology and pedagogy, they’re never going to master
the upper echelons of quantum mechanics or things like that. I think really, we’re all—if you really
press people, I think most of them will agree that science information and culture are important.
They wouldn’t denigrate the important role of culture. In fact, I even have a little
theory that takes culture very much at the heart of it about why Americans, in particular,
but some other cultures don’t accept global warming. It’s not like I think that information
is going to be the only thing. I think in the end, it will be the thing that changes
people’s minds. Yes, this actually grew out of a line of research
that we’ve called “Numerically-Driven Inferencing.” What we found is that often, a single number
can change one’s perception of an entire configuration of other beliefs regarding particular realm.
Some of the most striking numbers that we’ve used in the United States are the abortion
rate or the legal immigration rate. People are often, in order of magnitude, off—sometimes
orders, multiple orders of magnitude off in their estimation of how often it is that a
woman will engage in a surgical abortion or the legal immigration rate when you put it
in terms like the current population of the United States. People are off by so much,
sometimes like 300,000 off. We’re not talking about bumpkins. I mean, some of my colleagues
in mathematics cognition or mathematical education have the most bizarrely distant answers from
the truth, from the fact of the matter. When people see that the contrast between
what they anticipate and what they see is evidentially true when we give them the actual
number, it causes them to have this cascade of inferences. They very quickly change their
understanding about the realm, whether it’s abortion or immigration. To give you an example from the abortion debate,
one of the things that we asked is: For every one million babies that are born, how many
legal abortions take place in that period of time? Basically the time it takes for a
million babies to pop out of mothers, how many legal abortions take place? It turns out that some people just say one.
There’s like one abortion for every one million live births. The median estimate usually comes
in around 5,000 or 10,000, but the actual number is roughly almost 300,000. You’re surprised
right there. What happens is people have to accommodate in their mental structure how
they could think it was one or 5,000 or 10,000. On average it’s about 60 times higher than
people anticipate. For any given realm, generally I think that
within five numbers, you can get a sense of what’s going on in that particular issue parametrically.
For instance, the abortion number often causes people to think, “Wow, Americans just aren’t
responsible enough with their birth control,” Indeed it turns out that birth control isn’t
perfect. I think five percent of women on the pill still get pregnant in a given year. In the end, it turns out that almost one out
of every two pregnancies is not planned for. Then almost one out of two pregnancies that’s
not planned for gets aborted. It kind of gives you a sense of what I believe is going on
with our statistics for global warming as well. One of our statistics is the increase
in methane, which is a pretty dangerous greenhouse gas since the dawn of the industrial age to
today. Well, let’s say that you’re dealing with someone
who denies global warming. They’ll say, “Well, gee. I think that if anything, methane has
probably gone up like two percent, but I’ll bet it’s gone down five percent.” What would
they do if you told them, “Well, actually, it turns out it’s increased over 150 percent.
We’re getting there tripling the amount of methane that we had in the year 1750.” Well, it’s hard for them to accommodate that,
if they truly do believe that methane is a greenhouse gas and that gases are somehow
involved. It sort of kicks out that potential leg that suggests that: “Well, maybe global
warming is occurring, but it’s negligible.” It’s what I call a parameterization problem
that, “Yes, it’s happening, but Earth is so vast. Our Gaia can absorb any amount of greenhouse
gases it needs. It’ll be sunk into the ocean, or somehow the Earth will self-right itself
at an appropriate level.” If you think that methane is only going up by two percent and
you find out it’s getting there tripling, then you have to sort of reconfigure your
understanding of the situation. Similarly, if you think that the Earth’s ice
has been relatively stable and you find out that it’s dramatically dropping, then it can
be—it can violate your homeostasis and cause you to go through sort of a Piagetian accommodation
rather than assimilation. You have to go through a conceptual change. We’re not talking about
small, incremental cognitive changes, but rather a re-centering, a restructuring in
sort of Gestalt psychological terms. We found empirically in study after study
that the greater the distance between what you would predict a number to be in the feedback
number, the more you are likely to change in terms of your concepts about that and also
your preferences. Usually, what we do is we look at policies, what you would prefer a
number to be divided by what you understand the number to be. You might think that if things are okay, that
ratio is one because you’re sort of status quo, but if what you find out to be true is
vastly different than what you think it ought to be, then people will actually change their
policy. They’ll think that something that was just fine should be increased or decreased,
or vice versa that something they thought really need to be changed is just fine. We find that in the abortion debate, people
end up caring a lot more about abortion after we give them our surprising statistic; whereas
in immigration, people care a lot less because that number is the opposite of alarming. Not
necessarily that it should be, but that’s the way it’s interpreted. Definitely, we find
that the greater the distance between what one expects a number to be and what it turns
out to be. You might imagine because like one of the
most benign numbers we ask is, how much sleep does someone get during a day? It turns out
it’s like 6.9 hours in the United States. The most common guess is seven hours. Those
.1 hours isn’t going to dramatically change what you think about in terms of when we should
turn the TV off or stop looking at screens and get better sleep. The magnitude of how
far you’re off really does matter unless it’s something that you think you have no clue
about anyway, like how far we are from Pluto at this very moment. If it’s a hundred million
or 20 billion, for a lot of people, that’s basically, “No, I couldn’t tell.” One thing that actually a number of Americans
find compelling is we say, “In 1850, there approximately 150 glaciers in our Glacier
National Park. Now, there are this many.” It turns out there are only 25. People have
that sense like, “Wow. 5/6 of all the glaciers in the park that’s named after glaciers that
they can tell pretty soon it’s going to be Glacierless National Park. There was a sense
of regret and sadness that we’re hoping, we’ll, at least, cause people to think about changing
things so that that doesn’t happen or is retarded. The misleading statistics are ones that you
would have found in fossil fuel websites. In fact, some of them are actually inspired
by Mobil’s website when it was denying climate change. When one of my first doctoral students
was working on environmental cognition, he found this Mobil website that was basically
trying to fill the viewers’ minds with misleading information. For instance, one of the elements
were, “Did you know that”—they would have you believe that water is a greenhouse gas.
“How could water be bad for you?” Of course, the truth of the matter is that
even water is—although it’s fine in some numbers, too much water is bad for you. You
can actually die by drinking too much water, let alone if a 1,000-pound block of ice fell
in your head. It kind of depends. It’s like Aspirin. One Aspirin is fine, but a bottle
of it is not. Again, the parameterization is important. One of the classic cherry-picked numbers was
pointing out that there was a relatively plateau-ish period from 1940 to 1975 in terms of the Earth’s
mean surface temperature. I’m still not 100 percent sure why that appears to be the case,
whether it’s that we weren’t getting great data from parts of the planet where we don’t
have probes like the Arctic, Antarctic, and parts of Africa, or if it’s because we’re
not putting probes down in the Marianas Trench, like deep ocean and so forth. For one reason
or another, there is this apparent plateau, 1940 to 1975, given the extant data. One of the things we do is we cherry-pick
numbers there, and we actually find two points where the temperature of the Earth seems like
it’s dropped minus two degrees—sorry, minus .2 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, that’s an
extremely tiny amount especially when you think of temperature in the Kelvin scale.
You’re talking about a .2 out of 600-ish. Those sorts of things, I think, can be compelling.
Indeed when we combined—when we collated eight statistics of this sort of evil or misleading,
non-representative set, we found that it was indeed enough to cause people to doubt global
warming is occurring. In fact, it really decrease people’s confidence about their knowledge
about global warming. By using these cherry-picked statistics, I think that those folks that
are trying to cause some confusion about global warming, they can be successful because in
a relatively small number of statistics, we found that we could diminish our participants’
confidence by about 50 percent. It’s really quite striking. I think that’s sort of like the, “There’s
my partner in bed with the mail carrier,” kind of thing. It’s like, “Well, I thought
this was all true. Now, I’m seeing these things that suggest otherwise.” We didn’t find as much of a confidence change
in the representative statistics, but it’s partly because even people who accept that
climate change is happening are still surprised at how evident it is in terms of the effects.
I think there’s kind of a potential asymmetry there, where even if you’re surprised by statistics
that suggest global warming is occurring, that’s going to change your confidence a little
bit. Any surprise is going to drop your confidence in what you understand. If I told you that
actually the average American gets 1.6 hours of sleep, that should probably really change
your confidence in your understanding about sleep. “How could that be true? I’m sleeping way
too much. What are they doing? What are they putting in their Red Bull over there?” I think—you’d
probably have to get a reasonably random sample of saintly or evil statistics to really tell
if they’re kind of comparable in their effect. You might imagine that the people who are
going to be most changed are those that have completely drunk the Kool-Aid, as we say,
that either they totally accept global warming and you give them these misleading statistics,
or the people that think there’s zero chance that the Earth is even warming or has ever
warmed, and you show them these statistics. There’s much more room for people to move,
of course, if you’re not dealing with a ceiling effect or a floor effect. It’s not hard to
find misleading statistics of that sort. In fact, it was much easier for us to find
misleading statistics than saintly statistics partly because I don’t think that climatologists
have done a good enough job at generating a message that is short and concise that would
include these statistics or the mechanism or our graphs. That’s why I think the mechanism is so important
because when people are like yelling at each other, whether it’s through appeals to authority,
like in the United States, you might have Rush Limbaugh claiming that this is a joke,
or Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma: “It’s a hoax.” Then you might have like Rachel Maddow or
other people from the media who are saying, “Well, obviously, the planet is heating up.” If you really don’t have much of a sense of
the science, then you’re sort of cut between these two different authorities. I think that’s
where mechanism is most critical as a tiebreaker because once you could see how we must be
heating up by putting more and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I think that it allows
people to navigate between them. One of the contrasts that I engage in with respect to
this is that I’ll say, “Let’s say that you went to—” this isn’t a terribly politically
correct example, but let’s say that you went to a group of people, say, in the far reaches
of the Amazon in 1960 or something like that. This is a group of people who had never seen
Western technology. You try to explain with them, “Look, we have these things called toilet.
They’re really cool. They take your waste away.” Maybe it sounds plausible to some of them,
but the spiritual leader of the group says, “Don’t believe him. He’s lying to you. They
just want to get better trade, this sort of terms for our pelts.” What would you do in
that case? Let’s say you’re a member of the tribe. Here’s this foreigner who has these
interesting things, but here’s your spiritual leader. They’re saying it’s true. It’s not
true. One thing that one might do as an explorer
is to go to a riverbank and take a stick and draw into the mud, “Well, this is what a toilet
looks like. We have this tank of water up here. We have a bowl of water down here. We’ve
got pipes. Water comes in here. Water leaves there with the nutty bits, the less unpleasant
stuff.” Then, you know, if you’re a tribes person, you might think, “Well, you know,
that actually sounds plausible. I could see how that would work.” If you still don’t believe
it, maybe the explorer can call down to Recife and have someone hike up this little model
of a toilet. “Look, this is kind of how it works.” Eventually, that mechanism will cause people
to change their minds. I think that generally, in most of the controversies that people discuss,
or most of the potential controversies in science, mechanism really doesn’t matter.
If I told you about super conductivity or super fluidity, you might think, “Well, it
sounds okay,” because there’s no one on TV of saying, “Don’t believe—those people would
have you believe that super conductivity can occur or super fluidity or quantum tunneling
or something like that. They’re lying to you.” It’s only when there’s a dispute that really
the mechanism comes in the tiebreaker. Then if there were a dispute, then you’d have to
say, “Well, this is exactly how super fluidity works,” and you’d have to explain it. It turns
out that most people don’t know how to explain a whole bunch of things. I’ve asked a number of people lately if they
could explain why the Earth is spherical. Many people just draw a blank. You’d think
that’s like one of the main tenets we know. We know that the Earth is round. It’s spherical,
and yet, “Well, why is that the case? Why aren’t we a cube? Why aren’t we a tetrahedron?
What is it that makes us a sphere?” Virtually, no one I’ve asked has ever really been asked
that question as to account for that knowledge that we take as so central. Well, it’s probably a really important question
back in the 1600s or 1450s or something like that, but now, it’s just something we take
for granted. Since there is no other side, we don’t have to know to mechanism of that.
It’s really only things like evolution and global warming where the mechanism can really
come in as a tiebreaker. That’s why I think that our explanation of the mechanism makes
it very salient. It makes it what I call round world evident. I would indicate that the basic mechanism
of global warming is well understood. In fact, I’ll read 35 words. “Earth transforms sunlight’s
visible light energy into infrared light energy, which leaves Earth slowly because it is absorbed
by greenhouse gases. When people produce greenhouse gases, energy leaves Earth even more slowly
raising Earth’s temperature.” Those 35 words are enough to get at least
a gist of the mechanism. I would suggest that there’s virtually no dispute about that. There
is some dispute about, again, the parameterization that is: How fast are we heating up? How dangerous
will it be for us to heat up? Then the question of what we should do about it is still a little
bit unclear. I mean, we have many options if we know what we could do. It’s just a question
of how much of that is palatable and economically the most feasible. One of the things I try to get across to people
is that I actually think we already have the solution to climate change. That is, I’ve
seen some analyses that suggest that we spend about a trillion dollars a year as a species
subsidizing fossil fuel in terms of hidden subsidies and so forth. If we took only about
half of that per year, we could convert the entire planet to solar panels, let alone wind
power, which is even cheaper. What we’re really lacking is the political will, so that people
who are making money now are not the ones making money, or they’ll have to convert how
they make money if they’re going to make money in a newer economy with a more sustainable
economic system. Much of it depends on what you’re calling a subsidy. Actually, scholars
on this campus have suggested that somewhere between 800 billion and 1.2 trillion dollars
a year. I think it’s reasonably good. When I was speaking to a Norwegian oil executive,
energy executive, he was saying that we can convert now if we want to. That it’s really
just the problem of people who are used to making money that don’t want to stop that.
I mean, if you’re Exxon or you’re Chevron and you think you have a certain—a number
of trillions of dollars of fossil fuels underground, you are not going to be happy by saying, “Let’s
just forget about all that stuff. Those assets actually are meaningless, so we’re going to
just start doing wind power and solar now.” You can imagine the motivation for people
to not change, especially if they think they have these assets that they want to reap,
and they’re being told that perhaps that’s not such a good idea. I think that the main thing is that we can
fix this. I think that’s really important because some studies have shown, even on this
campus by Feinberg and WIller, I think, that if you just tell people about the problems
of global warming without suggesting solutions, then people will turn off because they sort
of have a learned helplessness response. I guess in my elevator pitch I’d say, people
should really learn the mechanism and the data, whether it’s the statistics or the graphs,
and that we can fix this. We should fix it. If we really care about our kids, our grandkids,
or even if you don’t have kids, if you care about mountains or fish or trees or even the
sort of a sense of aesthetics, we should change this. Every person should look into their
future and think about when they’re near the end of their life, when they’re 90, are they
going to look back and feel badly that they didn’t do more when they could have. That’s
what motivates me. I want to do stuff now so that I’m not near my deathbed and saying,
“You know, if I just done a little bit more of that or something anyway.” Well, I’ve always been interested in sort
of cognition about science. Even when I was an undergraduate, I was interviewing physicists
about various physical phenomena. I have an undergraduate major in microbiology. My first
publications were actually in applied physics and cryogenics and such. I took a lot of chemistry
and physics and biology. I’m very much a scientist even more than I am a cognitive scientist
or a psychologist. I love the methodology and the justifications and epistemology of
science. I sort of have been looking at scientific
reasoning in a number of ways, especially explanatory coherence, how people come to
grips with a large configuration of evidence and hypotheses and competitions between bits
of theory and such. That’s what you have even in the abortion debate or in the immigration
debate. Basically you’ve got this large complex of competing hypotheses with evidence. Also, I’ve been interested in how people deal
with numbers. I’ve actually taught here on campus to journalists trying to get them to
use numbers in a better way and doing better analytics. The particular hook into global
warming was actually from evolution when I started to ponder why it is that Americans,
among most peer nations, were least likely to accept evolution. I realized that a lot
of it had to do with sort of religiousness and nationalism. Then I found empirically
that there’s a positive correlation between people who accept evolution and global warming.
That made me think, “Well, maybe some of the same analysis should be applied to global
warming, ” That’s one of the reasons why I started looking at it. It’s more interesting to me in terms of science
cognition than evolution because for, say, the average farmer maybe in Kansas or something
like that, it really doesn’t matter so much if you accept evolution. I mean, it could
be that you deny it, but you can still raise hogs and cattle and corn. In fact, you might
even be using genetically modified corn that’s based on evolutionary theory that you’re,
but it’s not going to change too much, I mean. There really isn’t a huge downside for people
ignoring evolution. If people ignore and deny global warming,
then that’s going to have really bad effects for future generations of humans and other
species. It seems to me that that’s why it’s perhaps the world’s biggest problem. Since
I study problem-solving, I figured I might as well be working on one of the bigger ones
than rather trivial ones. Interviewer: My final question is, how often
have your ears bled due to you listening and reading so much on this topic? Michael: That was a phrase I used? That’s
great. Well, I think in particular, when our ears were most close to bleeding was when
we were developing the 400 words that explained the mechanism. I used that phrase often with
respect to that because what we would do is—well, first, whenever I engage in a new analysis
of a controversy, whether it’s abortion or immigration or evolution, I like to write
down and write like two relatively short essays about why it’s happening or it’s not happening;
or it’s good or it’s not acceptable. In this case, I found out that I really couldn’t explain
the mechanism of global warming to my satisfaction. I realized I’d probably only get like a B
plus. I would be in the zero of 270 San Diegans that we interviewed because I wouldn’t have
gotten even a good basic 35-word explanation. One of the things that I found out when I
was trying to lay out for myself the mechanism of global warming is that I would have been
one of those 270 San Diegans that didn’t really know it at a sufficient level, at the 35-word
level that I would call even basic. I did a little bit of research, and then I
wrote the rest of the explanation, including the asymmetry between visible and infrared
light. I thought, “Well, I wonder how many people would know this.” I asked around and
then I thought, “I should write this up for others.” We actually went to a physical chemist here
on campus name Ron Cohen, Ronald Cohen. He’s an excellent atmospheric chemist. We were
involved in a grant proposal a while so I knew him. I said, “Ron, how does this read?”
Like you might expect from a lot of climate scientists, “Well, this got to change.” I
said, “Okay.” I’m taking notes. Then I go back and I change it. I tried to put it into just plain people’s
talk. I brought it back to him, and he said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “Okay. Okay.”
I went back and changed it. I did this in collaboration with a couple other people:
Lloyd Goldwasser and Daniel Reinholz. Finally, I went back to Ron. I said, “What about now?”
He’s like, “Yes, that’s basically it.” I think what’s interesting is that most climate
scientists can’t find the sort of simple elements in explaining global warming. It’s sort of
like the paradox of the expert that we often find in cognition that is—I was a much better
instructor of skiing when I was a relative novice because I could remember what it was
like for me not to know which way is downhill. It’s harder and harder sometimes to explain
simple mechanisms when you’ve got more fancy ways of talking about it. If you look at our 400 words, you won’t find
a phrase like “radiative forcing,” or you won’t even find “albedo” because studies of
cognition like psycholinguistics indicate that as much as 50 percent of the processing
time of a sentence, the variance of that can be swallowed up by using novel words. I figured
better to use relative simple words that people can get through and understand and really
climb on to than try to show how fancy one is by using these, as we used to say, “50-cent
words.” I think that was really one of the ways in
which we are working so hard our ears bled because we’re trying to find a way that would
be succinct and interpretable. In fact, in our 400 words, we have a summary and a shorter
summary, so the actual main content that is not summarized is probably closer to like
200 words and 300 words. You can really get a sense of it in that. I think that’s a difficulty. That is, many
people, if you would ask a geneticist or a molecular biologist or someone else to explain
evolution, you’d hear a lot of fancy words. I think one of the things that you want to
get across to the public is a way in which they can understand it because you’re really
trying to inform, not so much try to dazzle them. Often, the most eloquent, elegant things that
you can portray can be gotten across with relatively simple language, unless the concepts
really warrant more. Interviewer: Have you got a robust server
then? Michael: Well, it’s robust enough so far anyway. Interviewer: Seven billion? Michael: Yes, but you never know. If we get
too political, there might be a problem with the people who’ve been hacking Sony and whatnot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *