Getting Past the Argument

By Keith Kloor | May 25, 2011 1:01 pm

This essay by Bill McKibben is getting a lot of eyeballs. Originally published yesterday in The Washington Post (where it was among the most widely read articles for part of the day), it has since been reproduced in Salon and The Huffington Post.  At the Washington Post, the piece thus far has generated over 1200 comments, more than 700 tweets, and been recommended nearly 10,000 times via Facebook.

McKibben’s piece is also the subject of an informal email dialogue between a group of journalists and science writers, which I am part of. One response by David Ropeik, author of a new book called, How risky is it really?: Why our fears don’t always match the facts, has jumped out at me. With his permission, Ropeik has given me permission to reproduce his email below.

McKibben’s writing, and this discussion, seem to be about winning “THE ARGUMENT”  ““ is climate change real or not. Forgive me, but engaging in the argument is unproductive  intellectualizing that is more likely to entrench opposing positions than persuade or advance mitigation or adaptation very much. THE ARGUMENT, while ostensibly waged with facts, is not really about the facts. The facts are just lifeless bits of data, meaningless ones and zeros until we run them through the software of our subjective interpretations. Knowing how that software works, and why it leads different people to different views of the same facts, is where solutions can be found.

The good news is that we know a lot about how the software of our risk perception works, about the underlying social/cultural identities and the affective/psychological risk perception characteristics and the subconscious mental heuristics and biases, that all help shape our views, our judgments, our opinions, about climate change or anything.  The bad news is that we don’t apply this wisdom ““ our rich knowledge of how people perceive and respond to risk – to the challenge of getting the world to respond to the threat of climate change.

We study and argue the science and hard facts of this issue (and many risks) as though some truth will emerge to which everyone will agree, but we fail, at our peril, to recognize how naïve (and slightly arrogant) this expectation is. We are victims of what Andy Revkin has called our “˜Inconvenient Mind’, so proud of our fabulous cognitive Cartesian powers of reason that we deny all we’ve learned about how limited our ability to coldly, objectively, dispassionately reason actually is. And so we argue, and argue, and…funny thing…the day after a seemingly influential OpEd, or an Academy Award winning documentary film, not much is different than the day before.

If I may humbly suggest, what we ought to do is move on, get beyond the polarized no progress-trench warfare of the intellectual argument battleground, and apply our understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological motivations (and the limitations on the human capacity to be perfectly cognitively rational about anything) that are the real reasons for THE ARGUMENT. That is more likely to bring us, sooner, to solutions.

*****

Your thoughts?

  • http://cluebyfour.com PDA

    My first thought is “what is he talking about?”

    I don’t, personally, “know a lot about how the software of our risk perception works, about the underlying social/cultural identities and the affective/psychological risk perception characteristics and the subconscious mental heuristics and biases, that all help shape our views, our judgments, our opinions, about climate change or anything,” and quite frankly it sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo.

    But if there’s something practical here, if someone really has “rich knowledge of how people perceive and respond to risk,” I’m all for using that knowledge to improve the dialogue. Does Mr. Ropeik – or anyone – have some tangible examples of how that might be achieved?

  • Mary

    I agree on trying to argue with data. This happens over and over: vaccines, GMOs, evolution, stem cells…yatta yatta. I’ve been on every sciency battle on the intertubz I think. No amount of data is enough, no weight of evidence matters in these discussions.
    But I have to agree with PDA: give me a handle on how this works, specifically, and with concrete examples of success, please.

  • Dean

    I don’t think that McKibben is writing about winning an argument. He is talking about people seeing only a few inches in front of themselves instead of the full picture, and connecting the dots.

  • Eric

    I think I know what he is getting at, but, of course, he doesn’t actually tell us how to “apply our understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological motivations … to bring us, sooner, to solutions.” He merely implores us to do so. But he is right: a widely read op-ed by Bill McKibben on the evidence for global warming is only going to further entrench prior opinions among both environmentalists and conservatives. And that’s not of much use to anyone.

     

  • Marlowe Johnson

    I tend to agree that without any useful examples it’s hard to see how Ropeik’s observations about the  risk perception  translate into more effective dialogue — and ultimately policies on climate change.  While I don’t disagree at all with his observations, I don’t see how this changes the nature of the policy challenge.

  • Tom Gray

    Why not treat people with respect. Why not understand that people can have different beliefs and values than the climate sciecne establishment and not be stupid ir venal or both.Why not stop looking for the magic bullet and deal honestly and acknowledge the limitations of the science in this area.

    One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists so that they will not alienate even more people than are alienated now. Now that would be good for a start. Maybe the risk management message  should be used on them to teach them how their past behavior has been very detrimental to a considered dealing with the issue. maybe the education program should be a crash course directed at these self-identified saviors of the envirnment

  • RickA

    Bill McKibben could have written the same thing in the 70′s, but about a series of cold events, and cautioned that we should not let our thoughts stray to the impending ice age.

    People will try to take events and look for patterns where none exist.

    That is why people believe in lucky streaks (or unlucky streaks) – which actually do not exist.

    They are simply the pattern matching portion of our brain gone wild.

    AGW could be causing droughts and flooding.

    Or it could just be the middle of an interglacial.

    We don’t have enough data yet to actually tell.

    It is warmer than 150 years ago – that is a fact.

    But what is causing that warming is not an open and shut case.

    Two papers just recently published (I believe) validate the theory (scorned by some climate scientists) that low sun activity, leading to a low heliosphere or lower magnetic field in the solar system, allow cosmic rays to strike Earth in more abundance, leading to cloud formation which appears to have a net cooling effect on the Earth.

    That has nothing to do with CO2, carbon black, methane or any other human caused climate change.

    We still have a lot to learn about our climate, and what causes it to change on the century and longer time scale.

    Why has sea level rise decelerated?

    Why has ocean heat content leveled off?

    Why is the warming so far behind the climate model projections?

  • Menth

    My problem with this piece is that the gist of what Mr. Ropeik is saying in my view is “OF COURSE Bill McKibben is correct in what he is saying in his op-ed, but it won’t matter because you can throw these facts at people as much as the day is long and nobody will give a hoot because their brains are broken.”

    Well, when you make hysterical attribution claims in an op-ed and opportunistically try and capitalize on the tragic destruction of a town to sanctimoniously demand that citizens repent and give in to the true word of Bill you can be sure that, YES, in fact people will be skeptical of your claims. It’s not cause their brains are broken either.
    Here’s what I believe is the proper interpretation of that op-ed:
    Bill McKibbon is a shrill, alienated fool with too much money, who does his cause more harm than good and should just stay on his farm.

  • kdk33

    McKibben is another example of:  CO2 causes bad weather, of all types, in a way that is dangerous, but not measurable, but is obvious… to enlightened believers.

    Why would anybody doubt.

  • http://www.dropeik.com david ropeik

    To everyone.
    A thoughtful conversation, especially those of you who wonder about specifically how to invoke what I suggest. forgive me for not getting into those details in what was just a note to Keith. May I direct you to a chunk of Chapter 5 from my book, which is on line, FREE, at http://www.dropeik.com, which gets into more detail about solutions. But basically Tom Gray in comment 6 hits it on the head. Respect the other person. Not necessarily their view of the facts, but the underlying psychological reasons they feel that way. And to PDA in comment one, Chapter 3 of my books is also online, free, and offers one chunk of the rich knowledge research has developed about the psychology of the perception of risk.

  • Jeff Norris

    To counteract the manipulations of social forces that are constantly trying to control what you believe, just apply a little skepticism to the information you get about
    any risk. Who is the source? What might that source’s financial or political motivationbe? How fair does the source seem to be with the facts? How open-minded is the source
    about alternative points of view? (Remember, you have to be a little questioning even ofsources with which you agree.) A dose of healthy skepticism about the honesty and
    validity of information on contentious risk issues will probably get you closer to the sort of independent thinking that should help you end up the healthiest.
      Excellent advice for both sides Mr. Ropeik but I don’t think it will break the trench lines.  Ideological world views are in play, the hint of heresy as Keith would acknowledge is not to be tolerated.

  • Menth

    I second the comment @11. The chapter excerpt provided in my opinion is a very good and concise summary of what should be in anybody’s cognitive tool kit.  We more often than not do not seek the truth but only to confirm our various personal, cultural, political biases. This has been expounded on at length here and other places.  It’s also important to remember that knowledge of this alone is not a cure.

    “…what we ought to do is move on, get beyond the polarized no progress-trench warfare of the intellectual argument battleground, and apply our understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological motivations (and the limitations on the human capacity to be perfectly cognitively rational about anything) that are the real reasons for THE ARGUMENT.”


    I agree with this but I think for different reasons than David. As the social sciences are almost entirely populated by liberals it shouldn’t be surprising that they are adept at pathologizing and scrutinizing the biases of conservatives but not themselves. Conservatives would do the same if the roles were reversed. As I have said countless times before it goes without saying that there are skeptics that are ideologically invested in being biased against any evidence of significant negative externalities of the free market system; so too is it true that there are many who are ideologically invested in the idea that free market, industrial society is a horrible, cruel failure. To me there is just as much grounds for examining the blinding biases of the latter group as the first and I would submit Mr. McKibben’s ridiculous op-ed as exhibit A.

  • Hannah

    “Brain gym” in the morning, eh? Interesting, wonder how it would work if we took the “climate change part” of it out for a moment?  Let me try to run this just for the fun of it. It is a bit crude but hey ho, bear with me :o ) Imagine that person A receives an anonymous message (email) asking him to do something to the detriment of person B. Person A sees the message as a threat to himself and his family (Background: at university person A’s friend was raped when accepting a lift from a stranger). The police do not think that it is a threat (Background: they know that most malicious emails are harmless and this one doesn’t ring any alarm bells with them). Person B thinks that the message might be threat but thinks that the down side, the detriment to himself, far outweighs the risk to person A (Background: person B has had to fight for everything in life). Two other people see the message.  One initially thinks that it might a threat but then sees it as “merely” malicious and racially motivated (Background: This person is a lawyer and sees things in legal terms i.e. what can you get a judgment for). The other person thinks that there is no threat and that really person A is just using the message as a means to obtain something entirely different and therefore finds it convenient to read a non-existing threat into the message (Background: this person used to have a mother who would get rid of employees that she didn’t like by accusing them of theft). So we have at least 5 people, all looking at the same facts, namely the words of the message, coming to 5 entirely different conclusions as to “risk”. These are all genuinely held beliefs. They simply interpret the same facts differently based on their experiences. Because experiences are “coded” into us it is impossible to convince us that we are not being rational, because we are being rational based on what we know, which might be different to what another person know. In other words “wisdom” is often just a fancy name for our own experiences. Person A, genuinely believing that there is a threat, obviously need to act accordingly even if this means acting “unfairly” to person B as his experience tells him that it is not worth taking a risk but so does the police (refusing to help) as they need to priorities their resources, person B quite rightly doesn’t think that he should suffer due to no fault of his own, the lawyer will bring only the claims that he think he can succeeded with in court regardless of “fairness” and the last person will think that the blame is actually with person A and that everybody else is really having the wrong discussion. Clearly, nobody will be able to convince any of the others that he is right, so nobody will win the argument, and it doesn’t really matter if there is a real threat or not. Person A will be doing what he has to do and so will the rest. All there is really left to do is to work out a solution (settlement/compensation) where you accept that all have different “truths” but still move forward. In my biz we say that “a good settlement is not one where all parties go away happy (that is impossible), a good settlement is one where everybody walk away only slightly dissatisfied” :o )
     

  • Pascvaks

    “Getting Past THE Argument..”?  Never happen!  But it’s a very worthy cause.
    Nope!  Climate sells!  Every so often, more so recently, weather sells too.  It’s out of our hands.  It’s a MEDIA thing. 

  • Edim

    “is climate change real or not”

    Climate change is very real and obvious. Sceptics are the ones pointing it and the warmists deny it. You have to deny climate change (to some extent) to believe in (A)CO2GW.

  • Gaythia

    The report that made it into my local (Loveland Reporter-Herald) newspaper, was not the one by Bill McKibben, but rather a McClatchy-Tribune piece to which they gave the headline: “What’s with the extreme weather?  Scientists say it’s global warming.”.   The article itself was more balanced than that, but the headline had already set the tone. I am sure that many of my co-subscribers, also listened to a report run on Neil Cavuto’s Fox program yesterday.  I only heard this because I was trapped in an auto repair shop waiting room at the time.  In this piece, Cavuto interviewed weather forecaster Joe Bastardi, who (in my opinion) mixed a mostly legitimate criticism of mixing weather with climate, with a highly opinionated argument that the earth was actually experiencing global cooling instead.  Bastardi’s arguement seemed to hinge on the temperature of the troposphere between 15,000 and 25,000 feet, facts about which I am sure, none of us in the auto repair place were qualified to evaluate at that time. Or, for the most part, interested in hearing more detail about later.

    The emotional hook here, I think, isn’t so much about risk as it is a reaction against egghead scientists who think that they are so smart, as if it is scientists who are holding them back in low paying dead end jobs, and not Wall Street Banksters.

    However, I also believe that the oil and gas lobby does an effective job of trying to convince people that anything that might hinder their industry will hurt their jobs.  And the fact of the matter is, oil and gas work is some of the best paying (but frequently short term) work available to blue collar workers in this region.

    In the repair shop environment, it was immediately sensed that I was on the other side of what David Ropeik describes as “The Argument”.  A place in which I am the only female and others have access to heavy metal tools is hardly a great setting for starting trench warfare.  On the other hand, I am not sure about intellectual arugments.

    At any rate, my approach was to laughingly acknowledge our differences and equivocate a bit: “Since tornadoes form when a warm moist air mass (from the Gulf) clashes with colder air coming down from the north, we can be on both sides of the front (warmer/colder) on this.  And then try to plant a seed of doubt regarding another argument presented on Fox having to do with snow.  It is well known, (as my auto repair colleagues acknowledged) that in Colorado, the heaviest, wettest snows  are in March and April, and that January is much much colder, but usual dry.

    So where does that put me in terms of intellectual facts and “The Argument”?
     

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/ Bart Verheggen

    Excellent thoughts indeed, though I also agree with comments 1-5 that to give those thoughts hands and feet is what’s needed.

    Also, even though I agree with Ropeik’s argument, I don’t think it contradicts McKibben’s piece, which wasn’t about dry facts at all, but actually was an ironic take on how to look at things (in isolation vs in connection to each other). It seems geared more towards how to perceive data (ie the kinds of things that Ropeik says we should focus more on) than on data themselves.

    So:
    McKibben’s piece: Excellent
    Ropeik’s email: Excellent

    Btw, Didn’t Ropeik notice the irony in Tom Gray’s comment nr 6, calling for respect and then saying that scientists should be muzzled?

  • Susan Anderson

    Fascinating.  So climate scientists should be muzzled so a largely fact-free discussion can ensue, with fake skeptics reassuring themselves that they have the one true word?

    You wouldn’t do this with your car, your computer, your plumbing, or your health.  But when it comes to climate science, you’d prefer those who have given their lives and considerable intelligence to studying the material shut up and let all other interested parties, some of whom as we know are excessively wealthy, tend to promote their short-term self-interest, and have vast PR experience they are all too ready to employ dominate the discussion.

    As top whether there is agreement about the basic facts of climate change, I have a couple of recommendations; note who agrees on which side in the simple graphic provided:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm
    And since Bart Verheggen has weighed in, and he is nicer, more tolerant, and more knowledgeable than I am, take a look at this as well:

    http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/eric-wolff-areas-of-agreement-public-debate-about-climate-science/

    If you think American Idol style voting is going to solve this, I have a swamp in Florida I’d like to sell you.

  • Tom Scharf

    If you ask me, he got exactly what he asked for (too bad for him).
    Many people actually went and looked at the data as he suggested and found it lacking.  Before the Internet you had to trust authorities to interpret this data for you, now you can check it yourself with just a little extra effort.
    Long term trends on powerful hurricanes was amped up after Katrina.  Nobody is talking about that now.  Heat waves, record snow, etc.  This is shameless backwards opportunism.  Even if there was a trend, correlation != causation.
    Show…me…the…data.
    Powerful tornadoes show no trend. F0 tornadoes have increased. The increase in low power tornadoes is reportedly due to Doppler radar and better reporting.
    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2011/05/noaa-csi-on-record-tornado-outbreak.html
    It’s pretty easy to feed the media fear machine with climate propaganda.  The NOAA statement is ignored, meanwhile this guy’s innuendo is broadcast.  SSDD.

  • Tom Scharf

    @18
    So how’s that consensus argument working for you?  Have you found that evidence that you consulted with your lawyers on the FOI rejection yet?  Your own lawyers seem to disagree with you.    Wonder what the consensus is on this topic?  How about giving us a little transparency on this issue?

  • Tom Fuller

    #18, I don’t believe anyone is calling for climate scientists to be muzzled.

    1. Scientific publication, participation in associations, etc., is surely not being criticized by anyone here.
    2. Nor is the voicing of opinion on non-scientific issues such as policy preferences really being criticized.
    3. What is seen as abuse of privilege is when scientists say that their scientific training gives them insight into the best line of policy.
    4. What is perceived as egregious is when they assert that their understanding of science should trump other people’s understanding of other elements of policy-making.
    The consensus is not slow to criticize this when skeptics do it, inventing the phrase ‘going emeritus’ to help counter arguments from people ranging from Spencer to Plimer.
    Skeptics are happy to return the favor when speaking of James Hansen or Daniel Nepstad.
    I should think it is obvious that scientists should take better care in labelling their statements on policy issues, just as a matter of protecting the reputation of science in general, and am surprised that associations don’t have better and clearer guidelines regarding this.

    That we are having this particular discussion after Climategate, Hansen’s arrest and COP15 just shows how little is being learned by parties on both sides.

  • Lazar

    Tom Fuller #21
    “#18, I don’t believe anyone is calling for climate scientists to be muzzled.”
    Tom Gray #6
    “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists”

  • tom fuller

    well,i/guess ya got me, Lazar. i don’t agree with Mr. Gray’s idea, in any event.

  • Lazar

    Good!

  • Tom Gray

    Lazar — why didn’t you reproduce my full quote

    ===================
    “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists so that they will not alienate even more people than are alienated now. Now that would be good for a start. Maybe the risk management message  should be used on them to teach them how their past behavior has been very detrimental to a considered dealing with the issue. maybe the education program should be a crash course directed at these self-identified saviors of the environment”
    ====================

    And why didn’t you indicate that it was rhetorical
    And why didn’t you quote David Roepicks commentary on it

    =============
    But basically Tom Gray in comment 6 hits it on the head. Respect the other person. Not necessarily their view of the facts, but the underlying psychological reasons they feel that way.
    ==============
    Distorting someone’s words. Now that is a very good way to convince people.

  • Tom Gray

    My own 6 which has become something of a cause celebre here:’

    ==============
    Why not treat people with respect. Why not understand that people can have different beliefs and values than the climate sciecne establishment and not be stupid ir venal or both.Why not stop looking for the magic bullet and deal honestly and acknowledge the limitations of the science in this area
    =============

    I suggest that people be treated with respect. one good way to do that would be to not distort their words fro cheap advantage.  I find it very hard to be optimistic about the world’s response to AGW when this is the level of discourse around it.   How does anyone think that that they will change anyone’s mind with this level of discussion?

  • Lazar

    Tom Gray, you could start by explaining
    1) precisely what you meant by ‘rhetorical’
    2) why you think “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists” ‘is’ a ‘rhetorical’ statement
    3) where in the passage it clearly marks “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists” as ‘being’ a ‘rhetorical’ statement
    4) why “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists” ‘being’ a ‘rhetorical’ statement forces the conclusion that you did not mean that it would be one good suggestion to put a muzzle on all climate scientists
    5) precisely what you meant by “One good suggestion n would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists” other than one good suggestion would be to put a muzzle on all climate scientists

    5) what on earth David Roepick’s commentary (which I haven’t read) has to do with 2), 3), 4), 5), or anything else

  • Lazar

    “fro cheap advantage”
    why do you think that you can read my mind?
    I know my own motivation. I know that you don’t.
    Does assuming that I am acting “fro cheap advantage” agree with treating people with respect?
    Does it agree with David Ropeik’s commentary?,,,
    “But basically Tom Gray in comment 6 hits it on the head. Respect the other person. Not necessarily their view of the facts, but the underlying psychological reasons they feel that way.”

  • Tom Gray

    re 27

    Lazar
    Keep digging the hole deeper. You distorted my meaning and were called out on it. Now whom do you think will be convinced of the urgency to take action on the potentially grave problem of AGW if the discussion at the level of cheap debating tricks.
     

  • Lazar

    So you can’t/won’t explain how I “distorted” your meaning.
    What a surprise.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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