Why Won't They Listen?

Why don't people believe climate scientists that anthropomorphic global warming is real and a growing threat?

This question puzzling scientists comes as no surprise to social scientists. NPR's All Things Considered ran a recent story highlighting research that shows a belief in climate change hinges on a person's world view. From NPR's story:

"To social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, it's not surprising that two people can disagree so strongly over science. Braman is on the faculty at George Washington University and part of The Cultural Cognition Project, a group of scholars who study how cultural values shape public perceptions and policy beliefs.

" 'People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view,' Braman says."

The Cultural Cognition group ran a series of experiments among people whose cultural beliefs were labeled individualistic -- those who embrace new technology, authority and free enterprise -- and communitarian -- those who are suspicious of authority or of commerce and industry. In a series of experiments, both groups formed vastly different opinions when presented with the same scientific facts.

"It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information," Braman says.

It turns out that the messenger is also important. You don't send Al Gore to talk to climate skeptics; they won't be able to hear him with any sense of objectivity. To persuade the climate change discussion, scientists need to focus more on influencing the influencers in the skeptics' camp.

The broader implications go beyond climate science. Anyone watching the Health Care summit (as I did for 6 hours) could plainly see that the people sitting around the table were not convincing anyone to change their beliefs. Implacable, strained expressions -- all.

No one is immune to this. We all shape the world we live in by our particular belief systems. We are all resistant to changing our beliefs, even when confronted with evidence that's in direct conflict with them. Some of the most painful moments I've lived through came when I could no longer block a particular truth from penetrating my protective shield.

My own spiritual belief system involves constantly checking in to see whether what I am doing, saying or thinking is real or an illusion. It means I'm always striving to be open to change a long-held belief by paying careful attention to where I'm getting my information.

And it's likely to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

BarbD blogs at The Middle Way about things that capture her interest at midlife.

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