Monbiot on the unpersuadables and the revenge of the humanities students

George Monbiot has a nice article on “the unpersuadables” here.  I have been thinking about this a lot. Is there any point in public outreach, in blogging, etc?  Has everybody already made up their mind regardless of what the rationale science says?  Randy Olson thinks not. Neither does Juan cole. I change my mind on this daily. Ove says he once changed someones mind using the raw power of facts, something I have never experienced, at least outside of university teaching.

By George Monbiot

from here

There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us. The new study by the Met Office, which paints an even grimmer picture than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(1), will do nothing to change this view.

The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. Writing recently for the Telegraph, the columnist Gerald Warner dismissed scientists as “white-coated prima donnas and narcissists … pointy-heads in lab coats [who] have reassumed the role of mad cranks … The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the 19th century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening to them any more.”(2)

Views like this can be explained partly as the revenge of the humanities students. There is scarcely an editor or executive in any major media company – and precious few journalists – with a science degree, yet everyone knows that the anoraks are taking over the world. But the problem is compounded by complexity. Arthur C Clarke remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”(3).

Popular mythology – from Faust through Frankenstein to Dr No – casts scientists as sinister schemers, harnessing the dark arts to further their diabolical powers. Sometimes this isn’t far from the truth.

There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January(7). It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd.” Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for example, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire.” Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted.”

These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor: race, gender, class, income, education or personality type. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.”(8)

Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.

2 thoughts on “Monbiot on the unpersuadables and the revenge of the humanities students

  1. Nice piece. But I think there are a couple of other things in the mix. One is that opinion forming is not static – one can change the opinions of the home crowd through a combination of education/persuasion and continued pointing to the obvious (ie facts). That is how it has been done historically. The change can be quite sudden – once a critical mass of opinion in the crowd shifts, the rest shifts with it. It also does not seem to be a question of numbers, but of whose opinion has more respect.

    The best example I can point to is the change in mass opinion in the US and Europe towards war in the 30s. In 33 the Oxford Union famously declared that in no circumstances would it fight for King and Country and isolationism rulled in the US – by 38 the same people were prepared to go to war rather than accept the alternatives.

    I also don’t think education in the humanities is to blame. History or archeology or paleontology are just as much about evidence and reasoning as science. Blame media studies.

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