Thursday, September 09, 2010

consistency is not always a good thing

The psychological desire for consistency can lead to irrational shouting if not moderated by an internal censor which regularly checks other viewpoints and arguments. It also helps if we understand that what we think we know represents only a small fraction of what we could know.

I like alan kay's idea of the unsane, the mental state where our ideas don't fit reality, the map doesn't represent the territory. We like to think of ourselves as mostly "sane" and contrast that with a few "insane" personal moments or the more permanent state of a few unfortunates. But the "unsane" idea makes room for a different self perception. What if more often than not we are unsane? (our human condition "from space")

Legal Eagle: Climate change, scepticism and elitism
I’ve thought long and hard why people get so dogmatic on this issue. In my experience, it tends to generate “threads of doom” on blogs like few other issues (apart from Israel/Palestine or abortion). I find fervid “believers” of either extreme a little scary. When I first got interested in this topic, I visited a few blogs run by “climate change sceptics” and “climate change believers” and I was really freaked out. Basically, they just shouted at each other in a way that was not conducive to dialogue. I was scared to even contribute to either side.

I think people get so aggressive about the position they’ve taken on climate change because they have a desire to be consistent. In Influence at page 57, Robert Cialdini says:
A study done by a pair of Canadian psychologists uncovered something fascinating about people at the racetrack: Just after placing a bet, they are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down that bet. Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts; it’s the same horse, on the same track, in the same field; but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased. Although a bit puzzling at first glance, the reason for the dramatic change has to do do with a common weapon of social influence. Like the other weapons of influence, this one lies deep within us, directing our actions with quiet power. It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.
Once people have bet on a particular horse, they become convinced that the horse will win (whether it be the “sceptic” horse or the “believer” horse). But the fact of the matter is that neither position is certain. I think that many people on both sides could do with standing back a little and taking it a bit less personally...


Kev said...

Your posts on the climate debate have been enjoyable to read and have really given me a lot to think about. I was heavily betting on the "believer horse", but that was back when (even recently) people who bet on the "skeptic horse" were considered right-wing idiots (or worse).
And I really like today's post about humans being "unsane". Will have to read more about that.
But, all in all, as a single human being living at this point in time, I think what I want to do is try to stay informed, try to keep educating myself, keep enjoying myself without worrying about things I can't directly control, but to generally live lightly on the earth (reduce my consumption and busyness and stress), because that in itself is probably a good aim.

Bill Kerr said...

hi kev,

The link to alan kay's original paper is Our Human Condition "From Space" (pdf 8 pages). I think it's an outstanding article, well worth reading.

At Skeptical Science (link) I thought Pielke snr was rational, clear, articulate, patient, scientific, prepared to change his opinion if the data changed - but if you read the thread you will see that some there are really annoyed at him still because his opinions clash with the way they think the world ought to be.

Mark Miller said...

At Skeptical Science I thought Pielke snr was rational, clear, articulate, patient, scientific, prepared to change his opinion if the data changed - but if you read the thread you will see that some there are really annoyed at him still because his opinions clash with the way they think the world ought to be.

This reminds me of a quote from Carl Sagan, and I used to bring this up in AGW arguments. This is from the same interview I quoted in a comment to your other post on this:

"The thing about science is first of all it's after the way the Universe really is, and not what makes us feel good. And a lot of the competing doctrines [he refers to religions and superstitions here -- Mark] are after what feels good, and not what's true."

I note that he did not choose his words carefully here, because what he said implies that science is the source of truth. At least that's the way I read it. Science is after what is true, but there's an understanding that it will never completely reach *absolute* truth.

What he said there is really important, because, like you've seen, the AGW proponents insist that "science" is consistent with their **values**. Well, no, science is not about values, with the exception that certain experiments are considered off limits due to ethical considerations. As I tried to make the point to the proponents of AGW again and again, "Nature doesn't care what our opinions are."

I said often in the debates on this, "If we want to say that we want to make changes to our use of carbon-based fuels because of our values, we can say that in the political process. There's no need to bring science into it." The sense that I got was that our popular notions of science were being used as a political tool, as a way of shutting down debate on the issue. Science is generally seen as an authoritative source of "truth" in our society, and so there's some measure of respect given to it. This is a misconstruction of what science is about, but it's what maintains science's legitimacy to many people. That's a problem I see, because if "science" is "proved wrong" too many times, especially on big issues like this, I fear its legitimacy will wane.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

What you say here is more consistent with Pielke jnrs argument. For controversial issues like our standard of living science is not the final arbiter but our values are. That's the same as being clear that science does not usually determine what political action to take. It might in some clear cut or easy to solve cases (tornado heading your way, or the CFC issue where painless alternatives were available) but science does not determine the politics of controversial issues like global warming, stem cell research, genetically modification of food, etc. Those issues are informed by science but the final decision must be political.