Monday, December 05, 2011

Everything is deniable if you want it bad enough

I often read and blog about emerging research that investigates why people make less than optimal and less than rational decisions.  As I usually make sure to say, it isn’t that we are irrational, it is that we evolved over millennia and for most of that time it made sense to value speed and staying alive over making optimal rational perfect decisions.  Even now, I would usually rather be fast and alive than perfect and either dead or spending all day making each decision.

But sometimes, this can give us short term  benefits at the expense of the long term existence of our species.  For example, there is a general tendency not to believe in scientific findings that question our understanding of how the world works.  Galileo, Copernicus, Columbus, Darwin, and many others have experienced this directly.  If we have thought for thousands of years that earth is the center of the universe because G-d said so, it is hard to change our entire mindset – first to believe that earth revolves around the sun, then our solar system revolves around the galaxy, and the galaxy shoots through space because of a big explosion at the beginning of time. 

It is even worse when the scientific research forces us to change a behavior that we enjoy.  I like eating bread, so I am less likely to believe Dr. Atkins.  You like bacon, so you are more likely to believe him.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the evidence or our scientific intelligence or knowledge.  I don’t want to give up my SUV, take the time to recycle, or take shorter, colder showers.  So I don’t want to believe in human-induced climate change, polluting the ecosystem, or future water shortages.  If I don’t believe it, then I don’t have to give any of these things up.  This is called motivated reasoning and we usually don't even know we are doing it.

Why does this matter?  Well, we have to find better ways of explaining scientific findings to the public if we want to generate enough energy to make a difference in this world.  Instead of preaching to everyone to go buy a Prius (or turn the thermostat down and put on a sweater), we need to explain it differently.  Every time a new scientific finding that the public needs to know about is discovered, serious thought needs to be put into how to release that information. How to make it fit the mindset they already have and make the behavioral change seem small or even beneficial.

Scientists need to work closer with experts in public communication.  Perhaps scientists' raw data can go into the peer reviewed journals that the public never reads, but we need to make sure that by the time the media gets a hold of it, we have already decided how to frame it so that the public reacts in a way that is good for society.  I am not suggesting that we do anything dishonest or even misleading.  But let’s not be naïve either.

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