Why we disagree but where to go from here?

Our class had a very interesting set of lectures the week before last. Given by Heiko Roehl from the German Development Agency (the GIZ), we were introduced to a number of knowledge and organizational learning concepts. It touched upon a lot of the things that I have been thinking about recently, like the nature of truth, why it is that people – even intelligent ones – can disagree so vehemently about such a wide range of issues and how it is that we as individuals can come to make more of an effort towards understanding each other.

Something that really crystallized all of this rather well was a wee diagram explaining a concept called ‘Relevance Systems’. This theory or way of thinking about individual beliefs and knowledge can help us to understand why and how it is that we can come to have such radically different views of the world. This struck me powerfully because I have been trying for a while to get a better idea of why it is that people disagree about climate change. This helped me to understand the why a bit better, but I’m still not sure if it helps to form any solutions. Time will tell.

The Model

a) To start off with we have our set of beliefs. Our beliefs about reality are constructed from our experiences and the environment in which we grew up. Our parents might have instilled in us a belief in God or the belief that it is the right thing to help others. We might have grown up in a Western society where we are taught the primacy of the individual. Some may have grown up in societies that teach the primacy of the community.

b) This model also recognises that our brains filter information. It has to do this to stay functional. If we were to process every bit of information that our senses detect then it would be overloaded. This happens to people with autism – their brains don’t filter out information and so their social systems can be said to be impaired. They perceive the world in a radically different way to non-autistic people and so act in a very different way too.

We often ignore information that we don’t want to hear or don’t believe in, although this is mainly an unconscious process. Information that rejects our beliefs is, on the whole, rejected. Information that supports them is absorbed. I was taught to value empirical science when growing up and thus perceive the world as spherical because the information I have acquired, I saw on TV scientists explaining why the earth is a sphere, supports or does not contradict my beliefs. Another child, perhaps an unfortunate that had medieval re-enactment enthusiasts for parents, might perceive the world as flat. The information that he gets, from his eyes, tells him that it is so. He might sometimes see on TV the earth referred to as a sphere but rejects this knowledge. Scientists are just phony wizards, or so his parents keep telling him. We both ‘see’ the same information but our belief systems interact with this in different ways to produce different perceptions of the world from us.

c) Information is never absorbed independently though. We combine it with our judgement. Our judgement is also strongly influenced by our early experiences. Being raised in a family where cleanliness is very important then shapes your judgement – and you will judge cleanliness as a good thing. For example, when you go to a foreign country your impression of it may be formed by its cleanliness. For someone else it might be the quality of food that determines their judgement of the country.  Therefore it is our judgement, “I judge cleanliness as important” plus the information we receive, “I read in the newspaper that French people wash the least often” that constructs our knowledge, “France is a bad country”.


d) It is thus our beliefs, judgement and the information we filter that form our perceptions of the world. The lines flowing from the belief circle out towards the world represent this ‘relevance system’ that determines how we perceive reality. Never in its completeness and never without some truth.

Link to Climate Change

This was a highly simplified explanation partly so I could explain it but also so that the model is understood. It’s not a perfect model. Perhaps some people see more of reality than others because they are more intelligent or have access to more information. The beliefs we grow up with can all too often be rebelled against. But I hope the framework is there and makes sense, so let’s apply it to the climate change example.

I often read a report or blog decrying climate change as a left-wing conspiracy. As someone who believes in climate change my initial reaction is always, “did no one ever tell these people that the Left couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery?”. I then look to see if there any flaws in the report, or I look up the authors on the internet to see if they have any connection to the oil industry – which they often do. Failing this I then consult ‘climate friendly’ websites to check the arguments of the sceptical report/blog. Most of the time I end up convinced that climate change is happening and that the sceptical blog is just another paranoid old man that needs to get out more. Even writing about it you can see that I’m quite unwilling to even realistically treat the subject impartially here – although that’s also to make it slightly more readable.

It’s easy to see how this can happen the other way around – with a sceptic and climate change. They read the latest IPCC report, find some errors in it or find information that some of the authors are also members of Greenpeace and their beliefs remain unaltered. They absorb the information, this clashes with their beliefs and they judge the information faulty, perhaps by finding additional information to support this. End result: beliefs unchanged. Exactly as in my example.

You can this set of examples on this very blog, on the post below. Justin gives one argument and backs it up with a web link. I dismiss his link and then provide a link of my own. He then does the same and so on and so on, and we go in circles forever.

It’s quite easy to see this, fancy diagram or no. What’s now harder is how to change this situation. How can I and Justin come to some sort of understanding? Does one of us have to give up our beliefs in order to do this? That won’t happen easily – it would take a massive event or crises to do that. Perhaps tomorrow morning I see in The Daily Telegraph photos of Rajendra Pachauri[i] playfully wiggling his rump from under the duvet of his bed whilst Jim Hansen[ii] rubs money into his back, both cackling at the world’s stupidity for buying that rubbish about the earth warming.

In our class we were also taught that engaging in dialogue is important to understand how our systems of relevance overlap and thus where our disagreements stem from. This may sound like wishy-washy-hippy crap at first glance but I feel it’s something very important to consider – especially with regards to climate change. For so long ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ have been debating, for decades, and it’s getting no one anywhere as the debate gets uglier. Death threats against climate scientists, the hacking and distortion of personal emails – very vicious name calling by Greens. We’re at a dead end and perhaps dialogue is the first step towards a solution. We were introduced to a number of dialogue tools to resolve conflicts, which I may blog about some time in the future.

[i] Rajendra Pachauri is the chairperson of the IPCC

[ii] James Hansen is head of the NASA institute for Space Studies

Many thanks to Julia Koch, Jonathan Niessen and Aurange Kreamsicle for helping me to articulate this a lot, lot better. It is still a work in progress.


The most important environmental article written in a mainstream newspaper…

…was written by Sunny Hundal in last weeks Guardian. I won’t post a link, because the Guardian doesn’t need the juice, but just type, ‘The climate change message is not being heard. Here’s how to change tack”‘ into google.

Here Sunny fluently explains what the green movement has been doing wrong about getting across the message to act on climate change. I’ve read one or two other blog posts a year or two back that said basically the same thing, but was extremely pleased to see that this message had made it onto a large newspaper in the UK.

If you’ve been following the climate change issue then you’ll have noticed that success hasn’t exactly been forthcoming. There are some massive obstacles in the way of progress. Big oil, big business, a system that won’t tolerate anything other than an increase in GDP per capita. There’s another one too – the environmental movement.

Look at one example. How many marchers were there in London just before the COP 15 at Copenhagen 2009? It was 50,000. 400,000 marched against the fox hunting ban in 2002. There’s a 7 year gap between the two, but it’s clear to see where the strength of public opinion truly lies when it comes to climate change, and other issues. To a city dweller such as me, that 400,000 could protest against a ban on a medieval practice of animal hunting seems absurd, but clearly this issue was extremely important to the people who live in the countryside and others.

So why doesn’t climate change – supposedly a threat to global prosperity and security – provoke the same sort of feeling? One reason is the environmental movement itself, besides the other challenges mentioned, and Mr. Hundal presents a few reasons why:

1) Doom-mongering – we don’t concentrate on solutions, we just bang on about how the world’s going to end. A crass generalisation about environmentalists from me, but the point would ring true for many I believe. Let’s be more positive and offer solutions rather than catastrophe.

2) Anti-capitalist – as Mr. Hundal rightly points out, we’ve been preaching to the converted.    It’s left-wing people that are largely behind the message to act on clmate change, but we’re losing the right, who are just as, if not even more, important than the left. Activists with dreadlocks threatening to smash capitalism isn’t the best way to win supporters from the right-leaning people.

3) Failure to address the economic argument – the right-wing tabloids continue to insist that green projects will cost the economy. Whether you believe in economic growth or not is irrelevant. Stopping climate change is one of the most important challenges the world faces – along with eradicating hunger and poverty. To do that there needs to be a broad concensus, or at the very least, a strong majority amongst the population on the need to act. We’re not there yet, and we should have been there years ago. Greens need to show how economic and environmental improvement can go hand in hand. Referring to arguments such as Potocnik’s here is a good example of this http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/29/eu-environmental-resources-new-recession (ok I said I wouldn’t link to the guardian but never mind)

The UK government is largely committed, at least in legislation, to slashing it’s consmption of emissions. This was achieved largely because of the dedicated work of a number of brave and industrious activists and NGOs. But we can go further and we need to, as do our friends in the US and Canada. We would all do well to learn from Mr. Hundal’s article.