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.


6 thoughts on “Why we disagree but where to go from here?

  1. This put me irresistibly in mind of Chris Mooney’s attempt to pathologise those who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change, rightly and comprehensively excoriated here http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/05/trust-me-i-speak-for-science.html. The post is long, but it touches on so much of what you propose here (though I think your argument is less obviously prejudicial) that I hope you will read it in full (as I hope you read all my links in full – they’re not attempts to win terrain in some turf war, they’re attempts to illuminate aspects of our discussion). It even contains an image that is conceivably a pictorial rendering of your graph, the fundamental flaw with which is the entirely uninterrogated notion of what constitutes ‘truth’, or ‘reality’, in the case of your graph. As climate resistance puts it “…truth is not a property of the material, ‘objective’ world; it is a judgement about statements, or beliefs. It does not exist ‘out there’.” And this is true of the nature of the concept whether or not access to it is, as you suggest here, partial (still not sure, by the way, how reality is divisible, even taking your/ Heiko Roehl’s definition of it)

    And no, the author is not in the pay of the ‘oil industry’, and neither are the custodians of the many excellent blogs by the likes of Anthony Watts, Matt Ridley, Steve McIntyre, William M. Briggs, Judith Curry, Donna Laframboise, A.W. Montford, and many others, that I follow, though once again it is instructive to note how you are simply incapable of advancing your argument without recourse to that slur. In the comment streams of those blogs, you will read dissent and disagreement aplenty, sometimes from AGW advocates who keep the tenor of their responses reasonable and whose contributions are very welcome. These are fairly well-established blogs – try them sometime. I might also point out that the tone of AGW websites of a similar (relative) stature, such as Skeptical Science, are far more congenial to ad hominem attacks and indisputably far less amenable to dissent. Indeed I’m confident enough in the median intelligence of my fellow human to be able to see, on average, on which side of the debate the tone is the most brittle, hotheaded and defensive.

    But to go back to the core of your post, which is an appeal for common ground between apparently irreconcilable ‘belief systems’. I wouldn’t characterise my position as a belief system – the positions I currently hold on this issue are not ones I’ve always had – they were developed in response to what I saw as a dangerous and divisive attempt to stifle debate and dissent by those who claimed ‘the science was settled’. In other words, a core principle of mine – that any attempt to suppress debate by powerful interests is instantaneously to be resisted – informed my response, but even that core principle was not always there – that in turn was a product of my engagement with the world. Elementary heuristics – the lived experience of us all as human beings – should be enough to tell anybody more sentient than a slug that somebody who says ‘the science is settled, and the debate is over, you big-oil shill of a denier, you’ has simply got something to hide, and fears debate because of what it might reveal about the fragility of their own case. We now know there was plenty to hide, of course – people who mistake their ideology for scientific objectivity always have something to hide. Their self-critical instincts become dulled too, when governments, the media, educational establishments and NGOs are all uncritically parroting their line. But I digress.

    If you continue to see the debate as a simplistic one between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’, then of course you will always be susceptible to graphs that redefine dissent as a pathological inability to confront reality: it’s the fault of those deniers for just not getting it. But (and this is really not the first time I’ve said this, so I’m forced again to believe that I’m typing these responses in vain) in addition to what I’ve already written about the elusive concept of truth. what we may term the climate change debate is not about whether it’s happening or not – it’s about asking questions like: Is the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 the same as society’s sensitivity to climate? What dangers for development and relieving poverty are posed by AGW-inspired economic policy? If climate change is not the massive threat we’re told repeatedly it is, why are we ransacking and demoting our more efficient forms of energy in favour of ones that, as things stand, are simply not good enough to replace them and cost a fortune? Even if it is, how much of a difference are the energy policies, currently being pursued at swingeing costs to taxpayers and industry, really going to make? People who make themselves feel better by namecalling others as deniers are consciously or unconsciously avoiding the important and complex questions, of which the above are just a tiny selection. And one can believe that climate change is an observable process and that man is affecting it – and still want to thrash these questions out.

    On the whole, though, I think the essential point you’re making is correct: bias certainly informs, to a degree, how people assemble their information about the world, and perhaps this becomes most apparent in contentious issues. But as I’ve tried to suggest, this bias is not an a priori constituent of an individual’s personality, but a take on the world they inhabit. and there’s nothing wrong with having a set of values, an informed response as a way of experiencing the external. The onus is thrown back on the individual to try to arrange these beliefs into a persuasive line of argument, and the process continues. This is much as one can hope for, I think: simply engage, and trust both one’s interlocutor/correspondent and anyone else who happens to be reading or listening in.

  2. Pingback: Guest Blog: Why we disagree: but where to go from here? « LeftCentral

  3. Hi Justin,

    I have absolutely no time to reply but I will once the semester break commences at the end of the month. In the meantime perhaps it would be helpful for you yourself to offer an explanation as to why it is me and you disagree so much about climate change?


  4. Hi Justin – sorry for the long delay and thanks for the link.

    Just to be clear I was not trying to pathologise climate sceptics. On the contrary I was trying to apply some lessons from class into the world of climate change. I am merely interested to know why climate change “believers” and “sceptics” hold such radically different views.
    It’s an interesting discussion about what truth is. I’m of the opinion that truth exists but that we can never truly discover it, only grasp the edges. If I have read your definition from climate resistance correctly, then you seem to be more of the constructivist school of thought? Again, something we’ll never agree on and perhaps that’s why the two sides will always disagree? Are all sceptics constructivists that do not believe in truth or the possibility to attain it? Are all believers of the opinion that truth does exist and that we can discover it? Of course it won’t be as simple as that but it’s interesting to think that there might be some explanatory causes along those lines. In fact I think I’ll do my masters thesis on this topic, should it be possible – so I must thank you, Justin, partly for the inspiration!

    “Is the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 the same as society’s sensitivity to climate? What dangers for development and relieving poverty are posed by AGW-inspired economic policy? If climate change is not the massive threat we’re told repeatedly it is, why are we ransacking and demoting our more efficient forms of energy in favour of ones that, as things stand, are simply not good enough to replace them and cost a fortune? Even if it is, how much of a difference are the energy policies, currently being pursued at swingeing costs to taxpayers and industry, really going to make?”

    And I would love to discuss those things Justin – the problem is is that there’s a very large lobby in the “anglo-saxon” world (I hate that term but it’s convenient) that is intent on distorting the scientific debate. We could discuss all those questions you’ve posed if scientists, policymakers and citizens didn’t have to spend so much time trying to explain to the public what climate change is and why it’s probably our fault. The denier industry has been doing a good job of confusing the public, just as it did with smoking and cancer for 20 years or so.

    For me climate change means three things – it’s probably happening, it’s probably because of us and it will probably be ‘bad’. I’d love to discuss the last one with you, but I’m not prepared to discuss the first two because that’s a matter for people who know what they’re talking about to discuss. You and I will never be able to do our own studies so we have to rely on what other people say. And until I’m shown a study that suggests climate change is probably not man-made or is probably not happening then I’m not going to waste time discussing a non-issue.

    I agree with a lot of your last paragraph except that bit about bias not being an a priori part of an individual’s personality. I was reading Drew Westen “The Political Brain” and according to studies he conducted it was pretty much found that in the world of politics at least, bias informs what the individual thinks regardless of fact or logic.

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