National Geographic : 2015 Mar
Age of Disbelief 45 industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; they’re apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to—some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions. In the U.S., climate change somehow has be- come a litmus test that identifies you as belong- ing to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking, People like us be- lieve this. People like that do not believe this. For a hierarchical individualist, Kahan says, it’s not irrational to reject established climate science: Accepting it wouldn’t change the world, but it might get him thrown out of his tribe. “ Take a barber in a rural town in South Caroli- na,” Kahan has written. “Is it a good idea for him to implore his customers to sign a petition urging Congress to take action on climate change? No. If he does, he will find himself out of a job, just as his former congressman, Bob Inglis, did when he himself proposed such action.” Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt. “People still haveaneedtofitin,andthatneedtofitinisso strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.” Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for climate skeptics and doubters of all kinds to find their own information and ex- perts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions—elite universities, en- cyclopedias, major news organizations, even National Geographic—served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democ- ratized information, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, it has made it possible to live in a “filter bubble” that lets in only the infor- mation with which you already agree. How to penetrate the bubble? How to con- vert climate skeptics? Throwing more facts at them doesn’t help. Liz Neeley, who helps train scientists to be better communicators at an or- ganization called Compass, says that people need to hear from believers they can trust, who share their fundamental values. She has person- al experience with this. Her father is a climate change skeptic and gets most of his information on the issue from conservative media. In exas- peration she finally confronted him: “Do you believe them or me?” She told him she believes the scientists who research climate change and knows many of them personally. “If you think I’m wrong,” she said, “then you’re telling me that you don’t trust me.” Her father’s stance on the issue softened. But it wasn’t the facts that did it. If you’re a rationalist, there’s something a little dispiriting about all this. In Kahan’s descrip- tions of how we decide what to believe, what we decide sometimes sounds almost incidental. Those of us in the science-communication busi- ness are as tribal as anyone else, he told me. We believe in scientific ideas not because we have truly evaluated all the evidence but because we feel an affinity for the scientific community. When I mentioned to Kahan that I fully accept evolution, he said, “Believing in evolution is just SOURCE: PEW RESEARCH CENTER, 2014 of all Americans believe the Earth is warming because humans are burning fossil fuels.