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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cognitive Conservatism and Climate Change Denial

Some call the human animal the rational animal, but I prefer to think of us as animals that rationalize. We don't generally start with empirical evidence, then formulate our beliefs accordingly. We start with what we want to believe, then find ways to justify those beliefs.

In her recent book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion, Barbara Hernnstein Smith discusses the human tendency toward "cognitive conservatism," which she defines as:
[P]eople’s tendency to retain their beliefs, intellectual as well as religious, in the face of what strike other people as conclusively refuting arguments or clearly disconfirming evidence.

When it comes to climate change, this cognitive conservatism has a huge financial upside. If you drill for oil for a living, you have great incentive not to believe in climate change, and to find justifications using pseudoscience, or to accuse others of using pseudoscience to support the existence of climate change caused by human activities.

Combine this willful ignorance with the statistic that 40% of Americans (and somewhat fewer Canadians) believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Earth is only 6 to 10 thousand years old*, and you have a pretty poor climate for rational debate.

kgb.com, the online answer service, plays this problem for laughs in their banned Super Bowl ad:




It's really no wonder that people have a hard time distinguishing between the concept of weather and the concept of climate.

*Reported by Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show on Earth.

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