Reality has a well-known liberal bias – Stephen Colbert

[NOTE: This is the first in a subset of my ongoing series entitled Looking Left and Right (which began here; see Category sidebar for all links). This is about Peak Oil, but addresses the considerations and potential solutions from a different perspective than purely fact-based and/or he-said—she-said ones which too often dominate public discourse. With the caveat that I have NO professional expertise/training in psychology or its related fields, I’ll look at emotional and psychological “tricks” and traits we all use—Left, Right, and in-between—to bolster our beliefs and opinions as we do battle with our “opponents” in the increasingly polarized political forums which too-often dominate our culture.

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate
- Francis Bacon [courtesy of David McRaney]

As I observed in that first post:

We all act much the same way, ideologies notwithstanding. Human nature, I suppose. The more important questions: might we benefit from a bit of introspection before doing more of the same…? We obviously wouldn’t be making use of these psychological tricks of the trade if they didn’t provide us with benefits and gratifications. So is that it? Shrug our shoulders, admit that we are all guilty from time to time and then … nothing?
Might we consider the possibility of being ‘better’ than that? If we choose to solve what might appear at first blush to be overwhelming and even insoluble problems, we need more. We need more from our systems, more from our leaders, and more from ourselves.
There is a great deal at stake for all us, and we might all be better served understanding not just what we do in asserting and defending our beliefs, policies, and opinions, but why. Appreciating that might make a world of difference … literally!]

Recently [Part 3 of this Looking Left and Right series], I introduced the concept of “cultural cognition”, from the works of Dan M. Kahan, Yale University and Donald Barman – George Washington University [link to PDF download]. The authors’ introduction:

There is some phenomenon— other than the paucity or inaccessibility of scientific information—that shapes the distribution of factual beliefs about, and the existence of political conflict over, law and public policy. What is it?
The answer, we propose, is a set of processes we call cultural cognition. Essentially, cultural commitments are prior to factual beliefs on highly charged political issues….culture is prior to facts in the cognitive sense that what citizens believe about the empirical consequences of those policies derives from their cultural worldviews. Based on a variety of overlapping psychological mechanisms, individuals accept or reject empirical claims about the consequences of controversial polices based on their vision of a good society. [p. 148]

So here’s one Peak Oil-related problem:

Furthermore, in a democracy, a mandate for radical changes, particularly those that will in the short-term adversely impact the living standards of voters, requires the electorate to be already suffering from the condition that the government’s ‘cure’ is intended to alleviate. With regard to the energy sector, there is a lengthy lag between the adoption of a new policy and its implementation, due to the scale of the infrastructure and work required. If a crisis occurs in the energy sector, then it follows that a country will find it much more expensive to resolve, than if it had taken earlier measures to prevent it from happening in the first place. In other words, prevention is better than the cure….
Like climate change, peak oil and resource depletion in general runs into the human tendency to discount the future. While this worked admirably back when our problems occurred on a daily or at most seasonal basis, it is ill-suited to managing events that happen over the course of decades. [1]

If planning ahead makes sense, then this would appear to be one reasonable approach:

Clearly, you shouldn’t try to persuade your ideological opponents by citing threatening facts. Rather, if your goal is an honest give-and-take, you should demonstrate the existence of common ground and shared values before broaching anything controversial, and you should interact calmly and interpersonally. To throw emotion into the mix is to stoke automatic, moralistic, indignant responses. [2]

Hard to argue with the truth or rational approach of either observation, at least in an objective world. So how should one deal with the perspectives in opposition to Peak Oil or any planning other than “drill, baby, drill”—expressed in articles like this one by Jeffrey Folks?:

Everything from ‘peak oil’ to ‘no quick fix’ is a thinly disguised attempt at government takeover of the energy sector, something the left has plotted since at least the 1930s.

A likely knee-jerk reaction from those who understand the developing urgency of Peak Oil’s impact is admittedly unkind: “It’s not much more than laughably ignorant, paranoid nonsense, and it’s thus impossible to take either the comment or author seriously. After eighty years, you’d think the nefarious Left’s super-duper, double-secret plot would have either succeeded or those damn liberals would have given up.” So that’s settled!

A wild guess: this doesn’t make for much of a discussion of any kind, let alone a good-faith attempt to understand opposing perspectives and then make the effort to arrive at some mutually agreeable and ideally beneficial solutions to the problem at hand. Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends & Influence People strategy it is not.

So that option, while validating one’s own beliefs and ideology at the expense of some clueless, reality-challenged, tinfoil-hat-wearing “other”, doesn’t offer much to any of us. With the high stakes at hand, obviously another approach is called for.

But the seemingly logical alternative is quickly dismissed by Kahan and Barman:

If one starts with the intuitive but mistaken premise that public disagreement is an artifact of insufficient or insufficiently accessible scientific information, the obvious strategy for dispelling disagreement, and for promoting enlightened democratic decision-making, is to produce and disseminate sound information as widely as possible. But the phenomenon of cultural cognition implies that this strategy will be futile. [pp. 148-149].

So now what? Peak Oil (and climate change) are—to those of us who do accept the evidence and expert assessments—serious, fact-based realities which will soon enough impose some rather unpleasant, widespread, and irrevocable changes on how we live and work … all of us, even those on the Right who presently find almost nothing about either topic to be worth contemplating at all. That poses a dilemma (more than one, but let’s stick with this for the moment).

Almost no aspect of our personal, cultural, economic, industrial, or commercial lifestyles will not be affected in large or small measure by the impact of Peak Oil and/or climate change. We don’t treat that unpleasant expectation lightly, although I suspect that I’m not the only Peak Oil proponent who would prefer being wrong! Our beliefs and the facts we accept in support make for a beyond-reasonable-doubt convincing case—from where we sit. So whatever solutions/adaptations are needed will require on all-hands-on-deck approach, and soon.

We will need the insights and perspectives and experiences and expertise of all parties, and ideologies aren’t high on the checklist of criteria. We’ll need the expertise of business owners and investment advisors and bankers. (Would they prefer getting left behind as economic conditions change, or might having a say in, and possibilities for, continuing success be more appealing?) That’s not to say there shouldn’t be some recognition of cultural perspectives, but we will have to decide what works best across as many lifestyle categories as is possible.

The changes needed can’t be dictated solely by a Big Liberal Government-No Government Tea Party scorecard for the simple reason that the effects of Peak Oil and climate change will be beyond any challenge we’ve ever confronted. The manner in which we address the effects thus do not fit neatly into ideological boxes providing clear choices.

We must move beyond those limitations. As with most observations on the subject of Peak Oil, saying is so much easier than doing. The challenge is all the greater—if that’s possible—because from our perspective too many people without the means/opportunities to understand what’s at stake are being fed a steady diet of half-truths, misrepresentations, irrelevancies, nonsense, and in some cases outright lies. If you come to the table without understanding or even knowing the facts, it’s a wee bit more difficult to contribute and then leave with meaningful solutions in hand. Not exactly a major revelation….

So now what?

Because I found Mr. Folks’ arguments to be an ideal example of most elements of the “diet” mentioned above, I’ll expand on the topics of this Looking Left and Right subset in several follow-up posts over the next few Thursdays. The conclusions about cultural cognition offered by Mr. Kahan and Mr. Barman as they relate to the points raised in the piece by Mr. Folks will serve as the foundation.

Perhaps (I hope) we all might benefit from a different take. If nothing else, it should spark what I can only hope will be meaningful exchanges as we begin the long overdue process of trying to figure out what to do in the face of Peak Oil’s many challenges.

Until next time….


[1]; Is time running out? by Dr. Samuel Fenwick/ IFandP Research – 02.14.11
[2]; How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives by Chris Mooney – 03.20.12