I ended last week’s post on the topic of Confirmation Bias* with these questions:
After all, who among us wants to be wrong about important matters on which we’ve staked no small amount of credibility?
But what if being wrong about those important matters winds up being the least of our problems?
It’s human nature to seek out information, evidence, opinions, etc which support positions we’ve taken on a wide variety of topics. Contentious political and social issues provide glaring examples of this from both the left and right sides of the various debates. Climate change is certainly one of the more noteworthy subjects.
So is peak oil. I’m of the clear opinion that our future energy needs are not going to be based on an endless, forever abundant, affordable, easily accessible fossil fuel supply. I’m not alone, of course. There is an equally vocal, and more prominent contingent on the other side of this debate, claiming we peak oil proponents are nothing more than doom-and-gloom messengers who’ve been consistently wrong in predictions.
That’s the starting point.
The conflicts arise in part because of what one relies upon to support his or her position. In some instances, there are actual facts in dispute [some shaded to suit one’s inclinations, of course]. But in too many other instances—peak oil and climate change among them—one side has a clear tendency to not just restrict the facts relied upon to a select and duly-massaged few, they also completely ignore a more substantial and substantive body of evidence.
Offering statements with an assortment of qualifiers [“if”; “possible”; “could”; “potential”, etc] may offer those proponents some assurances that they are essentially correct. But to ignore an entire body of evidence contradicting—or least casting some reasonable doubt—on their staked positions calls into question motivations for disseminating partial truths.
Someone benefits when there’s a deliberate failure to present both sides of issues in dispute. Rarely is it the public seeking information from their preferred sources.
Close behind in the tactics of choice is to either attempt to distract with irrelevancies [past predictions made based on evidence then available does not then make future predictions invalid, especially when considering how often both sides have demonstrated less than stellar prediction skills], or intentionally confuse the public with phony straw man arguments. Relying on an assertion by a fringe spokesperson as then being the foundational point for all positions offered by the opposing side is clever, but who benefits and who does not?
Credible peak oil proponents regularly acknowledge the boon offered by tight oil/fracking production in recent years, while also pointing out the many evidentiary considerations casting considerable doubt on how much longer we can count on that option [“not very” is the answer]. Those opposed to the concept of peak oil will offer their phony “running out of oil” argument as the final say in whether or not to believe peak oil advocates, while managing to address almost none of the facts raised which support our concerns for the future supply.
It is a characteristic trait of the conservative personality that they are generally averse to ambiguity, seeking closure on issues as soon as possible. They have much less interest in debating the fine points—not always such a bad thing! But on matters of great importance, simplistic debate strategies carry a host of risks when too many facts and considerations are ignored in favor of focusing on one’s primary belief.
As Robert Altemeyer observed with more than a bit of sarcasm, in his study on the conservative/authoritarian personality:
[A]uthoritarian followers may really mean it when they say no discoveries or facts could change their beliefs about the important things in life….
For them, one sound bite cancels the other, and there really is no difference between a widely-confirmed fact and a speculation, between fifty studies and one.
If the purpose of engaging in a debate over important topics affecting many is to actually discuss the important considerations, the benefits of that narrower approach benefit few. Recognition of that fact and a willingness to consider that the “opposition” actually has a number of valid concerns, legitimate factual evidence, and an honest intent to share important information with a public unaware of the issues would go a long way to having more rational conversations.
More importantly, more of us would benefit from open and honest debate about all of the relevant issues, not just a few cherry-picked one whose motivations are clearly designed to skirt the “open and honest debate” approach.
Good to have some hope.
~ My Photo: Motif # 1, Rockport MA – 09.22.13
* Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or believe information that confirms the personal values and beliefs they already hold, rather than allowing their beliefs to be changed by new information.
We face a choice going forward. There’s a kind of false dichotomy, a false choice that we’re being presented between policies on the left or policies on the right. It’s not left or right, it’s forward or backward. It’s a choice between investing in the future, leaving a better future for the next generation just like parents and grandparents did for us, or ignoring these hard choices and sentencing the next generation to a lower standard of living, to fewer opportunities, and a future that we could do better by. Michael Brownlee
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