Changeable weather and climate change

I have described previously how we can sometimes not see things that are there, whilst at other times we do see things that aren’t there. This may result from the physical or informational limitations of our senses, however often it is our expectations or beliefs that shape what we do or don’t see.

In fact, we can sometimes not “see” (not be aware of) something that is happening all around us, and a recent opinion article in New Scientist provides an excellent example of this. In it, Adam Corner from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University describes the ongoing debate (some might say full scale verbal trench warfare) over climate change (or global warming) and reflects on the impact that the recently published report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has had, or rather not had, on the thinking of those on either side of the debate.

His main point is that no amount of scientific evidence for man-made global warming will persuade climate change sceptics (“deniers”) that man-made global warming is real, nor inspire the general public to take collective action to reduce global warming.

Now, there are many factors that contribute to both climate change denial and to the apathy of the general public regarding global warming, including: vested interests, conformity (or “herd behaviour”), and the triumph of individual (“selfish”) interests over collective interests, something known as the tragedy of the commons. However, there are two related factors that Adam Corner’s article highlights and on which I’d like to focus in this article: the first is the different characteristics of our two thinking systems, System 1 and System 2, and the second is a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”.

Seeing the forest of the global climate for the trees of our local weather

Adam Corner writes: “How did the rational arguments of science and economics fail to win the day? There are many reasons, but an important one concerns human nature. We know that it is difficult to overcome the psychological distance between the concept of climate change – not here, not now – and people’s everyday lives.

In other words, the weather that we experience on any given day tells us very little or nothing at all about the overall picture of the global climate. As human beings without any technological aids, we aren’t able to see the global climate, average temperatures or long-term trends; we just don’t experience the world this way. Instead, we see weather.

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However, satellites and weather stations now provide us with the comprehensive, long-term perspective on the global climate that we lack in our everyday lives. Data collected from around the world, from many different sources, and compiled over time, paints a clear picture of rising levels of CO2 and a warming world. And climate science provides plenty of evidence to support a causal link whereby the latter is the result of the former; the IPCC is now 95% certain that human emissions of CO2 are the primary cause of rising average global temperatures over the past 60 years or more.

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However, even among those many people who accept the conclusion that the world is very likely to be getting hotter due to human CO2 emissions and that continued global warming is likely to have very serious consequences for people living all over the world in the decades and maybe also the centuries to come, particularly if we fail to take collective action to reduce CO2 emissions, the general response to this information is to carry on with daily life as normal, continuing to drive our cars, take holidays in foreign countries, buy non-essential (“luxury”) goods and so on, just as if the information was true, but somehow didn’t apply to us. Why is this?

The reason is that when we consider this mass of scientific evidence for climate change, we do so on a rational basis and the weighing up of this evidence and the drawing of conclusions based on it is thinking that is done by our logical, effortful, considered System 2.

Meanwhile, our automatic, associative, unconscious System 1 creates and maintains for us a story (a set of beliefs) about our daily lives. This is our personal story about who we are (hard working, loving, a mother, an academic, etc.), what we like or don’t like (dogs, holidays, science fiction movies, etc.), what groups we belong to (Democrats, Republicans, etc.), and so on.

This personal inner story is updated automatically and effortlessly by our System 1 and it is mostly or entirely based on our experiences in everyday life. And since what we experience in everyday life is everyday weather, our System 1 bases its story of our daily life on the weather that we experience; it doesn’t associate our daily activity with increasing average global temperatures since nothing in our daily experience allows it to make that association.

The acceptance by our logical System 2 that climate change is real has very little or no influence on the story maintained by our System 1. This is because System 1 is associative, not logical, and because it doesn’t change its story readily; doing so is hard work. Finally,  because so much of our daily life is driven by our System 1; our habits, our assumptions, our preferences, our biases; we just don’t change our behaviours, even if we agree with the concept of global warming in theory.

“It’s all a hoax!” or confirmation bias in action

Confirmation bias is a well-documented cognitive bias that was so named by the English psychologist Peter Wason in 1960, but which had been described anecdotally as early as the fifth century BC by Greek historian Thucydides. It is our tendency to pay attention to information that supports our existing beliefs, thereby confirming and reinforcing what we already believe, whilst ignoring information that either doesn’t support or contradicts our beliefs.

Climate change denial provides a good illustration of confirmation bias in action. Climate change skeptics often disregard the evidence that shows a steady increase in average global temperatures over time. One commonly-given reason for doing so is a belief that the data are false, having been faked by a (usually liberal) conspiracy to increase taxes on oil and gas companies (or something similar). Instead of accepting the long-term official scientific evidence, climate skeptics instead focus on their own experience of the climate…. and since the Spring of 2013 was very cold in some parts of the northern hemisphere, including the US and the UK, it is easy for them to say that global warming isn’t real.

In his opinion article in New Scientist, Adam Corner describes the action of confirmation bias very clearly: “[P]eople work backwards from their [liberal or conservative] values, filtering the facts according to their pre-existing beliefs.”

By now you may have already guessed what I’m going to say next: confirmation bias is simply a more extreme version of the operations of our System 1 and System 2 that we have already seen causes the apathy of the general public. Climate change deniers have their own personal stories and beliefs about their lives, just like you and me. Evidence that supports their existing beliefs is easy for their System 1 to integrate into the story that it maintains, so it does so. However evidence that contradicts their beliefs is hard for System 1 to handle, so it just ignores it.

Testing our beliefs

While all this talk of global warming, future environmental calamity, skepticism, denial, and the apathy of the general public can be quite depressing, there are some valuable lessons that we can take from the vigourous-but-unproductive climate change debate and apply to our decision-making in other parts of our lives. Consider:

  • How often do we genuinely question our personal beliefs, testing their validity to check that they’re still correct and reasonable?
  • How do we treat evidence put forward by others, particularly by those on the “other side” in a debate or argument? Do we consider their evidence as fully and carefully as we consider our own?
  • What evidence do we understand rationally, but just don’t feel? Do we treat this evidence the same way or differently to other evidence that strikes a more emotional or intuitive chord with us?

To make good decisions, we need to be able to ask these questions of ourselves and to be willing to consider evidence that may contradict our existing beliefs. Indeed, we should be willing to test our beliefs by actively seeking out evidence that contradicts them and then weighing it fairly against the evidence that supports our beliefs. And we should be willing to change our beliefs and our behaviours if our balanced assessment of the evidence recommends a change.

One goal of the ELECTIA approach to decision-making is to help us to reduce bias in the decisions that we make. Many parts of the ELECTIA approach are designed to reduce specific biases, whilst the enabling capability of Thinking about thinking helps us to identify and correct cognitive biases, particularly by understanding the working of our two thinking systems, System 1 and System 2.  Within the ELECTIA framework, the aspect Free from bias contains questions to help us to identify biases in our thinking. Related to the above discussion, it contains the following questions:

  • What beliefs do I hold and what assumptions am I making that relate to this decision and might influence the choice that I make?
  • How can I test my existing beliefs and assumptions within the process of making this decision?
  • What evidence supports my beliefs or assumptions? What evidence contradicts them? Considering all the evidence,  on balance, are my beliefs and assumptions valid in this case or should I revise them?
  • Are my actions and behaviours consistent with the beliefs that I think I hold?

Taking the time out to do the deep thinking that these questions demand is a challenge for many of us in our busy lives. However, as ever, practice makes doing this easier, so it’s important to start small, maybe with an easy topic, and then build up from there. Now while I wouldn’t describe climate change as an easy topic, at least the weather can act as a good reminder to us to test our beliefs; so the next time you look out of the window or up at the sky, whether you’re at home, in the office, in the car, on holiday, or somewhere else, let the weather inspire you, whatever it is, and give some thought to climate change and the beliefs that you hold about it.

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