Facts Are Stubborn Things

By Rob Hickey, Simpol supporter and blogger.

Facts Are Stubborn Things1

Kid: My Mommy says smoking kills.
Nick Naylor: Oh, is your Mommy a doctor?
Kid: No.
Nick Naylor: A scientific researcher of some kind?
Kid: No.
Nick Naylor: Well, then she’s hardly a credible expert, is she?

2005 film, Thank You For Smoking

I am not a climate science expert; hell, I am not any kind of expert. I suppose then that I should just shut up my not-expert mouth and listen to what someone who knows something about something has to say about that thing, especially when all of the people who know something about that something have the same thing to say.

Let me get a bit more specific.

That’s what I do with climate change and I think if more of us did it, we might extend the ability of life to survive on our small planet. This could easily be taken to mean that we should relegate ourselves to be thoughtless morons, fluttering whichever way the demagogic wind blows. The difference here is in where the information is coming from, who is giving it to us and their motivations for doing so. A geologist knows something about rocks, a proctologist knows something about…well, proctology and…well…I guess the picture has been painted. I would prefer not to have a lawyer fixing my car, a mechanic giving me legal advice and – most importantly – a politicized think-tank or lobbying group giving me advice on what is and is not climate science and how to consider the issue.

The sad part is that this is the reality we live in2; fallacious arguments from authority coming from charismatic politicians, free-marketers and business leaders and, to be fair, quite intelligent individuals of all stripes confounding the debate and the public listening to them. Sound skepticism of the issue is healthy and scientific. Unless it can be proven and a consensus arrived at that certain evidence is a basis for such a claim, the debate remains open and uncertain.

But the evidence on climate change has turned the soup of ideas on the subject into a gelatinous mixture and finally a quite solid one, with the arguments of anthropogenic climate change rising to the top and those still denying negative future effects of climate change trying to punch holes in the consensus and feed off of whatever falls through. This is often done through the cherry-picking of specific evidence to support their denial and making claims without considering the totality of evidence.

This brings me back to the quote at the top of this article. Such denial when applied to the tobacco-cancer connection would sound like the ole’ “my-grandfather-smoked-two-packs-of-unfiltered-cigarettes-per-day-and-lived-to-be-100 argument”. Sure, maybe he did, but what does that mean for the other 3 people who never got to see their daughter’s wedding because of a terminal lung cancer? In climate denial speak this sounds like the “we-just-had-the-biggest-snow-storm-in-20-years-what-happened-to-those-global-warming-loons” argument during the same time that global temperature had risen 1 degree over those same 20 years. Similarly, anti-evolutionists claim that since there are holes in the fossil record, evolution stands on weak evidence – conveniently ignoring the fact that evolutionary biologists have many other ways of verifying the evolutionary process and that the fossil record itself does support evolution.

In order to clarify what I am trying to say – as I feel I have not succeeded quite yet – let me put it like this; if you drank too much on Friday night at the local pub and woke up on Saturday afternoon in your house covered in lipstick, wearing a cowboy hat, and with a $200 disorderly conduct citation, having no recollection of the previous night does not mean that the night wasn’t eventful. We can make inferences about what happened. When you get a call from your credit card company that you overdrew your credit limit, like making a fossil discovery or analyzing data on the rate of temperature change over time, we can discern even more about the previous night’s activities. In all likeliness, you were not abducted by aliens and you did not time travel. At least not in the conventional sense.

How in the name of all that is good in the world, does this relate to SIMPOL? Let me bring this post back to earth. The politicization of the climate change issue has shown us that we are not able to discern who or what a reliable source is from what is not. In most cases we take the totality of these sources into consideration and find we are not able to weigh them based on their objectivity and validity because we don’t know how objective and valid they are. This forms and shapes our reality and constricts our conception of what is and is not possible. Global climate change, it seems to me, is one issue around which we can come together. We humans are not, I think, ready to give up our nation-centrism. Such a thing will happen as a gradual process where issues of common concern are passed to the global governance level. It may never happen completely and for me, it is hard to see how it would. But then, I am trapped in the thought-box of my own time. However, increased global cooperation in the environmental realm may be the only way to preserve nations in the long-term and to avoid hypocrisy in the defense of human rights and could thus be an area of global cooperation. If we ignore reality in favor of national ideological viewpoints (and this has particular resonance in the United States) rather than incorporating the need for necessary change into our political views, action will be impossible. At the root level, this requires critical thinking skills and letting go of economic paradigms and conceptions of individual freedom that are no longer valid. In American politics, changing your viewpoint has been referred to as “flip-flopping”, a pejorative term. But in reality flip-flopping is evolutionary thought and it seems bizarre not to change thought patterns when reality changes.

The fact is that changing one’s mind in light of evidence is at the root of the science. I think a more scientifically literate public will bring the world together under a common banner of truth. Listening to the experts is a good start, especially when they all essentially agree. It helps begin a process of overcoming the nation-centeredness that is ingrained in us all. That is what lies at the heart of SIMPOL.

 

1 Attributed to U.S. politician John Adams.

10 Responses to Facts Are Stubborn Things

  1. Ah, the positive aspect of being an “amateur” is a pursuit of the heart, of love for what we do. Do we get paid to vote, to be good citizens, to live by our morals and collective ethics? Nah! The negativeaspect of it, which I don’t subscribe to, is that it assumes that because one does not get paid for something, they are idiots and should not be listened to.

    I love taking part in Simpol, although as National Coordinator I could do with getting paid for it and for five days a week (hey you wealthy philanthropists). If this happens I will certainly get involved in my spare time too because I want to take part alongside the rest of humanity to solve global problems. I am passionate about it as I see it as a wonderful though necessary experiment in co-operation.

    On objectivity and validity of information, if most of us can now contribute together to discuss global solutions, then no one person or groups of people are going to have the upper hand because there will be so many of us. Therefore, through free, open and participative democracy, Simpol, we can be assured that the validity and objectivity can be deemed as unbiased, apart from that of general human bias. This does not mean one size fits all, because local and national governments will retain their autonomy and implement the solutions as they see fit, geographically and socially. Like a tax system can be, it can be fairly divvied out.

    This is one of my favourite quotes: “Not everybody can be leader, but everybody can be an intermediary.” Theodore Zeldin. An Intimate History of Humanity

    We can now work together for the love of all life as an interconnected whole.

    Great blog Rob.

  2. Mimi K says:

    Hello, All. New to Simpol.
    Wanted to respond to this piece to say one thing. The facts about climate change are TRAGIC facts. They are scientific facts that all point toward a tragic future.

    Humans do not do well with tragic facts. The problem is our brains. Cognitive neuroscience has identified a “blind spot” when it comes to tragedy, especially a future one (as climate change was, but is now a present tragedy; 2005 is more or less when the present tense started to be used in scientific journals for climate change). Our brains chronically underestimate a possible tragic event, making the case for it not really being THAT tragic. Or, at worst, the blind spot denies it altogether, and it goes without saying that denial is rampant in climate change.

    The assumption everyone makes is that the science is not getting through. But it is the TRAGEDY IN the science that is not getting through the blind spot in our tragically flawed human brains.

    BUT, guess what? When it comes to a future happiness, the same blind spot in our brains OVERESTIMATES how WONDERFUL things will be. The great mistake that environmentalism keeps on making is trying to get the tragedy about the science through; it very well may never. What we should be doing is SIMULTANEOUSLY saturating the media-mental-cultural-message landscape with messages & media about how incredibly fantastically wonderful the world will be ONCE WE GET SIMPOL in place. (I sincerely believe this.)

    There is much more I could say (this is based on a performance piece & book-in-process about the tragedy & comedy of climate change). The basic point I want to make here is just that it is not about the science; it’s about the tragedy IN the science of climate change that is not, and may very well never, get through.

    • Simpol-UK says:

      Hi Mimi and welcome to Simpol! :-)

      Your post makes very interesting reading. For me persoanlly, one of the most profound reasons for supporting simpol is that it is a positive, rather than a negative campaign. For many years I have been arguing that campaigns are often too negative and that, in the long term, people respond better to a campaign FOR something than one against something. Good examples of this exist in environmentalism – campaigns to stop deforestation/environmental destruction often seem to struggle to stay in the public consciousness. By contrast the ‘save the panda’ campaign was of course so successful that the WWF still has it as their logo!

      Up till now though, I must admit, it hadn’t really occurred to me to wonder why that should be so. Could you tell me more about this ‘tradgedy blind spot’. It certainly seems very plausible as a cause for some of the more odd responses to climate change (and other disasters of one sort and another).

      We often discuss at Simpol meetings how to make the positive argument for Simpol in any given situation. One person put it quite nicely when we were talking about street campaigning – “if, by way of your introduction, the person is nodding when you start to make your pitch, they will continue nodding all the way through”. This fits, I think, quite nicely wit the points you were making.

      Mark

  3. Mimi K says:

    Thanks, Mark!
    Here’s a bit more about the tragedy blind spot from modern neuroscience, as requested, and the “comedy magnifier,” as I think of it.

    As brief as I can: Best popular source for blind spot/comedy magnifier is Harvard cognitive psychologist, Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book “Stumbling on Happiness.” Gilbert’s essential point is that we have “tragically flawed” brains that underestimate both how tragic something will be in the future and how difficult and anguishing something was in the past. Hence, we have a hard time learning from past experience and applying the lessons from the past to planning for the future. History repeats itself — and the tragic blind spot is the reason why.

    We are failing to learn from the manmade environmental disasters that keep hitting us, like still talking about and investing in off shore drilling despite the BP oil spill and nuclear still on the table despite the catastrophe in Japan, in large part because the brain mounts a campaign against how TRAGIC they were, are, and will be. The implications of the tragic blind spot which chronically “underestimates,” writes Gilbert, how tragic something will be, for environmental risk analysis seems to me to be profound.

    In terms of environmental messaging, the climate change mantra about the “end of a planet fit for life” is not, and very well may never, get through. Worse, the anti-climate change propaganda DOES get through. Our brains are already primed to underestimate how tragic climate change will be; the anti global warming propaganda naturally resonates with the blind spot.

    Conversely, Gilbert says that the brain naturally amplifies and exaggerates how very very wonderful and marvelous something in the future will be. THIS romantic relationship, THIS new job, etc., will be the true love/perfect work I have been seeking all my life. The brain is configured for a “grass is always greener” optimism. As the Dalai Lama says, “the desire for the motion of our lives toward happiness” is universal. We all want our life to be a comedy, and the pan-cultural universality of Comedy reflects this universal desire — and an be attributed to the “comedy magnifier” in the brain that OVER estimates a future happiness.

    Simply put, our brains underestimate tragedy and overestimate comedy. We are therefore primed NOT to see how tragic our environmental situation is, AND primed to believe how SUPER WONDERFUL a sustainable world could be. Worldchanging.com founder, Alex Steffen, says that “any vision of a sustainable world that is not linked to happiness is doomed to fail.” Better put, I think, is any environmental messaging that links sustainability with happiness is likely to succeed.

    Where does Simpol fit in with all this?
    Two ways. First, the dream of citizen driven global governance is a wonderful vision; if we can create messages that link Simpol with joyful, thriving existence and speak to how wonderful it will be to live in a world in which global leaders are able to act together for the global good, with “good” deliberately linked to “the good life” (more than the moral meaning), then Simpol will find more adapters, I think.
    Second, and getting into more about Comedy as an art form, Comedy is always about the ordinary person doing something extraordinary that the status quo either refuses to do or (more complexly) cannot do. Simpol is about the ordinary citizen doing something extraordinary, creating global governance, that the powers that be both refuse and cannot do, because of the political-economic entanglement they are in. In my dramatic view, Simpol is “comedic action,” the audacity of comedy that insists we, the ordinary citizens of the world, can do the seemingly impossible, create a sane and sound salutary global society and global government, and turn planetary end times into global good times for all.

    Apologies for length; these are ideas from a book & movie in process, a performance piece and a workshop/training — a big bunch o’stuff.

  4. Simpol-UK says:

    No apologies necessary whatsoever – you put the case brilliantly for positivism. In fact you inspired a new blog posts which I will compose tomorrow I think!

    More than that, you have inspired me to think about all sorts of things regarding how to campaign on simpol.

    I am very graqteful for your insight and have a feeling that you will have much to offer to simpol over time. Simpol needs more people like you! :)

    Mark

    • Mimi K says:

      Thanks again, Mark. ANY help – input – brainstorming – anything you want to help with Simpol positive messaging, I am here for you/us all. FYI, I really believe that Simpol could be the wild card surprise that turns everything around.

      Mimi

      • Simpol-UK says:

        That’s good news Mimi. Loyal and committed supporters are exactly what we need to take this thing forward. :)

        If I may ask, what part of the world are you in?

        Mark

        p.s. If I could ask one small favour to begin with – please share this blog around as much as you can. Thankies! :-)

  5. Robert says:

    Hello,

    Interesting points all around.

    It seems to me that the way to galvanize an activist organization is to clearly define the problem (I think the Simpol literature has done this) and offer a realistic, tangible way out of such a problem (I think to some the Simpol way seems good in theory but that in practice is hard to implement). A negative message i.e. problem, couples with a positive solution is not, in my opinion, how politics is traditionally done. Problems are framed and blame is placed. The Simpol policies are, I think what need to be better disseminated and defined. These are at the heart of Simpol. Without a clear repository with an actionable road map, with clear realistic policies to implemented internationally, the solutions will remain unclear. I feel that this is the way to move SIMPOL forward.

  6. Simpol-UK says:

    Hi Robert,

    Whilst I would certainly agree with you that policies are very much at the heart of what Simpol does and is, I would still say that a positive approach is going to be more useful generally than a negative one in getting that message across.

    My point is simply that the two need not be mutually exclusive. :)

    • Robert says:

      Indeed they do not :) So then we do not need to be problem focused but rather solution focused. What are these solutions and how to we get them out there?

      Perhaps we can hijack John Lennon here to clear this up:
      ” Ah, people asking questions lost in confusion
      Well I tell them there’s no problem, only solutions”

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