Communicating Climate Change Controversy to Space Aliens

If you were a space alien visiting Earth, global warming would seem a strangely inflammatory topic. That’s because the controversy doesn’t really make sense until you understand the curious particularities of human psychology. Otherwise you’d be confused as to why an issue that at its core is purely scientific (is human activity warming the earth?) would be so contentious.

At the bottom of it, there’s just some simple unfeeling truth: Either the world is or isn’t warming, and if it is, then there’s some concrete fraction of that warming which results from human activity (somewhere inbetween zero and one hundred percent). So we might expect the debate between climate change believers and sceptics to be about science.

But instead, there’s strong evidence that disagreement about global warming mainly highlights how poorly humans are at being self-aware – how bad we are at noticing flaws and biases in our own patterns of thinking.

Hey, before you tune out: Whether you’re a climate change believer or skeptic, I’m not going to interpret the evidence here. My aim is just to lay out how strange the scenario is if you take the rational space alien’s perspective.

Of course, this might seem a strange thing to do, because, well, who cares what a space alien thinks? But on the other hand, it’s a useful device to try to get an impartial perspective on something that’s otherwise clouded by our emotions.

 Political party predicts climate change beliefs

One fact about humans: We’re bad at separating our desires for how we’d like the world to work from how factual evidence suggests it really works.

Case in point: Belief in human-caused warming is more strongly related to political affiliation than other more relevant factors, like one’s level of education (See the nice graph here).

That’s strange – you’d think that the more science education you receive (regardless of your political beliefs), the better you’d be able to evaluate scientific evidence. That’s how things generally work – you receive training, and you improve. If that were true for climate change, there’d be a strong link between science education and either believing or disbelieving in climate change. But no, that’s not what we find. Political affiliation is much more predictive than science education when it comes to climate change.

Before we go further, let’s just acknowledge a sort of obvious fact: No matter how strongly one believes in the democratic party or the republican party, obviously one’s political beliefs cannot affect reality. No matter how ardently I want to protect the environment, or how much I love the free market, these desires have no effect on whether or not the Earth is warming from human activity. That’s just an independent fact about nature.

So when political beliefs are a strong predictor of scientific beliefs, something’s gone wrong. Basically this means that one side or the other (or both!) have let their political beliefs distort how they perceive reality.

When political beliefs predict scientific ones it doesn’t directly tell us who the guilty party is – merely that human irrationality is afoot. Something is fishy: This disagreement about science isn’t connected to the ability to interpret scientific evidence. The important point is that this kind of disconnect is an interesting signal in itself.

 Motivated reasoning

In general, humans have trouble interpreting evidence objectively when it treads on some aspect of their identity. Whether or not you think George Bush lied about Iraq for the most part isn’t really about evidence, but probably about whether you voted for him in the first part.

When an aspect of science treads on some aspect of politics, our rational thinking is in peril. In such cases, how we perceive scientific evidence is often deeply influenced by our existing desires about how we’d like the world to work. This is called motivated reasoning: When (often subconsciously) we engage our reasoning with a particular conclusion as a goal (often a conclusion that agrees with our current world-view).

What’s tricky about this, is that even if you’re aware that us humans tend to do this, still it’s very hard to observe the process in your own thinking. “Yeah, other people do that, but not me,” you might think (and I’ve thought this way, too). It’s a vicious cycle: Our own motivated reasoning will prevent us from seeing that we ourselves are victims of motivated reasoning.

 Thought traps

These kinds of thought traps are really pernicious. We can’t progress towards truth, even if we want to, because our minds are too clouded by our preconceptions. I’m not claiming to be an exception – and neither should you, despite the (natural) resistance you might feel to considering that you’re vulnerable to thought traps. It’s just a fact: Humans often parse information strategically in a way that supports our pre-existing views. This is why debates about politics so rarely cause anyone to adjust their views.

The real take-home message is that, knowing that it’s natural human behavior to employ motivated reasoning, we must be very critical of adopting beliefs that are comfortable – beliefs that align with how we would want to see the world, anyways.

 Observing delusion in action

Sometimes you get observe this process first-hand. Try to pay attention the next time you’re arguing with someone, to the moment immediately after they say something that clashes with what you believe. In that moment, you might notice a brief surge of anger, and the immediate felt sensation that their claim is wrong, before you’ve even thought about why. And then, you go and search for the reason it is wrong. That is, you’ve decided it’s wrong based on a gut feeling, and are mainly just looking for an excuse to discount what the other person has said.

You’re not looking for the truth, but to validate what you believe already.

However, it’s much easier to observe this process in others than in oneself. So let’s take a step back and think about how motivated reasoning works in practice.

 When grand narratives and science clash

As a general narrative, liberals tend to value environment and ecology over economics, and are often wary of big corporations. So the idea of human-caused global warming fits nicely into their thinking: The planet needs protection from corporations, and governments should provide that protection. In other words, liberals might readily want to believe in human-caused climate change.

On the other hand, conservatives tend to have a mindset that the Earth is robust and we cannot damage it. They tend to deeply value the free market and hold government regulation as a measure of last resort. From this mindset, human-caused global warming would be inconvenient: It would suggest a possible need for greater regulation of corporations and emissions, which would interfere with the free market and create greater governmental bloat.

So in the absence of any convincing evidence, we might expect liberals to be more open to believing in climate change, while we might expect conservatives to be more critical.

 Truth or comfort?

The underlying problem is that on both sides of the political spectrum, people are thinking in muddled ways. In an ideal world, we would intensely scrutinize our thinking, and be self-aware enough to notice potential biases in our thinking. That is, we should think: Would it be convenient to believe X? If so, X deserves intense scrutiny.

So liberals might need to make sure that the world does in fact need defending from greenhouse gases – because such defense would well-fit the liberal narrative about how they believe the world works. Similarly, conservatives should be aware that there is a convenient temptation to discount climatology – it would well-fit the conservative narrative about how they believe the world works.

Unless we are very careful, we will unfairly favor ideas that are comfortable over those that are uncomfortable; and if what we really care about is the truth, which ultimately is much more important than just feeling right, our preference for comfortable ideas can easily lead us into delusion and overconfidence.

As a post-script, note that I’m purposefully not commenting on the actual science of climate change; my hope here is mostly to highlight human potential for self-delusion, and that it is clearly rearing its head when it comes to the issue of climate change.


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