The scientists’ dilemma

Debates between mainstream scientists and silver-tongued opponents cannot be won by the side of truth no matter how obvious the fallacies may be to an expert.—Steven Sherwood, Director of Climate Change Research Centre, Sydney, Australia

The scientists’ dilemma

Environmental scientists understand the damage we humans are inflicting on our planet. Our endless devouring of limited resources accompanied by massive pollution and waste by an ever-increasing population has pushed us closer to the demise of our life support system. The experts know change is essential and have been spreading the warning for decades. Some of us, including a number of political leaders, are listening and trying to do something, but many still blithely ignore the inevitable consequences of inaction.

Can we explain this foolhardy disregard for our own protection? Can we explain our seeming lack of concern for future generations? Surely our apparently superior intelligence will come to the rescue. Or will it? If we are so clever why are we dragging our feet? We know what has to be done!

The Qualicum Institute has wrestled with this problem at length and has concluded we are not doing it because there are factors other than intelligence at work, factors we haven’t taken into account. Despite the remarkable capacity of the human mind, it still falls victim to emotions and attitudes far removed from intelligent thought. A few examples outlined in the following dialogue illustrate how certain tendencies that remain embedded in our human nature can lead to disastrous decisions. We are currently witnessing the power of these lingering tendencies in our battle to alter the unsustainable path we are following. Our conversation at a QI meeting describes some of the barriers to action.

Qualicum Institute Meeting 2016

Neil: For the last 50 years leading scientists around the world have been publishing evidence showing we can’t sustain the way we’re treating the planet. Biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction, climate change, deforestation—the list goes on and on. The science is rock solid and yet progress is moving at a snail’s pace.

Dick: It’s extremely difficult to get people to change their ways, especially if it’s going to affect their personal lives. This is a problem that has existed for centuries. For example, about 600 B.C. the Athenians imposed a graduated tax system and a number of other regulations in an effort to redistribute money. It worked at first, but it wasn’t long before the concentration of wealth occurred again.

Terri: It may not be possible to maintain an equal distribution of wealth because some people have more knowledge or greater ability. Add to that the human tendency in some societies to accumulate as much wealth as possible. Unfortunately, the hunger for money has resulted not only in enormous disparity but in a wasteful and unsustainable over-consumption of resources.

Neil: But our situation is different. We’re not just trying to alter an economic system. We’re talking about the survival of millions of people and time to act appears limited.

Gerry: We shouldn’t forget it took over a century to convince people the earth isn’t the centre of the universe. It may not have had any serious direct effect on people’s lives, but the message that Copernicus presented 500 years ago shattered their lifetime beliefs. It was a huge emotional blow to learn that people on earth were no longer king of the castle but were just tiny particles in a vast universe. They fought this new idea tooth and nail and now we’re facing the same kind of dilemma.

Neil: We’re trying to change more than an idea. Our problem is far worse and we don’t have a century to fix it, assuming it’s not too late already.

Terri: We can usually count on us rejecting anything that threatens our way of life. It’s even easier to ignore something when we don’t see imminent signs of danger. The emotional impact of changing our lifestyle can overpower reason. We like to think we are logical thinkers because we supposedly have these great brains. We’re usually sensible until we’re faced with something really unpleasant and then we can easily regress to our visceral instincts.

Neil: It’s frustrating that crucial decisions can be made based on emotions instead of scientific evidence while all this time scientists assumed laying out the facts about environmental issues would bring about the changes we need. This means those massive volumes of scientific papers that have been published over several decades, while essential to the scientific community, can easily be dismissed by people without scientific expertise. Consider the climate change deniers.

Dick: I agree with your reaction because my background in engineering is also based on physical evidence. But we’ve learned a lot from all this. We’ve found out quite a bit more about how people behave and how they make decisions. They don’t like bad news and will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with it. It’s easier to ignore it or think up all sorts of reasons for saying it’s not true. It’s a case of wishful thinking trumping intellectual honesty.

Gerry: Another thing we know about human nature – push people too hard and there could be a backlash where we get a decision opposite to what we’re after. A lot depends on how unpleasant information is communicated because we’ve learned the denial factor is so strong that people are capable of rejecting unequivocal evidence without batting an eye. People tend to buy in when it suits them and discard information if it’s not convenient to their world view. I don’t think some scientists have taken this into account because their area of knowledge isn’t psychology. It’s becoming clear we haven’t paid enough attention to this. Hammering the public with doom and gloom and all the bad things we’re doing to the planet hasn’t worked. Worse still, it can harden the opposite position and create a barrier to accepting reality.

Terri: There are many events in the past that reveal how human behaviour has led to some terrible decisions caused by personal motives blocking the solution. A good example is the French Revolution when the nobility wallowed in luxury and paid for their excesses by imposing unreasonable taxes on ordinary people. Greed dominated the lives of these rich upper class people. They were so full of themselves they didn’t realize their failure to act would lead to ten years of revolt.

Dick: Take the Vietnam War. What brought on that decision? Not clear thinking! The politicians were so bent on stopping the spread of communism they didn’t ask themselves if it was the right thing to do!

Neil: The Vietnam War was a political decision, but I suspect many decisions are based on greed. Take the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico when several basic precautions were ignored to save time and money. The same with the Three Mile Island and Fukushima nuclear power plants where standard procedures were not followed. Sound decisions could likely have prevented all of these disasters.

Terri: Then there’s the engineering disaster caused by the design flaws in the levees protecting New Orleans that led to nearly 2,000 people dying. Another tragic decision caused by our focus on the almighty dollar.

Gerry: The magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti is hard to explain. The island is on a fault line and an earthquake was predicted. Yet there were no building codes or preparations of any kind. Was it about saving money or was it the result of extreme poverty? Over 200,000 people lost their lives.

Dick: These examples tend to show we are at the mercy of people who are driven by personal motives, usually with self-interests at stake. In our current situation, which is far worse than any of these examples, we appear to be headed toward environmental and economic collapse. Ironically, we humans are now at the mercy of ourselves! We’ve caused the problem and we are the only ones that can fix it.

Gerry: We’ve made some international progress as a result of the climate change conference in Paris. But we can’t just leave it to the political process moving at such a slow pace. We need to generate action from ordinary people. Most of the people I know are aware of climate change, but aren’t doing a thing about it. They treat it as an abstract problem that has nothing to do with them. Seems odd to me. Also most of them don’t have any concept of things like ecological damage or biodiversity loss and their effects on human well-being.

Neil: In the fifteen years the Qualicum Institute has existed, we’ve concentrated on scientific evidence in conveying the environmental message. As a trained biologist I hate to say this, but it looks like we have to rely less on human reasoning and logic and more on what drives human behaviour.

Terri: How are we going to convince scientists, journalists, and other organizations to change their approach so that people will wake up?

Dick: And how are scientists going to explain how serious the problem is with efficacy without sounding gloomy?

Neil: It’s a huge challenge! We need some experts in human behaviour and also some good writers and people who know how to sell ideas.

Gerry: There must be a way we can at least spread information on what we’ve learned about the human behaviour problem. It doesn’t seem to be common knowledge, particularly with those organizations working to protect the environment.

Dick: Aside from our stubborn refusal to give up, we’re having some great fun working together trying to help find a solution to the biggest challenge the world has ever faced. When there’s a really big issue like this on hand we don’t want to spend our time messing around with trifling matters.

Neil: I’m glad everyone is still retaining their enthusiasm and sense of humour. We’re going to need it.

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