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So, to skew the topic of this week’s blog, I found what I read of the excerpts of Paul Edward’s A Vast Machine (2010) to be a fascinating history of the globalization of climate data and the challenges of massaging different data sets collected in different ways into compatible formats. However, in effect I clearly missed the point of the text as I dropped out at the first hurdle. It lost me at the first mention of the International Panel on Climate Change.
I’m sure we all remember 2009’s Climategate, just before the much-vaunted Copenhagen climate summit, when something something was hacked something climate scientists are liars something something faking the data something.
See, I don’t really remember the end of 2009. I remember reading a lot of news, but mainly it was a strange and glorious time of youthful post-graduation unemployment. One thing I do remember that what I took away from the Climategate scandal, and what I hold somewhere in my subconscious, is that the data going in and coming out of the highest levels of climate science is not accurate.
Most people I know are climate skeptics, and Climategate reinforced that. Even when many logical explanations have been proffered, that doubt has been implanted, and there it stays. On the other hand I think most people would agree that the climate skeptic’s case rests on misinformation or misunderstanding, and others might argue it is in part outright lies on behalf of vested interests. Yet both sides of the climate change debate are sizeable.
I sit squarely in the middle, knowing only that I know nothing and won’t live to see the worst of whatever happens. I am rationally ignorant. Not knowing either side to be correct, but taking into account the passion, rhetoric, scale, and number of participants, it looks an awful lot as though truth, facts, lies, damned lies, and statistics mean nothing: that perception will always win out over reality.
The human mind is capable of ignoring or believing anything it puts itself to, to the point of literally losing touch with reality. Jonah Lehrer points out that “we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue”, such as the historical belief that the sun revolves around the earth, and that therefore “science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin”.
Lehrer points to a recent study of cognition by Andrew Shtulman, which noted, “When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them”.
The brain, Lehrer points out, then uses different pathways to answer questions that augment our intuitions to those that go against them. It is literally more difficult to accept some truths than others. People who aren’t noticing any changes in climate trends more specific than seasonal change in their daily lives can find it easy to reject claims that they are indeed occurring, meaning that whoever wins the PR war, pulls the best Climategate, or terrifies the most people gets to define the frame of the discourse and the way most people consider the issues.
That should probably be a terrifying thought, but for someone who wants to work in PR it really is quite comforting.