Cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach discovers a disturbing mechanism in society and the mind. As the polycrisis becomes permanent, former World Watch Editor Erik Assadourian explains the new Gaian Way. Can this help?
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THE COGNITIVE SCIENCE OF DENIAL – PHILIP FERNBACH
“Results from five studies show that the people who disagree most with the scientific consensus know less about the relevant issues, but they think they know more. “
After another mega heat wave, Uncle Frank claims the global warming scare is a hoax. Susan at work rails against masks and vaccines, even when half the staff are off sick. Most of us have someone like that in our lives. If scientists discover how the world works, and can prove it, why doesn’t everyone understand? We all want to know.
So does Philip Fernbach. At the University of Colorado Boulder, he is a cognitive scientist and Professor of Marketing at the Leeds School of Business, . Philip is co-author of the book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone”. Fernbach’s co-authored paper in the journal Science is dead-on: “Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues.” We investigate what people think they know… The study was led by Nicholas Light. This team ran comprehensive testing on what people know, and whether they accept established science. It was published in the journal Science published July 2022.
We thought information could flow from scientists into public minds willing to receive. That has always been the hope of this radio show. Now it turns out, some of those minds are already filled. With what? We also tend to think of the self-affirming ignorant people as perhaps poor, rural, or uneducated. But this study found education is not a protection against anti-science. Our top public health officer in British Columbia just told a televised press conference that masks do not really help in a pandemic. Medical specialists and journals are adamant that they do. So anti-science can penetrate to the top of governments. I am sure you have seen plenty of examples. (Davos?)
The authors suggest:
“Instead of interventions focused on objective knowledge alone, these findings suggest that focusing on changing individuals’ perceptions of their own knowledge may be a helpful first step. “
A CLASSIC CASE OF DENIAL SHAPING HISTORY
German Nazi leader Adolph Hitler publicly denounced Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity as “Jewish science”. As a result, he did not fully fund research into atomic weapons and the Nazis did not make an atomic bomb. The Allies quickly adapted Einstinian science, and produced the atomic bomb which reshaped history for decades until today. Denying science has it’s price.
The study says:
“Higher levels of education, science literacy, and numeracy have been found to be associated with more polarization between groups on controversial and scientific topics. Some have suggested that better reasoning ability makes it easier for individuals to deduce their way to the conclusions they already value…”
From this paper: “These results demonstrate that the most extreme opponents believe their knowledge ranks among the highest, but it is actually among the lowest.” For example: “Lower willingness to receive a potential COVID-19 vaccine was associated with lower objective knowledge about science and COVID-19 but higher levels of subjective knowledge about how the vaccine would work.”
As part of his investigation, Philip went to a “Flat Earth Conference” in Colorado. Attendees reinforced their belief the Earth is not a globe, but flat. Science blew up this Medieval belief system but it still has fans, some very insistent they are right and everybody else is wrong.
This study proposes a split in our minds between actual knowledge and false knowledge. There may be a third situation not covered yet, which is a distinction between what we may know, and how we actually act. We might imagine a stock broker, or even one of the world’s largest oil companies, knowing human-induced climate change is real, but continuing to drill for oil or financing new coal mines anyway, because it profits them in the short-term. I don’t see that in this paper…
In the interview, we also discussed Philip’s February 2022 piece in Current Opinion in Psychology, and his book with Steve Sloman. In the book “The Knowledge Illusion”: “We never think alone.” Our thoughts are composed from a rich mixture of language, cultural images and expectations, and the sum of human knowledge. This reminds me of German philospher Martin Heidegger who said our minds are actually a network among other humans. He said we should replace “I” with “we”. Perhaps French Philosopher Rene Decartes should have said: “We think, therefore we are.”
In the end, these multiple studies found “knowledge” is very political in our minds. A person’s politics may be more predictive of the base of “facts” they accept – whether their views come from science or a politically biased TV Network or Tweeter. It turns out brains are political. We even deny that denial is taking place. Maybe other people are denying things, but not me!
It looks like the human brain has evolved to count political decisions above other forms of knowledge. This may have worked in a primitive tribe. Knowing where you stand, who has power, and how power is maintained may be necessary to survive and thrive. We organize into teams with leaders. That orientation is then applied to whatever we learn…
In the interview I also reference a 2021 paper with Fernbach as co-author, in PNAS:
ALEX COMMENTS ON PHILIP FERNBACH INTERVIEW
Fernbach’s study may find hostile reception in some fields in some of my listeners. For example, it sound like he thinks scientists agree that genetically modified foods are safe and good, and so is nuclear power. I do not agree. Have I been filled with alternative facts, or blinded by a cultural preference?
With nuclear power, there is a consensus among geopolitical historians that countries with nuclear power have a heightened ability to produce nuclear weapons. We presume there is a scientific consensus that nuclear weapons used to blow up cities and large numbers of people are a bad thing. But with a proven link, how can one consensus (pro-nuke power) survive the consequences of a following consensus against it?
I was surprised to find one of the established scientific consensus points used in the study with Fernbach is: [quote] “Nuclear power is necessary and should be expanded to mitigate climate change.” Really? In over 500 interviews with scientists, perhaps one said that.
Consensus on human induced climate change, evolution, and The Big Bang Theory are easy to find. Some have mass statements signed by tens of thousands of scientists. But most sources claiming a consensus for nuclear to help solve climate change come from the nuclear industry or people known to be in their orbit. The two citations in Fernbach et al to back this nuclear assumption are weak. This should have been removed from the study. I still find the basic conclusions of the paper really helpful for all of us.
To get more on the basis of denial, I also recommend my 2017 interview with genius medical researcher Ajit Varki. Check out his book “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.” Essentially, Varki says reality is too harsh for our evolved brains. We tame it with all sorts of denial. For example, we must daily deny the idea that we will die today, and not live tomorrow, so no plans or preparations are needed. We cannot function without all kinds of denial. To deny is human…
POLYCRISIS, PERMACRISIS AND THE GAIAN WAY – ERIK ASSADOURIAN
So many things are going wrong, with more teetering on the edge of collapse. Continuing waves of COVID impact the economy, which has it’s own deep problems. Storm after storm pummels North America, while Europe gets Spring in January. Some countries are bankrupt, inflation rages, and war is back. These interlocking threats have been called “a polycrisis”. If we can’t tame them – are we entering an age of permanent crisis?
Erik Assadourian has more big picture experience than most. For years he was Editor of the influential Worldwatch “State of the World” reports (now closed). The Institute literally watched world data. We will ask Erik about Polycrisis and Permacrisis. But I also want to know about his next stage. Why is Assadourian promoting a new green religion?
In 2022, Michael Lawrence, Scott Janzwood, and Thomas Homer-Dixon published a technical paper explaining what they mean by “polycrisis”. It is quite helpful.
“A global polycrisis occurs when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.”
Erik is far from alone, worrying about next steps in a broken age. Columbia University is again organizing their conference called “At What Point Managed Retreat?: Habitability and Mobility in an Era of Climate Change”. Assadourian recently attended a conference in Denmark on the Polycrisis.
In Erik’s January 3rd article published at resilience.org, he discusses “permacrisis”. What is that, and how would we know if that has arrived? Erik’s article inspired this program. His Twitter feed is here.
If you have a subscription, you can also check out this from Thomas Homer-Dixon and Johan Rockström, published November 13, 2022: “What Happens When a Cascade of Crises Collide?”.
All of this reminds me again of Paul Virilio and “the global accident”. All new technologies and social developments develop their own modes of failure Virilio says. When the whole world becomes fully interconnected, then a global accident is possible.
A NEW GREEN RELIGION
Even while tallying up the bad news at World Watch, Erik was looking for that “something more” we need to survive this time of troubles. He landed on Gaianism. Some people consider that a philosophy of respect for Nature, others a worship, a religion. Take your pick.
World Watch was founded in the 1970s and finally ended as an organization in 2017. Erik decided to put out a weekly newsletter for people who want to develop their spiritual side, in line with natural reality. That began to grow into a community, and now a new Green Church. Each local group is called a “Guild”. One of the two existing so far is in Erik’s hometown of Middleton Connecticut.
Gaianism has become larger online, with international followers, especially during the pandemic. But Erik believes local groups getting out into the real nature is essential. That is kind of what Gaianism is all about. Be. Here. Now. – and sometimes lose yourself in the boundless wonder and creativity of life on this planet, and just the majesty of space. Gaians are developing simple rituals to help. For example, Erik says followers want to reconnect with the cycle of the Moon. Our ancestors knew the procession of the Moon very well. They planned some activities, celebrations, and planting of crops according to the Moon. Of course sailors needed to know Moon cycles to know the tides that made a harbor safe or dangerous.
Find out for yourself here, at the Gaian web site.
COMMUNAL CARE DURING BREAKDOWN
In a presentation last June at Harvard Divinity School, Erik was a bit prophetic. He said ““There’s a good chance the hospital system will collapse.” Right now there are hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens sick with COVID. There is no chance they can all get medical care. People are on their own. The same is increasingly true in Britain, and even Canada. At Harvard Divinity, Erik passes on the example of Turkmenistan where medical care is limited to the old Soviet medical system – or medical tourism to India for those who can afford it.
When it comes to communal care, it is hard to beat the Quakers. They began so many things, from freedom of assembly through humane treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. And they don’t promote their work. Can Green activism get there?
“… Gaians could play an important role in preparing civilizations for a humane collapse and a healthy pathway out.
consider this another invitation to, in John Michael Greer’s words, “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Embrace the state shifts coming and start preparing, mentally, physically, and socially for the transition at our doorstep. And help those around you, as well, to prepare. This clear understanding of what’s coming is a key gift we, Gaians, can offer our communities. And perhaps we can help them accept, even embrace this future—or at least survive it and help, in the myriad small and large ways they can, to build a better one for those who make it through.”
Life is not just about science, or a grip on the facts, but about choices of what to do with what we know. We must go further than science can tread – into the wild world of humans: art, social contracts, sexuality and the psychology of power, justice, religious beliefs, and so much more. Science can help us determine actuality with a brain the creates illusions and then believes them. But science cannot take us the last step: actual judgment with human values.
I’m Alex Smith. Hang in there. Thank you for caring about this world.
In the one hour show I play a snippet from Al Gore at the Davos World Economic Forum, January 19, 2023.