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Getting Past the Argument

By Keith Kloor
May 25, 2011 10:01 PMNov 20, 2019 5:02 AM


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This essay by Bill McKibben is getting a lot of eyeballs. Originally published yesterday in The Washington Post (where it was among the most widely read articles for part of the day), it has since been reproduced in Salon and The Huffington Post. At the Washington Post, the piece thus far has generated over 1200 comments, more than 700 tweets, and been recommended nearly 10,000 times via Facebook.McKibben's piece is also the subject of an informal email dialogue between a group of journalists and science writers, which I am part of. One response by David Ropeik, author of a new book called, How risky is it really?: Why our fears don't always match the facts, has jumped out at me. With his permission, Ropeik has given me permission to reproduce his email below. McKibben's writing, and this discussion, seem to be about winning "THE ARGUMENT" "“ is climate change real or not. Forgive me, but engaging in the argument is unproductive intellectualizing that is more likely to entrench opposing positions than persuade or advance mitigation or adaptation very much. THE ARGUMENT, while ostensibly waged with facts, is not really about the facts. The facts are just lifeless bits of data, meaningless ones and zeros until we run them through the software of our subjective interpretations. Knowing how that software works, and why it leads different people to different views of the same facts, is where solutions can be found. The good news is that we know a lot about how the software of our risk perception works, about the underlying social/cultural identities and the affective/psychological risk perception characteristics and the subconscious mental heuristics and biases, that all help shape our views, our judgments, our opinions, about climate change or anything. The bad news is that we don't apply this wisdom "“ our rich knowledge of how people perceive and respond to risk - to the challenge of getting the world to respond to the threat of climate change. We study and argue the science and hard facts of this issue (and many risks) as though some truth will emerge to which everyone will agree, but we fail, at our peril, to recognize how naïve (and slightly arrogant) this expectation is. We are victims of what Andy Revkin has called our "˜Inconvenient Mind', so proud of our fabulous cognitive Cartesian powers of reason that we deny all we've learned about how limited our ability to coldly, objectively, dispassionately reason actually is. And so we argue, and argue, and...funny thing...the day after a seemingly influential OpEd, or an Academy Award winning documentary film, not much is different than the day before. If I may humbly suggest, what we ought to do is move on, get beyond the polarized no progress-trench warfare of the intellectual argument battleground, and apply our understanding of the underlying cultural and psychological motivations (and the limitations on the human capacity to be perfectly cognitively rational about anything) that are the real reasons for THE ARGUMENT. That is more likely to bring us, sooner, to solutions. ***** Your thoughts?

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