In his last (paid) column published in Le Monde and devoted to the concept of post-truth in the environmental sciences, my colleague Stéphane Foucart recalls in particular that among the great figures of climatoscepticism, there are real scientists – in fact general not from the climate sciences. The question often asked about them is: how is it that researchers skilled in scientific methodology and able to read publications in journals refuse to accept the overwhelming results and evidence gathered by fellow climatologists? ?
Donald Trump claimed that global warming was a hoax invented by China. © Evan Vucci / AP.
The question is not confined to these few refractory – some of whom also like to put themselves in the posture of a Galilee alone against all – but extends to all those whom science can not convince. It would be easy, even relaxing, to be content with the belief that only those unfamiliar with the sciences, misinformed or misinformed, succumb to the sirens of those whom I call the “deniers of science,” whether they are climate-thinkers, creationists or persuaded that AIDS is not caused by HIV. But that’s not the way things actually happen. As Dan Kopf recalls in an article published on the Quartz website, scientific knowledge has little weight in adhering to creationism or climate-sectarian theses.
Dan Kopf draws on the work of Dan Kahan and in particular on a lengthy study that this behavior specialist at Yale University published in 2014 in the journal Advances in Political Psychology. Dedicated to the difficulty of getting the results of climate research into the population, this work provides the following graph, which describes the adherence of a panel of Americans to the idea that there are “strong “evidence” to say that global warming is “primarily” caused by human activities such as the use of fossil fuels (you can click on it to see it on a larger format).
© D. Kahan / Advances in Political Psychology.
For each of the two graphs, the more you go to the right, the higher the scientific culture of the survey participants. The graph on the left shows the overall result, on the whole panel: it shows that the adhesion to a global warming due to anthropogenic causes increases slowly but surely with the science knowledge. The curve goes from a little over 30% to about 60%. Nothing very spectacular. This changes as soon as one separates the participants according to their political opinions, as is the case on the graph on the right. We can see that among Democratic voters (blue curve) membership is skyrocketing with the acquisition of scientific knowledge. In Republicans (red curve), being stalled in science does not produce the same effect, on the contrary: the more you have scientific culture, the more likely to be climatosceptic …
As Dan Kahan points out in his study, this dramatic separation of curves occurs only for politically sensitive issues, such as global warming or evolution of the human species from older animal species. On the other hand, when subjects are asked whether the electron is smaller or larger than an atom or the name of the gas most present in the atmosphere (nitrogen), the dichotomy disappears, the blue and red curves are confounded and scientific culture predicts the ability to give the right answer. For the Yale researcher, what matters in whether or not the results of science are adhered to is, above all, whether it will make us leave our cultural group or not. If this membership excludes us from the family with which we feel in communion of thought, it is probable that we will not take the risk because this cognitive dissonance would be difficult to bear.
These works only confirm the ability of the human mind to construct the most incredible theories to avoid destroying the main ideas that structure it. Many examples exist but the one I prefer is a story of astronomers who had seen an unidentified flying object. It is a Canadian, John Woolley, who tells it and I allow myself to reproduce large extracts here, as I had done in 2010 in my previous blog. The story dates back to the mid-1970s, when John Woolley was working in the astrophysics group at the University of Alberta. A loan had been obtained to equip the observatory with a new telescope and the old instrument had been installed on the roof of another building for courses or astronomy sessions open to the public. One evening, after one of them, John Woolley and a student stared at the sky with the naked eye as a squadron of four UFOs, coming out of nowhere, passed over them before disappearing suddenly.
“The UFOs were round and white,” remembers John Woolley, “and they were flying in a diamond formation: one on the front, two on the sides, and one that was closing the way. They swept about 90 degrees of sky in less than three seconds. The two men exchanged a few words:
The student: “Ahhh, did you see that? “
John Woolley: “Yeah, I saw that, all right. “
The student: “Okaaay. It was what ? “
John Woolley: “I do not know, but keep your eyes open. They may come back. “
And the two men scrutinize the sky, no longer to look at the stars, but to look for what was then, in the literal sense of the phrase, unidentified flying objects. These each measured a quarter of a degree, were separated from each other by about five degrees, but in this cloudless sky there was nothing to estimate the distance they were at. Either they were very close and small, in which case their speed was relatively modest, or they were distant, bulky and very fast. John Woolley and his sidekick could have wondered all their lives what they had seen. Fortunately for them, the four UFOs came back. There were four pigeons.
“See what we believe”
Here is John Woolley’s analysis of this story: “This is a classic case of” See what you believe in “. I tend to view information from our senses as passing through filters – or as shaped by our brains – just as we try to make sense of everything that happens around us. This means that the same sensory information can be interpreted quite differently by our brains according to the occasions, according to the filters or forms that operate at these given moments. In the case of our pigeons, the light of the public lighting, below us, was returned to us much better by the white belly and round of the pigeons than by the rest of their body, which brought out more the bellies on the black sky. As soon as we saw the four white objects, a UFO filter appeared in our brains. It is absolutely amazing how effectively the UFO filter has evacuated the rest of the pigeons. On the first pass, we did not have the slightest suspicion that it could be pigeons. By the time they made their second pass, each of us had managed to set aside the UFO filter and replace it with a more like filter “OK, what are we really looking at?” As the pigeons approached again, these round and white bellies were so fascinating that it took a lot of concentration to see the rest of the pigeons beyond them. “
The story is already instructive but it does not stop there … “Some time later, during a public observation session, I was on the roof again looking at the sky. Beside me stood a young man of about 14, when a solitary pigeon flew overhead. The boy turned to me and said, “Wow! Did you see that ? A UFO has just crossed the Big Dipper! “” Yes, “I replied,” it happens from time to time here, and it turns out that they are not UFOs but pigeons “. I then went into the explanation of the white bellies that reflected the light and filters in the brain that selected the data, etc., etc. Although this event happened about two decades before the release of Men In Black, I had to do a pretty good imitation of Will Smith’s character trying to convince someone that he did not see what He just saw, because this boy did not believe anything I told him. He knew what he had seen (actually perceived) and he certainly had not seen any pigeons. His total disbelief at what he heard was read on his face. I could almost see the gears spinning in his head, as he tried to match what I said with what he had seen (perceived). “
“As he tried to find out what was going on,” John Woolley continues, the expression on his face gradually shifted from disbelief to understanding and then to “Eureka!” He took a step back, pointed a finger at me and shouted: “YOU ARE PART OF THE CONSPIRACY!” I was so confused that I could not give a better answer than “NO, NO, honestly, it was a pigeon! “He turned his back and walked away, apparently convinced of two things. Firstly, flying saucers were visiting us, and secondly, there was a vast plot to hide this information from the general public. And all because he did not recognize a pigeon. “
When one wants to believe hard as iron to something, nothing, not even the most rational demonstrations, can make you change your mind, your filter, your mental structure. It is so difficult to send one’s convictions over the mills, so reassuring to protect them, that one will prefer to imagine rash conspiracies, like the fact that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese, rather than watching the truth in the face.