Fouls, Buzzer Beaters, and the Battle over Climate Change

This November I’ll be giving this talk at Penn State Great Valley outside of Philly. I’m looking forward to putting the talk together and sharing my thoughts with you as I do it. All the stuff about motivated reasoning will be REALLY fun to get into.

If you’ve been following me lately then you know about all the environmental activism surrounding Ferguson Township. My hunch is that one of the major obstacles that people are facing is their own motivated reasoning. They are choosing who they are instead of what they (could) know and simply seeking out confirmatory evidence and not jeopardizing their hypotheses. As social animals who love cohesion, at least within their in group, it makes sense. It’s rational. But it comes at a big cost that can drive doubling down on otherwise irrational behavior. Anyway…the talk.

Fouls, Buzzer Beaters, and the Battle over Climate Change
Wednesday, November 4 at 7 p.m.
Musser Auditorium, Conference Center Building, Penn State Great Valley

Our allegiances to groups influences our judgments and our beliefs.

With about six seconds to go in the 1998 NBA championship, Michael Jordan sank a game-winning 20-footer. The Bulls won the series 4-2, Jordan retired for the second time, and he went into the Hall of Fame.

But there’s a hitch. Before he made that shot, did he foul Bryon Russell? The refs didn’t call it. If you’re a Utah Jazz fan, that call—or no call—was a big mistake. The refs were biased in Jordan’s favor! they shouted. But if you’re a Bulls fan, Jordan didn’t push. He merely brushed Russell’s back. Without absolutely airtight evidence one or another, who’s right? And could you ever convince a Jazz fan anyway when their team was so close? Probably not.

In the arguments over climate change for the last decade, a similar kind of motivated reasoning has been at work. For conservatives, climate scientists might be like Michael Jordan—they’re scoring but they’re cheating. Or maybe they’re like the refs and ignoring evidence that contradicts their position. Perhaps, like Jazz fans who are wrong, they are manufacturing a controversy and simply being sore losers. However we view these controversies, the way people talk or shout about them has more to do with what team they are on than the facts of the matter. Most of us are making decisions based on who we believe we are and not what we know through science and observation.

And what if human-caused climate change isn’t like the Jordan vs. Russell call? The overwhelming number of experts on the issue would say that denying climate change today would be like Jazz fans trying to call a foul on Jordan when he did a breakaway dunk with no one within 20 feet of him. How could that happen and is there anything to be done about it?

In this talk, I will take us on a tour of this arena and its players and explain how our identities and allegiances influence what we think we know. Along the way, you will get a brief history of climate science, learn about the science that helps us understand the politics and psychology of climate change and other hot-button scientific issues. I will also explore some approaches to communicating and deliberating about climate change that can get around some of these pitfalls. These approaches could be especially important for a democracy with a free press and universal education. Chances may still be slim for Jazz and Bulls fans watching Jordan videos. But there is some reason to believe we can get to a more reasonable conversation about climate change.


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