Cognitive dissonance

In the early 1950s a woman in Minneapolis began to receive communications from an extraterrestrial being named Sananda. Marian Keech, as she was pseudonymously known, heard that a great flood would cleanse the world of earthlings at midnight on 21 December 1954. Only those who believed in Sananda would be saved; they would be taken to another planet in a spaceship that would arrive just before the flood.

A cult formed around Ms Keech. Apart from a single press release, it shunned publicity. Members quit their jobs, sold their houses and left their families. On the day of judgment they gathered in Keech's house to await the arrival of the spaceship. The media gathered on the front lawn. The clock ticked down to midnight, but neither the spaceship nor the flood arrived. Inside the house some cult members wept; others stared at the ceiling.

The cult had been infiltrated by a young psychologist, Leon Festinger, who was intrigued by how the members would accommodate the prophecy's failure. As it dawned on them that the world would not be ending that night, how would they react?

The rational response would be to face up to the truth that they had been duped, and sink into deep despondency because they had made enormous sacrifices for nothing.

In fact, the opposite occurred. The cult members became excited, throwing open the curtains and inviting the television cameras in. They were told that Marian Keech had just received an urgent message from a high-density being, telling her that the world had been spared the flood because the group had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction. Over the next days Keech and other cult members told as many media outlets as they could that their devotion was not in vain, for through it they had saved the world.

These counterintuitive events stimulated Festinger to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance, which describes the uncomfortable feeling we have when we begin to understand that something we believe to be true is contradicted by evidence.1 Festinger hypothesised that those whose firmly held views are repudiated by the emergence of facts often begin to proselytise even more fervently after the facts become incontrovertible. He wrote that we spend our lives paying attention to information that is consonant with our beliefs and avoiding that which is not. We surround ourselves with people who think as we do and avoid those who make us feel uncomfortable.

Festinger's analysis helps us understand the phenomenon of climate change 'scepticism' or, more accurately, denial. If humans are rational creatures, we would expect that as the scientific evidence confirming human-induced global warming has become overwhelming, the deniers would adjust their beliefs to accommodate the facts. Yet they have become more vehement in their attacks on climate scientists, environmentalists and anyone who accepts the evidence for global warming. They have ways of explaining away the facts: scientists have distorted their results to obtain more research funding; other scientists in possession of the truth have been silenced; governments have caved in to pressure from environmentalists who are hell-bent on destroying the freemarket system.

Wherever there is uncertainty in the body of scientific evidence, the deniers insert a crowbar into the chink and try to open up a crack that will bring the edifice down. They proselytise about the disastrous consequences if the world fails to listen to them, with predictions of economic collapse if governments are foolish enough to try to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As evidence of global warming accumulates, the deniers cling ever more firmly to their contrarian views. They bombard newspapers with angry letters and express outrage in blogs and online forums, where they vilify those who do not share their beliefs. They meet together at their own conferences where they engage in mutual reinforcement, convinced that they possess a special knowledge that the rest of the world needs urgently to hear. The truth has been revealed to them because they are more rational than others and are therefore able to see through the distortions of the mainstream climate scientists.

The denialists are masters of what C.S. Lewis termed 'bulver-ism', a method of argument that avoids the need to prove that someone is wrong by first assuming their claim is wrong and then explaining why the person could hold such a fallacious view. The argument has the following structure: you scientists say there is human-induced global warming, but you make this claim because you want more research funding, or because you are caught up in herd behaviour, or because you are environmentalists; therefore, there is no such thing as global warming. Lewis wrote of the fictitious coiner of the term: 'Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—"Oh you say that because you are a man."'2 Why, it is reasonable to ask, do climate sceptics who declare themselves loyal allies of science repudiate the accumulated evidence when it becomes inconvenient? Why do they want the science to be wrong? Of course, in posing these questions I could be guilty of bulverism myself, except for the overwhelming weight of evidence in favour of human-induced global warming. Beginning with the facts makes analysis of the motives of those who reject them fair game.

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