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Are we moving toward a fact-free future?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman likes to pose the following problem to audiences to illustrate our habitual modes of thinking:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 together and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

It turns out that about 50 percent of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got the answer wrong. The proportion reached as high as 90 percent at other unnamed universities. Okay, now that you've had time to reflect on the answer, you'll realize that your instinct was probably to answer 10 cents. But, of course, that's wrong. And, all you have to do is some elementary math to realize it's wrong, and then arrive at the correct answer: The ball costs 5 cents.

What's in operation here are two systems of interpreting the world, one associative and one logical, often referred to in psychology as System 1 and System 2, respectively. System 1 picks up the numbers $1.10 and $1 and makes an incorrect leap that the ball costs 10 cents. System 2 does the math and then corrects the error. It's something that happens every day in our lives. But, in this case what is at stake is regarded by most people as so trivial that even very smart ones fail to engage System 2 to check their answer. If, instead of being faced with a trivial problem that has no impact on your life, you were considering which house to buy, you would probably be engaging System 2 on a regular basis. You would be trying to determine if you were getting a fair price by, for example, checking home values nearby, comparing square footage and evaluating features such as a swimming pool or finished basement.

And, this brings me to my topic. Issues such as climate change and peak oil seem so abstract to most people that they do not see them as pressing issues that require a thorough analysis and immediate action. This is true because the effects are not immediately impinging on them or, at least, they unable to connect what effects there are to themselves. And, the usual fact-filled analysis that is often thrown at them therefore doesn't interest them much. As it turns out, information that is new, but not consistent with one's current belief system, is normally discarded by most people. Typically, only some exceptional concrete change of circumstances will cause people to open their belief systems to contradictory information.

You might say System 1 is the storytelling function and System 2 is the investigatory, scientific function. To succeed, stories need to be concrete and evocative of experiences and feelings that people can identify with. Since we operate most of the time using System 1 and since it serves us well in the vast majority of cases, the conclusion we can draw is that climate change and peak oil activists must create a narrative that can simultaneously tap into people's existing belief systems while giving them new information. This is no small task. And, it would be hard enough without all the pernicious and omnipresent propaganda emitted by the fossil fuel industry. That propaganda, incidentally, tells stories that reinforce the status quo and so don't challenge the basic worldview of most people.

In an attempt to eliminate contradictory information, the fossil fuel industry and their political allies have made a spate of attempts in the last year to shut down research and information about climate change and environmental degradation. The alarming nature of recent scientific findings has the industry fearful that people may actually be aroused from their propaganda-induced torpor and seek change. In North Carolina, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent estimates of sea level rise based on climate change models from being incorporated into development plans. The state has a long Atlantic coastline and many barrier islands that are threatened by rising seas. Mere pretending, of course, won't prevent bad things from happening. But it may allow developers to do whatever they please instead of preparing North Carolina for the inevitable deluge.

The anti-science Harper administration in Canada has decided to disband the government's ocean contaminants program which monitors pollution and its effects in the three oceans the touch Canada's shores. Naturally, this move was portrayed as a cost-cutting measure. But the real intent is to prevent the dissemination of scientific findings that might lead to new environmental regulations which would impede oil and gas exploration.

Last year the U.S. Congress saw fit to cut the budget of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the face of historically unprecedented oil prices that are telling us we need to keep careful track of energy markets and supplies. Again, the excuse was cost-cutting. It's less clear that this move was inspired by the desire to keep the public in the dark rather than by the ideologically driven desire to shrink government and make it ineffective.

North Carolina, of course, will simply be a laughingstock if it goes ahead with its plan to outlaw the truth about sea level rise. That information will still be available from other sources. But Canada's ocean contaminants program will mean the loss of vital data about the health of our oceans, especially about the Arctic Ocean. As for the EIA budget cuts, the information it will no longer compile could be compiled by others and made available for a fee. But the central purpose of the EIA is to make energy information available to policymakers and the public free of charge to encourage broad participation in debates about energy policy.

But the purging of facts doesn't always come from governments. Privately funded propaganda--these days coming from so-called "think tanks" that are funded by right-wing billionaires--can also obscure our view. If you want testimony from inside one of these think tanks, read this piece from conservative David Frum who was fired from such a think tank for disagreeing with Republicans on strategy--not even policy--during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. The message was clear: "We don't pay you to think. We pay you to repeat."

All of these moves by governments, corporate interests and elites are really aimed at cultivating and disseminating compelling stories which appeal to System 1 to reinforce the status quo. These moves are also designed to withdraw resources from government departments and drown out nonprofits that provide contradictory System 2 information which might be useful in checking the System 1 stories peddled by these groups.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Apparently, in the our new age of extremist ideologies, there is no longer any place for facts, only opinions.

P.S. I want to relate an encounter I had with an energy analyst from a highly regarded think tank, not a fake one, but a real one that does real consulting for corporations and government agencies. When I mentioned to him that the EIA reports that crude oil plus condensate (which is the definition of oil) has been flat since 2005, he responded that I couldn't be correct. I suggested that he look it up himself and see that production has bounced between 72 and 74 million barrels per day during that period. He stated that that number must not include tar sands production. I told him that it indeed includes all crude plus condensate from whatever source. But, he was simply not prepared to accept what the publicly available data told him.

There are three things I took from this conversation. First, I was frankly astonished that someone whose job is energy analyst at a bona fide think tank did not know the EIA number for crude oil plus condensate. After all, that's his job and that number is probably the most important number in the world for an energy analyst to know. Second, this person did not know the EIA definition of oil. I realize that this definition is not something the average person would know. But for someone who eats, drinks and breathes energy, it really ought to be essentially top of mind. Third, this encounter was a perfect illustration of how System 1 thinking--a broad narrative about there being plenty of oil for decades to come--can completely overshadow System 2 thinking even in persons whose work involves heavy emphasis on System 2.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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