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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Inside information #4 - Thumbs on scales
August 25, 2008 - 10:15pm

OK, so it's badly written, and the key section (at least from my perspective) is entirely ungrammatical, but McPaper recently published an important article about "thinking green". It seems like the American Psychological Association has determined that (1) being outside can make us happy, (2) being made to feel guilty can drive us into denial, and (3) we're even more likely to go into denial if an "authority" says it's OK to do so. The outside/happiness correlation aside, it reminds me of nothing so much as a TV commercial which insists that my "stubborn belly fat" really isn't my fault.

But, cynicism aside (I get to be cynical -- my kids are going back to their respective campuses this week, and they didn't accomplish half of what they were supposed to do over the summer), it is an important article, because it puts before the public at large the whole question of why, and how, we react to what we think we know about climate change. And it explicitly points out the damage that's done by the US media's continued insistence on presenting a "balanced" view of this "controversy", with "authorities" on each side presenting information in roughly equal quantities.

For starts, there is no controversy. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the Royal Society, and every other significant association of the scientifically literate all come down on the same side -- climate change is real, people are causing it, and if we don't reverse course, the results won't be pretty. That being the case, the media's "one from column A, one from column B" approach is anything but balanced. The fact that there can be two possible answers to a question doesn't make them equally true, or equally valid, or equally meaningful. Some folks may still believe that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and couldn't lie about it, but it takes a heavy thumb on the scale to make that perspective as weighty as legitimate history.

The good news is that the single largest source of disinformation -- the biggest funding stream for global warming contrarians -- appears to be drying up. ExxonMobil has agreed to stop funding the "climate denial industry". Maybe it's because of a sudden change of heart, maybe it's because the Rockefeller family was threatening to call for a change of management -- no matter. The supply of disinformative "authorities" should begin to decrease, just as it finally did in the previous tobacco/cancer "controversy". (No, that's not a fatuous correlation. Several of the same groups who lobbied in favor of cigarette combustion have been lobbying in favor of fossil fuel combustion. For an example, check out the Heartland Institute. Their stand on climate change is on their home page, but be sure also to check out their "Smoker's Lounge" section.)

Most academics are good at research, but not so good at propaganda. On the other hand, APA president (and Yale psychology professor) Alan Kazdin proclaims, "We know how to change behavior and attitudes. That is what we do." Normally, I'd like to think that a neutral presentation of the evidence, with no intentional spin one way or the other, would suffice. Given the disinformation campaign that's been mounted (and financed) over the last fifteen years, however, I guess I can be thankful for any effort to "change behavior and attitudes" to bring them more in line with scientific consensus.


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