Ideology trumps facts -but facts still matter

15 May 2011

Brian Merchant’s account of D.R. Tucker’s (a U.S. conservative author and radio talk show host) conversion from skeptic to campaigner of climate change policies offers some interesting lessons for think tanks. Here are a few, but I recommend that you read the article (Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds? Yes. but not often):

entrenched ideologies often simply trump facts. People are prone to what psychologists called “motivated reasoning”; we instinctively bend available data to support our preexisting beliefs. Which means that when confronted with facts alone, skeptics usually don’t budge.

That’s why Tucker had to question politics first, before wrestling with the science. [Adopting a new ideology] likely opened the door to clear-headed analysis. Having friends and family members who are willing to goad you along helps, as does a willingness to open-mindedly wade through stuffy scientific reports.

D.R. Tucker’s conversion did not being with the facts, rather with an insight into the politics of ideas. Before reading the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, Tucker:

read Morris Fiorina’s Disconnect, which outlines the way partisan divisions take shape between Democrats and Republicans, and points out that environmentalism used to be one of conservatives’ chief concerns. Tucker’s curiosity was piqued.

After that, a friend convinced Tucker to take a look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report—the authoritative synthesis of the most recent peer-reviewed climate science. “Initially I was a bit skeptical. But I kept on reading it, and there was just so much evidence, and it was so detailed, and it was so backed up, and it was so documented, that I was like, ‘holy shit, this is for real.’ “

Change, however, is not immediate. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, has developed a range of attitudes towards climate change that could be used for other policy issues:

Leiserowitz has been documenting trends in American climate belief for the past decade. He divides American attitudes toward climate change into six categories: “alarmed,” “concerned,” “cautious,” “disengaged,” “doubtful,” and “dismissive.”

So, in other words, (detailed, backed up and well documented) evidence matters but not as much as ideology.