Leo Tolstoy

Hopefully, but don’t hold your breath, this is the last iteration of the climate wars—to commit or not to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. But which also appears as entirely inadequate given our current predicament. 

Not sure about everyone else, but I’m still flabbergasted that every step we take toward the phasing out of fossil fuels is fought tenaciously by the right-wing of the Liberal Coalition.

I watched in dismay as Nationals senator Matt Canavan on the ABC’s Q&A—obviously an educated and intelligent person—cherry-pick his way through the climate science to denounce the latest IPCC report and accuse its authors of distributing “fear porn”. 

So what’s happening here? 

Off the cuff and positively puerile tweets aside, how does one explain such bizarre intransigence? Are Matt Canavan and Co suffering from the “Tolstoy Syndrome”?

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote that “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Another apt and oft-cited Tolstoy quote:

“I know that most men.., including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life”.

In his endeavours to change minds, Tolstoy sounds as frustrated as we are!

Why any shred of dubious testimony will do

Another way to explain the Tolstoy Syndrome and Senator Canavan’s view of the world is “confirmation bias”. A trait that is innate, to varying degrees, in all of us. 

For instance, the desire to believe a conspiracy theory given the slightest shred of dubious testimony. According to American astronomer Phillip C Plait, in 2002, 10-25 million Americans believed that humans didn’t land on the moon. That it was a hoax.

Thus, confirmation bias is the tendency of people to interpret, retain, and specifically seek out evidence that is partial to their well-established beliefs, expectations, and theories. Meaning that they will embrace any information that confirms their beliefs and disregard anything to the contrary.

On this, Ben Goldacre, a British physician, academic, and author, in his whimsical 2009 book Bad Science, described how intelligent people are fooled by five cardinal cognitive illusions: 

“(1) we see patterns where there is only random noise; (2) we see causal relationships where there are none; (3) we overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis; (4) we seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis; and (5) our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs”.

Pseudo-paradoxical political speak

In fairness to Senator Canavan, he did say that he agreed “with their overall findings (of the IPCC) on climate change but that it sounded more like spin than science”. 

Which also sounded like one of Scott Morrison’s logically self-contradictory statements.

A kind of pseudo-paradoxical political speak wherein one is debating the political currency of both sides of a proposition out loud and with oneself—and periodically coming to different conclusions—but forgetting that someone is actually listening. 

And moreover, as we have become accustomed, cherry-picking specific points of reference to support an argument is a matter of course in politics.

As the influential Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted: “Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”

So, why doesn’t science fact change our minds? 

Humans need a reasonably accurate world view to survive. If your mental model of reality is too different from the actual world, you struggle to fit in—your thinking and acting are out of sync with the mainstream. 

But truth is not the only thing that matters. Humans have a deep desire to belong. Tribalism is a prehistoric prerequisite to survival that seems even more relevant to contemporary politics.

But there is a downside to this particular human condition. As the acclaimed American legal scholar Cass Sunstein pointed out, “Like-minded people, engaged in discussion with one another, may lead each other in the direction of error and falsehood, simply because of the limited argument pool and the operation of social influences”.

And from a party political perspective, this is reinforced by representative democracy in which one’s constituency is also of the same thinking.

The ticket to approval is maintaining one’s group membership

Similarly, Dan Kahan, a Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale Law School, argued that rational choice is a function of “ideologically motivated cognition” that advances a person’s interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that demonstrate their loyalty to their respective affinity group. 

This is premised on the rationale that the desire to identify with a cultural group is the prevailing norm when confronted with the cost of taking a position at odds with that group, which could prove highly detrimental.

Subsequently, politicians base their decisions on the costs and benefits they will incur as a consequence of their beliefs. As such, their language is a machination of the decisions they make, grounded in the supposition that the optimal strategy is to conform to their respective support base or risk expulsion.

In short: group membership is desirable, and ostracisation is to be avoided at all costs. And changing one’s mind means changing one’s tribe. Which is painful because accepting the truth of a situation and acting on it is important, but so is remaining part of the tribe.

Of course, it seems, this can be made much less painful if one is offered a position of power and prestige. As former anti-climate change campaigner and Leader of the Government of the Senate Mathias Cormann—now a climate change advocate as the recently appointed Secretary-General of the OECD— can attest to.  

The only constant in life is change

There is an ancient Greek saying—ta panta rhei kai ouden menei—attributed to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (540-480 BCE), that roughly translates to “everything flows, and nothing stays”. 

That is, everything must change and thus it follows that an organism’s survival is a function of its capacity to change with the times. 

Change might be the only constant, but humans are apt to choose the worldview or mental model that best helps them through the day. 

And to the vast majority of people in a crowded city street confronted with a growing array of everyday obstacles, climate change might be the last thing on their minds.

But this is different from a political leader—a person of authority and responsible for the wellbeing of our nation—maintaining a position contrary to the science when the viability of our country and our planet is at stake.

As Tolstoy also said: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Hopefully, he got that one wrong.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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