Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.


I used to be anti-abortion.

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The Garden of Belief

garden_viaKarenRoeThere is an unnerving kind of wary scrutiny that arises when you try to convince someone with an earnest belief to change their mind. They listen, drawn like a bowstring, waiting. You may defend your position, or you may not—it almost makes no difference. At the end, your argument will falter, pierced through in their mind.

In some circles we talk about this kind of discussion as “planting seeds,” presuming (hoping) that some piece of what we say will make it through to germinate behind the walls. Believing that eventually, its roots will undermine even deeper foundations. Perhaps it shall; or perhaps it will die; or perhaps it will grow to a certain height only to be pruned back and left as an ornamental bush in a the corner of a well-kept garden.

Yet I am more concerned with how we go a-sowing.

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Sleight of Words

There is an entirely worthwhile debate to be had about how we name people in challenging situations. The more controversial the situation, the important this debate becomes. Finding the right words, the words that describe groups and events accurately, dispassionately, and without bias, is rarely accomplished without such debate.

Yet most every time these debates occur, there are those who leap ahead with labels instead of arguments. These people appropriate words and use them to push their perspectives as fait accompli, sidestepping the reasoned debate that might lead to a more balanced conclusion. When we are wise, we do not allow this manipulation. When we are unwise, we fail to notice.

People are fleeing Syria at the moment, trying to the best of their ability to escape a dangerous and hostile environment that threatens their lives and the lives of their families. They are risking their lives to escape, which should tell us something about their desperation and need. And, as it often does in such times, xenophobia has reached a fevered pitch in response.

migrantCNNThe clumsy have attempted to equate these refugees with ISIS, or with terrorism (a word itself co-opted long ago). The subtle, the propagandists, did not waste time making their arguments—instead, they went forth boldly to discuss a “migrant crisis,” advancing with their label an argument untenable in logic: that all these people seeking refuge are merely vagrants.

That we were slow to critique this word, that some continue to repeat it, and that only belatedly have we arrived at debate, suggests to me that we are not sufficiently cautious about such naming. This is not the only example, and sometimes we have gone much longer ignoring the question.

More than a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled its government, and sought, without any clear understanding of the political or religious issues involved, to create a new government out of whole cloth. We drafted some leaders, left an occupying force, and scratched our heads as peace did not descend, as many Iraqis did not feel especially liberated, and as many people continued to die.

We did these things on false pretenses, and so I was not surprised when we explained them under false pretenses as well. We labeled the Iraqis who fought us and our created government as “insurgents.” We talked about quelling an “insurgency” as though these people were attacking an established body, rather than a piece of stage dressing that had yet to win the confidence or engagement of its constituency. The truth was so much more complex, and so much more difficult, than the label. Yet there was little public criticism, and the media embraced the “insurgency” as quickly as they have embraced the “migrant crisis.”

We have used labels, too, to justify ourselves when we have no justification. Just recently the Associated Press updated their style guide to stop calling deniers of climate science “skeptics,” a change those same deniers deeply resent and which has been all too long in coming. Because, of course, the label of “skeptic” implies a person who is justifiably hesitant, who is considering critically, and who is careful about beliefs and evidence.

Climate deniers were none of these things. Perhaps, twenty years ago, the term “climate skeptic” might have been justified. Even then the science was fairly clear, but there was justifiable debate about the extent of the problem. Now, when the only controversy remaining is political, the term “climate skeptic” is a laughable pretense. I continue to refer to these people as “deniers,” because I do not see how any other word is justified. The AP has chosen to call them “doubters,” but there is no doubt about the evidence—thus, their doubt is perverse and irrational, and to oppose the conclusions of climate science appears to me, inevitably, to be denial.

There is no way around the power of these names. Those doing the naming define the baselines, the scope, and the tenor of a conversation. When we say there is a “migrant crisis,” suddenly we have introduced doubt about whether we are obliged to help these people; instead, the debate is about whether the people fleeing and dying are truly in need. Likewise when we say there is an insurgency, there is no debate about whether we, in creating a particular set of rulers, were mistaken; instead, the debate is how to preserve that government. And when we let deniers pretend to be skeptics, we allow a debate long settled to continue as though it were not intellectually dishonest.

I cannot help but wonder how often these words are chosen intentionally, and how often they are simply summoned from the zeitgeist to serve as avatars. The former is duplicitous, and thus likely, and yet I think we are duplicitous with ourselves nearly as often as we are with others. And because we fool ourselves, we must be cautious to remember that a label is not an argument, and that it is incumbent on us to question its provenance and honesty. And I think also, we must question a bit more loudly.

The Spirit of Inquiry

via Flickr user Massimo VarioloIn conversation a few weeks ago I guessed that there were some thirty republican presidential candidates at this point. It turns out I was wrong—as I write this, the actual (and only slightly less absurd) number is seventeen. Being wrong about that didn’t bother me all that much; thirty felt like a true number, but I have now revised my knowledge because I encountered new information.

Revising based on new information is something (I hope) I do quite often. When I want to know something, I try to reason out the answer first, but then go look up the truth. Both parts of that are important—if I look something up without chewing on it first, I tend to forget it easily. If I guess but don’t bother to check my guess then the distinction between estimate and reality is easily lost to memory.

Guessing and revision is a somewhat Bayesian way of encountering the world, but I think it reflects a spirit of inquiry and exploration. In one sense, it is a personal application of the scientific method. In the broadest sense I can envision, it is a fundamental part of human nature to experiment and discover. We all build predictive stories for ourselves about the world to explain what has happened before and help us expect what will happen next.

Sometimes, though, the link between guessing and checking gets lost. Maybe I guess something and forget to check it later, or maybe I hear someone else’s guess and don’t realize that they didn’t check it first. The provisional story starts to lose its hesitancy and become Real, and True, and Important, and other similarly calcifying adjectives. The story developed to model the world starts to become a world in itself. Ideas drift into ideologies.

When I listen to people pushing an ideology, I sometimes hear the ghost of inquiry in the background. They say with certainty the things I want to ask as questions.

“Nuclear power is not a viable option for mitigating climate change.” But I want to ask, “Is nuclear power a viable option for mitigating climate change?”

“GMOs are harmful and can’t help with worldwide hunger and nutrition.” And I think, “Are GMOs harmful, and can they help with worldwide hunger and nutrition?”

“Cutting social security, medicare, and other entitlements is the only way to balance the federal budget.” And I reply, “Is cutting social security, medicare, and other entitlements the only way to balance the federal budget?”

“Environmental concerns have to be economically profitable to be effective.” Do they really, I wonder?

What are these ideas? Guesses we received from others, but didn’t really check? If you ask someone who fervently believes one of these positions to support it, they will, and vigorously. Motivated reasoning is easy, and unfortunately common. But did they ever think to doubt it? Did they look beyond the favored “evidence” swirling around them from people who agree with the idea, and instead seek out some more dispassionate analysis of the facts?

And if I disagree, did I?

I don’t know. I think much less often than I would like. In the words of the old Russian proverb, appropriated by a certain person who largely ignored it in his domestic policies, “trust, but verify.”

So I keep guessing, and I keep checking. My greatest worry is for those ideas that seem immediately true. Such ideas slip easily past our defenses and set up shop in our stories without scrutiny, bending and distorting our subsequent knowledge of the world. There is no way to investigate all of these—we hear them everywhere, and verifying takes effort. We even create them unknowingly.

The only course left to us, I think, is to doubt our own stories along with the stories of others. To breathe that spirit of inquiry back into our ideas, especially when they have died into ideologies. We may always be chasing the truth, but I think that better, on the whole, than embracing fictions.

A Local State of Mind

Local FoodLocal food became a thing so long ago at this point that we now have a thriving network of CSAs, a word to describe people who only eat local food (localvore), and a growing movement towards supporting small, local farms over massive agribusinesses. We also have the more subtle economic local movement encouraging us to shop at local businesses and support our local economies.

Yet, we also have some assumptions inherent in both of these movements that aren’t quite true, assumptions that maybe need a little more thought to parse out the truth. I prefer to eat local food, and I prefer to purchase from local businesses, but my understanding of these things has grown over time, and I don’t do it for the same reasons I used to.

For me, the first thing I realized about local anything is that, despite the fervor of some advocates, “local” does not equal “good.” On the whole (but not always) it is better to purchase things that have traveled less, since on the whole (but not always) those things can have lower carbon emissions. As someone who things climate change is the single largest problem humanity is facing/has created, that means I am drawn to local food and products.

But, I said can have lower emissions, not do. The actual carbon emissions of something depend radically on the practices of those who made it. That tomato from Argentina might actually have lower carbon emissions than the tomato you bought at a local farmer’s market, if the Argentine producers made a lot of tomatoes, shipped them mainly by train, and didn’t have to till very much (all things that reduce the average total emissions associated with a piece of produce). Likewise the carbon emissions of a small farmer may vary depending on whether they have to till the soil more often (releasing carbon), use more fertilizer (on rocky New England soil), and drive a (comparatively) small number of tomatoes to market in a (comparatively) fuel-inefficient truck over hilly roads.

This same problem applies, in varying ways, to some apparent benefits of local purchasing. For example, I like the idea of keeping the money I spend in my local economy, thus supporting my neighbors and community and fostering more egalitarian distribution of wealth. But, even though I might be buying from a locally owned store, that store might turn around and invest their profits in a portfolio that includes Wal-Mart stock and, to some extent, helps drive other local sellers out of business. Or that local business may have gotten a loan from, say, Bank of America, and paying down that loan may be funneling wealth out of the community.

There are more examples of this problem, but the point I am trying to stress here is that, while I support purchasing local food and goods and do so myself whenever possible, choosing a local option does not automatically mean you are doing what you think you are. You still have to check.

What buying local will do for you is make the task of checking up on things much more manageable. Every item we buy has a chain of impacts associated with it, a series of feedbacks that impact things far beyond the obvious. The longer that chain of impact, the more likely that there are unintended consequences somewhere along the way. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a fad for colorful feathers in ladies’ hats decimated the population of hundreds of species of birds. The people buying those hats couldn’t check the provenance of the feathers, but their contribution to the overall demand was devastating.

So, when I buy local, I treat that as the beginning of my choice, not the end. I don’t buy the local tomato assuming that it has lower carbon emissions than the Argentine tomato; I buy the local tomato because in many cases I can find out. I can go to my local farm and buy a tomato from their farm stand and know how it was produced. If there’s something in that practice that I don’t like, I can look for somewhere better.

If I buy the Argentine tomato, the process is opaque: all I see is that a tomato is there, and generally where it came from. I don’t know whether someone drained a peat marsh or burned a plot of rainforest to plant that tomato. I don’t know if it spent most of its time on a container ship. I don’t know if it was sent to Louisiana and shipped north in a tractor-trailer. And I probably can’t know those things.

So I buy local, not because I assume it’s better, but because among my local options, I can choose who to support. I can decide what I care about, and use my purchasing to have at least a little bit of impact. I buy local because when I am buying things from far away, it isn’t money I am trading for that convenience: it is knowledge.

Infinite Pie in the Sky

World_GDP_Per_Capita_1500_to_2000,_Log_ScaleThe ideology of economic growth is so entrenched an idea that it often goes unnoticed and unquestioned: the media, politicians, and businesses all frame more growth as good and less growth as bad. But “growth” in this proposition is ambiguously defined. In fact, our dominant national economic indicator, GDP, actually measures economic throughput, not economic growth—it measures the total value of services and resources used in a given year. Neoclassical economists assume that because a growing economy is correlated with a healthy society, a “healthy” neoclassical capitalist economy must always be bigger than it was before.

If you tried to apply this in your life, it would swiftly become ridiculous: for example, you would have to measure your bank balance by how much money you withdraw in a month instead of by how much is left. You would conclude that you were getting richer by spending more money every month, and ignore the rapidly shrinking balance until you had multiple overdrafts and the bank froze your account.

A rationale thinker may at this point ask how an economy can grow infinitely on a finite planet. The neoclassical economist’s answer is the proposition of infinite substitutability—that human ingenuity and technology will find the answer to any problems of scarce resources. In plainer words, the dominant economic view is that humans are infinitely smarter than natural limits and we will always find ways around them, so don’t worry about it.

Using my bank account analogy, this is the same as pretending your account is infinitely full of money, so you will never run out. If that seems like irrational, pie-in-the-sky thinking, it is: infinite pie in the sky. As economist and teacher Kenneth Boulding notably proclaimed, “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Infinite substitutability based on human ingenuity is effectively hubris laid down as an economic principal. It discounts limits of materials and energy, presuming that we will always find a new alternative. In practice, though, human society has chosen to draw down stored energy faster than it can be replenished in the form of coal, oil, and gas. No amount of human ingenuity has yet created free energy and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that it never can. Nevertheless, the idea of infinite growth goes mostly unconsidered in year-to-year economic policy.

As Garrett Hardin put it, “a society that pays attention to economists needs economists who pay attention to reality.” To recognize physical limits, however, is not a popular position. In the United States, at least, there is a major incentive to ignore the problem of infinite growth—namely, ignoring it lets us rest easy on issues of economic inequality. If there is always more to be had, no one with more wealth can be blamed for the lack of wealth of others.

When I wrote about the Rich Man’s Burden, I observed along the way that some people assume equal access to all the benefits of a growing economy. The proposition of infinite growth is one excuse for that assumption: if there is an infinitely growing pie, the size of your slice may have no relationship to the size of anyone else’s. The proposition of an infinite pie sets up a carrot on a stick for disenfranchised lower classes: work hard to get more, because there is always more to go around. Following that, if you make a lot of money, you must be smart, creative, and hard-working; if you make little money, you must be dumb, rigid, and lazy.

Within this Rich Man’s Burden framework, it is easy to say we should cut the social safety net because there are “too many on the government teat.” It is easy for Representative Allan West to argue for cutting programs for the poor because “we in Congress need to do our part to aid the struggle for more personal responsibility. We need to reduce government spending levels so we are taking less from America’s producers of economic growth.” It is easy for business columnist Elizabeth Macdonald to talk about the “feeding trough” and “government handouts,” as if the people who need the safety net are lazy pigs. As if our grandparents who worked their entire lives should be bankrupted by the high cost of medications, or as if our children who depend on food stamps should just buck up and earn some money themselves. Maybe those poor children should just become janitors so they can learn how to work harder—a suggestion actually made by Newt Gingrich during his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination.

That heaping disdain traces back to the idea that growth gives everyone equal opportunity—but really it is just another excuse to continue removing opportunity from the worst-off among us to benefit those who need it least.

And so we are always chasing growth, because many people are in need and supposedly growth will alleviate that. Yet the majority of “new” wealth in the economy is captured by those at the top, not those most in need. The idea of an infinite pie sets up a constant moving target of financial stability that keeps those most exploited by the system hopeful, while the well-off continue to benefit from their labor.

With an infinite pie, the idea that anyone might have too much, especially we in the United States, need never enter the discussion. There is no such thing as too much—instead, it is always about more.

Knights of the Silver Bullet

via Flickr user BradI want to confess something: despite my deep concern for social and environmental justice, I sometimes have serious doubts about the way many of us approach those issues. I, too, feel overwhelmed by the enormity of pervasive problems—climate change, racism, sexism, economic and social inequality… these seem too big to change. At times I feel the most we can do is hold a small beachhead against an ever-advancing flood. And I see some people defending each of their solutions as THE solution, and I yearn to find one myself.

And believe me, it is exhilarating and empowering and energizing to know that you have found THE solution! It is a deeply religious experience to tilt at windmills and slay dragons, to face a world of challenges that you can solve, and to evangelize for your solution with absolute faith in it’s efficacy.

But you can do all that and still be wrong.

In the face of futility and personal impotence, it’s easy to be drawn to ideas that promise one comprehensive answer. And it’s easy to gloss over the places where those ideas don’t quite line up with reality. In a recent piece in Jezebel, Melissa Chadburn describes her experience working in a nonprofit where fostering resilience was seen as THE solution to a myriad of issues.

“The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience,” Melissa writes. “The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term ‘resilience’ has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity.”

And yet, it seemed few people at this nonprofit had stopped to questions the assumptions involved. Not only did they presume resilience was THE answer, they also presumed that “changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems.” It’s a nice thought—that if you just work hard enough, you can overcome systemic problems. But it’s not true. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you never have access to resources. As Melissa observed, “it’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.”

I like the concept of resilience. I think it is important. I think it is critical. But I also know there is a point beyond which it doesn’t apply, because resilience is about systems more than parts, and the farther you get from the whole, the less useful it becomes. When individuals are suffering in abject poverty, the problem is that the system does not protect those persons, not that the persons need to be more resilient.

Resilience is just one example. There are dozens of silver bullets we cling to. You can vote, live, and buy your way to a better world. Changing yourself is changing the world! Except that it isn’t really. And what about recycling? Well, sometimes it reduces waste, and sometimes it is energy inefficient. What about shopping local? Well, sometimes it improves a local economy and sometimes it increases fuel usage when things are moved around in smaller batches. What about wind and solar power? Well, it offsets use of terrible energy sources like coal, but it also can’t meet demand. What about the idea that you can change the world by changing how you shop? Well, you can in a small way, but most of the important purchasing to change is done by companies and organizations, not individuals.

But we need these ideas, don’t we? If we acknowledge the limits of our solutions, don’t we also have to acknowledge that none of them will fix these problems? Aren’t we stuck in a maze of dead ends and despair?

The quick fixes, despite their improbability, are enticing and seductive. I understand why we cling to them even when the facts disagree. I understand why we stretch them beyond their usefulness and apply them even when we shouldn’t. I am tempted to do so myself, if only to erase that hopelessness that sometimes creeps in. But when we do that, our energy is spent uselessly.

We need to be better than that. The truth is that there is no silver bullet. There is no one solution. But instead of despairing over that, maybe, if we try, we can see the vast possibilities it implies. Maybe we can embrace the idea that all our work matters, that all of us doing the pieces we do well is the same as fixing the whole. Instead of carrying the weight of the world alone and clinging to the idea that our one solution will fix it, maybe, if we try, we can carry it together.

The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.

Changing Minds, Part 3: the Sentiment of Society

When I worked in wilderness therapy, changing minds was a regular part of the job. It was up to us, the guides, to help struggling teenagers reexamine their lives and make new choices. Sometimes that meant challenging their biases. It always meant challenging their assumptions. I valued that part of the work the most: the part where I got to see someone open their mind to a new way of looking at the world. But that was only the first step—in order for them to maintain their new habits, they had to return to an environment that would nurture their change and support them in making healthier choices. And that was something I had no control over.

Within our communities, and within our society, there is an inevitable inertia to our views. It starts, as I discussed in part one of this series, with our own entrenched ideas. Even if we change one another’s minds using the tools I outlined in part two, there remains a certain amount of inertia in the society around us. We who change our minds on controversies will be swimming upstream, fighting against the tide of the zeitgeist for a long while before the ship of public opinion finally turns.


Advocates for social change sometimes suggest that changing individual minds is equivalent to changing the mind of society. We rarely say so explicitly, but too often we rely on some vague social alchemy to translate the beliefs of persons into the beliefs of the people.

Of course it is not so simple—the entrenched ideas of society do not require our consent. They do not even require the consent of a majority of people; a majority of the powerful will do. And even when the believers are a minority, the entrenched ideas may continue grinding onward for a long while unless they are actively stopped.

In the course of researching for my Masters thesis, I puzzled out what I believed to be the five major components of an entrenched societal idea. In brief they are legitimacy, pervasiveness, inertia, organizational manifestations, and broad unconscious acceptance. To change the mind of a society, I believe we who advocate the change must address each of these components and ensure not only that we undermine the old idea, but that we build these qualities into the thing we advocate.

I believe climate change is a instructive example. Human-caused climate change is well-supported by scientific evidence, repeatedly evidenced in our climate and ecosystems, and yet confoundingly controversial in the public realm. We should have started responding to climate change two decades ago, but instead we seem locked in societal indecision over whether it really exists.

To consider how the idea of climate change interacts with the entrenched idea that humans can do what they wish to natural systems without fear of consequences, let’s look at each of the components I mentioned above.

Legitimacy is the acceptability of an idea in the public sphere. While the science has come down heavily proving human-caused climate change, those who have the most to lose have fought hard to maintain legitimacy for climate science denialism. When anything is a “controversy” in the public perception, what that really means is that there are two opposed viewpoints that are both considered legitimate. Racism, by contrast, is widely practiced but it is not acceptable to be publicly racist—it is an illegitimate idea.

Pervasiveness is how an idea crosses geographic, cultural, political, and other societal boundaries. The people who deny climate change, unfortunately, come from many segments of society, which helps maintain climate denial’s legitimacy as a belief. When an idea becomes restricted to a single group, the rest of society can often move on. When it remains pervasive, though, it remains entrenched. Racism, despite being illegitimate in public, is still pervasive.

I must observe here that, whatever the benefits of Al Gore’s climate advocacy, the partisan divide that resulted from it has been disastrous. By linking response to climate change with a pre-existing societal boundary, we have all but deadlocked the issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say the single most important thing to do in the world of climate activism is to find ways to engage Republicans in support of change. Until awareness of climate change becomes pervasive, it will be tough to make headway against climate denialism.

Inertia refers to how people interact with the entrenched idea; if they are pushed by society into one position or another by default, that idea has societal inertia. Climate change actually has fairly weak inertia at this point because the positions for and against it are to some extent equally weighted in the public mind. This is a bad thing for climate activists, though, because it maintains the controversy. In this respect, educating people on the science is critical because it makes it harder to accept the assumptions of climate denialism.

Organizational Manifestations are those structures already in place that rely on one idea or another and influence the behavior of society’s members. Inertia affects people’s individual views, but organization manifestations affect their actions.

Climate advocacy is vastly behind the curve on this, because although there are thousands of people working on clean energy sources, the majority of infrastructure is built with the presumption that fossil fuel energy is an acceptable large-scale energy source. Entire industries are built around exploiting fossil fuels, and governments are continuing to subsidize them. Changing these structures is unavoidably painful for a lot of people who will have to switch careers or abandon their investments, and the economic behavior of our entire society has to move away from relying on cheap energy if we are to achieve real change. In this sense, the organizational manifestations of climate denialism are creating massive behavioral inertia.

Broad Unconscious Acceptance is the final quality of an entrenched idea and describes how those people who hold an idea view it themselves. Here we can see a great deal of progress around the issue of climate change. As recently as the 1980s and early 1990s, it was easy to accept the status quo without thinking about it—gas was cheap, energy was cheap, and the climate science was uncertain. Now we’ve reached the point of controversy, so people on both sides of the debate cannot ignore the presence of an opposing view. That said, they still may not question their own view.

In Summary

Climate denialism became entrenched decades ago through naiveté, and changing the mind of society is a slow process. Although climate change advocates have made some headway in legitimizing climate change and eliminating broad unconscious acceptance, the organizational manifestations and pervasiveness of climate denial remain an issue, and the inertia of the ideas is fairly balanced. To reach a point where society will respond to climate change and stop worsening the problem we need headway in all five components—we need climate denialism to become illegitimate, be restricted to a few groups of people, and be eliminated from our social structures like businesses and governments.

Through these five qualities of entrenched ideas we see the ebb and flow of societal beliefs, and we can begin to seek change on a level beyond that of the individual. The evidence may be clear on an issue, as it is on climate change, but that isn’t enough to change the mind of society. Nor is changing individual minds alone enough to create that change. We have those things, and still the “controversy” legitimizes the ideas that climate is not changing, or that if it is, humans aren’t causing it, or that if we are, it may not be a bad thing, or that if it is, we can only accept solutions the maintain the status quo.

In the previous two parts, I suggested concrete ways to change minds. I have changed my own mind, and I can suggest ways to go about that. I have helped others change their minds, and there is science to suggest ways we can do that effectively.

To change the zeitgeist, however, is to turn a much more unwieldy and capricious beast. My best understanding at present is that we must try to ensure that our work impacts the qualities I listed above. I cannot say precisely the best way to go about it, but I suspect the answer is all ways, and then some, and with all the energy you can muster.

Changing Minds, Part 2: Influencing Others

Via Adrian SnoodOne consequence of holding strong views is the desire to change the views of others, especially when faced with equally strong opposing views. I try to pick these moments carefully, but it is all too easy for me to be drawn into a Facebook debate or an impassioned argument on the issues I care about. I find these moments instructive, and they have inspired in me a deep curiosity about how we form, hold, and change our beliefs.

After all, not all views are equal—some are supported by data and evidence, some are refuted by data and evidence, some suffer from contradictory evidence, and some remain untested. And yet, there seems to be little relationship between the objective support for and idea and the strength of beliefs about it. As I mentioned in the first part of this discussion, we often hold ideas that are part and parcel of our worldview or self-worth immune from criticism. Changing our own minds on these issues is difficult enough, so how can we expect to change the minds of others?

Last December, a study was published in the journal Science detailing support for the contact hypothesis—the idea that people may change entrenched ideas if faced with people who are directly affected by those ideas. In this case, the study seemed to show that LGBTQ canvassers in California had lasting impacts on people’s opinions about Gay Marriage. Unfortunately, the lead author seems to have fabricated all the follow-up data, rendering the results useless, and the second author asked Science to retract the study. If true, this would have been the first real data showing dramatic change in controversial views.

The current body of scientific literature on changing minds is, sadly, pessimistic. People generally are not open to alternative views, and the more entrenched their own position, the less willing they are to consider a change. Repeated studies have shown that the more an idea challenges their fundamental views, the more people are willing to reject it. People are even willing to use information they know is wrong as support for their preconceived ideas. And as if that weren’t enough, correcting an entrenched idea with undeniable evidence often leads to the Backfire Effect, wherein people strengthen their incorrect beliefs in response to the challenge.

This doesn’t bode well for change. Exigent controversies such as climate change threaten the fundamental ecosystems of our planet, but data and evidence don’t seem to change people’s opinions. The pursuit of social change in the face of intractable viewpoints seems, to some extent, futile.

But I don’t believe that can be true. It’s not that people do change their minds—I have done so myself on a number of controversial issues; rather, it is that people do not change their minds for the reasons we think they do. Whatever value I place on data and evidence, those are not the things that are most convincing for most people, and those are not the things that stick in our memories.

If we want to change minds, we need to meet entrenched ideas where they live, in the murky realm of worldviews, self-worth, and fundamental values. And, despite the overall pessimism of the literature, there are some strategies that do have an effect. They are not silver bullets, but they are the best we have for now.

Some Evidence-Based Strategies for Changing Minds:

-Provide an alternate narrative. If you undercut a belief that has implications for sense of self or worldview, the person may be more likely to accept it if you help them construct a new narrative that includes the corrected information.

-Make people laugh. People are more open to change and ideas that contradict their own if the mood is light and friendly instead of confrontational.

-Make people feel good about themselves. By shoring up their sense of self-worth, you provide additional capacity for them to change their views. This is especially useful when people have invested their self-worth into the belief in question.

-Include the information in a story, fictional or otherwise. Information that is built into stories is stickier than information that is free-floating, regardless of truth. Misinformation can be spread this way as well, so be careful.

-Use evidence to reinforce beliefs, not to challenge them. Evidentiary challenges work with beliefs that are not low-stakes, but only serve to make someone mistrust the source when the belief in question is tied up in their worldview or self-worth.

The items above are all based on the scientific literature as I understand it. I must also add one more critical strategy for any advocate: doubt yourself. For my part, at least, there are few things as off-putting as someone who ignores your side of the discussion and just keeps repeating their own as if you hadn’t spoken. Being willing to reconsider your own views is a key part of the give and take of a frank discussion. If you want to change someone’s mind, then, make sure you are listening to their contributions; otherwise, they will certainly have no incentive to listen to you.

Read part 3: the Sentiment of Society