Rejecting the Evidence: Neurobiology, Effective Messaging, and Ocean Policy

Public and political disagreement over the truth or validity of scientific conclusions is a challenge climate researchers have been facing for some time. By extension, the manifestation of doubt or the willful rejection of climate science often ties regional ocean health and marine policy to the government du jour. For our U.S. neighbours to the south, never has that been more evident than today.

In North America, research points to political persuasion as a strong indicator in determining a voter’s inclination to trust and support climate science. Legacy energy mega-companies in fossil fuel sectors have undoubtedly played a part in the dissemination of misleading information on climate change in the past decade. However, the enormous crevasse along political and ideological lines cannot be solely attributed to the influence of these special interest groups.

With much soul-searching in mainstream American media following the November 2016 electoral outcome, many have speculated that “online bubbles” have become so well-tailored to our partialities that reaching common ground or fact-based consensus on political issues is now a near impossibility. News consumers are bombarded with media sourced by digital algorithms presenting only information they are likely to find favourable. Different sources interpret facts in myriad ways, political goals may dictate what’s covered and what isn’t. Some outlets produce falsities, others often purposely mislead for ideological purposes.

While these concepts are not necessarily new in some academic circles, the battle over information and truth has emerged from the realm of science and stepped forcefully into American politics. A November report produced by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman suggests that misinformation is now beginning to have a significant effect on national political outcomes, as online engagement (reactions, shares, comments) with fake news stories on Facebook exploded in the final months leading up to election day, even outperforming mainstream (or generally fact-based) news. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that about 62% of Americans receive at least a portion of their news from social media sites.

As the electoral influence of misinformation became increasingly evident, President Barack Obama spoke on the topic in November at a news conference in Berlin:

If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.

So why are we so susceptible to the anti-evidence?

Psychologists point to a number of biological factors significantly affecting our interest in searching for truth. For example, a 2010 paper produced by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Georgia found that when politically-decided individuals were given news stories conflicting with preconceived notions on partisan issues, contrary to changing beliefs, their pre-held convictions only grew stronger. Other cognitive processes like motivated reasoning and identity-protective cognition can help to explain these challenges presented by our cultural or “tribal” tendencies when taking in new information. Essentially, receptors in the brain behave in a strongly antagonistic way when faced with evidence requiring perceptual shift or changing beliefs. Our psyche is predisposed to react dismissively to new data that might lead to some form of alienation from the culturally accepted interpretations of reality within our respective “tribes.” Conversely, when gathering information that reinforces what we already believe to be true, we’re gifted with a splash of dopamine, the same neurochemical agent released by drug use or sexual activity. Research on the link between psychology and politics in America is much older than the election of Donald Trump, as is outlined in a study produced at Emory University in Georgia more than a decade ago.

In a different but connected arena of the human experience, a range of psychological pitfalls related to the satisfaction of short-term reward make a complex issue like climate change occurring over time very difficult to deal with collectively. Dr. Joseph Heath, a philosopher at the University of Toronto, describes in his 2014 book Enlightenment 2.0 the “presentist bias,” dictating the biological challenge associated with overcoming the pleasure of stimulus now versus ill-effects later. According to Heath, human brains are not designed to weigh future misery against present satisfaction, but instead are built to focus on what’s pleasurable, what’s close, and what’s current. It’s these biases that may lead us to that can of Coca-Cola or that next cigarette in spite of our knowledge about the potential for future harm.

Similarly, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert lays out the idea of “miswanting,” which explains a tendency to assume that what we want now is likely to be the same thing we’ll want in the future, despite our changing personalities. These mental traits are evolutionary holdovers from a time when life was “nasty, brutish and short,” as renaissance writer Thomas Hobbes once put it. According to Dr. Heath, long ago, when early humans were more likely to be surrounded by danger and disease, unsure when the next meal might come and with lifespans of only 30 or 40 years, these subconscious inclinations were useful tools for survival. Today, in aggregate, with a planet of seven billion people, many advances in medicine, relatively safe living spaces, and the relentless bombardment of advertising, these characteristics can negatively affect our ability to make rational decisions in our own interest.

More environmentally specific, researchers at Columbia University describe the connection between local weather patterns and perceptions about climate change, whereby temperature abnormalities (unusually warm days, unusually cold days) were used by those surveyed as a proxy to determine the validity of global warming patterns. This misdiagnosis is an example of what behavioural scientists refer to as availability heuristics, with which we judge poorly the true frequency of events, relying on personal experience to understand reality, even when those experiences conflict with what data-driven trends might tell us.

Basically, tribalism, imperfect forecasting, and generally making life more difficult for our future-selves is part of what makes us human. These tendencies, when displayed communally, cause huge problems in facing and meeting long-term challenges like climate change and the degradation of the world’s ocean environments that may harm us down the road. We rationalize our decisions by distancing ourselves, blaming others, deferring to the impossibility of overcoming a global issue, or prioritizing other problems first. We don’t feel we should be obligated to make changes that our neighbours haven’t already made. For science communicators, this creates a significant barrier to the successful transmission of the necessity for shared action.

So what to do when you can’t beat biology? Join it.

The fact is, encouraging engagement in and protection of ocean ecosystems need not be coupled with drastically altering worldviews. The ocean affects all of us, as do the marine management policies we choose to employ. Some effects are direct, as declining marine health threatens fishing industries, or storm surges damage coastal infrastructure; others effects are more subtle, like the fiscal drag that trickles inland when seaside economies slow. There is enough existing data and information now to build a case for changing behaviour entirely based on benefits set to occur in the here-and-now, immediately influencing individual health and personal pocketbooks across political and tribal lines. The new challenge for marine science is to get the message out by building narratives connecting people to the ocean at local scales and across geographies. By understanding audiences and recognizing what is most meaningful to them, we can best describe how thoughtful ocean governance can aid in each person’s respective pursuit for well-being and achievement.

A growing body of literature related to how particular people might respond to climate science can help to inform ocean managers and policymakers in this communicative endeavour. Here, messaging attached to research plays a fundamental role. An Australian study published in 2016 found major differences in survey respondents’ willingness to modify behaviour based on how the impacts of climate change might affect their lives. When given adaptive advice and available courses of action, respondents were found more likely to alter behaviour, as well as when messages emphasized direct threats to personal well-being, property, or family members. Conversely, including a reference to climate change actually decreased the likelihood of participants to shift behaviour, while financial impact and collective responsibility were negligible.

The political or ideological form that suggested solutions may take is also an important part of the equation. In 2014, researchers at Duke University surveyed politically-decided individuals (Democrat-identified, Republican-identified) to test the degree to which the rejection of scientific evidence was related to a specific problem – climate change, in this case – versus the solutions proposed to address that problem. Analogous to previous research, the study found Republicans generally were less likely to believe in climate science than Democrats. Both groups were then introduced to political initiatives aimed at mitigating climate change, one involving government intervention (emissions regulations), and the other a free market plan based in private sector green technology development. While political association continued to determine the likelihood for participants to agree with scientific conclusions when coupled with state-led action, free market policy solutions reduced skepticism and increased agreement rates nearly 40% amongst respondents shown to believe strongly in a free market ideology. These findings point to the implications for communication initiatives arising from research, and the power of including response measures in presentations that are more likely to be attractive to specific audiences from an ideological perspective. While understanding about the acceptance of science as it relates to subject matter and audience continues to develop, marine scientists and managers can take steps towards applying new communicative styles. In considering the personal and ideological relevancies that ocean policy options might have to the individual, perhaps we can begin to build more effective narratives, an enhanced public trust in science, and a healthier ocean for all.


Author: Simon Ryder-Burbidge


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