Blog 119. Arctic ice, blue lies, and echo chambers

Why does climate denial flourish despite the evident facts of melting polar ice and the increasing blanket of greenhouse gases?  Logic isn’t the answer.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU-62,000 earth scientists) suggests scientists should respond to climate denial with five logical questions and answers.  Then AGU says people respond more to emotional messages and scientists don’t know how to communicate on that level.  That advice leaves the geophysicists between a rock and a hard iceberg.

Politics now runs on resentment.  The intelligentsia resent the illogical political denials based on misinformation.  However, persons who weren’t born into an advanced education and a rewarding job might not experience life as a logical sequence of causes and effects.  They might see the world happening to them, and resent whomever appears to be in control.  There’s truth in both views.

Social science has studied the propagation of misinformation.  So-called “blue lies” are falsehoods intended to strengthen the bonds among members of a group, particularly when used as a weapon against another group.  A blue lie against another group identifies you as a loyal member of your own group.  Lying becomes a virtue in a state of war.

Broad segments of the population are abandoning investigative journalism for the immediate psychological reward induced by continuous contact on social media.  Ultimately each person exists in an “echo chamber,”*  hearing only information that supports his own view.  Blue lies, fake news and factual information are accepted equally, while any contrary voice is personally rejected. With modern communications, a person may be connected remotely to millions instead of connecting intimately with neighbors who share place, lifestyle, and fate.

Misinformation propagates at all levels of wealth and privilege because each person gains security and identity through association with similar people—even if that association is by Twitter and Facebook, not face-to-face.  We get a dopamine high from confirming a sense of belonging and sharing.  As electronic connections grow to consume more attention than interpersonal contact, the messages we choose to read or hear become echoes of our own prejudice.  Critical evaluation no longer counts.  We regard contrary facts as coming from the other tribe.  Some social scientists offer a little hope for extracting ourselves from the echo chamber of smart phones, social media, and fake news.

Conspiracy theories arise when people are unable to see simple causes for complex, emergent situations.  Studies show that people are more likely to believe a fact when it comes from a sympathetic ideological source.  Berinsky says, “When fighting ‘fake news,’ politicians and the media should present the right authority … (the public should) harness the power of partisanship to stop the spread of misinformation.”  Fight fire with fire?

It isn’t that simple.

Neither an absolute democracy nor an unrestricted capitalism can protect the commons—the things we all share, the neighborhoods, the air, the water, the green spaces, safety, the roads, the electrical grid, the electronic networks, and the climate.  There’s profit in spoiling the commons by using echoes of misinformation.  That’s why we need regulations.

Alas, neither the sociologists nor the political leaders of either side mention the big factor—the money that promotes the lies, controls the politics, and corrodes the commons.  Money is power, and power beyond profit apparently generates a dopamine high, too.

* Scientific American magazine, April 2017, pp. 60-63.