After witnessing the surprising win of xenophobia powered Brexit and the unexpected uprising of the outright bigot Trump, many may wonder the same questions: “How the hell…?!”
After a period of frustration and anger, we should move beyond these emotions and further reflect upon these historical events. How did the common sense, in this day and age with all the information at people’s fingertips, get outnumber by…well, the majority of the crowd. I am not a political commentator but I do recognize the connection relevant to my cause of interest: Slow actions against climate change is another highlighted failure of reason, science and expert opinions against the public. Hence I think sustainability professionals should take a lesson on mass communication.
As environmentalists to any extent, we all have important messages we want to get out there to reach as many people as possible for our planet, for climate justice, for the rain forest or even maybe just for the red pandas. Well, we can certainly take some notes from the analysis of the Brexit and Trump phenomenon…
“The gap between expert analysis and public opinion seems to be widening by the day.”
An article on Quartz by Andre Spicer offered great insights:
There might be a simple reason, the public are just too stupid and their intelligence is simply unable to comprehend the experts’ point of view and flow of reason…However this theory doesn’t hold as people are better educated than ever and the internet gives them any information they ask for in seconds, 24 hours a day, every day, on demand.
Besides, access to information is obviously not the problem, the willingness to information is. Otherwise, people would have looked up “what is the EU” before they voted, not until after they realized Brexit may not be the most brilliant idea but already got stuck with it.
Why had they been unwilling to check the facts beforehand?
“One reason is our inbuilt cognitive biases. We often make quick decisions about complex issues on the basis of our past beliefs or even chance associations. After we have made these decisions—which often happen in a matter of milliseconds—we start the laborious process of proving ourselves right. We seek information which justifies decisions already made.”
Understanding what happens during the milliseconds tells so much about our nature. Everyone has some form of internal principle which not only depends on intelligence, but more on the “meta-factors”. I came across this concept in economist Janos Kornai’s autobiography. he explained that these “meta-factors” have their roots in each person’s faith, prejudice, wills, desires, and moral compass. The “meta-factors” act like a bouncer who decides which ideas can be let in the mind.
“When the facts don’t fit our beliefs, we tend to prefer to change the facts, not our beliefs.”
So in the end, the problem is that the public respond better to what caters to their comfort while the “truth” is merely an afterthought, which is often too late. People don’t like hearing that their lifestyle is emitting too much carbon, is built on tedious labor of the under-privileged population, or is literally causing unimaginable suffering to millions of farm animals. Once they really hear the facts, they will have to change or feel guilty. Who’d ever want that?
“A further reason we ignore experts is that heeding their advice can create social discomfort; it can create awkward discussions with your peers. To avoid such discomfort, people choose to rely on the judgments of their peers instead.”
Isn’t it easier to just join the crowd, pretending all is well?
The things about the internet is that people can always find people holding the same view (no matter how stupid), form a virtual community bubble and then stay comfortably in it while producing, collecting and broadcasting content that further supports the claim. It sure is nice to sit back and ignore the big issues or blame all problems on the people outside of this bubble. It is easy to turn a blind eye, until the disasters land on their own heads.
Then the problem becomes: how can we deal with such unwillingness to accept important information about the well being of the whole planet? How do we proceed after realizing how little the public cares for our way of communication: clear logic, reason and science?
Recognizing this human nature of denial is the first step. Being in our own environmentalism silos for too long, we might have forgotten that to achieve our ambition of having a bigger positive impact (default ambition for environmentalists), it’s not enough to pat ourselves on the back for being smarter than “the crowd”. We need them on our side and we need a better way of mass communication.
To be continued…
Start with yourself, be a more effective environmentalist on the personal level. Check out How to be an effective environmentalist
Leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts.
And subscribe to email notification on the upper right for more sustainability stories.
Just came across some fun articles related to this topics, more specifically about #Scientists and #Social Media:
An article on the guardian:
A smart response I wholeheartedly agree with: