Sunday, June 17, 2012

Are we moving toward a fact-free future?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman likes to pose the following problem to audiences to illustrate our habitual modes of thinking:
A bat and a ball cost $1.10 together and the bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

It turns out that about 50 percent of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got the answer wrong. The proportion reached as high as 90 percent at other unnamed universities. Okay, now that you've had time to reflect on the answer, you'll realize that your instinct was probably to answer 10 cents. But, of course, that's wrong. And, all you have to do is some elementary math to realize it's wrong, and then arrive at the correct answer: The ball costs 5 cents.

What's in operation here are two systems of interpreting the world, one associative and one logical, often referred to in psychology as System 1 and System 2, respectively. System 1 picks up the numbers $1.10 and $1 and makes an incorrect leap that the ball costs 10 cents. System 2 does the math and then corrects the error. It's something that happens every day in our lives. But, in this case what is at stake is regarded by most people as so trivial that even very smart ones fail to engage System 2 to check their answer. If, instead of being faced with a trivial problem that has no impact on your life, you were considering which house to buy, you would probably be engaging System 2 on a regular basis. You would be trying to determine if you were getting a fair price by, for example, checking home values nearby, comparing square footage and evaluating features such as a swimming pool or finished basement.

And, this brings me to my topic. Issues such as climate change and peak oil seem so abstract to most people that they do not see them as pressing issues that require a thorough analysis and immediate action. This is true because the effects are not immediately impinging on them or, at least, they are unable to connect what effects there are to themselves. And, the usual fact-filled analysis that is often thrown at them therefore doesn't interest them much. As it turns out, information that is new, but not consistent with one's current belief system, is normally discarded by most people. Typically, only some exceptional concrete change of circumstances will cause people to open their belief systems to contradictory information.

You might say System 1 is the storytelling function and System 2 is the investigatory, scientific function. To succeed, stories need to be concrete and evocative of experiences and feelings that people can identify with. Since we operate most of the time using System 1 and since it serves us well in the vast majority of cases, the conclusion we can draw is that climate change and peak oil activists must create a narrative that can simultaneously tap into people's existing belief systems while giving them new information. This is no small task. And, it would be hard enough without all the pernicious and omnipresent propaganda emitted by the fossil fuel industry. That propaganda, incidentally, tells stories that reinforce the status quo and so don't challenge the basic worldview of most people.

In an attempt to eliminate contradictory information, the fossil fuel industry and their political allies have made a spate of attempts in the last year to shut down research and information about climate change and environmental degradation. The alarming nature of recent scientific findings has the industry fearful that people may actually be aroused from their propaganda-induced torpor and seek change. In North Carolina, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would prevent estimates of sea level rise based on climate change models from being incorporated into development plans. The state has a long Atlantic coastline and many barrier islands that are threatened by rising seas. Mere pretending, of course, won't prevent bad things from happening. But it may allow developers to do whatever they please instead of preparing North Carolina for the inevitable deluge.

The anti-science Harper administration in Canada has decided to disband the government's ocean contaminants program which monitors pollution and its effects in the three oceans the touch Canada's shores. Naturally, this move was portrayed as a cost-cutting measure. But the real intent is to prevent the dissemination of scientific findings that might lead to new environmental regulations which would impede oil and gas exploration.

Last year the U.S. Congress saw fit to cut the budget of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the face of historically unprecedented oil prices that are telling us we need to keep careful track of energy markets and supplies. Again, the excuse was cost-cutting. It's less clear that this move was inspired by the desire to keep the public in the dark rather than by the ideologically driven desire to shrink government and make it ineffective.

North Carolina, of course, will simply be a laughingstock if it goes ahead with its plan to outlaw the truth about sea level rise. That information will still be available from other sources. But Canada's ocean contaminants program will mean the loss of vital data about the health of our oceans, especially about the Arctic Ocean. As for the EIA budget cuts, the information it will no longer compile could be compiled by others and made available for a fee. But the central purpose of the EIA is to make energy information available to policymakers and the public free of charge to encourage broad participation in debates about energy policy.

But the purging of facts doesn't always come from governments. Privately funded propaganda--these days coming from so-called "think tanks" that are funded by right-wing billionaires--can also obscure our view. If you want testimony from inside one of these think tanks, read this piece from conservative David Frum who was fired from such a think tank for disagreeing with Republicans on strategy--not even policy--during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. The message was clear: "We don't pay you to think. We pay you to repeat."

All of these moves by governments, corporate interests and elites are really aimed at cultivating and disseminating compelling stories which appeal to System 1 to reinforce the status quo. These moves are also designed to withdraw resources from government departments and drown out nonprofits that provide contradictory System 2 information which might be useful in checking the System 1 stories peddled by these groups.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Apparently, in the our new age of extremist ideologies, there is no longer any place for facts, only opinions.

P.S. I want to relate an encounter I had with an energy analyst from a highly regarded think tank, not a fake one, but a real one that does real consulting for corporations and government agencies. When I mentioned to him that the EIA reports that crude oil plus condensate (which is the definition of oil) has been flat since 2005, he responded that I couldn't be correct. I suggested that he look it up himself and see that production has bounced between 72 and 74 million barrels per day during that period. He stated that that number must not include tar sands production. I told him that it indeed includes all crude plus condensate from whatever source. But, he was simply not prepared to accept what the publicly available data told him.

There are three things I took from this conversation. First, I was frankly astonished that someone whose job is energy analyst at a bona fide think tank did not know the EIA number for crude oil plus condensate. After all, that's his job and that number is probably the most important number in the world for an energy analyst to know. Second, this person did not know the EIA definition of oil. I realize that this definition is not something the average person would know. But for someone who eats, drinks and breathes energy, it really ought to be essentially top of mind. Third, this encounter was a perfect illustration of how System 1 thinking--a broad narrative about there being plenty of oil for decades to come--can completely overshadow System 2 thinking even in persons whose work involves heavy emphasis on System 2.

UPDATE: One reader asked about the EIA definition of crude oil. The EIA has a glossary which defines oil as follows:

Crude oil: A mixture of hydrocarbons that exists in liquid phase in natural underground reservoirs and remains liquid at atmospheric pressure after passing through surface separating facilities. Depending upon the characteristics of the crude stream, it may also include 1. Small amounts of hydrocarbons that exist in gaseous phase in natural underground reservoirs but are liquid at atmospheric pressure after being recovered from oil well (casing head) gas in lease separators and are subsequently comingled with the crude stream without being separately measured. Lease condensate recovered as a liquid from natural gas wells in lease or field separation facilities and later mixed into the crude stream is also included; 2. Small amounts of nonhydrocarbons produced with the oil, such as sulfur and various metals; 3. Drip gases, and liquid hydrocarbons produced from tar sands, oil sands, gilsonite, and oil shale. (my emphasis)

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.


Lewis said...

Kurt - thanks for this succinct outline of why so much brazen propaganda is given credence in the US. It is of course perilous for any nation to have its decision-makers actually starting to act as if they believe a bunch of propaganda - there is then no preparation when reality weighs in dressed as a pair of 600 kilo-tonne gorillas (aka climate destabilization & shrinking global oil exports).

Waking people to the scale of change needed requires new perspectives on the reality of our prospects, and, most particularly, on just why a democrat president has taken no significant action whatsoever, implying strongly and confusingly that there is no real reason for concern.

The frenetic circus of denialism gets nowhere near explaining either the degree of White House inaction (not even an ongoing public education program on PO or CD has been deployed since Obama took power) nor the active US obstruction of the requisite global climate treaty
- such as by replicating (in March 2009) Bush's reneging on the US signature of the UNFCCC with its 1990 baseline,
- such as by massively snubbing China in public at Copenhagen and then demanding a 'deal' that each American should still have three times the emissions rights of each Chinese in 2050,
- and such as by sabotaging the US Climate Bill in five successive actions (as was later fully detailed in the press).

I suggest that Obama has exactly the muted level of public concern over climate and energy that he wants. Moreover, being supremely well informed of the threats by the likes of Chu & Holdren, the inaction is plainly a matter of policy, not complacency. The opening of a Climate Change unit by the CIA, a key agency for the maintenance of US hegemony, was the pointer to the objectives of that policy.

Since Obama is clearly content to let these critical problems gain momentum, (e.g. in Durban, chucking the climate treaty another eight years down the road) it follows that their impacts are expected to give some key advantage to American interests. Logically, the prime intended objective is a weakened China, whose economy is on course to overtake the US economy later this decade. Or does American nationalism know of some higher priority than the maintenance of US global economic hegemony ? Behind closed doors, applying climatic destabilization and the spiking oil & coal prices to the destabilization of the Chinese government could be presented as an elegantly simple, cheap, and discreet means to the desired end.

To start demanding change en-masse, people need a simple accurate account of just why Obama has repeated Bush's total inaction on these existential issues. The reality is that he has adopted Bush's 'brinkmanship of inaction' with China, playing poker with the global climate for the prize of prolonging American dominance.

Given that this policy is morally shameful as well as potentially diplomatically ruinous, to the point of being completely inadmissible, its public description and critique appears a fairly potent lever for its removal.
The more discussion it gets, the sooner "the American way of life" may at last be "up for negotiation".


Lewis Cleverdon

Step Back said...


It's all too easy to pick an incorrect story about our fellow man and then decide (via the self-confirmation bias) that we surely understand why the other guy doesn't understand.

The hard truth for all of us (me & you included) is that our brains are intelligently designed (not) for engaging in rational cognitive process.

Your ball & bat example is but one of many pieces of fact (or evidence as some may call it) that our cognitions are distorted; that we suffer not only from optical illusions (ha ha) but also from many other cognitive defects (ha ha -except it's not so funny because our survival depends on overcoming our inherent defects in cognition).

Rather than belaboring the point, please allow me to recommend the following PDF paper that seeks to explain why we evolved into having defective thinking processes:

Bounded Rationality: Models of Fast and Frugal Inference (PDF)

Anonymous said...


I think the core issue isn't attitude towards facts or Kahneman-style studies. These are important, but I think the role they play here is as symptoms or aggravating causes. The real issue, as I see it, is that people are unable to recognize quacks, and the world is run by quacks as a result. How else could the analyst you met make a living doing what he does? For me, the defining characteristic of being a quack is (a) being out to get rich/impress people/whatever and (b) wanting to do so through appearing good rather than being good. Neglect of relevant facts then follows quite naturally from this.

Step Back said...


I understand why you feel that other people are "quacks".

However, may I suggest that this approach is not a useful one. It's all too tempting to decide that the other person is acting with evil intent (intentionally wanting to be a "quack") where as, we on our side are acting only in purely good fashion (and therefore the other could never rightfully accuse us of being quacks).

However, the world is not that simple. Very few people awaken in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to themselves, "Today, I will act the part of the evil quack."

Instead, many of them believe what they proffess to believe no matter how ridiculous and irrational it appears to us.

Most people easily confuse "beliefs" and "facts" as being one and the same.

You have to be specially trained to know how to distinguish one from the other.

Anonymous said...

A wise and insightful article. Thanx!
Greetings from Denmark.

Steve From Virginia said...

There are other reasons for misinformation.

- Political advantage can be gained by insisting there is 'plenty of oil': inevitable disruptions will be blamed on the usual suspects: subversives, environmentalists, liberals, democrats, Iranians, etc.

- It is inconvenient for Americans to know where their momentary surplus of cheaper gasoline is coming from: Greece, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Spain, Italy and soon from the rest of the EU. Bankrupting countries by refusing to lend to them allows their consumption to be exported to the US. It is more discrete to insist on an inexhaustible Bakken rather than admitting we are stealing our Allies' petroleum allotments.

However cynical you believe you believe yourself to be you are never cynical enough ...