Friday, March 22, 2013

Desdemona's trap: facing denial in the climate change debate

 The plot of Shakespeare's "Othello" can tell us something on how to face denial in the climate change debate. In the figure, we see Desdemona in an interpretation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In Shakespeare's "Othello" we see a fine example of how easily people's minds can be manipulated. In the play, evil Iago convinces Desdemona, Othello's wife, to plead with her husband for her friend, Cassio. She doesn't know that, at the same time, Iago had planted in Othello's mind the suspect that she was having an affair with Cassio. So, the more Desdemona pleads for Cassio, the more Othello becomes convinced that she is betraying him. The result is a self-reinforcing chain of misunderstandings that eventually leads to disaster.

Othello, clearly, suffered of what we would call today a "conspiratorial mindset". It is not uncommon as a trait of human personality. Jared Diamond, in his book "The World Until Yesterday," maintains that "constructive paranoia" is a survival-oriented genetic trait. Indeed, it may be better to be afraid of a non-existing danger than to walk unaware into a trap. But, if paranoia may have been an asset in the dangerous world of hunters and gatherers, in our world exploiting paranoia has become an easy way to to manipulate people's minds;  governments do that all the time. But governments are not the only players in this game and a paranoid mindset may also be the main factor that generates the commonly termed "denialist" attitude in the debate on climate change.

"Denialism" is a form of refusal to accept reality that occurs in many fields of knowledge, but that takes an especially virulent aspect in the climate change debate. People who actively engage in the denial of the validity of climate science and of its results are often defined as "deniers" or "fake skeptics." They rarely have scientific credentials in the climate field, or even in science in general and their statements are only superficially scientific. They seem to be focused on the idea that scientists are not just in error with their conclusions but rather are engaged in a plot to spread lies about climate in order to gain prestige and money.

Studies by Lewandowsky and his coworkers show that deniers often have a strong conspiratorial mindset; that is, they tend to believe more than the average person in conspiracies such as "chemtrails," "abiotic oil", assorted 9/11 legends, fake lunar landings, and the like. So, it seems that deniers process information on climate change according to the structure of their specific "cognitive mechanism" which is dominated by the conspiracy concept. Their own constructive paranoia is playing a trick on them, bringing them to the conclusion that climate change is a huge conspiracy that sees climate scientists and governments teaming up in order to trick humankind into submission and slavery (1).

That doesn't mean that there are no powerful lobbies spreading disinformation in the web and in the media - they do exist. And we also have evidence of individual scientists and professionals paid to spread lies around. However, there is no evidence that individual climate deniers of the kind who spend time "trolling" on the web are paid for what they do. We can't exclude that some of them could be, but it matters little. Think about that: how much would you want to be paid to help destroying the world (including yourself)? No payment would be enough, unless you really believed that climate change is an evil conspiracy to enslave everyone. Then, the PR companies that manage denial campaigns for the fossil fuels lobby simply exploit this attitude, without the need of actually paying them.

Once we understand the mindset of deniers, we see how easy it is for scientists to fall into Desdemona's trap. Normally, scientists have been trying to use scientific arguments to defend their points, without realizing that the more they plead for the reality of climate change, the more deniers see their beliefs reinforced. For their conspiracy oriented minds, every rational argument brought into the discussion becomes further proof of the ongoing conspiracy (think of Desdemona's situation!).

At the same time, people who have a scientific mindset find the behavior of deniers completely impossible to understand in rational terms. As a consequence, they tend to think that they are facing professional disinformers. That means, of course, falling even more into Desdemona's trap. If these accusations are explicitly expressed (and sometimes they are) deniers will see their beliefs even more confirmed. These contrasting positions lead to a self-reinforcing loop in which the participants from each side become more and more entrenched in their opposite beliefs. 

In the end, Shakespeare's tragedy is playing out in front of us. The fossil fuel lobby is playing the role of Iago; deniers play the role of Othello; scientists play the role of Desdemona, all totally immersed in their different roles. So far, Iago has been winning hands down playing on the naivety of both Desdemona and Othello. If the "debate" (so to say) continues in these terms, the final result can only be, appropriately, a tragedy - in this case for the whole humankind.

So, how do we avoid falling into Desdemona's trap? Well, there are a number of mistakes that we should avoid. The first is to think that we can convince deniers with scientific arguments. It should be clear that it doesn't work: the more you try to do that, the more you fall in the trap. But the true cardinal mistake that you can make when you debate a denier is to lose your temper and use sarcasm, insults or - worse - accuse him or her to be a paid troll. That's the perfect way of falling head first into Desdemona's trap. Think of the impression you give to the people following the debate who are not conspiracy oriented (2) - they will think that you are the evil guy! At this point, it is game over - you lost.

What should we do, then? Well, remember that conspiracy oriented climate deniers are a tiny minority in the world, even though they may be very noisy. So, the target of your action is not them, it is the large majority of people who are not conspiracy oriented and who haven't yet processed the information about climate change in their minds. So, the best is to avoid the confrontation with deniers (unless it is absolutely necessary) and concentrate in diffusing the concept of climate change with the public in general. For instance, let me cite from "DarwinSF"

"Our one-day elementary school project, Climate Change is Elementary, bypasses the usual negative discourse by assuming that every educated person agrees that it is a scientific "fact" that the climate is changing and that man is largely to blame. We do not confront the deniers and skeptics, we circumvent them by taking the school family directly to a vision of a clean and green future. We also focus on working with the innovators, the early adopters, and the early majority, who tend to agree with us. We ignore the late majority and the laggards, or deniers, who will only hold our program back."

See? This is the way to go. Think positive, circumvent denial, focus on reality. It is a battle that we can still win if we understand how to fight it.



(1) There is an interesting question about the conspiratorial mentality of denialists: if they are so worried about being victims of the conspiracy set up by climate scientists how come that they are not worried about the opposite conspiracy set up by the fossil fuels lobby? This is a point that some people think proves they are paid trolls. But this is not necessarily true. As I am citing Shakespeare in this post, I could comment saying that, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't". My impression is that the "method" lies in the mindset of denialists which is rather coherent in its various facets. Denialists see themselves as freedom fighters, independent thinkers immune to the mind-control machine that governments have set up. As such, they tend to project themselves into the figure of the "lone-scientists-fighting-against-the-establishment" and to place a lot of trust in him (rarely her). That explains, for instance, why people who are sure that oil depletion is a hoax to have us pay higher gasoline prices often fall into ecstatic joy when hearing new promises of free and abundant energy from the lone genius of the day. Indeed, many successful scams are based on the narrative of a lone individual fighting against the establishment. And, getting back to Shakespeare; think of this: how is that Othello suspects Desdemona, but not Iago? Well, because Othello projects his own personality into that of his comrade in arms, Iago, while he can't do the same with Desdemona. We humans are like that: we tend to believe what we think we understand (and Shakespeare understood humans probably better than any other human in history)

(2) Think of another facet of the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy: how the protagonist, Othello, plays the total dumbass of the story - so easily duped into destroying himself and everything around him. And, yet, Othello does not appear to us as a bumbling idiot; no; we see him as a tragic figure we sympathize with. You know why? Because he starts in the play with a big handicap, that of being black in an all-white world. The fact that Othello is black is the crucial point of the plot that, otherwise, would be simply ridiculous. Now, think about deniers in the climate debate: they start with a handicap even bigger than Othello's one. They know little or nothing about the science of climate and yet they have picked up a fight with the best experts in the field. Curiously, this handicap generates a strong psychological effect in their favor: it is called the "appeal of the underdog" (aka the "Sylvester vs. Tweety" effect). You see it used in the movie industry all the time - the final winner of the battle is always the one that looked like the loser at the beginning. So, if you are a climate scientist, be careful at avoiding to place yourself into the role of the evil guy of the movies!


See also the blog titled "Desdemona's Despair", defined as "the clearinghouse for all of the very worst news about the future of life on Earth, such as global warming, climate change, deforestation, overfishing, acidification, oil spills, resource depletion, drought, pollution, overpopulation, dead zones, mass extinction, and doom." The reasons for the choice of the name "Desdemona" are not stated anywhere in the blog, but may well be the same that I described in this post.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)