Monday, October 1, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

I try to avoid talking about politics on this here rag. As I stated in my first post, I get kind of ornery when I talk about politics. Some people say that I "push buttons" when I debate politics. I don't try to push buttons. I just think that my mind works a little differently than most people's minds do. This post is not about politics. It's about cognitive dissonance. If reading this post makes you want to argue with me about global warming, you are missing the point, which would be fitting for a post about cognitive dissonance.

I'm a big fan of Scott Adams, the guy that writes the Dilbert comic strip. He also wrote several awesome books, including a "thought experiment" called God's Debris. [I highly recommend God's Debris. One friend of mine described it as philosophy porn. He meant this to be an insult. But I think it's a fitting description, which is one reason it's awesome.] Scott Adams wrote a great post on his blog a few days ago about cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is basically the misconstruing of information that conflicts with what you already believe in order to ignore that information and reinforce your beliefs. Adams suggests that people that study economics are immune to cognitive dissonance. He states:

I studied economics in college. One thing I’ve noticed is that other people who have studied economics tend to think a similar way. Some of the similarity is probably because it takes a certain kind of person to be interested in economics in the first place. But I’m convinced that the study of economics changes brains in a way I can identify after about five minutes of conversation. In particular, I think the study of economics makes you relatively immune to cognitive dissonance.

The primary skill of an economist is identifying all of the explanations for various phenomena. Cognitive dissonance is, at its core, the inability to recognize and accept other explanations. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the point. The more your brain is trained for economics, the less it is susceptible to cognitive dissonance, or so it seems.

The joke about economists is that they are always using the phrase “On the other hand.” Economists are trained to recognize all sides of an argument. That seems like an easy and obvious skill, but in my experience, the general population lacks that skill. Once people take a side, they interpret any argument on the other side as absurd. In other words, they are relatively susceptible to cognitive dissonance.

My degrees are not in economics [but I did set the curve in the handful of economics classes I took, because I'm totally fuckin awesome] but that's the way my mind works too. This is why it's a bad idea for me to talk about politics. I almost never speak from the point of view of either of the popular parties, so I end up pissing off people that do see things from the point of view of either of the popular political parties in the U.S. For example, people that are in favor of regulating cigarette smoking often note that an individual's smoking habit doesn't just affect that individual because health care costs are often shouldered, at least in part, by society. I will respond that health care costs of smokers are not always higher, in fact many studies show that they are lower, than health care costs of non-smokers. [Because smokers rarely get old. They die before Alzheimer's sets in or before nursing homes are needed, but after they have done their primary earning and tax-paying. In other words, dieing is cheap, living is expensive.] When I say stuff like this, people almost always assume that because I think that the costs of health care for smokers that are shouldered by society might not be a good reason to regulate smoking, that I must think that there are no good reasons to regulate smoking. Or that the people dieing is good because it saves money. Sometimes people even assume I smoke when I say stuff like that. Or worse, that I'm a member of some political party. But really, I try to look at each argument on all sides of every debate. Sometimes there are strong arguments coming from all angles, even if most people won't listen to them. Just because I agree with one point, doesn't mean that I agree with the whole Seurat. And just because I hold a particular view on a topic doesn't mean all of the counter-points to my view are wrong.

Adams points to a particularly compelling example of cognitive dissonance on Bill Maher's HBO show. The show featured Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician that wrote a few books about global warming. Here is a clip of the show:

Adams breaks down Lomborg's argument like this:

The economist made the following points clearly and succinctly:

1. Global warming is real, and people are a major cause.

2. When considering the problems that global warming will cause, we shouldn't ignore the benefits of global warming, such as fewer deaths from cold.

3. The oceans rose a foot in the last hundred years, and the world adapted, so the additional rise from global warming might not be as big a problem as people assume.

4. Developing economical fossil fuel alternatives is the only rational solution to global warming because countries such as China and India will use the cheapest fuel, period. If only the developed countries who can afford alternatives change their ways, it’s not enough to make a dent in the problem.

The Danish economist’s argument doesn't fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn't denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn’t saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won’t be enough to help. He thinks we need to make solar (or other alternatives) more economical. That’s the magic bullet. His views don’t map to either popular camp on this issue, and it created a fascinating cognitive dissonance in Bill Maher (a fan of hybrid cars) and his panelists.

Maher (who I think is really great most of the time) even says, "...20 years later, this guy is going to say, 'You know what? Yeah, there is global warming." But Lomborg did say "yeah, there is global warming" just minutes before! It's astounding really. But the cognitive dissonance doesn't end there. Adams's post was clearly about cognitive dissonance. It clearly was not about his position on global warming. Fittingly, a dude named Richard Bell, a writer for a weblog called The Daily Kos, commented on Adam's post in one of the most remarkable displays of cognitive dissonance I've ever seen.

I love Dilbert. But after reading Dilbert creator Scott Adams' recent blog entry on Bjorn Lomborg (author of Cool It: A Skeptical Environmentalist Looks at Global Warming), I can see that Adams doesn't necessarily share Dilbert's wonderful skepticism when it comes to evaluating a salesman like Lomborg.

Adams saw Lomborg on Bill Maher's show, where Lomborg was appearing via satellite. [...] As per usual, Lomborg ran through his grossly misleading arguments about polar bears, and the like, all the while insisting that he brought "a sense of proportion" to the debate over climate change.

Writing on the Dilbert blog, Adams finds Lomborg entirely reasonable, swallowing the Mythical Middle argument hook, line, and sinker:

"The Danish economist's argument doesn't fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn't denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn't saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won't be enough to help."

Notice how easily Adams slips into equating climate change deniers with people who promote driving hybrid cars, as if both groups were equally extreme, while Lomborg's analysis places him above this ignorant clash of armies in the night.

Since Dilbert the comic character usually keeps his wits about him, I can only conclude that, in one of those obscure signs of the true glory of human creativity, it's possible for a comic character to sometimes be smarter than his own creator.

Adams clearly did NOT equate climate change deniers with people who promote driving hybrid cars. He was just saying that Lomborg's position is different than that of climate change deniers and different than hybrid car promoters. That does not make them equal positions. Adams was only saying that Maher et. al. were wrong to characterize Lomborg as a climate change denier because he isn't a climate change denier. The very first thing he said in the interview is that climate is changing and that we are causing it.

This Daily Koss writer totally missed the point. All Adams said was that he gets Lomborg's argument, not that he agrees with it. Bell's cognitive dissonance prevented him from seeing that Adams wasn't talking about global warming. He was talking about people like Bell. A commenter pointed this out and Bell tried to "clarify" by showing even more cognitive dissonance. Seriously, this guy is so so so wrong it's ridiculous. He states:

Here's the problem with Adams' description of the interview: Adams adopts a position which unintentionally leaves the reader with a false understanding of the nature of the scientific debate about global warming. The reason I use the term "false" is because Adams (and Lomborg) presents the debate as if there were two more or less equal sides, when there are not:

Here's the quote from Adams' thoughts on the Lomborg interview on the Maher show, with the "equal side" phrase in bold:

"The Danish economist’s argument doesn't fall into the established views about global warming. He wasn't denying it is happening, or denying humans are a major cause. But he also wasn’t saying we should drive hybrid cars, since he thinks it won’t be enough to help. He thinks we need to make solar (or other alternatives) more economical. That’s the magic bullet. His views don’t map to either popular camp on this issue, and it created a fascinating cognitive dissonance in Bill Maher (a fan of hybrid cars) and his panelists."

There is only one popular camp, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (
IPCC). Yes, there are climate scientists who disagree with the conclusions of the IPCC....

Bell states that there is only one popular camp. But given the fact that this is a debate, there must be at least two popular camps, regardless of whether one of them is objectively right on some aspect of the debate. And there are many views that don't fall into either popular camp, like Lomborg's. All Adams was saying is that Lomborg is not on the "global warming is a hoax" camp. Early on in the interview, Lomborg stated that he got his data from the IPCC, that he agrees with the data, and that global warming is real and that we're causing it. He's not relying on scientific data from scientists that disagree with the IPCC.

Bell clearly detests Lomborg and isn't willing to entertain any positive critique of him, even if that critique is simply that Adams gets his argument. Bell's attempt to "clarify" should be used as an example of cognitive dissonance in schools. This is something we all need to be aware of because studies show that cognitive dissonance will cause more deaths in the next 50 years than global warming.


PaulNoonan said...

I don't know how you can still not believe in global warming.

Anonymous said...

The Daily Kos is one of the top liberal blogs. They're all about cognitive disonence over there.

Danny from Milwaukee said...

Don't get me started on the alleged "moon landing."

I don't know that they all are, but Richard Bell certainly is.

Farrah said...

I can't believe I missed Rob Thomas!

Danny from Milwaukee said...

You'll have to witness the brilliant political thought of Rob Thomas during reruns.

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Sofia said...

Wow, that's a nice look at global warming right there. I had my mind focused on that smoking thing, though. You're right about the costs for health related bills are higher than those related to deaths. Well, I think that's the "adventure" part of life. I don't know if there would be someone who would think the same as way as I do, but doing everything to keep someone alive? It sounds pretty noble to me. There's always that one chance of being noble in life, say for a person in your family, or a friend. In my case, I had a relative who was hospitalized here in Missouri. Cash advance (this was a cash advance against my credit card, by the way) saved her from having to think of paying the hospital bills while lying on a hospital bed.

That story was from way back when an online cash advance service was very hard. Anyway, that's my point of view about the costs of living vs. dying. Oh, I'm not an economist, by the way.

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