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Reason and rationality alone are unlikely to change minds


Tim Soutphommasane

Our environmental and political beliefs begin in our gut, not our head.

TWO weeks ago, the ABC screened its documentary I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate Change. The program featured youth activist Anna Rose (a believer in anthropogenic global warming) and former Howard government minister Nick Minchin (a climate change sceptic) travelling around the world to meet various figures in the climate debate. Each tried their best to persuade the other that their position was correct.

The results didn't quite live up to the show's billing. The documentary ended up more or less where it started. Rose remained a believer; Minchin stayed a sceptic. It all seemed to confirm what most of us know about human nature. We can't always agree. Sometimes there's very little that can change our minds.

This isn't something confined to climate change or even peculiar to our time. Disagreement is a permanent feature of human societies. But too often today we have polarised debates in which no one gives ground. Reasonable disagreement sounds like something from a bygone golden age.

A recent book by American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers some new insights into this state of affairs. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt explains that we are susceptible to believing that disagreements are symptoms of faulty reasoning; that we can assume there is an answer to every question, so long as we apply universal reason.

This idea has a long pedigree, dating back to Plato and the birth of Western philosophy. But the supremacy of reason has never been universally accepted. Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, believed that ''reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them''.

Haidt sides with Hume. As he puts it, reason is like a rider on an elephant (representing all the unconscious processes of the mind). Ultimately, intuitions and the unconscious count for a lot more than reasons. We start off with gut feelings about what is right and wrong. Only then do we start to find reasons that justify how we feel.

A scholar with an eye for taboo-challenging stories, Haidt offers some curious examples from his research. Imagine, he asks subjects, if a man buys a chicken at a supermarket, decides to have sexual intercourse with it, and then cooks and eats the chicken. Most respondents are repulsed by the example. Yet when prompted to explain why the man's actions are morally wrong, they struggle to offer good reasons.

Examples like these, it is argued, show that ''moral reasoning is sometimes a post hoc fabrication''.

Admitting that intuitions shape our moral psychology certainly runs counter to much modern thought. It is a particular problem for a group Haidt labels ''WEIRD liberals'': progressives in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic societies who have placed their faith in Enlightenment rationality. Such progressives seem particularly unable to understand their conservative opponents. Faced with disagreement, their response is often one of incredulity.

Indeed, we see something resembling this on matters such as climate change, religion and same-sex marriage. How many times do we hear progressives ask their opponents: How can you deny that global warming is taking place? How can you not see that religion is irrational? How can you not accept the logic behind same-sex marriage?

This isn't to say that progressives should wear all the blame for the polarisation of our politics. Far from it. But The Righteous Mind correctly highlights that too many seem to believe that you can win a debate only with reason, and not also through moral persuasion. In practice, the best arguments have the power of both. If you want to change people's minds, you may want to talk to the elephant before the rider. The Anna Roses of the world are beginning to realise this.

Does this mean that we must therefore bow to elephants, that we must validate someone's opinion even when they live in a fantasy? No, of course not. The point is only that it mightn't be enough to appeal to rationality - even if you happen to be right or have the facts on your side.

Reason isn't the master but the slave, after all. As a matter of efficacy, you're more likely to win an argument if you can also appeal to people's values.

This mightn't be as easy as it seems, of course. If current debates are any measure, it is striking how little we seem to understand each other. Mutual incomprehension is turning into mutual disdain.

Democratic politics has always been about finding ways for us to co-operate amid differences. But in an age of pluralism, we may be defined as much by the manner in which we disagree as by what we have in common.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University and Per Capita. Twitter: @timsout

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  • Emotion and faith are great at telling you what will make you happy/unhappy etc "right now" and at providing generic platitudes about the future but absolutely lousy at telling you how to actually achieve things in the long term. For example emotion regularly informs me that the path to long-term happiness involves sleeping in every day and eating nothing but chocolate, whereas reason informs me that this will leave me broke, obese and diabetic, and that to be happy I need to do enough work to make ends meet, eat healthy food most of the time and do some exercise.

    Part of the trouble with climate change is that, unlike work and diet, we don't have immediate examples of where not following reason will lead us. When talking work and diet we have homeless people and the morbidly obese to act as cautionary examples of why applying logic and reason is a good idea, but when it comes to climate change, excepting things like shrinking ice-caps that most of us will never see first-hand, we currently only have reason to light our way. And by the time we *do* have obvious examples of why continuing to burn fossil fuel at an ever accelerating rate is a really bad idea - say for example when beach-front homes start being made uninhabitable by rising sea levels, food prices sky-rocket due to shifting weather patterns in agricultural regions and petrol is so expensive even Alan Jones is riding to work - it will mostly be too late to do anything about it.

    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 8:10AM
    • @Fred makes very good points. The profound effects of climate change are far enough away that inaction can be rationalised - and usually this is done by rubbishing the very idea that climate change can occur.

      I would disagree with Tim and observe that progressives do a lot of argument through moral persuasion. However, this tends to be rubbished as well. Of course, I think arguments should be as well thought-out as possible. But shouldn't those whom we attempt to persuade bear a responsibility? After all, they should not be passive individuals "receiving" an argument, but people with democratic responsibilities who, after all, will bear the consequences of climate change along with the rest of us.

      I think the main reason for scepticism is that we live in an age of insecurity, anxiety and fear. In such circumstances people "circle the wagons", draw in and limit themselves to ideas they know and are familiar with. Hostility is a psychological tool to deal with something that is very frightening. By ridiculing the messengers ("greenies", environmentalists and climate scientists etc etc) you exorcise the problem.

      David C
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 9:00AM
    • It's an evolutionary issue: in the Great Leap Forward for intellectual power when man's ancestors' brain size increased with the shift to protein dominated diets, the emotional parts didn't keep pace. So here we are - still - with a giant brain capable of abstract reasoning, and the emotional maturity of an offended ape screeching that some other ape has taken his banana.

      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 10:36AM
  • The sad thing about this debate in AUSTRALIA is that global warming is an irrelevant issue in Australia but a serious issue GLOBALLY.

    300,000,000 Indians are without electricity and when they get it mainly from coal Australia position in the global warming issue is even more irrelevant.

    There are established mathematics of decision making which dictates very simply that all decisions must be measured by outcomes and not a politically feel good outcome.

    If we are serious about global warming we need to help China and India to act to reduce global warming. For a start we should work closely with them on nuclear energy in particular Thorium nuclear power.

    All that the carbon tax has done for Australia is that it has almost destroyed the environmental movement in Australia as about 70% of Australia thinks correctly that the carbon tax is a big fraud imposed on Australia. What a sad way to exit Dr Bob Brown.

    Dr B S Goh
    Australian in Asia
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 8:21AM
    • I agree Dr B S Goh! Perhaps if the Greens had suggested a policy to limit population growth i would take climate change seriously, however, the issue for me is not whether climate change is happening or whether it is caused by man. I am happy to accept both propositions but i expect real solutions. A carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme in Australia, is not a solution. Nor has there been any discussion about the only real alternative energy source, nuclear.

      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 12:41PM
  • It was Fromm who said that one of the biggest causes of problems was peopels inability to see objective reality.

    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 8:25AM
    • I agree, most people don't lead examined lives, if there is any examination it is post-action designed to justify action rather than to guide it. But don't forget fear as a driving motivation; fear of this and fear of that, but mostly fear of change and difference. Surely this is what divides one side from the other more than anything else?

      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 8:31AM
      • agreeing with Fred - and the less educated often rely on gut to their detriment - 'I don't understand math so I'll trust that guy in the nice suit', etc.

        Interesting studies on how after an initial random choice, we are likely to strongly defend that position - e.g. just look at bus trip or workshop seating choices - initial random choice, but we make sure we get the same one after a break ... yes siree !

        So childhood prejudice absorbed from parents - can't explain it, but I feel it in my bones - that's the way it is and should be, and ever will be, world without end, amen.

        Date and time
        May 07, 2012, 8:51AM
        • Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.

          Anyone care to explain why anyone in Jerrys Plains would be concerned about the climate?
          Considering it was much warmer in the late 1930s than it is now.

          Date and time
          May 07, 2012, 8:55AM
          • Good point, but the Alarmists will have some bizarre answer for you.

            Singleton is only 40km from Jerrys Plains so we are in a similar boat.

            What happened to last summer? coolest for 50 years...

            The AGW loonies bark on about 1998 being an "anomaly" and therefore can't e used in rational debate, but why can't we regard 1998 - 2008 as an "anomalous decade and discount it from discussion?

            I work with computer model every day and it's not rocket science to understand that with very minor tweekings of inputs you can usually get the result you wan't - or need.

            Stay calm folks, the world ain't ending this century, or the next.

            Occam's Razor
            Date and time
            May 07, 2012, 11:38AM

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