Is ‘common sense’ endangering our planet?

November 8, 2013 — Q&A

Chen_Xiang_43OK, we know that some people don’t want us to worry about the planet warming up. They spend a lot of money to keep people confused about climate change. So my question is, why do we need another explanation for the public’s poor understanding of this issue?

Because there is more to it. Everybody agrees there are misconceptions about climate change. Right now, we need to understand what the causes are behind all of the misconceptions. Political scientists can identify some of the causes. Moral philosophers can identify others. I identify myself as a philosopher of science specialized in cognitive psychology. I’m trying to find, from a cognitive perspective, the psychological causes or sources of the problem.

What about good old denial?

Aside from denial of climate change, there is also a kind of reluctance – the “wait-and-see” approach – that is very popular and very difficult to correct.

For example, they conducted an experiment at the Sloan Business School at MIT. This is a top school, and all of the students are very smart. They asked the students, hypothetically, if we completely stopped emitting carbon dioxide, how would global temperature respond? More than a half of the students said that the temperature would immediately begin to drop. They had an illusion that the climate would respond immediately and that we can afford a “wait-and-see” approach to the crisis. But that was wrong. According to one estimate, even if carbon dioxide emissions dropped to zero today, global temperature would continue to rise for about three decades.

Later, they lectured the students for a couple of weeks on systems dynamics theory. They explained that in all complex systems –  the climate is a typical complex system – it’s impossible for that kind of response to happen immediately. At the end of the semester, they gave the students another test to see if this had a lasting effect on attitudes. It did not. There was no significant change in the results.

Wow. Why not?

One of the reasons, I argue, is that we human beings have defects in our cognitive capacity. We are not perfect.

Basically, whenever we are confronted with something new, we first try to understand the new entity as an object. This can cause all kinds of confusion if the entity is not an object, something like a chair or a coffee mug.

How do you know that people think this way?

My research is in a way different from traditional philosophical studies. I build my arguments on cognitive psychology, and cognitive psychology is science. They conduct experiments to check their ideas. They have learned that the ability to understand objects is one of the first cognitive abilities humans develop. Even 4-month-old babies understand some basic properties of objects.

Another entity, besides objects, is process. A meeting or a conversation is a process. It exists, right? It’s real, as real as you and me. Well, we need about six years of cognitive development before we understand process. It is not innate, and it’s complicated.

Process is totally different from any object. Not only can a process have several different properties, but two processes can occur in the same space at the same time. That’s not the case with objects, and everyone knows it. Therefore we have a children’s game about two persons not being able to occupy the same chair.

So we have this tendency, whenever possible, to try to understand something new as an object. We are armed with the capacity, so why don’t we use it first? If that doesn’t work, then maybe it’s a process, but only later. I call this tendency our “object bias.”

Are there any simple examples?

The best-documented examples would be in science education. If you talk to any professor of physics, one of the most terrible misconceptions that students have is to think of heat as an object. This mistake is very hard to correct.

What does it mean to think of heat as an object? 

To think of “heat” as an object, a thing like a ping pong ball, is an idea popular around the 17th century. A consequence of this material notion of heat is confusion between heat and temperature, so that heat is something you measure with a thermometer. The hotter an object is, the more “heat” it contains. Common sense, right? Well, that’s not how heat works.

Because of this misconception, most people never consider the role of oceans in the process of global warming. The ocean is cool, right? You never associate the ocean with heat. Actually, the oceans are a key player. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the surface of the Earth and have about 1,000 times the heat capacity of the atmosphere.  Over the last 50 years, the heat content of the oceans has increased from the surface down to depths of 1,000 meters. Even if today we stop emitting carbon dioxide, the oceans are already a fraction of a degree hotter and will continue to release heat into the atmosphere

So, if what you’re saying is true, people are wired to misunderstand this issue. How are we supposed to tackle a problem like that?

That’s how my work will pay off. If we can identify the cause, there’s always a solution. Even if we cannot eliminate the problem, we can reduce it to a minimum. Still, the experiment I mentioned reminds us that this is not easy. We have to find the right kind of education.

The greater problem is if we don’t fully understand the causes. Then whatever we do, we just waste our time.