Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

Published: 10:47 PM GMT on July 02, 2012

Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

Revised: 20120703

I am starting this entry from a previous blog, Rhetoric Again - Cycles. I got some interesting comments as well as a couple of letters for that entry. To set the tone, here is a thought from the end of that blog.

There is little doubt that humans are the dominant life form on the planet today. We shape every ecosystem. We consume all forms of energy. Like the balances between plants and animals in the past we change the atmosphere and the ocean. Not only are we a dominant life form, we have this amazing ability to extract rocks and liquids and gas from the Earth and burn them. We have the ability to push around land, to make concrete, to remove mountains, and build islands. We are, therefore, not only biological, we are geological.

With this notion, I place humans as a force of nature – as part of nature. Because we have the ability to remember, reason, develop and accumulate knowledge, then unlike other parts of the natural world, we have the ability to make decisions that influence our future. Therefore, our role in nature, in the natural world is unique. To be clear, that uniqueness is not in our ability to change the environment, but in our ability to understand the consequences of those changes and the ability to anticipate and influence the future.

I bring up this idea of humans as a reasoned biological and geological force for several reasons. First, I believe that to set the world into two divisions, that which is natural and that which is human, is both a false and dangerous division. Focusing on climate change, it is a division that sits at the foundation of those who argue that the climate is full of natural cycles, and that the current warming is just part of that natural cycle, and hence there is no need for us to be concerned. Or alternatively, there is no need for us to modify our behavior because it is all a force of nature, and we don’t have any influence over nature. (see also).

This is a belief – mine, that humans are part of nature. But many others see humans as outside of nature. The outside perspectives are not simple. For example, there are those who see humans as a disturbance to nature, and there are those for whom humans have divine providence over nature. That is the second point I want to make, the very foundation of how we think about climate change, our environment, and our place in nature is belief based. It is a belief base associated with our personal identity.

I have been motivated to think about what we believe and how this impacts our behavior on climate change for many years. For the sake of this blog, that motivation rises from how do we communicate climate change? Some scientists spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate their work; in fact, research sponsors often require plans for communication, outreach and broader impacts. Many scientists, trained in a discipline of evidence-based knowledge generation, fall naturally to presenting evidence-based arguments, with the idea that ultimately the evidence-based argument will be convincing beyond reasonable doubt. In many ways this invites an argument more suitable to our approach to legal problems. We the scientist will present the evidence base. This will stand in contrast to the arguments of the non-scientist. There will, ultimately, be judgment in favor of the evidence base, because, well, it becomes self evident. This form of argument does not recognize that we often look at evidence and make decisions that deny the existence of that evidence. We make decisions that align with, our desires, our beliefs and what we want to believe.

I have written about some of these communications issues, and they are compiled here in What to Do? What to Do?. What I want to state more explicitly than I have stated before is the importance of the recognition of the belief-based argument. First, I naturally contrast the belief-based argument with the knowledge-based argument, which is not really the right contrast. The belief-based argument is, in fact, informed by knowledge, but it does not give high weight to science-based knowledge. Hence, it is not especially useful to pose a belief-based versus a knowledge-based argument. I have already stated that both sides of the argument are belief based and that both sides on the argument are informed by knowledge. Hence, it is easy for these arguments to fall into an attack on identity – I the scientist work from the foundation of knowledge and the ability to generate knowledge. You do not. This is not useful.

Second, I have used belief-based argument with the idea that it might be viewed as a politically based argument or even a religion-based argument. I have often referred to the politically based argument in my blog entries, and I have stated that once in a political argument, where the foundation is not primarily science-based knowledge, there is really little purpose in arguing over facts and evidence-based knowledge of the Earth’s climate. There is even evidence that introduction of science facts increases the polarity of political arguments (here). In such an argument, people may be working from a different base of facts. This is especially evident in the arguments over biological evolution, divine creation and, say, the observation-based scientific description of progression of Earth’s life and climate.

Where am I planning to take this blog? The first place I want to take it is that the communication of climate change is complex and individual. If we mash together evangelical, conservative, and Republican as dismissive of climate change and view a concern for climate change as secular, liberal and Democratic, then we do disservice to all. It does not take much effort to reveal evangelical, conservative, Republican organizations that are concerned about and vested in ways to address climate change. That is why in the 2012 political environment, a focus on exposing those seeking solutions is a more useful way forward than perpetuating the political arguments and despair over the political response. There is no simple key that will be uncovered by a compelling presentation of knowledge; there is no single approach to communication that will be universally effective. Successful communication is purpose-based and recognizes the valid points of view brought to the table by all constituencies. It often requires overcoming barriers of prejudice.

The next place I want to take this blog is to return to the idea of natural cycles – climate variability. We have been faced with many environmental challenges. I am sitting in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in a region that was largely deforested many years ago, on the Mississippi River, which has too much nitrogen-based nutrients in the water. A few miles back I saw a bald eagle, a species that was endangered by DDT. We eliminated the use of DDT, and we have seen the return of the bald eagle and the ospreys. Why can we make that decision? Lot’s of reasons, and an important one is the easy identification of cause and effect and seeing the return of the eagle over one’s lifetime after DDT was banned. Climate change does not have that easy cause and effect.

Responding to climate change does not have the narrow focus of regulating an insecticide and saving a grand bird. It is not easy to see the benefit of regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Those benefits are many years in the future, and the near-term cost is high. It is like people not taking a medicine that has a 90% chance of curing them from a slowly progressing disease because they don’t understand how the drug they ingest might work; they don’t want to introduce alien chemicals into their body. They seem to be doing okay right now. And if we look at the consequences of climate change, they are frightening, threatening, and they are our fault. We don’t accept fault easily; we have a mandate to feel that we are right. We don’t like change forced upon us, either individually or collectively. We fall back to our beliefs, our identity.

After the blog Rhetoric Again – Cycles, I was asked whether or not I considered man part of nature? Yes, I am saying that man is part of nature. But I don’t think that nature proceeds as a completely unrestrained force. We are many, and we influence nature. In fact, we are at this time the most dominant force of nature. However, we are also able to investigate nature, develop knowledge, and anticipate scenarios for the future. Therefore, we can influence the course of nature. My belief is that we have the responsibility to act on this knowledge. And like people who get caught in cycles of behavior, perhaps trapped by psychological pitfalls, with recognition of our role in nature, we have the ability and the opportunity to take advantage of our knowledge.

To my students I try to teach that they separate what is known from what they believe and what they want to believe. Advocacy needs to be recognized by the advocate, and advocacy changes one's role in decision making. The advocate identifies with an issue and is trying to elevate one position relative to other positions. The convincing advocate for addressing climate change is anchored in a knowledge base that is drawn from scientific investigation. With a separation of what is known, from what is believed to be known, and what is desired based on belief, the climate-change advocate becomes more effective in the decision making process. It is then easier to incorporate climate knowledge into planning and policy and societal response becomes possible.


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I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature:

Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature: Revised: 20120703I am starting this entry from a previous blog, Rhetoric Again - Cycles. I got some interesting comments as well as a couple of letters for that entry. To set the tone, here is a thought from the end of that blog.There is little doubt that humans are the dominant life form on the planet today. We shape every ecosystem. We consume all forms of energy. Like the balances between plants and animals in the...

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