Climate change

April 6, 2010

The gentle art of interrogation

Filed under: Climate Change — Barry Brook @ 10:36 am

How do you dig down to the core of a person’s beliefs? Can you really hope to influence ‘the unpersuadables’ (a term recently coined by George Monbiot)? Is it worth arguing science and empirical evidence with ‘non-greenhouse theorists’ (you know, the really way-out-there kooks, who won’t even acknowledge that CO2 traps and re-emits infrared radiation)? Should we bother talking up nuclear engineering triumphs like ‘passive safety’ and ‘total actinide burning’ with anti-nuke zealots (you know, the ones who just know that atomic energy is bad)?

I’ve argued elsewhere that, in the greater (global) scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter that such ideologically straight-jacketed people exist. They always will. Rather, Hansen (and others on this blog) have argued that powerful vested interests — principally those with a major stake in fossil fuels forever — are far more dangerous. I’d have to agree, especially in the way they are so easily able to use the climate change/nuclear ‘antis’ as their pawns — usually, but not always, inadvertent – to slow the transition to real alternatives to coal, gas and oil (I rank them in that order of danger). But overcoming the influence of these powerful interests will need a lot of political currency, and that can only come by influencing enough sensible but weakly informed sections of society to advocate for the sort of pragmatic action that is in their own best, long-term interest.

Okay, so is there a way to get through to these people — or, perhaps more pertinently, to get others to see through them? Yes, I know of at least one method — I’ve tried it many times, and it works. I call it ‘the gentle art of interrogation’ (although I’m hardly the first to use this term).

There are a number of ground rules. First, be patient and persistent — you’re unlikely to get instant pay-off, especially if someone has entrenched views. Second, don’t be confronting, aggressive or agitated – people almost inevitably go on the defensive if you act in this way. Third, don’t be smug or condescending — that’s another sure fire way to put people offside. Nobody likes a smart arse.

Okay, with those underpinning principles in place, let’s look at the method itself.

In short, it involves questioning, not arguing. The key is definitely NOT to feed people a whole lot of information — technical data, peer-reviewed scientific studies, charts, reference to expert consensus, etc. Been there, done that, does’t work. That’s only useful later, when people are genuinely open to finding out more about a topic (be it climate change, nuclear energy, whatever). Nope, instead you have to get out a little metaphorical chisel, and start chipping away slowly at their belief edifice, with ever deepening interrogation.

Let me illustrate briefly, with a hypothetical example. Mr Hartigan is talking to Kevin, who has just proclaimed that “Man-made global warming is a crock!“.

Hartigan cocks and eyebrow and says “Which do you mean — that the climate is not warming, or that it is not caused by human activity?“.

Kevin quickly replies “Climate is always changing; we have nothing to do with it“.

Okay“, follows Hartigan, “So you accept that it is getting warmer?

Well, I suppose” says Kevin, “But its not caused by CO2“.

Hmmm. Do you agree that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is rising?” (Hartigan)

Yes” (Kevin)

Do you acknowledge that this rise is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels?” (Hartigan)

Yes, but the rise is effectively irrelevant” (Kevin)

Could you clarify? Do you mean that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas that traps and re-radiates infrared?” (Hartigan)

No, obviously it’s a greenhouse gas, but its effect is logarithmic and is no longer of importance at current concentrations” (Kevin)

Do you mean, by this, that all of the outgoing wavelength absorption bands are saturated?” (Hartigan)

I suppose so, I don’t know the details” (Kevin)

Fair enough. But can we agree then that if all of the radiation bands are not saturated — and I can show you the physical measurements that demonstrate this — then you will need to re-evaluate your position on the relevance to climate change of adding extra CO2 to the atmosphere?” (Hartigan)

… and so on. As you can see, it takes time and patience, but potential distractions continue to fall by the wayside. (Perhaps, in the comments section of this blog post, you can develop some other ‘hypotheticals’ — be it on climate sensitivity or the sustainability of nuclear energy, or any number of other points).

Of course, Kevin could have answered differently at any particular juncture, in which case the line of questioning would have naturally followed a different path. The interrogation process has no obvious end — it simply allows one to follow various chains-of-(il)logic to their irreducible conclusion. As these various lines of argument are systematically exhausted, the points of outstanding contention or confusion become ever clearer. As a result, the ‘opponent’ is forced to think harder and harder about the basis of their beliefs, and whether it is important to them that it is supported by sensible deduction or induction. Even if the Kevins of this world are ‘unpersuadable’, those observing the process may well maintain a more flexible position.

Really, this is the only useful way to have a public debate on a polarised issue like climate change or nuclear energy. Forget the prepared speeches and slideshows. Instead, allocate time for each ‘debater’ to gently interrogate their opposition, in turn. There is simply no more effective way to strip away spin and hyperbole, unmask hidden assumptions, reveal the extent and importance of uncertainties, highlight cherry picking, and so on. The downside is that it can be very difficult to get the disingenuous to agree to such a format. But I’m now quite convinced that if you can’t, then you might as well not bother.


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