Gravity's Rainbow

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Figures Don’t Lie, but Liars Figure

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When I began trying to convince my aunt that climate change is a very real, very risky, and human caused phenomenon, she sent me a list of questions she had about climate change. I answered all of her questions carefully and thoughtfully using scientific evidence and clear figures. After I finished the last post and sent it to her, I received the response

You say tomato, I say tomahto.
Just another opinion.

with a link to this AOL news story suggesting that snow in winter might disprove climate change and perpetuating the myth that there is no scientific consensus on climate change.

I was annoyed. After all the time and effort I put into answering her questions, trying to impress on her the weight of evidence on the issue and the importance of long term trends versus single events and short term fluctuations, she still didn’t get it. Some people might stop here, disgusted, and assume my aunt is stupid. I’ve seen many conversations on climate change go this way.

But I assure you that my aunt is not stupid by any stretch of the imagination. Though she never got a college education, cleverness, hard work, and a knack for detail have made her quite successful. Her advice has gotten me out of more than one tricky situation. I think she’s very smart. So why didn’t our conversation – why didn’t the data – change her mind?

I’ve already mentioned how my failure to tell a good, coherent story in response to her questions hurt my case.

But I think it’s more than that. My aunt appended the phrase “figures lie and liars figure” to that list of questions she sent me. It’s not that my aunt doesn’t understand what I said. My aunt fundamentally believes that she cannot trust the data or the scientists.

All of the information I used was not only publicly available, but had usually been packaged for public consumption – translated from meteorological and statistical jargon into layman’s terms. My aunt was fully capable of finding the answers to her questions with a few minutes of googling. But she didn’t. She asked a person she knew and trusted. Unfortunately, her trust in me and my knowledge is not stronger than the distrust she feels for science and scientists.

“Figures lie and liars figure” is a bastardization of the original expression – “figures don’t lie, but liars figure” – that reflects the problem with the climate change ‘debate.’ The data don’t lie, but much of the American public is convinced that they can’t believe what science says.

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3 Comments

  1. This is indeed a very interesting dynamic. What do you perceive was your Aunt’s motivation for asking you the questions? Was she truly trying to learn more about the issue from a different point of view than her usual sources, and she trusted you as a possible source? Or was it that she was trying to reach out to you on some other personal level, such as trying to help you see her point of view differently, or perhaps just showing respect for you by asking for your insights without her actually caring about deciding one way or other on the issue? Her motivations might be crucial to how she reacts to your information.

  2. I second. Once you understand motivations behind resistance to facts, it becomes easier to challenge it. That may not be easy to find out, though. I had the same discussion with my own aunt, and got the same result. I noticed the two drivers for the discussion were 1) a “Galileo complex” (she cited a ‘scientist’ opposing the idea of CG which was heavily rhetorical) and 2) anxiety before change associated with the idea that “demography would be a bomb that turned out wrong” (well, not wrong, but not as dramatic as predicted 20 years ago, inspiring a mistrust at pessimistic moralising claims).

    So the issue was sort of solved with discussing the science process and what made the pseudo-Galileo wrong (i.e. abusive use of autority, misrepresentation of data, and lies); plus another discussion about predictive ability of models/scenarios, and how the world may be not as bad but also not as well as one can reasonnably expect.

  3. I think you’re both right about the motivation behind the questions. It’s surprisingly difficult to figure out what people actually disagree with. While I was able to answer all of my aunt’s questions and criticisms of the data, it didn’t change her mind because they didn’t have anything to do with her real problem with climate change – a fundamental distrust of science.

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