Cognitive dissonance
Climate Skeptics Versus Science

Cognitive dissonance Illustration: © Atelier 10

Which mechanism leads people to deny proven facts? Welcome to the post-truth era.

Vanessa Allnutt

Everyone knows it, and science proves it: climate change caused by human activity has entered a critical stage. We are approaching the tipping point where it will become impossible to turn things around. If nothing is done, we will move towards scenarios with catastrophic consequences.
Everyone knows? Not quite. Climate change skeptics don’t care about science. Donald Trump seems to be leading the charge, but he is not alone. There are many climate change “deniers” who don’t hesitate to make their voices heard. Climate change is dividing society, and it is more politicized than ever.
But how do you explain the categorical refusal of explanations furnished by science? In other words, which mechanism leads people to deny proven facts? Welcome to the post-truth era.

Social psychology to the rescue

Developed in the middle of the 20th century by the American psychologist Leon Festinger, the theory of cognitive dissonance is undoubtedly the most suited to shed light on the clinical case of climate change skeptics. A state of dissonance occurs especially when a person is confronted with information that contradicts his or her beliefs. This state generally causes psychological discomfort that the person will then seek to mitigate by various strategies in order to restore the consistency of his or her cognitions.
When Festinger began to formulate his theory in 1956, he, together with two of his colleagues, became interested in the case of a cult that was convinced of the imminent end of the world, which of course never took place. The question they asked was simple: what happens when a prophecy fails? Or, in the case of climate change skeptics, when a belief turns out to be wrong?
Dissonance can of course be reduced if the person agrees to modify his or her cognitions accordingly — this would be the most logical course of action for most of us. But there is also another option, especially when it comes to a deep belief, and that is to reject or refute information that conflicts with it. Beliefs, in fact, are not always based on facts; they can also result from other types of motivations, such as maintaining a certain world vision. Psychological reality is much more malleable than physical reality, as Festinger liked to say.
Individuals with dissonance – and this was in particular what the study about the doomsday cult eloquently demonstrated – will try to modify their social universe in order to align it with their beliefs. It is not uncommon to see them devote themselves to proselytism and become all the more fervent as the facts on hand become indisputable.
The stronger the dissonance, the greater a person’s efforts to reduce it. To grasp its scope, just take a look at the virulence with which climate change skeptics attack those who “believe” in climate change. It is squarely harassment.

Group adherence

It would be tempting, and perhaps reassuring, to think that people with little scientific knowledge, or who are not well informed, are most likely to question the inevitability of climate change. However, recent research has shown that factual knowledge has less influence on climate beliefs than group adherence.
Intrigued by the difficulty of getting people to accept the results of climate change research, Yale University professor Dan K. Kahan asked Americans what their level of support was for the idea that there is “strong evidence” that climate change is “mainly” due to human activity. His study showed that the level of support increased gradually but moderately with the level of scientific knowledge of the participants. But the study also showed – and this is what makes the study so revealing – how important it is to take into account the political beliefs as well. Among Democratic voters, the higher the level of knowledge, the more the support tended to increase. Surprisingly, Kahan observed the opposite among Republican voters: the more scientifically knowledgeable they were, the more they were likely to be skeptical about climate change...
Appealing to reason in order to convince people of the seriousness of the climate crisis would therefore not be an effective strategy. Being at odds with the beliefs of one’s cultural or political group would lead to a state of dissonance that is difficult to bear. This is demonstrated by the intellectual prowess of climate change skeptics who do not shy away from any argument, however unverifiable, to denigrate their opponents.
In the end, what the case of climate change skeptics seems to show above all is that humans are rationalizing beings rather than rational beings. Maintaining the balance of their own belief system would be more vital to some people than fighting climate change.

Dan M. Kahan, “Climate-science communication and the measurement problem,” Advances in Political Psychology, 36, 1-43 (2015).
Dan M. Kahan et al, “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risk,” Nature Climate Change, 2, 732-735 (2012).
Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press, 1957.
Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, Pinter & Martin, 2008.
David Vaidis and Séverine Halimi-Falkowicz, “La théorie de la dissonance cognitive: une théorie âgée d’un demi-siècle,” Revue électronique de psychologie sociale, 1 (2007).

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