I believed in the Loch Ness monster for an inordinately long time. I remember learning about it as a kid and thinking it was the coolest thing that there was still a living vestige of a dinosaur swimming around in a deep, cold lake somewhere. Who knew where else there might be one? Over the years there would be some news about it—I remember one article about a study using sonar to look for it—and I would pay attention if it seemed promising, and wonder what went wrong if they didn’t have much luck, and look forward to the next search. I figured that since it’s a big, dark lake, it’s going to be hard to find it, it will take a few tries. I mean, I saw the photo with my own eyes, it has to be there.
The years went by, and various killjoys would say how it can’t possibly exist, or it might be an eel, or … but I knew in my heart it was there and for whatever reason some people just didn’t want that to be true. I ignored them. Even ten(?) years ago I probably would have said there’s a 50-50 chance it’s really there.
I guess I’m less invested in the Loch Ness monster these days, but somehow I’ve come around to the fact that it’s probably (definitely?) not there. Just now, while writing this blog post, I learned that the one photo I always “knew” of as Nessie is a hoax. Argh! It’s kind of dispiriting, like a happy dream that vanishes when you wake up.
The point being… I am as susceptible as anyone to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Confirmation bias is when you pay more attention to information that confirms what you believe, and you disregard contradictory information. For example, I tended to read articles (or at least headlines) that held out hope of the monster’s existing, and didn’t read the bubble-bursting write ups that dismissed the idea. Motivated reasoning is where you are more critical of contradicting evidence than supporting evidence. For example, I questioned the comprehensiveness of the numerous expeditions to find the monster, but never doubted the provenance of the photo or wondered why there weren’t more recent ones. I was unconsciously fortifying my own beliefs. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esher Duflo write in Good Economics for Hard Times, “We look for evidence that we are right; we overweight every piece of news, however thin, that supports our original position, ignoring the rest. Over time, the instinctive defensive reaction we started from is replaced by a carefully constructed set of seemingly robust arguments.”
This is true across the political spectrum, and even among the most “open-minded” of us. Members of The Flat Earth Society tout themselves as “free thinkers” who promote the “intellectual exchange of ideas”. Is that free thinking or delusion? Similarly, when contrarians repeatedly take contrarian positions, it doesn’t mean they are more open-minded. Our tendency to reflexively fortify our own identity and beliefs, whether hastily formed or the result of decades of investment, is universal, and stronger with more emotional attachment. We pay more attention to what we want to hear.
I think that is partly why, as we experience increasingly severe wildfires, sea level rise, storms, heat waves, and more, we don’t think as much as we should about how we will adapt. Instead we concentrate on how we will get things back to normal. We are deeply attached to the places we live, the things we do, our traditions. It is wrenching to consider that our world is changing from global warming. Once we get past denial, we focus on how we will fight climate change and turn it around. But the difficult reality is that we also need to adapt. It is harder to accept, let alone get excited about. But nature keeps calling our attention to the warming that has already happened. It’s as if the water started to drain out of Loch Ness—it is harder to believe what we want to believe. Things won’t go back to the way they were. Climate change is here, and we need to adapt.
That is why I was so impressed to see a recent article about sea level rise in the New York Times. It describes how the US is starting to relocate entire neighborhoods that are subject to repeated flooding, overcoming years and sometimes decades of denial. So-called “managed retreat” is hard to come around to. We are facing similar issues in California in areas prone to fire or coastal flooding. A terrific article in the Los Angeles Times last year describes tense discussions in coastal California towns like Pacifica. Sea walls are destroying beaches and the supply of sand to replenish them is running low. The real estate market has begun to respond to the crumbling cliffs. What actions will our towns take?
Palo Alto is not immune; we are located right by the rising Bay. The city has done some work on sea level rise, but few seem to know or care about it. Palo Alto will be hosting a webinar on September 9 at 3pm. Where are we going to retreat, and where (and how) are we going to fortify? Where will we continue to develop and where will we have a moratorium? How much will it all cost and how will we fund it? And what will be happening elsewhere around the bay? I’d encourage you to turn some of your attention to adaptation and dial in. I will also report back on what I hear.
In the meantime, think about whether you have a “Loch Ness Monster” equivalent when it comes to climate change. What beliefs are you holding onto that are increasingly challenged? What have you come around to over time? I expect it’s going to be an on-going process…
Notes and References
1. Our desire for cognitive consonance is surprisingly powerful and universal. This study showed that 4-year-olds and even monkeys exhibit reasoning patterns designed to avoid cognitive dissonance. This NY Times article has a good overview of cognitive dissonance, and references this study.
Current Climate Data (July 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)
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