Media and Spin
Any time one feels the need to liven up an otherwise uneventful day, simply ask someone how they feel about climate change and then disagree with them. The subject can set off a debate as sizzling as swinging a golf club in a thunderstorm.
Opinions on climate change generally fall into several categories:
Those who believe that climates change is fact, and those who believe it is not.
In the former category are those who believe climate change is manmade as well as those who believe it is naturally occurring.
There are also those who believe the scientific evidence is not sufficient to prove the case one way or the other.
In the 1980s, one of the theories held by academics was called the Information Deficit Model of Scientific Communication.
The Theory had two main components:
The first part consisted of the belief that lack of information was behind the public’s uncertainty and general ignorance of scientific, technological, as well as environmental issues.
The second was that by supplying copious amounts of information, this knowledge deficit could be overcome with the general population eventually holding correct scientific beliefs and opinions.1
This theory assumed that the minds of the public were like empty buckets that only needed to be filled with correct information to create the desired result.
Unfortunately, for the disseminators, there appears to be no such thing as an empty mind.
Contrary to a popular belief, we do not use just 10% of our brains. We use the whole thing although not necessarily all at once. There is not a lot of room in there in spite of the fact there is no end of information we need to ingest.
Part of this mental space is taken up by hard-wiring.
Any organism that hopes to survive has to have some hard-wired survival mechanism even if it is as basic as reproducing as fast as possible so that the species survives. Many single-cell organisms follow this strategy. It is what they do.
This type of behavior is passed on genetically. It is more efficient in the short term than learned behavior because learning takes time and is expensive resource-wise. Many single-celled organisms simply copy themselves, thus each new organism enters the world as capable as their parent cell, genetic drift notwithstanding.
With multi-cellular organisms, particularly human beings, there are also hard-wired behaviors, but in addition, a great deal of mental space is reserved for future learning. Humans do not mature until well into their teens. Of course, many parents would tend to put that mark far later.
Nonetheless, the hard-wired instincts and abilities we have take up a great deal of neural space.
Abilities we find easy to perform such as walking or seeing in three dimensions require large amounts of brain power. We only find such abilities easy because a great deal of the brain is reserved for their use. Without the massive numbers of dedicated neurons, the abilities would not just be hard; they would not exist.2
Alzheimer’s disease attacks nerve cells and brain tissue which over time shrinks the brain to an alarming degree. The normal brain weight for an adult human is approximately 1300-1400 grams (3 lb).3 An autopsy of a 68-year-old male suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s had a brain weight of 940 grams (2 lb) – a 33% loss of mass.4
To put this in perspective, the human eye contains a thin film of neurons that processes light signals from the retina into useable signals the brain can process. It is so thin as to be almost completely transparent. It lies just in front of the rods that receive the light rather than behind them. It is said to have the processing power of a small super computer.5
With Alzheimer’s disease every function is slowly debilitated until they can no longer be performed. The cell destruction is massive in advanced cases and the processing loss of an entire pound of brain matter in terms of mental performance is beyond comprehension.6
In a more subtle way, humans often take for granted their particular individual talents precisely because they consider what they do easy and therefore of no consequence when in fact the very opposite is true. How many of us have fallen into the mistaken belief that others can do what we do just as well and with the same minimal effort? We fail to observe that if it is easy to do, a great many of the body’s genetic and synaptic resources have been dedicated to it. We also fail to observe that others often find what we do hard.
At the same time there are certain human attributes that appear to be shared universally. Language is one and opinion generation is another.
We humans form opinions at a drop of a hat. We are good at it and there is a correspondingly large amount of the mental machinery that is dedicated to that task. We often shortcut opinions through the use of emotions. If one hates something, the emotion helps underline the opinion. Decision-making is also speeded up. One does not like it; end of story.7
How we feel about something has a great deal of influence as to how we view information about it.
An observation that follows from our opinion-making-ability is that it is easier for us to store opinions and decisions than facts.
Here is a simple question: Is it easier to memorize and recite a poem, or is it easier to recall exactly how one feels about that horrible Uncle Edward.
It is a truism that we recall our opinions, no matter how nuanced, with ease.
The purveyors of scientific information as well as those who deal out economic and political news discovered that the intended recipients already had opinions and beliefs and that when a fact opposed their beliefs, it just bounced off.
Our minds appear full already. The information we receive either aligns with what is already there, or it does not.
One of the classic psychology classroom stunts is the invisible gorilla trick.
Imagine that you are asked to count the number of times people in white shirts pass a ball between each other in a group of people dressed in black and white by looking at a short video. You are to count as accurately as possible. In the middle of the action a guy in a gorilla suit walks into the center of the screen, thumps his chest, and moves off camera.
This experiment was done at Harvard University several years ago and over 50% of the class failed to see the gorilla.
The experiment revealed two things: we miss a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no clue we miss so much.8
By the way, did you notice the use of spin regarding Uncle Edward eight paragraphs back?
You probably will recall him. I wrote that he was horrible. One can underline a fact by matching it with an opinion. The data is stickier that way.
Is it any wonder that primary news delivery systems for financial news, at least to the non professional investor, is through talking heads on channels like CNBC that argue back and forth giving their factual reasons?
This has also been picked up by hard news channels. Discussion is now the primary information vehicle.
It is the observation of those who deliver information that facts are just facts. Unless they can be aligned with our belief system, and what we are willing to see, just like the man in the gorilla suit, they will not exist for us.
One of the most fascinating points about climate change for me is that it is one of the key scientific debates before the general public that has surfaced since the Information Deficit Model of Scientific Communication was discarded and the opinionated discussion format used in its place. Perhaps this is why climate change is such an electric topic that polarizes society into opposing camps.
Even in Science, opinion rules.
- Miller, Steve (2001) Public understanding of science at the crossroads. Retrieved 15 April 2014 from http://pus.sagepub.com/content/10/1/115.abstract
- Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books
- N.A. (N.D). Retrieved April 15, 2014 from http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html
- Zasshi, N. (1990) An autopsy case of Alzheimer’s disease associated with Parkinson’s disease, compared to 2 Autopsy cases of diffuse Lewy body disease. Retrieved April 15, 2014 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2384995
- Hall, J. S. (2007) Beyond AI, Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
- N.A. (2011) Brain Tour. Retrieved April 15, 2014 from http://www.alz.org/braintour/alzheimers_changes.asp
- Eagleman, op. cit.
- Chabis, C. and Simons, D. (2010) The invisible Gorilla. Retrieved April 15, 2014 from http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html
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© 2014 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.