Climate explained: why do humans instinctively reject evidence contrary to their beliefs?

Shutterstock/Alexey M

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland


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Why do humans instinctively reject evidence contrary to their beliefs? Do we understand why and how people change their mind about climate change? Is there anything we can do to engage people?

These are three very significant questions. They could be answered separately but, in the context of climate science, they make a powerful trilogy.

We understand the world and our role in it by creating narratives that have explanatory power, make sense of the complexity of our lives and give us a sense of purpose and place.

These narratives can be political, social, religious, scientific or cultural and help define our sense of identity and belonging. Ultimately, they connect our experiences together and help us find coherence and meaning.

Narratives are not trivial things to mess with. They help us form stable cognitive and emotional patterns that are resistant to change and potentially antagonistic to agents of change (such as people trying to make us change our mind about something we believe).

Read more:
How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology

If new information threatens the coherence of our belief set, if we cannot assimilate it into our existing beliefs without creating cognitive or emotional turbulence, then we might look for reasons to minimise or dismiss it.

At odds with each other

Consider the current presidential election in the United States and the supporters of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The seemingly irreconcilable views of segments of the population are the result of very different narratives.

A Trump supporter holding a sign saying 'Dead people voting' and a Biden supporter holding a sign saying 'Hey Donald, you're fired'.
Very different viewpoints from supporters of Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the presidential election.
Ringo H W Chiu/AP Photo

Each side interprets events through a lens of pre-existing beliefs that determines the meaning of new information. They might all be looking at the same thing, but they understand it in very different ways.

Information that one side points out can refute a claim from the other side is dismissed as conspiracy or deliberate falsehoods, or whatever it takes not to have to engage with and assimilate it.

More than this, sometimes we can only make sense of people who don’t share our world view by assuming they have some defect of perception or cognition that limits their ability to see things as clearly as we do.

After all, if they could see as clearly, surely they’d agree with us!

Climate science denial

Climate science is a typical example of this kind of effect.

Not only are there very different narratives people use to describe themselves and each other, but misinformation produced by some media organisations and private corporations is designed to feed into and amplify existing narratives for the purposes of creating doubt and dissent.

But it gets even worse. Because of an increasingly polarised political environment in many parts of the world and the intensification of the so-called culture wars, stances on topics that might once have been shared across the political and ideological spectrum are now grouped together.

Sign on a fence in the US saying 'Trump: COVID and climate denier'.
Not one, but two denials.
Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock

For example, denial of the science of climate change is linked to denial of COVID-19 as a legitimate concern. We also find positions on climate science highly correlated to other, more basic ideologies.

Pick a topic and it’s increasingly easy to predict what someone might think about it based on their opinion about another topic in that same political basket of ideologies. The narratives are becoming more inclusive; it’s been a while since the politics of climate science has just been about the science.

Read more:
Climate sceptic or climate denier? It’s not that simple and here’s why

It is also the case that belief in climate science is not a binary affair. There are many shades of belief here.

But all this does not mean people are immune to changing their view, even when they are deeply woven into their personal identity.

Yes, you can engage people … and change their mind

US musician, actor and writer Daryl Davis is a black man responsible for dozens of members of the Ku Klux Klan leaving and denouncing the organisation, including national leaders.

He did this through engaging them in conversation, and ultimately befriending them, in a genuine attempt to understand their world views and the deep assumptions on which they were based.

For Davis, mutual respect and a desire to understand each other are necessary conditions for peaceful coexistence and a convergence of views.

What Davis appreciated is a core principle of public reasoning, or reasoning together. If we wish others to join us in believing in something or in some course of action, we must not only have reasons that make sense to us, they must also be meaningful to others. Otherwise, explaining our reasoning amounts to little more than making another kind of assertion.

Creating shared meaning through reasoning together requires respectful dialogue and an intimate understanding and appreciation of each other’s world views.

Don’t lose sight of the truth

Let’s be clear, trying to understand how someone thinks is not about meeting them halfway on everything. The truth still matters.

A protest sign saying 'Denial is not a policy'.
Protests against climate change denial.
Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In the case of climate change, we know that the planet is warming, that the consequences of this warming are very serious and that humans contribute significantly to it.

Read more:
Climate explained: are we doomed if we don’t manage to curb emissions by 2030?

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, and we are. But that rationality is not devoid of emotional contexts. Indeed, we seem to need emotions to be rational.

For this reason, facts alone are not as convincing as we would like them to be. But facts coupled with respect, understanding and compassion can be enormously persuasive.The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, Senior Lecturer in Critical Thinking; Curriculum Director, UQ Critical Thinking Project, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Gene editing is revealing how corals respond to warming waters. It could transform how we manage our reefs

Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Dimitri Perrin, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Carnegie Institution for Science

Genetic engineering has already cemented itself as an invaluable tool for studying gene functions in organisms.

Our new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now demonstrates how gene editing can be used to pinpoint genes involved in corals’ ability to withstand heat stress.

A better understanding of such genes will lay the groundwork for experts to predict the natural response of coral populations to climate change. And this could guide efforts to improve coral adaptation, through the selective breeding of naturally heat-tolerant corals.

A threatened national treasure

The Great Barrier Reef is among the world’s most awe-inspiring, unique and economically valuable ecosystems. It spans more than 2,000 kilometres, has more than 600 types of coral, 1,600 types of fish and is of immense cultural significance — especially for Traditional Owners.

But warming ocean waters caused by climate change are leading to the mass bleaching and mortality of corals on the reef, threatening the reef’s long-term survival.

Read more:
The first step to conserving the Great Barrier Reef is understanding what lives there

Many research efforts are focused on how we can prevent the reef’s deterioration by helping it adapt to and recover from the conditions causing it stress.

Understanding the genes and molecular pathways that protect corals from heat stress will be key to achieving these goals.

While hypotheses exist about the roles of particular genes and pathways, rigorous testings of these have been difficult — largely due to a lack of tools to determine gene function in corals.

But over the past decade or so, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has emerged as a powerful tool to study gene function in non-model organisms.

CRISPR: a technological marvel

Scientists can use CRISPR to make precise changes to the DNA of a living organisms, by “cutting” its DNA and editing the sequence. This can involve inactivating a specific gene, introducing a new piece of DNA or replacing a piece.

In our 2018 research, we showed it is possible to make precise mutations in the coral genome using CRISPR technology. However, we were unable to determine the functions of our specific target genes.

For our latest research, we used an updated CRISPR method to sufficiently disrupt the Heat Shock Transcription Factor 1, or HSF1, in coral larvae.

Based on this protein-coding gene’s role in model organisms, including closely related sea anemones, we hypothesised it would play an important role in the heat response of corals.

Injection going into coral egg.
We injected CRISPR components into the fertilised eggs of the coral species Acropora millepora to inactivate the HSF1 gene.
Phillip Cleves/Carnegie Institute for Science, CC BY-NC-ND

Past research had also demonstrated HSF1 can influence a large number of heat response genes, acting as a kind of “master switch” to turn them on.

By inactivating this master switch, we expected to see significant changes in the corals’ heat tolerance. Our prediction proved accurate.

Read more:
What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Chemistry Nobel prize?

What we discovered by injecting coral eggs

We spawned corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science during the annual mass spawning event in November, 2018.

We then injected CRISPR/Cas9 components into fertilised coral eggs to target the HSF1 gene in the common and widespread staghorn coral Acropora millepora.

_Acropora millepora_ coral colony during a mass spawning event.
Acropora millepora colonies can be found widely on the Great Barrier Reef. They reproduce sexually in ‘mass spawning’ events.
Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

We were able to demonstrate a strong effect of HSF1 on corals’ heat tolerance. Specifically, when this gene was mutated using CRISPR (and no longer functional) the corals were more vulnerable to heat stress.

Larvae with knocked-out copies of HSF1 died under heat stress when the water temperature was increased from 27℃ to 34℃. In contrast, larvae with the functional gene survived well in the warmer water.

Let’s understand what we already have

It may be tempting now to focus on using gene-editing tools to engineer heat-resistant strains of corals, to fast-track the Great Barrier Reef’s adaptation to warming waters.

However, genetic engineering should first and foremost be used to increase our knowledge of the fundamental biology of corals and other reef organisms, including their response to heat stress.

Not only will this help us more accurately predict the natural response of coral reefs to a changing climate, it will also shed light on the risks and benefits of new management tools for corals, such as selective breeding.

It is our hope these genetic insights will provide a solid foundation for future reef conservation and management efforts.The Conversation

During mass spawning events, corals release little balls that float to the ocean’s surface in a spectacle resembling an upside-down snowstorm.

Dimitri Perrin, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, , Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Principal Investigator, Carnegie Institution for Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.