Why Some People are Still in Denial Over Climate Change & Evolution
Author Jonathan Swift once said: “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Three hundred years later, man hasn’t changed much. In 2016 in America, where you can access information on any topic from your smartphone, large swaths of the population are still looking science in the face and denying it when faced with two topics: man-made climate change and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Given the overwhelming scientific evidence for the theory of evolution and for climate change, it’s clear most science deniers haven’t reasoned themselves into their positions. Religious indoctrination usually happens well before a child can reason themselves into the concept of god. And people’s political beliefs usually come as a package of ideas that have as much to do with their social identities as their their thoughts on policy. So why do people cling so strongly to anti-science beliefs in the face of evidence? One major reason is the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that happens when someone is confronted by new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs. People will reduce this discomfort by either changing thoughts to incorporate the new information, or by denying it. Alongside cognitive dissonance is its psychological sidekick, the confirmation bias theory. This states that people tend to favor information that confirms their preconceptions of reality, rather than altering them. This practice usually leads people to cherry pick facts that uphold their beliefs, rather than accepting those that challenge them.
Nowhere do these two psychological theories rear their ugly heads more prominently than in the “debate” over man-made climate change. While 95 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists accept that man-made climate change is happening, most Americans’ thoughts on the issue side with their political beliefs. When asked about 2015’s record temperatures, 72% of Democrats attributed it to man-made climate change, whereas only 27% of Republicans agreed. This break down isn’t shocking knowing that Democrats – who tend to embrace environmental causes – would have little dissonance accepting the science.
Confirmation bias makes it easier for people to choose climate-change facts which won’t disrupt their constructed realities. “Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way,” Arek Sinanian from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change says. “And the costs of climate change and our responses are so economically, socially and morally devastating that confirmation bias is a much easier way out.”
If accepting the worldwide devastation posed by climate change is tough for some, accepting that man evolved over time from apes is a recipe for existential crisis in others. For people who chose to view the world through a religious lens where man was created by god, the theory of evolution makes their lives feel meaningless. It also renders their creator to be redundant at best, non-existent at worst. But according to The Atlantic, 98% of scientists accept that man evolved over time and most believe the first human, Homo erectus, appeared in Africa about two million years ago. But in the face of all of that awesome, peer-reviewed science, according to a Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe god created man in its present form 10,000 years ago, because that’s what the Bible says.
There is reason to believe that these anti-science beliefs will carry on into the future due to our third psychological theory: belief perseverance. This theory states that when people are confronted with information that disproves foundational beliefs which they’ve admitted to publicly, they tend to reject the new information and cling even more strongly to their incorrect beliefs. So as time marches on, chances are there will still be small pockets of people denying the undeniable, as the rest of society intellectually evolves into the future.