I heard Carl Sagan argue today (in a Science Friday archival interview from May 1996) that entrenched-power is not motivated to encourage critical thinking in the population. I’m afraid Dr. Sagan hit the bulls-eye on that one – the political logic is obvious.
Today I also read Martin Nicholson’s new and important article at BraveNewClimate on human misperception of risk. Martin’s essay is based on David Ropeik’s essential book How Risky Is It, Really? Human evolution did not prepare us at all for a world where we must make choices amongst imperfect alternatives that have complex future consequences. Evolution did not select for skill at making decisions with century-time-scale impacts. Nor for choosing between alternative risk-benefit pairings. The beginning of Martin’s concluding section makes this clear:
Closing the Perception Gap
Making policy decisions based on fears rather than facts can lead to decisions that feel good (e.g. no nuclear) but increase the overall risk to the population (more deaths and health risks from burning fossil fuels and climate risks from greenhouse gas emissions).
Ropeik tells us that risk perception is an intrinsic, biologically rooted, inescapable part of how the human animal behaves. We need to accept this and use what we know about the way humans respond to risk in order to help ourselves make better, healthier choices. We need to bring the risk perception factors out of the subconscious shadows and use them as practical tools to allow our rational thinking to have more influence in the process.
We need to keep an open mind and give ourselves time to get more information from neutral and reliable sources – those that have no obvious bias. We need to consider all components of our response to the risk – not just the facts. We need to consider the pros and cons of various risk-management options. Why not factor feelings and values into the equation instead of trying to factor them out? Think about which policies will do us the most good.
Poor risk communication from government or agencies that are supposed to protect us like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the World Health Organization (WHO) can sometimes fail to account for people’s risk perceptions. This was a key factor in the long-term social/psychological/economic consequences of Chernobyl. A similar situation may have occurred at Fukushima.
Unfortunately, “feel good” is the most salient feature of politically successful policies. How does this connect to Carl Sagan’s argument? Only our critical thinking skills can save us from “feel good”. One thing we know for sure is that it is rare in western education systems to see critical thinking encouraged. Read Martin’s essay, you’ll be glad you did.