Believe Me

Written by Anna Cates on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 2:01 PM

Why do we believe what we believe? Why do scientists hold different opinions than the public? Why do many people deny what science has proven? Well, it’s hard for scientific information to suppress our intuitions, it turns out. Our intuitions are representative of who we are and what tribe we belong to, and we hold them tightly because to change them would be to shift our membership in our tribe. 

I had an alarming confrontation with the shallow nature of my own scientific beliefs recently.

For Steve Carpenter’s excellent Ecosystem Concepts class we read a paper analyzing the effects of climate change.They predicted a 2-3 °C rise in temperature (from the 1985-2005 average) across North America by 2046-2065. Most of us have read many similar statements. It was the threat of climate change that drove me to grad school. But in this case I read the sentence, looked up, and realized: I do not, in my heart, believe that the temperature will rise 2° C. Even though I trust the scientists, my heart is not in it because I do not know how to imagine what that 2° C temperature increase will feel like. I understand the scientific process and how these conclusions were reached. I know intellectually that it is true. But if even I can’t deeply believe the world is warming, how can I blame someone less affiliated with the scientific tribe for not treating climate change like the crisis it is? And how on earth can we make progress explaining science to non-scientists? How can we close that gap in the polls? 

Minds do not change easily. I recently learned about successful campaigns to change voters’ minds on gay marriage and abortion that were based on conversations where gay people, or women who’ve had abortions, revealed their own experiences while asking about the voters’ own opinions. These campaigns were successful at causing permanent shifts in perspective- a notable accomplishment especially for these two hotly contested issues where we hold stubbornly entrenched beliefs. Why? There is a simple power to hearing the other’s story. Stories are the vehicle for understanding human experience, from Homeric recitals to Youtube TV series, and the closer you are to the storyteller, the more real the story is to the hearer. While a magazine may feature a humanizing profile of a gay couple, having a gay person in your home asking you what you really feel about marriage and commitment is a more intimate connection. 

For those of us hoping to bring our educational experience into the public eye and to help farmers and eaters steward the land, what can we take from this? Climate change appears (from my perspective) perhaps too large of an issue to carry a personal story. But many of us Agroecologists have attempted “conversion” of our families to a more nuanced and deliberate approach to food, based on a more intimate knowledge of where it comes from and the context and consequences of its production. Despite all the effort we put into classroom learning and research, this is perhaps our biggest challenge. If people’s beliefs come from, and are affirmed by, their tribes, we have to start with our own tribes. We have to lead with our hearts, attended just lightly by the facts, and the most compelling argument we can make is the best story we can tell.

update 7/30

It's come to my attention that the LaCour study featured in Science and This American Life was fabricated.  However, I still believe that telling personal stories best communicates our science and our beliefs. Here's some other research showing that stories move our brains like nothing else: 

Anna Cates, a 2014 graduate of the Agroecology Program, still thinks of herself as an agroecologist as she delves into the ecology of decomposition and soil organic matter in corn fields as a PhD student at UW-Madison with Professor Randy Jackson. Other interests include dry bean varieties, home butchering, and ribbons

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