Inconceivable

We have a remarkable faith in our own powers of cognition. While our brains are amazing beasts, we have a tendency to believe our own press all too often. We are quick to label things we disagree with impossible, and we excel at selectively finding the information that confirms our beliefs, while throwing away anything that doesn’t fit with our position. (Look up “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance” for fascinating, if somewhat alarming details of the ways in which our brains deceive us on a regular basis.)

Years ago I had an intense argument with someone about the age of my dog. She insisted the puppy had been bought in 1989 – a year later than I thought. I was convinced I had won the argument when I was able to produce vet records showing not only the dog’s birth year (1988), but that the dog had received immunisations in 1988. My opponent didn’t give this evidence a moment’s credence. “It’s obvious that the vet wrote down the wrong date,” she sneered. And that was that.

I was speechless. Two different immunisation dates in 1988, plus a recorded birth date, swept aside as irrelevant mistakes. I was young and naive, and tempted to trace the logical path through the immunisation dates, to show that the timing was unmistakably accurate, but I recognised it as doomed to failure. I was up against unshakable belief, and there is no room for logic there.

Another time, at morning tea, a friend was decrying the poor quality of the eclairs available at the local cafe. “It’s not real cream, and only chocolate icing, not real chocolate.” After I had bought one, and proved to her that it was actually real chocolate, and real cream, she agreed that she had been mistaken. But a few days later I heard her saying exactly the same thing. Despite the proof, she had reverted very quickly to her existing belief.

We are distressingly good at believing the stories our brains tell us. We make a lot of noise about being rational, logical beings, but that’s just another story. Either that or “rational” does not mean what we think it means.

What we believe is mostly what we want to believe. It’s really comforting to believe that climate change isn’t real, so we pay disproportionate attention to the few scientists who argue against it. Or we believe that technology will ride in on a huge white horse and save the day at the 11th hour. On that score I am reminded of the parable of the man standing on the roof of his house in a flood, refusing all offers of help with the line “god will provide.” He drowns, goes to heaven and complains to God, who says “I sent you a raft, a boat, and a helicopter – what more do you want???”

We have the technology. Solar power can’t be used at night? There are solar plants operating in Spain RIGHT NOW that store the power and operate as base load power – even at night. Australia could be 100% renewable within 10 years using existing technology. But it’s expensive. Much easier to believe that it’s not needed, and that we can continue with business as usual without paying a price.

We like fairy stories, they make us feel good. So we believe that he’ll change. That she is really sorry this time and won’t hit me again. That somehow the world will be ok without us having to change. Anything else is inconceivable, surely?

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2 thoughts on “Inconceivable

  1. Jeremy

    I believe that either technology will ride in at the 11th hour and save us, or that we’re done for. The physics we can do, the economics will work fine if it’s cheaper than coal, but the politics is too hard if it’s not.

    1. Andrew

      I believe that technology will ride in at the 11th hour and stuff things up in a new and novel way. Just as cane toads were introduced to Australia as a solution to a problem and then became a far greater problem, some piece of panicked, under tested geo-engineering will truly show what anthropogenic climate change is all about…

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