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Politicians always lie. However, the US and UK have entered a new era of "post-truth politics," in which the strongest appeal is made by what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness," feeling right whether truthful or not. Here is what we can do about this.

In Star Trek, the fictional planet Vulcan is inhabited by rational, sentient humanoids who are devoted to the collection of objective observations in the pursuit of truth. In real life on planet Earth, human beings of every persuasion often start with established beliefs and look for "facts" to justify them. When we are presented with facts that contradict our a priori conclusions, we can find clever (and not so clever) ways to contradict them. Psychologists call this process "motivated reasoning." 

Both Myth Makers and Myth Busters Can Indulge in Motivated Reasoning

Most scientists believe in global warming, but Ice Age Now! website founder Robert W. Felix believes in global cooling. He even moved from his home in Seattle, which, after all, was inundated by ice as recently as 20,000 years ago, to the relative safety of Arizona, only to be drawn back to spend his golden years with the people he loves despite the imminent risk of global cooling.

Felix has amassed a huge collection of data to support his belief that the earth is actually getting colder:

  • In December 2016, a foot (30 cm) of snow fell in parts of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Similar amounts of snow fell in Manitoba. Surely, this disproves global warming.
  • Also in December 2016, weather forecasters predicted 3 inches (7-8 cm) of snow would fall on Madison, Wisconsin, but the city actually received 5 inches. A TV weather forecaster mentioned that the city had snow emergency routes for some of its streets that could be used in case of larger snowfall. Fans noted that it was possible that the snow would linger into the summer of 2017 and begin a new ice age, but the snow had melted by three days later.
  • A powerful volcano in the ocean floor exploded under the western Antarctic ice shelf only 2,000 years ago, and the heat from the lava could still be melting sea ice.
  • Ocean levels around the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu have fallen, or they have risen only at three times the rate of the rest of the ocean, or they are the result of the gravity of the ocean on itself, which proves that the Pacific Ocean is actually draining.

Mr. Felix has compiled nearly 4000 similar statements, but never mentions any heat records or any evidence contradicting his conclusions. His defenders assert:

  • If you believe in sea level rise, you have been brainwashed by Obama's CIA.
  • Muslims believe in sea level rise, and
  • Conservatives who are scientifically literate are the least likely to accept climate change (that is, the belief that the world is getting warmer).

Critical Thinking Cuts Both Ways

What? It's the well-educated conservatives who reject climate change? How can that possibly be?

Differences over the doctrines of climate change, for non-scientists, aren't a matter of intelligence. Both believers and deniers tend to cherry pick facts that support their views. The more facts to which people have access, the more fervently they can believe or deny a proposition. People who disagree with you, no matter what your belief, may be better informed than you, not less informed than you. Telling them they are stupid not only doesn't win them over, it may be totally wrong.

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