Basing action on limited knowledge

Over the past few days, I’ve experienced a sense of “I know so much less than I think about the climate change debate…” And I really want to spend some time over the weekend to look for answers.

I realized that the few things I do know–although knowing is probably not the best term, let’s say things I perceive or believe I know–now seem to me like the result of overestimating the accuracy and detail in visual perception from the clarity perceived at the center of visual attention: I “see” a few (to me, personally) important aspects, and from those aspects then extrapolate and, crucially, generate a sense that “I know what I need to do, and I must do it, to avoid a bad outcome.”

If you don’t know about differences in acuity across the visual field, maybe look at Figure 7 from this article; when you look at the central letter (at the correct level of magnification or distance), you can probably read (correctly perceive) most any other letter. Look at a letter on the periphery however, and many other letters become “illegible”, though you may still see them as letters. And whenever you look at a natural scene, your experience is probably that you see everything equally sharp, crisp, and clear.

How and why does this “acuity illusion” apply to the climate change debate? And why does it matter?

As far as I understand the evolutionary principles of gene selection over time, it would seem incredibly important, whenever there is a potential threat, to select an action in order to save yourself even if you only have a glimpse of any threat. Or rather, to the extent that, among a set of individuals with some variation in their perceptual threshold between being certain enough of having seen a threatening stimulus, say a lion, and acting upon that threat, by running and hiding, it would seem clear that genes that predict lower thresholds leading to certainty will find themselves at an advantage, at least to the extent that the costs–running and hiding means you cannot keep foraging for food during that time, and spend calories for the running and hiding–don’t outweigh the benefits of having one of your conspecifics being eaten by the lion. That is, in an environment “full of threats”, genes that favor hyper-vigilance are probably passed on preferentially, given that those with lower sensitivity end up being eaten.

And to create the necessary motivation (to run away from a lion), you really have to believe the threat is real, not just have the experience of “there is a 0.3 per cent chance I saw a lion.” That would probably not really work. So, your perceptual system is fooling you into believing that what you perceived, at a very low threshold, is real whenever your survival depends on it, because genes that favored this outcome had a higher chance of being passed on.

Now imagine, for instance, what happens when someone comes running into your village and yells, “there’s a lion, there’s a lion coming, everybody: hide!” You haven’t even seen the threat yourself, and yet, so long as you trust a person warning you, it seems absolutely imperative that you scramble up a tree, and get yourself out of harms way. Unless…

What if the person who’s running around the village yelling is a bit “too hyper-sensitive”? Maybe they’re suffering from a too vivid imagination, and every so often they think they saw a lion, but no matter how often they try to warn people, no lion ever shows up? Or, even worse, what if you had several cases in the past where someone came running into your village, yelled something about a lion, people hid in trees, only to find that their huts had been ransacked, and all the food provisions taken. So, clearly, one aspect of this kind of “acting on someone else’s testimony” depends on one crucial factor: trusting that the person isn’t mistaken, let alone lying. In that case, you might simply choose to ignore that person.

Are the people who yell about climate change mistaken (myopic) or lying (ill-intentioned)? It would certainly seem to me that those who oppose the demands being made (“a lion is coming, do something!”) are being dismissive not so much because if the threat were real, those people are willing to wait and see what happens. Rather, it seems more plausible that maybe they have seen some minimal evidence suggesting that the alarm is the result of myopic vision or, worse, a hoax and distraction, and, just as much as the people who believe the evidence that climate change is real, they now focus their attention on another threat: in the worst case that of being made to act, in order to have something taken from them, losing their political liberty.

So, unfortunately, humans have this tendency to “oversell” evidence… I have become much more keenly aware how frequently even I am willing to tell people about things I’ve read or heard with an attitude of certainty when what I really remember is either somewhat vague or, at the very least, much more narrow in scope than my confidence might suggest. And even if I remember it clearly, who knows whether the person who wrote it or told me looked closely enough…?

If you are up for an experiment, try this: the next time you talk to someone about almost any topic on which you are not an expert, monitor yourself how certain you project you are about what you’re saying, and whether or not your certainty is really warranted. What do you know precisely, and where does that knowledge come from? Maybe a lot of it comes from sources where the people who collected that knowledge themselves were a bit “myopic”? How can you make sure that you’re not missing some crucial evidence that would speak against what you believe to be true? Would it be important to know? Are you willing to act without finding out? And if you want to convince someone who believes that you are mistaken, might it not be most important to find out what keeps them from trusting that whatever you could tell them is “true”? What are they afraid of losing if they believed what you believe?

In other words, I’m looking for ways of having a conversation about the mutual distrust, because without starting there, I believe that no evidence could ever penetrate this wall.

Leave a Reply