Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. "We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince … We need to be taught to believe by a true believer." Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.
In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government's claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Normblog worries that Monbiot goes "too far" in that :
That people are sometimes resistant to being persuaded of what is true (when it is indeed true) is readily observable. But a theory purporting to explain why they must be resistant to persuasion is something else. It risks opening on to suggestions of an alternative method of 'winning' them over. There is no democratically acceptable alternative method. Sometimes you can persuade people, other times not. Welcome to the real world.
But there's more to be said than that. Daily, science is going to turn out evidence of human decision making being irrational : affected by unconscious environmental cues, learned associations, chemical triggers, partisan feelings etc. Yet our belief in democracy is fundamentally, philosophically, committed to humans as rational and free decision makers. What should we do when this commitment becomes scientifically untenable?
Will this, itself, become a reason for politicians to reject science? To deny the results of psychological research in favour of an unjustifiable faith in human agency? Will someone come up with a philosophical compatibilism? (As in "don't worry, decisions are still free and rational even though we can now see their causes"? But how sustainable will this be as we also discover better ways to manipulate beliefs?)
We have always sought to persuade. Sometimes we succeed. And sometimes we don't. But what happens when it becomes clear that persuasive power is mere "engineering", available to the highest bidder?