Seeing through another person’s lens

Dr. Ellen Peters helps us understand why we disagree about climate change—even when we’re looking at the same data

When two intelligent, well-meaning people have access to the same information, shouldn’t they come to the same conclusions? Not necessarily. As we know from hot-button issues like gun control, immigration, and, yes, climate change, it turns out that there’s more to encountering new data than the data itself.

There’s also the lens we use to bring focus to our world. And that lens has a lot to do with how we position new data within pre-existing expectations.

All this can end up causing hostilities and a culture of distrust—which our ancient enemy is only too happy to encourage. And so we need to understand why you and I and the person across the aisle can share so much in common but be so divided by issues like climate change.

For help, I turned to Dr. Ellen Peters, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University. I heard Dr. Peters speak at work in a webinar she gave in April for the group Great Lakes Climate. Soon after I emailed her to share her thoughts with Catholic Ecology. She kindly agreed.

“Humans really want to be logical,” Dr. Peters explained. “We want to take into account all the information and integrate it and make the best decisions possible.”

But taking in all the data around us “is not possible for us. There’s just too much information. We don’t have enough time. There are so many options and ways to turn. So we end up having to take some cognitive shortcuts in order to be able to cope with the mass of information that we’re faced with every day.”

Dr. Ellen Peters

And part of how we cope is to perceive the world around us based on what we want to see and what we want to believe, Dr. Peters said.

The technical term for this is “selective perception.”

Because two people can "see" the world differently—that is, we can stress different elements of reality in our models of world—we often unconsciously select what to perceive and accept. Some of us structure the world hierarchically (with a focus on the individual person) while others see the world in an egalitarian way (and thus focus on the communal).

In the realm of climate change—which inherently demands a global response, or at least the response of very big organizations, like governments—those of us who champion the individual person may feel threatened by the logical conclusions of accepting climate change blame and the adaptation and mitigation necessities needed to fix what is broken. Those of us who champion communal living will, on the other hand, be comfortable with the opportunities presented by the needed responses.

Hence we have debates about climate (and other issues) that take place today.

Making matters worse, Dr. Peters said, is that research shows that people who are more literate in science or math tend to be more selective about new data. That is, they have more capabilities to reason why or why not they should accept what they’re hearing. This was a major point in Dr. Peters’ webinar: divergence on an issue grows in populations with higher scientific capabilities. And this is, of course, exactly what we see in the issue of accepting or rejecting climate change science.

"If you really want to understand how someone else is seeing the facts ... you need to understand what it is that they see ahead of time, and try to believe it for yourself for a minute." Dr. Ellen Peters

This means that so-called climate deniers aren’t necessarily unable to understand the evidence for anthropogenic climate change. Or that they are consciously rejecting it. It is in fact because they can understand it that they are able to critique it and, in one way or another, discard it.

“We humans try to make good decisions,” Dr. Peters said. “We really do. It’s not like people aren’t trying. But the question is: who is the good decision for?”

Peters noted that there are different ways that you can make a good decision. Whether it is for my best interest or yours, or that of your employer, or society in general.

“From an evolutionary perspective, my guess is, we’re making decisions for ourselves or our immediate group—for the tribe. But today we have issues that affect all of us—not just me or my state or country, but the whole world. And we’re not accustomed to think this way.”

What this new phenomenon in human history may be prompting us to do, then, is to consider how our choices impact our place in our clan. Perhaps the polarity we face today is simply because acceptance of climate change helps those in more progressive circles remain in those circles, while rejecting climate change may help those in more conservative circles likewise stay accepted there.

To move beyond such evolutionary, tribal traits, Dr. Peters offers this suggestion: “You have to step into someone else’s shoes. If you really want to understand how someone else is seeing the facts ... you need to understand what it is that they see ahead of time, and try to believe it for yourself for a minute, and then look at the facts again. …And one way to do that is to say, ‘okay, this person has this other hypothesis about the way the world is, let me see if I can try to think like them for a minute.’ And then look the data again.”

Dr. Peter’s advice reminded me of the approach that St. Thomas took in the thirteenth century. He engaged arguments that he rejected by arguing for their position—in some cases even adding to the arguments with his own observations. And then he stated his own position and refuted each argument against it one by one.

In other words, he knew and respected the arguments of the other person before he countered them.

And so must we. But to do that, we must first know the other person. And to do that, we must love the other person. Or at least see them as being made in the image and likeness of the same God as us—and so deserving of more than we might want to give them.

This is, in part, what it means to love thy neighbor. And the way I see things, and what the research seems to show, is that loving those that we disagree with on issues like climate change may be just what we need to do if we're serious about protecting human dignity and the planet.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.