Guest Blog: Why we disagree: but where to go from here?

Cameron Dron

Our class had a very interesting set of lectures the week before last. Given by Heiko Roehl from the German Development Agency (the GIZ), we were introduced to a number of knowledge and organizational learning concepts. It touched upon a lot of the things that I have been thinking about recently, like the nature of truth, why it is that people – even intelligent ones – can disagree so vehemently about such a wide range of issues and how it is that we as individuals can come to make more of an effort towards understanding each other.

Something that really crystallized all of this rather well was a wee diagram explaining a concept called ‘Relevance Systems’. This theory or way of thinking about individual beliefs and knowledge can help us to understand why and how it is that we can come to have such radically different views of the world. This struck me powerfully because I have been trying for a while to get a better idea of why it is that people disagree about climate change. This helped me to understand the why a bit better, but I’m still not sure if it helps to form any solutions. Time will tell.

The Model

a) To start off with we have our set of beliefs. Our beliefs about reality are constructed from our experiences and the environment in which we grew up. Our parents might have instilled in us a belief in God or the belief that it is the right thing to help others. We might have grown up in a Western society where we are taught the primacy of the individual. Some may have grown up in societies that teach the primacy of the community.

b) This model also recognises that our brains filter information. It has to do this to stay functional. If we were to process every bit of information that our senses detect then it would be overloaded. This happens to people with autism – their brains don’t filter out information and so their social systems can be said to be impaired. They perceive the world in a radically different way to non-autistic people and so act in a very different way too.

We often ignore information that we don’t want to hear or don’t believe in, although this is mainly an unconscious process. Information that rejects our beliefs is, on the whole, rejected. Information that supports them is absorbed. I was taught to value empirical science when growing up and thus perceive the world as spherical because the information I have acquired, I saw on TV scientists explaining why the earth is a sphere, supports or does not contradict my beliefs. Another child, perhaps an unfortunate that had medieval re-enactment enthusiasts for parents, might perceive the world as flat. The information that he gets, from his eyes, tells him that it is so. He might sometimes see on TV the earth referred to as a sphere but rejects this knowledge. Scientists are just phony wizards, or so his parents keep telling him. We both ‘see’ the same information but our belief systems interact with this in different ways to produce different perceptions of the world from us.

c) Information is never absorbed independently though. We combine it with our judgement. Our judgement is also strongly influenced by our early experiences. Being raised in a family where cleanliness is very important then shapes your judgement – and you will judge cleanliness as a good thing. For example, when you go to a foreign country your impression of it may be formed by its cleanliness. For someone else it might be the quality of food that determines their judgement of the country.  Therefore it is our judgement, “I judge cleanliness as important” plus the information we receive, “I read in the newspaper that French people wash the least often” that constructs our knowledge, “France is a bad country.”

d) It is thus our beliefs, judgement, and the information we filter that form our perceptions of the world. The lines flowing from the belief circle out towards the world represent this ‘relevance system’ that determines how we perceive reality: never in its completeness and never without some truth.

Link to Climate Change

This was a highly simplified explanation partly so I could explain it but also so that the model is understood. It’s not a perfect model. Perhaps some people see more of reality than others because they are more intelligent or have access to more information. The beliefs we grow up with can all too often be rebelled against. But I hope the framework is there and makes sense, so let’s apply it to the climate change example.

I often read a report or blog decrying climate change as a left-wing conspiracy. As someone who believes in climate change my initial reaction is always, “did no one ever tell these people that the Left couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery?” I then look to see if there any flaws in the report, or I look up the authors on the internet to see if they have any connection to the oil industry – which they often do. Failing this I then consult ‘climate friendly’ websites to check the arguments of the sceptical report/blog. Most of the time I end up convinced that climate change is happening and that the sceptical blog is just another paranoid old man that needs to get out more. Even writing about it you can see that I’m quite unwilling to even realistically treat the subject impartially here – although that’s also to make it slightly more readable.

It’s easy to see how this can happen the other way around – with a sceptic and climate change. They read the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, find some errors in it or find information that some of the authors are also members of Greenpeace and their beliefs remain unaltered. They absorb the information, this clashes with their beliefs and they judge the information faulty, perhaps by finding additional information to support this. End result: beliefs unchanged, exactly as in my example.

It’s quite easy to see this, fancy diagram or no. What’s now harder is how to change this situation. How can the ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ come to some sort of understanding? Does one of us have to give up our beliefs in order to do this? That won’t happen easily – it would take a massive event or crisis to do that. Perhaps tomorrow morning I see in The Daily Telegraph photos of Rajendra Pachauri[i] playfully wiggling his rump from under the duvet of his bed whilst Jim Hansen[ii] rubs money into his back, both cackling at the world’s stupidity for buying that rubbish about the earth warming. Perhaps that would be sufficient.

In our class we were also taught that engaging in dialogue is important to understand how our systems of relevance overlap and thus where our disagreements stem from. This may sound like wishy-washy-hippy crap at first glance but I feel it’s something very important to consider – especially with regards to climate change. For so long ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ have been debating, for decades, and it’s getting no one anywhere as the debate gets uglier. Death threats against climate scientists, the hacking and distortion of personal emails, very vicious name calling by Greens abound. We’re at a dead end and perhaps dialogue is the first step towards a solution. We were introduced to a number of dialogue tools to resolve conflicts, which I hope to share with you in the future.


[i] Rajendra Pachauri is the chairperson of the IPCC

[ii] James Hansen is head of the NASA institute for Space Studies

Many thanks to Julia Koch, Jonathan Niessen and Aurange Kreamsicle for helping me to articulate these thoughts.

Originally posted here on realisticbeinggreen.

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