Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ignorance or Apathy?

Is the biggest problem facing the environment ignorance or apathy? Don't know, don't care.

That's a joke I often use in talks to highlight the problem with dispelling ecomyths: you can't simply foist data on people and expect them to suddenly "think right". Education is a fantastic instrument, but simply saying "more education" is not the same as solving anything. It is how people receive their education and what they are being taught that is definitive: are we simply downloading facts or are we teaching people how to consider, reflect and use that information? Anything that can be googled does not need to be memorized. However, one does need a healthy sense of self-awareness to navigate the array of perspectives in the media, the blogosphere and within refereed journal articles.

A great post by Kling discusses the various strategies people adopt to avoid "truths", particularly those truths that contradict foundational constructs and beliefs: the very basis of ecomyths and their propagation. For the lay public, Kling suggest the ignorance is bliss strategy is common: what you don't know won't hurt you and most "issues" don't really affect day to day life anyways. In contrast, "informed" commentators tend to adopt more intensive strategies that usually result in entrenched opinions when their foundational constructs are challenged.

In short, lots of people are apathetic because they choose to remain ignorant. To be ignorant is to self-justify not becoming engaged in the discussion nor the implementation of change. Conversely, many elites become actively engaged in discussion as they see it to be the requirement of the masses to change in alignment with elite ideas. Consistent with this view, those elites are reluctant to change or modify ideas they see as "correct", irrespective of any data to the contrary. Much of contemporary environmentalism falls within these parameters.

Using Taber and Lodge's phrase, motivated skepticism is not overcome with the provision of new and/or contradictory data: change starts with an open mind, and open minds can not exist until foundational constructs are altered. Ideological perspectives that reflect a closed mind must first become ideological perspectives that reflect an open mind. To paraphrase Covey, don't tell people what to think: help them learn how to think for themselves. Funnily enough, this very non-elitist strategy is most often the one educational elites resist the most.