It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain
In general, people engage in action to cause an outcome. Few are interested in putting effort into actions that result in no change or lack of impact from actions taken. These are the findings from my scientific work and that of most.
People are not as excited to engage in healthy actions such as eating better with plant based meals to prevent POSSIBLE problems as they are to receive benefits from eating more plants. People are even less likely to engage in actions if there is doubt the actions they take will lead to a desired outcome.
Doubt is a powerful weapon that deniers of any cause or purpose use to cause indecision and inaction. Doubt dissuades, which means it persuades people NOT to take a particular course of action. Doubt is a weapon of choice because of its innate power to cause inaction despite the facts. Doubt is instilled through misdirection or taking attention away from facts just as magician misdirects a persons attention away so people thinks the trick is magic. This analogy is used in Naomi Oreskes’ excellent film, “Merchants of Doubt“. (Clip, Trailer and Full movie below) This link takes you to her famous Science article, The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change that eventually led to her movie.
Some attribute inaction to the presence or absence of tangible outcomes. After all, if prevention works, NOTHING happens, no tangible result. The result is status quo, not better. There is also a status quo bias because of people’s risk averse nature to not lose what they already have.
While prevention is better than something bad happening, it is not actually better. Tangible and more rewarding outcomes are things such as gaining more competence, capabilities and skills. These tangible outcomes also make it less likely undesirable outcomes occur, or if they do having the ability to overcome, thus making prevention a secondary benefit – secondary beneficence.
The power of doubt enables those who use it to wield power over our actions. If one announces or publicizes the possibility that actions are likely to be ineffective, many are dissuaded from doing anything. Doubt is used by Climate Change deniers and many others (as shown in movie, “Merchants of Doubt”).
Doubt drove the playbook used by tobacco companies related to the harms caused by smoking. They did this by many ways, including getting doctors to support the habit and bringing DOUBT to scientific findings. Many other industries have now adapted these effective methods. Current efforts by the NFL use doubt to allay concerns about concussions and brain damage. These methods are effective because we want them be true, nobody wants to believe they are engaging in actions that cause damage. Of course many wonder, how can this work…
These concepts overlap with what has been discovered about how our mind plays tricks on us. Mental illusions were demonstrated by Kahneman and Tversky. (see more at: Mental Illusions Impact Our World ) People often over estimate the chances of low probable outcomes and underestimate probable outcomes. Kahneman & Tversky referred to the tricks our mind plays on us as mental heuristics or mental illusions.
Doubt becomes more powerful by engaging emotions. Emotions often overpower logic (see post: Emotions Drive Actions: Create a Strong Positive Picture). Jonathan Haidt and then the Heath brothers in their book “Decisive” used the analogy of our emotions, which originate in our amygdala, being an elephant and our logic, which originate in the neocortex, being the rider. This comparison suggests the limited control the rider or logic has over emotions or the elephant. If emotions are engaged, they overpower our logic. This was demonstrated in “Merchants of Doubt” when the doctor used a sad story about a baby to engage emotional support for not taking important action to end the use of in toxic flame retardants.
Stories, like that used by the doctor, evokes emotions and this can overpower logic, at least for the short term. I have students who come to me and tell me, despite the grade received, they are not C students. I suggest to them, the data suggests otherwise. With work, we discover they did not do what was needed to earn a higher grade. Data is logical, but emotions can overpower what is logical.
With regard to any issue, health of people and planet, doubt is very powerful because if the facts suggest our actions are causing problems, suggesting otherwise helps us we feel better. We want to believe “alternative facts”. If the “alternative facts” are true, we are better people so we want to believe.
People using doubt invoke our emotions to dissuade us from taking beneficial actions. If we investigate, we discover most times people are using doubt to delay any actions that may impinge on their short term benefit.
“Merchants of Doubt” outlines how doubt dissuaded people from taking action on tobacco issues, then flame retardants, and now climate change. The same tactics are also currently being used against those that promote the overwhelming science that documents the personal and planetary benefits of adopting a plant strong eating style over the current animal based eating style.
I encourage all to think about what is driving your actions. Is it logic or emotions? Do the reasons for doubt have a personal agenda? Who benefits from inaction or from action? What do you want to believe? What does science say – real science? Are you confused? If so, doubt is clouding your thoughts about what is best.
Emotions and logic are needed. Fortunately, we all can be emotionally and logically engaged in actions that help us move toward generating comprehensive benefits by creating interactions so everyone and everything benefits. This also causes results which fill us with emotional pride because we are part of the solution, not part of the problem, and this also prevents regret.
I look forward to hearing about your successes from which we all benefit.
And one more thing…
If you are interested, below is Naomi Oreska’s TED Talk, Why we should trust scientists
If you want to contact me: