Don’t Feed The Trolls

I did something I don’t normally do yesterday. I got into an online debate about climate change. I was playing some silly game or other on my phone and looked in the chat room. Normally there’s just stuff about where to find energy and what enemies to kill but this time I just saw the tail end of a discussion about climate change. It was pretty clear that the one person that seemed to be talking sense was up against it. I decided to get involved.

I’m pleased to report that, whilst there was substantial disagreement, the talk remained civil. There were no personal attacks or nastiness so that was definitely a nice surprise. I also made precisely zero progress in persuading anyone that was of a climate change denial position to change their mind, but then I never expected to do that. The main reason I did it was the same reason that I occasionally read creationist websites like The Discovery Institute and other such purveyor’s of nonsense: to expose myself to other opinions and ways of thinking.

It is all too easy to fall foul of the echo chamber effect. This is where we repeatedly hear the same thing over and over again, without hearing any contrary views, and we inadvertently start believing that the thing is true whether it really is or not, purely through dint of repetition. For example, I’m a white, middle class, university educated, thirty something, liberal minded, left leaning atheist. I believe climate change is real and man made; I believe the death penalty is wrong; I believe the National Health Service is vital, that violence is always the last resort, that evolution through natural selection is a fact and that the universe is the best part of 14 billion years old. Nearly all my friends and family and everyone else I know all believe that too.

Now, obviously, I think I’m right about all those things, especially the ones that are a matter of science as opposed to opinion. But it’s easy to imagine a situation where a person believes something that is wrong but they hear everyone around them agreeing with them. It would be a very natural reaction to believe that that wrong viewpoint is commonly held when perhaps it isn’t, or that it must be true when it may be provable that it isn’t. This is the echo chamber effect.

Back to my chatroom. Most people who got involved in the discussion believed that global warming was either not happening or not man made or both. Obviously it’s not possible for both to be true but I never claimed that any of their arguments made sense. A very common refrain was that it was a government conspiracy and that scientists were lying about it all for the money. Some said that the concept was evil, like evolution is; another said that God made the planet and therefore it was impossible for us to break it. Once we got to that point I would have probably quit but there was one person who was actually trying to have a proper conversation about it. We still completely disagreed but we were listening to each other, trying to address each other’s points and trying to provide evidence to back up our claims.

One thing that was very clear was that climate change and politics are now inextricably linked in the US. This is a great tragedy as it stops people looking at the evidence. Elsewhere, certainly in Europe, there may be political differences in how to tackle climate change but no one is suggesting that it isn’t happening, no one in the mainstream at least, from either side of the spectrum. I gather that many of the front runners in the GOP presidential candidacy are creationists and climate change deniers; I don’t really know what to say to that other than: only in America.

Ultimately, the point is that it is important to hear the other side every now and then, you never know, they might actually have a point. For those of us on the scientifically literate and mainstream side of the argument it can be a chance to hone your debating skills. My only other tip would be to try to keep it civil, there’s really no point turning it into a slanging match, everyone will just dig in their heels and become ever more divided – don’t feed the trolls. Just sow the seeds and maybe a little sapling of scepticism and scientific literacy will come budding through. Maybe follow a few people in your social media feed of choice that you think are complete idiots, it won’t do you any harm.

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