The Power of Conditioning

It was a silly, negligible article on what has lately become a silly, negligible website. A wiser person would have let it slide. But it poked me in a tender place, and I am not the kind of person who can just let such a thing go. So instead of shrugging it off with a sigh I took the bait. Sizzling with righteous indignation, I composed a rather sharply worded rejoinder. So there. It was probably a bit over the top, for effect of course, but a completely legal hit. Harsh but altogether fair.

The comment was supposed to appear only on the HuffPost website, but I had neglected to uncheck that little box, in small print, way down at the bottom, which read “Also post to Facebook.” And so my little rant became visible to everyone in my digital social circle, and by extension to anyone with whom they might wish to share. Not something I necessarily wanted.

While the reaction of my more conservative correspondents was uniformly and unsurprisingly affirmative, the blowback from left-leaning friends was sharp to the point of painful. Not unexpected, considering that my screed had very enthusiastically gored one of their most sacred cows. However this reaction forced a decision: Be diplomatic or double down? Walk it back a bit, assure that you meant no offense, spread balm upon the wound. Or crank it up another notch and let the fur fly as it may?

This is no small quandary. The idea of wrecking relationships over a difference of opinion is utterly repellent to me. On the other hand there are principles that simply must be defended.

Generally speaking I am not the kind of guy who goes out of his way to start an argument. But by god I will gladly finish one given an opening. In debate I am like a bulldog after a T-bone, and I really don’t like to lose. Especially with an issue I happen to know well, and for which there is a great deal of misinformation floating about. I can, admittedly, be very intense, and those on the receiving end sometimes take it personally, which they shouldn’t, because it’s not about them; it’s about something larger. Sometimes debate is just sport. But sometimes it’s about defining and defending core beliefs and principles as a way of getting at this thing we call The Truth. And if that’s not worth pursuing with all vigor then what is?

However, life is not a debate, and if you don’t relish the possibility of extended periods of involuntary solitude, you had better take the feelings of others into consideration, especially when discussing subjects of a delicate nature. And these days, many more subjects than usual are of a delicate nature, given the times in which we happen to live, interesting in the extreme, in the manner of the ancient Chinese curse.

The goal, of course, is to make your points effectively while keeping it civil, winning over the other party when you can, disagreeing agreeably when you cannot. And with practice, you get the hang of it. You learn to customize your responses for each of your contacts, holding back or deflecting with some, pressing the point more firmly with others, really hitting it hard with a select few who can handle it. This strategy doesn’t always work, though, because it can be difficult to gauge exactly how much disagreement some are willing to tolerate. And because for some, any amount of disagreement is too much.

One thing you learn pretty quickly is that men and women have, as a rule, very different debating styles. Men, by and large, can spar with each other every day, all day, and not take it personally. In fact, most of us males seem to relish a spirited back-and-forth. Often followed by a round of drinks or the equivalent. But women are, by and large, not like this at all. There are many exceptions, of course, but in general women do not particularly enjoy debate. They tend to see it not as an invigorating intellectual workout, but as a form of conflict, hence unpleasant, to be avoided by almost any means necessary.

Women often take even mild disagreement as a personal attack, a reaction that has left many a well-meaning but clueless man flummoxed, yours truly included. It doesn’t matter how neutral your tone or how factual your arguments. For many women, any disagreement is a direct challenge, and the more you push it, the deeper will be the hole you dig. I have seen this pattern up close and personal, in the form of my own better half, an otherwise sensible, exceptionally bright and clear-thinking woman, who nevertheless simply cannot discuss many topics without becoming emotional.

But a handful of subjects are so personally important, so vital to one’s sense of identity, and so fraught with symbolism that you must tread always very, very carefully, even among those who are normally good sports. Politics and religion are classic examples. Confronted with a contrary opinion on any such issue, no matter how reasonably framed, people reflexively retreat to rigid default positions, which they defend at all costs. Global Warming, AKA Climate Change, is such an issue for many people.

If you have read much of this blog, then you undoubtedly know where I stand on this issue. In my view, the human influence on the planet in general, and our climate in particular, while measurable is minimal. There is a long and complex chain of reasoning behind this conclusion that will not be recounted here, but if I could summarize, it would be thus: The sheer size of the climate system, operating at planetary scale and beyond over time frames measured in millenia, is orders of magnitude greater than all human influences combined. And this system’s extraordinary complexity, with thousands of interlinked and highly dynamic variables, ensures that the handful of inputs we humans can affect will be offset by innumerable others. Given this gargantuan asymmetry, the human influence necessarily cannot matter all that much. We humans are a very small part of a very large system. Do the math.

This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. But for some it is, conditioned as they are by years of unending, intensely emotional, intentionally alarming reports quite purposely designed to inflame, not to inform.

Powerful conditioning produces hard cases who are all but immune to the effects of reason and logic, no matter how unassailable. They believe, period, and continue to do so in spite of all evidence to the contrary. This is because emotion and its derivatives, faith, belief, and passion, are antithetical to reason, and in fact require its complete suspension in order to be sustained. Ultimately, one’s core beliefs may be modified only grudgingly, at great effort, and only in the face of overwhelming proof by way of actual events.

You see this absolute rigidity in those who most fervently believe in catastrophic climate change. If you are a thinking person, you rightly recognize such inflexibility as the hallmark of dogma, and naturally seek to question it. But you can have as many facts and figures as you want on your side. It won’t matter. Press the issue forcefully, confront the precious belief with reason, and the true believer is likely to respond in approximately the same manner as a cornered and wounded animal.

It doesn’t matter how bright you are, either; everyone has pet beliefs not necessarily grounded in reality. And anyone who isn’t a sociopath is vulnerable to emotional manipulation to some extent. Once you have an emotional investment in an idea it becomes very difficult to unlink the emotion from that idea.

Propagandists know this very well, and purposely take advantage using highly manipulative words and imagery. They don’t want you to think; they want you to feel, because emotions override reason. The thinking part of your brain is plastic and changeable; new facts mean new understandings and new opinions. By contrast, the parts of the brain that control emotion, deep in the ancient, pre-mammalian core, generate intense and durable associations that are not so easily altered, no matter what new evidence might be forthcoming.

Manipulative sorts with agendas have learned to exploit this cognitive glitch to serve their purpose. Take one heart-rending image of dying polar bear, link it to global warming with a well-chosen caption and you have an indelible, highly emotional association that lasts essentially forever. Please make your tax-deductible contribution payable to Save the World RIGHT NOW!, a 503c corporation.

Hard-core Climate Change activists are masters at this, and through repeated application of the method over the last thirty years had succeeded in conditioning many millions, to an impressive, perhaps unprecedented degree. And here we must use the past perfect tense–“had” succeeded–because the magic has all but worn off. Which is as it should be given that years of increasingly strident alarms have yielded essentially zero concrete results. Public polls show Climate Change typically running dead last as an issue of serious concern. This should not be a surprise to anyone; you can only cry “wolf” so many times without effect before people start to notice. Keep it up and eventually they lose interest altogether. And once this critical threshold is reached, re-engagement becomes a difficult proposition.

This change of attitude worries The Big Green Machine very much, because it degrades the movement’s carefully cultivated image of moral authority. But more importantly it threatens to derail a multi-billion dollar gravy train.

With this kind of money and influence on the line, don’t expect Climate Change, Inc. to meekly surrender. Be prepared for an aggressive counterattack, a fresh, well-coordinated campaign of high-order fearmongering and emotional manipulation issuing from the usual suspects, with their Megamedia partners happily assisting. It may already have begun, with articles such as the one that sparked this essay being merely the opening salvo.


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