Facts can be hard to accept, especially if they pose a challenge to contentment.
The proper term took a while to come to the surface, but how about "willful disbelief"? It might be useful to describe the pose that we embrace when we're confronted with a proposition that we really, really -- really! -- don't want to believe is true.I saw a couple of examples this week: An Associated Press story headlined "More are doubters on global warming" reports that a poll of 1,500 adults conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicates that only 57 percent of respondents believe that the world is actually getting warmer, a precipitous decline from 71 percent just last year.
I have thoughts on global warming, but they're not relevant to this column. I'm more interested in the psychology behind a change in attitude this significant when, in fact, as the article itself points out, "there has been mounting scientific evidence of climate change -- from melting ice caps to the world's oceans hitting the highest monthly recorded temperatures this summer."
The question that the pollsters asked was: "Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?" One might imagine that 100 percent of reasonably informed respondents would have heard of melting polar ice caps, receding glaciers and rising sea levels --which, at the very least, are more than mere hoaxes -- even if they believed that global warming isn't caused by human activity.
The fact that global warming counterevidence crops up occasionally doesn't change the correct answer to the question: The solid evidence for global warming is abundant. In fact, the article reports, the day before this poll came out 18 scientific organizations wrote to Congress to reassert the scientific community's firm agreement that the pace of global warming continues.
This sort of "willful disbelief" is the most human of characteristics; we do it all the time. Recently, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell testified before the House Judiciary Committee about connections between the frequent violent blows to the head that professional players sustain during their careers and their later development of dementia, Alzheimer's and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease traditionally associated with boxers.
The Judiciary Committee is taking an interest in frequent reports of retired football players who suffer high rates of neurological disorders such as depression, memory loss and debilitating headaches. A disproportionate number of retired players are victims of drug abuse, suicide and other forms of early death.
Goodell and doctors associated with the NFL decline to acknowledge any connection between a decade or more of regular blows to the head and later brain problems, despite the evidence of considerable medical research.
Our capacity for "willful disbelief" permits us to deny the obvious: Football is too rough; its modern form is possible only at the expense of considerable damage to the lives of its players, at all levels. But what would America be without football?
Or without automobiles and abundant hydrocarbon-based energy? No wonder we refuse to believe in global warming. Unfortunately, the rapidly increasing denial of the evidence for global warming coincides with efforts in the Obama administration and in Congress to make some sort of effort, however feeble, to dampen some of the industrialized world's obvious contribution to the increase in global warming gases. In the long run, it may not matter that much; some scientists believe that we're already beyond the point of no return.
But our unwillingness to imagine the consequences of our perpetuation of the status quo assures inaction. After all, the status quo, in America at least, is probably the best it's ever been. Plenty of football on big-screen TVs powered by abundant resources. To examine the status quo too carefully may imply a need for change. And why would we want to rock a boat that's already enjoying civilization's all-time ultimate pleasure cruise?
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