Monday, June 20, 2005

doom and gloom

Today's post by Prof. Goose on The Oil Drum (link through via here) has got me thinking about the issues of doom and gloom and peak oil. The debaters can be divided into three categories: the "doomers," the "Cassandras," and the "Pollyannas." For a brief history of the debate, look here. Apparently (based on the discussion in the feedback following Goose's post) there has been some discussion in the blogosphere about why some people resonate with the doomsday scenarios and some people don't. (If you can point me to some of this discussion, please do!)

One line of argument has it that the doomers had a predisposition to the idea of an end-of-civilization outcome and that is why they embraced it, rather than being convinced by the weight of evidence or the turn of arguments. This implies that the evidence and arguments don't have enough merit on their own. It is essentially an ad hominem argument that attacks the speaker rather than the message: the nature of the doomers themselves invalidates their argument.

The appeal of this argument is easy to see. I know of several people who embraced the more bleak scenarios immediately, who already had a pretty bleak view of the world. Thus, it was easy for me to dismiss what they were saying as "just more of the gloom and doom stuff."

On the other hand, if we step back for a minute and look at the nature of persuasive messages and the predisposition of their recipients, we can make some generalizations. Imagine a line that represents a continuum of opinion of an audience member before they hear the message. On one end is "pro" and at the other end is "con." The audience member is somewhere along that continuum.

So what happens when this person hears a pitch? Research on persuasion tells us that we can expect someone to be moved a little bit down that continuum towards the "pro" side every time they hear a successful message. As I tell my public speaking students, it is not realistic to expect that someone move from one end of the scale to the other. For folks at the extremely "con" end, your goal is to avoid polarizing them against you, and maybe even get them to listen to you. For folks in the "middle" you want them to go from neutral towards acceptance.

The folks on the "pro" side should be moved as well. If they are already for something, get them to take action. In th case of peak oil, if they are already concerned about the way that we relate to our environment, they might be willing to embrace the idea of peak oil and maybe even become advocates for spreading information about it--like me.

My point is that just because someone is predisposed to a message and therefore embraces it does not mean that the message itself should be suspect. The message should stand alone on its own merits and be critically evaluated no matter where you stand on the continuum to start with.

That being said, there is another phenomenon we have to attend to, and that is the "turn off factor" when gloom and doom is invoked. Besides the repugnance of the message, there is the reality that so far, despite a millennium's worth of predictions, the world has not ended. Many people cite Y2K as a prime example.* This is a whole lot of evidence that peakers have to outweigh.

All of this boils down to the importance of being able to get good data and being educated enough to be able to evaluate it. If evaluating statistics is to complex, then we have to rely on others to do this for us. And then their credentials must be good. Here are some criteria with which to evaluate credibility: (thanks to Prof. Brimblecone).

  • What is his or her background experience and knowledge ?
  • Is s/he a subject matter expert, eg. knowledgeable on current issues, trends, challenges…?
  • Does s/he have formal qualifications, observed by profession?
  • Is there a lack of conflict of interest?
  • Is there agreement between experts? Are disagreements acknowledged?
  • What is his or her reputation?

Furthermore, you should consider the venu in which you read their opinions. So what should you look for in a website?

  • Who wrote it? What are his or her qualifications?
  • How current is it?
  • Is it accurate? Does it cite the sources accurately?
  • Does it make sense?
  • What is the bias? Is it objective? Promotional?
  • Who sponsors the site? Is there full disclosure?
  • How does it compare with other credible sources?
Investigating peak oil for yourself is not easy or pleasant or straightforward. This is why I am grateful for the work of others who do the analysis and bring forward the relevant news stories.

*But they may not realize that the world did not crash because it became the Manhattan project of its time. Programmers spent months fixing the problem--and yay, it got fixed!

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