Emotive Short-Circuitry vs. Deliberative Reasoning: The Australian vs. the ABC

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol
Posted on 27 December 2012
Filed under Cognition

Updated 1/1/13

Analogies are a mainstay of human communication and reasoning. In science, Niels Bohr used an analogy with the solar system to explain the structure of atoms. In everyday language, analogies help us make a point effortlessly: It is obvious what it means to say that “Bing Cosby has a velvet voice” or that someone is “as annoying as fingernails on a blackboard”, even though voices aren’t made of fabric and people’s personalities don’t consist of fingernails.

However, there is a flipside to the ease with which people process analogies: Because they are so important to our reasoning and communication, we can sometimes be fooled into perceiving an analogy when there is none—simply because two terms presented in close proximity are similar to each other or are emotionally laden. According to many cognitive theorists those two aspects of the processing of analogies arise because we have two systems of reasoning: One very rapid system that relies on relatively shallow analysis of stimuli, which allows us to respond in situations in which time is at a premium, and another one that requires slow deliberation but is guided by more complex rules. Arguably, the former may be triggered by emotive stimuli, because emotion may serve as a “stopping rule” for reasoning—in a nutshell, the more emotion, the less deliberation.

This distinction between two different modes of reasoning is not just dry laboratory science but can also be observed in the public arena. This can be illustrated with recent public controversy involving some of the most toxic and emotive issues of our times that involved Australia’s only national newspaper (The Australian), the national broadcaster (the ABC), and at least indirectly also me.

In May 2012, The Australian ran an opinion piece by Mr James Delingpole in which he riled against wind energy under the title “wind farm scam a huge cover-up.” Wind turbines actually constitute an increasingly important tool in our arsenal of alternative energy to wean the planet off fossil fuels; however, Mr. Dellingpole begs to differ. Among other arguments, Mr. Delingpole cited an unnamed Australian sheep farmer’s opinion that “The wind-farm business is bloody well near a pedophile ring. They're f . . king our families and knowingly doing so."

Yes, that did appear exactly as quoted in The Australian.

The use of “is” to connect one concept (“wind-farm business”) to another (“pedophile ring”) leaves little doubt that this statement was intended as an analogy. Any remaining doubt evaporates with the graphic description of what is being done to families by pedophiles and wind energy alike. By engaging our deliberative system of reasoning, we can identify this analogy quite clearly.

Let’s turn to another apparent analogy that was splattered across The Australian’s front page a few days ago under the headline ”It’s OK to link climate denial to pedophilia, ABC tells ex-chairman”: Did the ABC really draw an analogy between climate denial and pedophilia?

Clearly, some journalists and the ABC’s former chairman thought so. But did this opinion reflect deliberation or might it have been their rapid system misfiring because the emotiveness of the issue got the better of them?

Let’s find out. The ABC’s Science Show on 24 November opened with the words “What if I told you that pedophilia is good for children, or that asbestos is an excellent inhalant for those with asthma? Or that smoking crack is a normal part and a healthy one of teenage life, to be encouraged? You'd rightly find it outrageous. But there have been similar statements coming out of inexpert mouths again and again in recent times, distorting the science.”

The presenter, Robyn Williams, then proceeded to cite an Economist article about American politicians, among them one staunch foe of abortion who believes that the “bodies of women subjected to rape can shut down a pregnancy.”

Only later in the show did Mr. Williams turn to climate change, by interviewing me about my research which seeks to explain why people deny the overwhelming evidence about the fact that the climate is changing and that humans are causing it. (Full disclosure: the interview was pre-recorded and I had no advance knowledge of or input to anything preceding it on air.)

So did the Science Show link pedophilia to climate denial by way of an analogy? Did Mr. Williams suggest that climate denial is akin to pedophilia, the way that wind energy was linked to a pedophile ring in the pages of The Australian?

No.

To see why not, let’s engage our deliberate reasoning system and amend the opening of the Science Show by replacing the emotive trigger words thus: “What if I told you that lamp posts are made of chocolate, or that armchairs are an excellent tranquilizer? Or that tractors make great pets?”

Would this link climate denial to lampposts, armchairs, and tractors?

No. Instead, it links climate denial to statements that most people would recognize as being false or outrageous. Drawing that analogy is appropriate because much of climate denial is recognized as false or outrageous by people who are familiar with the scientific process or the peer-reviewed literature.

This actual analogy was lost on some listeners of the Science Show and the headline writers of The Australian because the emotive keywords of the opening statements overpowered analysis of what was actually said. Instead, the emotive content of the key words triggered the rapid reasoning system and tricked it into perceiving an analogy where there was none.

The ABC, by contrast, engaged its deliberative reasoning system and came to much the same conclusion as the preceding analysis, noting that there is no equivalence between the piece in The Australian and the ABC’s science show.

The saga does not end there.

A few days ago, The Australian received an adjudication by the Australian Press Council against them for likening wind energy to pedophilia in the piece mentioned above. This slap on the wrist was promptly followed by another piece in The Australian by the same author who unrepentantly declared “I stand by every word of the piece – especially the bit about paedophiles. I would concede that the analogy may be somewhat offensive to the paedophile community.”

No ambiguity there, this is the deliberative reasoning system wantingly, and wantonly, drawing an analogy between wind energy and pedophilia.  There really are people like that out there, and they are given an opportunity to publish in Australia’s national newspaper.

But that doesn’t mean The Australian will publish just about anything, however bizarre or pornographic it may be. Far from it, The Australian is quite capable of editorial restraint. For example, they elected not to run the statement from the ABC that very calmly explained the difference between an analogy and emotive short-circuitry.

Update 1/1/13: On the day this post went up, The Australian did publish the letter from the ABC, 3 days after the ABC posted that the letter had been declined. The premise underlying the last paragraph of this post is therefore now outdated and hence no longer valid.

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