Kahneman, Slovic and Shermer; three experts in the psychology of belief and risk perception who would be valuable additions to the Lindau Meeting (Images: Wikipedia Commons)

When I visited Lindau this year I experienced a mix of hopes and fears. The hopes came from the Nobel Prize winners and the young students and researchers gathered there. As a supposedly unbiased observer it was my job to provide skepticism and express fears.

What was the source of the fears? The problem was that I could not help but feel that I had heard it all before. When the laureates were talking about improving science funding, about inspiring young people to go into science, about strategies to combat climate change and solve the energy crisis, I could not help but feel a pronounced wave of deja vu wash over me. I had heard much of this in 2009. And I had heard it being expressed in the interim in news sources, on blogs and in interviews with experts across the spectrum of science and technology.

I heard Steven Chu, Mario Molina and Richard Schrock talk about how important solar power, next-generation nuclear power, energy efficiency and better mileage standards are. I heard Brian Kobilka, Harry Kroto and others talk about the increasing lack of focus on basic research, about basic science education and the march of irrationality. I heard them and nodded my head, as I had nodded my head back in 2009.

My feeling was that we have reached, in terms of technical solutions, if not a plateau, at least a point of diminishing marginal returns. The technology for cutting carbon emissions, for storing nuclear waste, for supporting forays into Alzheimer’s disease research and for taking science education to students in the developing world already exists. Although technological innovations can still have a tremendous impact on the energy crisis or the problem of curiosity-driven research, the major problems that we face do not lie at the technical level. They lie at the political, social and psychological level. The cardinal issue confronting us is not how to deploy this or that technical fix but how to change people’s minds. And when I realized this I could not help but feel despondent. Because while technological solutions can be challenging enough, changing people’s minds is a truly herculean task, often spread over several generations and entire social movements. On some level everything that the technical experts at Lindau were saying did not matter, because all those solutions would not make an iota of difference if we were unable to convince the politicians and the general public about their value.

Concomitant with this realization was a more practical one. In the cast of outstanding thinkers and doers at Lindau one category was conspicuously missing. The august group of experts this year included physicists, chemists, biologists, doctors, mathematicians, computer scientists, neuroscientists, a bishop, a president and a secretary of energy. Not one psychologist or sociologist. I realized that what we really need at Lindau is a group of crack psychologists to tell us how we can actually convince people to adopt the solutions that the physicists, chemists, doctors and energy experts are proposing. Without psychologists’ recommendations it is likely that all the technological recommendations offered by the experts will hit a roadblock.

What kind of psychologists would the Lindau meeting benefit from? What we need most of all are experts on the psychology of belief. Three names immediately come to my mind. One is a Nobel Prize winner so it should not be difficult for the organizers of the meeting to include him in their ranks. Daniel Kahneman has spent his whole career demonstrating why people react in certain ways to stimuli, fears and incentives, and why they keep on making decisions based on gut feelings that inadvertently turn out to be flawed. Kahneman would be a very valuable addition at Lindau because he can teach us how people react to signals about sources of energy and policy decisions. Kahneman has also investigated how the more rational side of the brain can often circumvent its primitive, knee-jerk counterpart and how we can channel this side to make sure that we suppress decisions based on gut reactions. We need Kahneman’s advice to understand how we can appeal to people’s rational side in convincing them about energy or climate change.

Another valuable expert to have at Lindau would be Paul Slovic who is internationally renowned for his work on the psychology of risk. Almost every new technology or scientific solution proposed by the experts carries with it an element of risk, and people are going to perceive this risk in their own way. The public’s perceptions of risk to things like climate change or nuclear power are often flawed since they arise from emotional and preconceived beliefs rather than from rational analysis. Whether it is fear of nuclear power, “chemicals” or government control of our lives, our world is filled with risk perception that is disproportionate to reality. The Precautionary Principle, reaction mechanisms in the primitive brain and a heightened perception of sensationalized events at the expense of far more prevalent but low-grade events are all constant features of the general public’s assessment of risk, and this assessment often leads us to make wrong choices. Whether it’s the introduction of solar power, the expansion of fracking or the widespread deployment of nuclear power, it is imperative to appreciate how people will react to the perceived risk from these technologies. The wrong perception of risk can lead them to squelch promising technical solutions through political maneuvering. Experts like Paul Slovic can teach us to present risk in an honest and sensible way so that people have an accurate idea of the reality which it represents.

Finally, the basic source of all our fears and reactions is the belief system that evolution has engineered in our brains. That belief system served us well when we were hunter gatherers eking out a living on the savannah, but it often does more harm than good in our modern, complex human world. Michael Shermer has not only spent years investigating the psychology of belief but he has also managed to present his findings and thoughts to the public in the form of informative and entertaining books. Much of Shermer’s writing has focused on exploring the primitive pattern-seeking mechanisms in our brain that make us see conspiracy theories and mistake noise for signal in general. Ultimately, whatever technology we are trying to sell people will be limited by how people perceive its risks and benefits based on their preconceived beliefs. If their beliefs tell them that the technology cannot be trusted, then they won’t embrace its benefits no matter how sensible or unambiguous they are. Shermer can tell us why people believe certain things, and especially strange things, and perhaps by knowing this we can pitch the technological solutions to them in such a way that they appeal to the rational beliefs in their heads.

Science and technology can only take us so far. Ultimately nothing changes until people and politicians’ thought processes change, and no number of sound technical fixes will work if people refuse to believe in their benefits and change their behavior. And for doing this we need not chemists and physicists but psychologists and sociologists. I humbly suggest that the Lindau meeting should henceforth make sessions with psychologists an integral part of its agenda.