In their book Merchants of Doubt that I reviewed very favorably here, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway make the case that those people and business interests that oppose the scientific consensus that goes against their business and ideological interests (like the perils of smoking tobacco, second-hand smoke, acid-rain, the ozone hole, and climate change) base their opposition strategy on exploiting the way people make decisions.
The theory of rational decision-making says that most people, when faced with doubt or the choice between competing theories that they are not in a position to evaluate for themselves and with no compelling reason to favor any specific one, tend to favor the status quo and taking no action or choose the option that is easier or less expensive or less discomfiting. So if you can make people feel that there is a great deal of doubt or uncertainty on some issue, they will tend to favor the status quo. Hence they use their vast resources to launch a relentless media campaign to try and give the impression that there is a great deal of doubt on an issue when there is actually a scientific consensus on what needs to be done.
An example of how people make decisions in favor of the status quo can be seen in the Monty Hall problem that I discussed in an earlier post. If you are not sure what this famous problem is, see here and/or watch this video.
Although the logic is very clear that one should switch to the other door when given the choice, most people who are not aware of the statistics, do not do so and stick with their first choice, and in my earlier post. I speculate as to why this might be so.
But the point is that people usually do not start neutral on some issue that requires action but have a preference, even if they are unaware of it. Getting them to take action requires overcoming this emotional inertia. To do so requires existing conditions to be so bad that people are willing to overcome the inertia and make the change, or to cloak the change in a way that makes it look like it is actually a reversion to the status quo
This is why the Brexit vote in favor of leaving the EU, although on the surface somewhat close with 51.9% voting to leave while 48.9% voted to stay, was actually quite significant because people were voting to change the status quo in a major way, showing that the winning slogan ‘Take Back Control’ was very effectivet. It was the word ‘back’ that I think was significant. It implied that by leaving the EU, the UK was reverting to the status quo, going back to what was normal and familiar, rather than changing things. Meanwhile, those who felt that things were very bad for them personally and blamed membership in the EU for it, could vote for leaving too. For them, the desire for change overcame the inertia. So the Leave campaign had it both ways.
We have seen that conservative politicians in the US also appeal to a return to a mythical past. The challenge for progressive politicians is, like the Leave campaign, try to create a dual message, that change is necessary and good but also that the change will restore the ‘natural order’ of things. What would that ‘natural order’ look like? The argument should be that the natural order is for justice and equality and that the Republican policies of the past few decades have take us far away from that desirable state.