Planet Gore

When Prophecy Fails

The Bret Stephens piece that Ed Craig excerpts below also brings to mind the work of Leon Festinger, whose pioneering work on cognitive dissonance theory is so applicable to a movement whose noisiest champions often lead the most incompatible lifestyles imaginable.
Festinger co-wrote (with Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter) the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled a fairly typical cult following: a housewife claimed to be receiving doomsday messages from aliens, who nonetheless offered hope for those who listened to their counsel. (Quick, someone check James Hansen’s immigration status, and bone up on the Alien Tort Claims Act climate litigation.)
Festinger et al. detailed how the failure of a prophecy to come about can often yield the opposite effect of what the rational person would expect: the cult following gets stronger and its adherents ever more convinced of their truth. One reading of Festinger, as to why the rational response should not follow in that situation, is that such prophesying is not rational, or the act of rational beings.
We should not have been surprised with the current mantra, of “Cooling? Why, that’s just another sign of warming.” It is the logical next step of a movement neatly captured by Greenpeace’s Steven Guilbeault’s incantation, “Global warming can mean colder; it can mean drier; it can mean wetter; that’s what we’re dealing with.”
Beam me up.
Festinger deliciously penned the following assessment about this phenomenon:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.
But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.

As a meteorologist colleague commented to me last night about a recent manifestation of precisely this, “these people are no different than the guys sitting around waiting for the spaceship.”


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