April 18, 2009


Why Isn’t the Brain Green? (JON GERTNER, 4/19/09, NY Times Magazine)

Debates over why climate change isn’t higher on Americans’ list of priorities tend to center on the same culprits: the doubt-sowing remarks of climate-change skeptics, the poor communications skills of good scientists, the political system’s inability to address long-term challenges without a thunderous precipitating event, the tendency of science journalism to focus more on what is unknown (will oceans rise by two feet or by five?) than what is known and is durably frightening (the oceans are rising). By the time Weber was midway into her presentation, though, it occurred to me that some of these factors might not matter as much as I had thought. I began to wonder if we are just built to fail.

Columbia’s behavioral labs are located underground and consist of a windowless suite of bright, sparsely furnished rooms with whitewashed cinder-block walls and gray industrial carpet. Each lab has a common area with a small rectangular table; adjacent to the common area are several tiny offices equipped with Dell computers. Depending on the experiment, test subjects, who are usually paid around $15 to participate and who are culled largely from Columbia’s student body, can work on tests collaboratively at the table or individually in the private offices.

Each lab room is also equipped with a hidden camera and microphone. One afternoon in February, I sat in a small viewing room and watched, on a closed-circuit television monitor, a CRED experiment being conducted down the hall by Juliana Smith, a graduate student at Columbia. Three subjects were dealing with several quandaries. The first involved reaching a consensus on how to apply $5 billion worth of federal funds to wind-energy technologies. Should they spend it all on conventional wind turbines? Should they invest some (or all) of the money on an as-yet-unproven technology that would employ magnetic levitation to create a huge, long-lasting, superefficient wind-powered generator? After the group came to a consensus in each of the test segments, its members were asked to go into the offices and figure out their own individual decisions.

When I first heard about these particular experiments at CRED, I assumed they were meant to provide insight into our opinions about wind power. It turned out the researchers had little curiosity about what we think of wind power. Because CRED’s primary goal is to understand decision-making in situations of uncertainty, the wind-turbine question — should we spend money on building turbines now with a proven technology or should we finance technologies that might be more efficient someday? — was intriguing not for its content but for the way it revealed how our minds work. The familiar variables were all there: uncertainty, time, potential gains, potential losses.

For the researchers, it was crucial to understand precisely how group dynamics shaped decisions during the experiment. In Weber’s view, many important environmental choices (building codes, for instance, or vehicle purchases) are made by groups — households, companies, community boards and the like. And various experiments at CRED have established the ease of getting random individuals to cooperate; in one test, simply giving some subjects a colored sticker, a blue star, say, and telling them they were on the “blue-star team” increased group participation from 35 percent to 50 percent. (Just seating them together at a table increased participation rates to 75 percent.) “So cooperation is a goal that can be activated,” Weber told me one morning. Her point was that climate change can be easily viewed as a very large “commons dilemma” — a version, that is, of the textbook situation in which sheepherders have little incentive to act alone to preserve the grassy commons and as a result suffer collectively from overgrazing. The best way to avoid such failure is by collaborating more, not less. “We enjoy congregating; we need to know we are part of groups,” Weber said. “It gives us inherent pleasure to do this. And when we are reminded of the fact that we’re part of communities, then the community becomes sort of the decision-making unit. That’s how we make huge sacrifices, like in World War II.”

Which is why it was a mistake for W not to ask for a gas tax and similar reforms after 9-11, which would have incorporated us all into the WoT.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2009 7:40 AM
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