It’s uncomfortable when a belief you have long held is contradicted by new facts. Even more so if an entire worldview comes under pressure from the evidence. Psychologists call it ‘‘cognitive dissonance’’ and it explains why it is so hard to change our minds even though we flatter ourselves that we base our opinions on the evidence.
In the political domain, perhaps the most powerful source of discomfort is the fear that if we change our views and express a new opinion then we will be cast out of the community that shares and reinforces our beliefs. When worldviews are at stake, this community can give us our identity. They are ‘‘my people’’.
It’s not surprising that most people most of the time find ways to explain away or ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs. So we talk to those who agree with us, follow media that confirms our biases, and attack those presenting contradictory evidence as somehow disreputable or purveyors of fake news.
As a person from the political left, when I decided to write a book about Chinese Communist Party interference in Australia, I found myself experiencing this cognitive dissonance. Researching and writing the book, Silent Invasion, my worldview underwent an upheaval.
I had to discard and replace many of the assumptions and biases I had developed since my teenage years. My beliefs about modern China, the role of the United States in the world, the US alliance, intelligence agencies, the functioning of democracy and national identity – all underwent dramatic change.
The attacks on me came thick and fast, mainly from my colleagues on the left, criticisms that often upset me. One prominent left-wing intellectual began a commentary on my book by asking how a ‘‘principled, progressive writer like Clive Hamilton’’ could write such a book. He didn’t consider the obvious answer, spelled out over the book’s 100,000 words; that is, the evidence.
Many on the left believed that for some inexplicable reason I had become an anti-Chinese racist, ignoring my long record of anti-racism and the facts that the book was launched by Chinese-Australians and is widely read in a Chinese translation.
Like everyone, through my life I have clung to beliefs well after they had been disproven by any cool assessment of the facts. But in the case of Chinese Communist Party interference in Australia, I decided to confront the facts head-on and take the pain. Apart from vicious social media and slanders from various public figures, I lost friends, including my most valued political supporter.
For over 20 years before turning my attention to China, most of my work, including five books, was focused on climate change. When in the mid-1990s I first began reading what the climate scientists were saying I could see the enormity of the implications. For many years only a handful of people were ready to face up to the facts. Even the major environment groups, much to my frustration, took years to work climate change into their patterns of thinking.
Many on the conservative side of politics have found the evidence from scientists too threatening for their worldviews to accommodate. The more environmentalists raised the alarm, the more resistant they became, because accepting the facts would mean conceding political ground to their mortal enemy. So they adopted ways to downplay, reframe or just deny the evidence.
The scientists continued to go about their work, which not only confirmed their earlier analysis but showed the calamities initially anticipated for later decades were arriving much sooner.
Some conservatives constructed conspiracy theories to explain why so many of the world’s top scientists and eminent scientific bodies had concocted the story of climate change or seriously exaggerated its effects. Rejecting climate science had become a core political belief. It defined who they were.
Now, any conservative who begins to think the scientists might be right risks accusations of betrayal and a kind of excommunication. Few people have the stomach for that. However, to keep one’s self-respect, when the facts become overwhelming, anyone other than a pure ideologue must sooner or later confront them, despite the discomfort and pain.
The evidence that the bushfires ravaging our country have been intensified by climate change is overwhelming, and consistent with scientists’ warnings for more than 20 years. Nothing is more important for our future than to face up to these warnings and take far-reaching action.
So I am appealing to the many conservatives who have admired my ‘‘courage’’ for tackling the issue of Chinese Communist Party interference to reassess their beliefs about climate change. I can’t promise it will be easy to undo deeply held opinions. It means conflict with your political confreres.
You may lose friends. But the reason for opening yourself up to the evidence could not be more compelling – doing our best to save what we value above all else, our country, and the future of our children.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 24 December 2019