xkcd and cognitive dissonance

      3 Comments on xkcd and cognitive dissonance

Warning: xkcd-themed post ahead. This means that, like always, every single picture has a humoristic title text. The difference is that this time, they are actually funny.

I’ve been reading xkcd for years. I’ve read every comic, What if?, and blog post from Randall Munroe. I’ve also watched many talks and speeches that he’s done over the years. I’m probably what you would call a fan. According to my biased perception of intelligence, this guy is smart.

Today, I noticed something in the comic, so I’ll talk about it because I feel like it.

Randall seems to believe in climate change / global warming / whatever else they call it these days. Extremely simplified version: We are polluting too much, and now the temperature is rising.


credit: xkcd

He has posted about that before, mocking the people who don’t “believe” in this measurable, commonly accepted phenomenon.


credit: xkcd

I don’t think I should need to mention it, but I believe in Global Warming. I also happen to believe that, just like Adam’s law of slow-moving disasters would suggest, we’ll figure out a way to stop or reverse the process before it’s too late, since the sense of urgency will only go up as time goes on. That might be my own stupid cognitive dissonance-induced excuse to not feel bad about my selfish over-consumption of resources, or it might be totally logical. I, personally, have no way to know for sure.

Either way, considering my own theory of geniuses being on both sides of most issues, considering that this issue has actually become pretty political, I would expect at least some of the smart people following xkcd don’t believe in global warming. I’m not implying that every xkcd reader is smart, but you at least have to be interested in learning new things when you read that comic, because you’ll be googling about a bunch of scientific stuff if you want to understand every single strip.

Those smart people were probably pretty upset when Randall posted about this subject a couple times. They probably felt insulted. Maybe betrayed if they thought Randall was “smart” like them. I bet at least some of them sent him messages complaining. Only Randall can know how many exactly, but zero seems pretty unlikely.

Monday, he made a new comic about this subject. I won’t post it here, because the picture is 14957 pixels tall. That would make this post unreadable because 79.8% of its height would be that single picture. You can read the comic here: http://xkcd.com/1732/

Obviously, if the previous ones attracted any complaints, this one will too. But I noticed something. The previous comic, posted friday the 9th, was literally about cognitive dissonance. The exact kind of cognitive dissonance that makes people “forget” evidence that they are wrong.


credit: xkcd

This doesn’t feel like a coincidence. I think either it’s a jab at those people sending him hate mail over things like global warming, or it’s an attempt at making them see the errors of their ways. Maybe Randall is testing to see if the cognitive dissonance can be dispelled by being pointed out. I bet it won’t, but I guess it’s worth a try.

But hey, that’s just a theory. A webcomic theory! Thanks for reading.

  • Kingfisher12

    You might be on to something there. Or it might be a coincidence. I think the hover-text from the “Wrong” comic is helpful; ‘Hang on, I just remembered another thing I’m right about’.

    But it also shows, I think, the correct way to confront a person with wrong ideas. You don’t ever tell them “You’re wrong”. You start with ‘I don’t think that’s right…’. If they press, suggest that they might be thinking of something else. (We all use the wrong words sometimes). Finally, suggest that they go and double-check their assertion. If they discover their own error, they’ll usually drop it – let it drop.

    If they show a source that is less than reputable, tell them that you find the source dubious. They’ll usually drop it at that point – let it drop.

    • Kaito Kid

      From my experience, if the cognitive dissonance (emotional attachment to the subject) is strong, they will usually understand “I find this source dubious, mind if I check it?” as “I don’t believe sources when they disagree with me”, and then proceed to mock my position because I “deny science”. Did this ever happen to you?

      • Plus, if they’re Alt Right idiots. they’ll tell you the only true Sources are Breitbart, and Milo what’s his name, everything else (including published peer reviewed science) is made up and it’s all a conspiracy. As to the meat of your blog post, I agree that Randall takes global warming completely seriously (brilliant XKCD warming timeline comic, btw), and probably takes the view that if you don’t agree, he doesn’t care:-)

        One more thing: I don’t think you were completely fair wrt the “brutally cold weather in St Louis” cartoon: that’s not mocking global warming sceptics, that’s mocking people who don’t understand the difference between “short term weather” and “climate: long term changes, eg. 30 year moving averages”. There may be global warming sceptics who understand that difference, although I haven’t met one personally:-)

        [EDIT added this bit] Finally, I don’t agree about Scott’s “law of slow moving disasters” wrt global warming, the climate is like a supertanker: if you want it to change course in 5 miles, turn the wheel now. I suspect our global actions will continue to be too little, too late: so we’ll get to find out what the consequences are – or our descendants will (if we have any) in 100 years or so. Perhaps the predictions are wrong, perhaps it’ll be manageable. We’ll see.