Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

At the Speed of Glaciers: Problems Seeing and Believing

Beliefs in global warming change with the weather

Seeing is believing. How can you believe something if you can’t see it or feel it? How can you believe something that seems the opposite of your own personal experiences? I think this is part of the problem people have with believing the reports of global warming – we can’t always see it and feel it.

The problem concerns how our perception works. We like things fast, but not too fast. We complain about slow internet connections. We have trouble keeping our cars under the posted speed limit. We don’t sit and watch the grass grow. I don’t notice the movement of tectonic plates, unless there is an earthquake. But at the other extreme, I can’t see the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings. In order to perceive something, that thing has to move at a speed we can see.

I think this is why I love slow motion and time lapse movies. They take something that is either too fast or too slow and turn it into a speed I can see.

Recently I saw a beautiful and thought provoking movie with time lapse footage: Chasing Ice. The movie follows the story of a man obsessed with tracking the shrinking of glaciers. Of course if you follow the news at all, you’ve probably seen or read stories about global warming, climate change, and melting glaciers. But glaciers move and change slowly. So if glaciers are shrinking, then I won’t be able to see it by sitting and watching. Glaciers probably shrink more slowly than grass grows (but maybe faster than tectonic plates move).

A still photo from the film

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If you want to see glaciers shrink, then you need to watch at the pace they move – very, very slowly. That’s what James Balog and his team did. They set up cameras in some of the most challenging locations in the world. They programmed the cameras to take pictures once an hour, every day, for years. Chasing Ice presents the struggles they had with creating this filming process. That team of scientists, photographers, and engineers did some truly amazing work.

The glory is in the beautiful pictures. The photographs of ice, snow, and snow melt are some of the most amazing cinematography I have ever seen. Luckily I can see these beautiful snowscapes without actually having to go to the glaciers – I’m not a fan of cold weather.

The cool thing is that the time lapse movies change glacial time into human time. As a few years are turned into a few minutes, you can see glaciers shrink. The power of the movie was seeing climate change transformed into a time frame that matches human perception. We can’t see glaciers shrink by simply sitting and watching. But in the movie, you can see glaciers shrink and see the effect of climate change.

I think one reason why we experience difficulties tackling some problems is that we just can’t see the problem. The problem is too big or too small, too fast or too slow. Global warming is slow and incremental. The changes in global temperature are gradual and the pace is too slow for us to easily see and feel.

Belief in global warming changes like the weather. Actually, belief in global warming changes with the weather. Donner and McDaniels (2013) recently analyzed more than 20 years of national surveys on belief in and worry about global warming. In addition, they looked at the editorials of several newspapers over the same time frame. Hotter years predicted more belief and worry in the surveys. A one degree (C) increase in annual temperature over 12 months equated to a nearly 10% increase in the percentage of people worried about global warming! Newspaper editorials went the same way. Belief in global warming increases after hot summers or storms like Superstorm Sandy. Events like these make global warming perceptible on a human scale.

These survey findings tells us something crucial about reasoning and belief. We can all read and understand the reports on global warming. But our beliefs are often determined by personal perception and experience. As the world warms, hot years increase, storms grow, and droughts become more frequent, belief in global warming will continue to increase. If you want to believe something deep in your gut, you have to see it with your eyes and feel it on your skin.

The nice thing about movies is that they can turn something too big and too slow into something we can see. I knew that glaciers were shrinking because I follow the news. But now I know it more directly because I watched it happening over a time frame I could see.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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