Humans are lazy thinkers — me included.
Give me a book, a video, a manuscript that supports my worldview, and I’m a happy camper. (We’ve all heard of confirmation bias.)
This week I was challenged to reconsider two beliefs: one dealing with COVID-19’s stay-at-home orders and the other, a film that Michael Moore released called Planet of the Humans.
My first response in both cases had nothing to do with my brain but with my gut. I didn’t want to be corrected nor embarrassed if my initial opinion had been wrong. Maybe I could just dig in my heels and “prove” why I was right and explain why those who disagreed with me were wrong.
Then I decided that I’d better have a closer look. Asking others to use their critical thinking skills means nothing if I’m not willing to challenge myself.
Case #1 – COVID-19 Stay-at-Home orders
In the first case, a thoughtful friend of mine from Colorado told me he believes the stay-at-home orders are unwise and unnecessary. I watched the interview of two doctors who presented loads of statistics and personal experience to support their strong conclusion that the stay-at-home orders are not based on hard science and are actually contra-indicated. Their position flies in the face of nearly every medical expert we’re hearing from in the world.
I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t have an ounce of comfort when throwing numbers and statistics around. How should I evaluate this claim about the stay-at-home orders? Here’s what I did.
- Who are these two doctors making the claim and can I discern what their motives might be? They admit they’re “entrepreneurs” in the interview, they own the largest testing site in Kern County, and mention that people are fearful of coming in for a test. The last hint was a comment Dr. Erickson dropped about “constitutional rights” in his answer to one of the reporter’s questions. From this I surmise that they’re concerned about their business, and they’re politically conservative individuals which may (may not) be the motivation for their contrarian views.
- What are other professionals and colleagues saying about their claim? I found several news reports disagreeing with them, and I found no one else that publicly supports them. Dr. Navin Amin’s interview directly contradicted Dr. Erickson.
- How do I weigh the evidence and form an opinion? Since I can’t bring any independent scientific or medical expertise to the question, I weigh the opinions of others and judge the pros and cons of each side. What are the positives of removing the stay-at-home orders and opening up our communities? What are the downsides? What are the positives of keeping the stay-at-home orders in place for the time being? What are the downsides?
Factoring 1, 2, and 3 together, I believe it’s wise to keep the stay-at-home orders in place while ramping up our COVID-19 testing abilities, and preparing for re-opening our communities based on clear and non-discriminatory criteria.
Case #2 – Planet for the Humans
In the second example that challenged my critical thinking skills, Planet of the Humans made my head explode. You can watch the full movie here (1 hour 40 minutes).
My take-away message from the film is three-fold: clean energy comes with an environmental cost which we’re often not talking about or taking into consideration; consumerism and a technological fix to our rapidly deteriorating planet is not the answer; and human population growth exceeds the Earth’s limits and we’re not talking about that much either.
I watched the film earlier this week when there were fewer than 200,000 views. Today there are more than 2 million views. Planet of the Humans is certainly getting attention and stimulating discussion. It’s also generating considerable criticism; enough that filmsforaction.org decided to remove and then restore the film to its website.
We are disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation – so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site.
Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to misinformation.
You can read the entire statement from Films for Action here. I applaud their decision.
The criticisms of the film can be boiled down to:
- the filmmaker didn’t include positive messages about the wind & solar potential (there appears to be universal agreement now that biomass is destructive); its message was totally negative against green energy without sharing alternatives.
- the film was a hit piece on the environmental leaders and groups that have earned the trust of generations of Americans.
- the film was manipulative and deceptive, using clever editing and misinformation to shape the viewer’s opinion about the topic.
Check out the following for more details:
This review from Vote to Survive (which details both its merits and flaws).
“A movie that purports to care about the environment and the future of humanity and yet seeks to undermine support for the very things we must do to save this planet, and ourselves, is worse than a disappointment. It’s reckless.”
This in-depth review from Ketan Joshi who says the film’s contents are old, really old, and by implication, irrelevant.
“Later, they visit the Solar Energy Generating System (SEGS) solar farm, only to feign sadness and shock when they discover it’s been removed, leaving a dusty field of sand. In the desert. “Then Ozzie and I discovered that the giant solar arrays had been razed to the ground”, he moans. “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at. A solar dead zone”. Which is a weird one, because the latest 2020 satellite imagery shows a site full of solar arrays, and a total absence of any “dead zones”. The damn thing is generating electricity.
This review from Neal Livingston.
Planet of the Humans uses the most worn-out editing techniques to emotionally manipulate the viewer. We see windmills from the early 1970’s, the early days of wind power, which are long gone. We see on the street facile interviews, with film editing techniques to make environmental leaders look dumb. We see a dying orangutang as the film ends to make you cry. But nowhere does the film show us how to get off fossil fuels, by showing us where renewables are working. Nor does the film help us to stop forest destruction, by showing us places that have taken steps to protect nature, and there are many places that have done so.
Bill McKibben’s response (to get his side of the story).
Like the film-maker, I previously personally supported burning bio-mass as an alternative to fossil fuels—in my case, when the rural college where I teach replaced its oil furnaces with a wood-chip burner more than a decade ago, I saluted it. But as more scientists studied the consequences of large-scale biomass burning, the math began to show that it would put large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere at precisely the wrong moment: if we break the back of the climate system now, it won’t matter if forests suck it up fifty years hence. And as soon as that became clear I began writing and campaigning on those issues. Here’s a piece of mine from 2016 that couldn’t be much clearer, and another from 2019 in the New Yorker about the fights in the Southeast, and another from 2020 as campaigners fought to affect policy in the Northeast. The other side has definitely noticed—here’s an article from the biomass industry attacking me, 350.org, and others. I’m reasonably sure that most of the valiant people here and in the UK that have been fighting this fight will vouch that I’ve been a help, not a hindrance.
I’ve watched the film a second time, thinking about the criticism leveled against it, and have the same opinion. The filmmaker got me thinking about a very important issue that many people (even environmental leaders and organizations) don’t discuss.
We need to look at ourselves, our lifestyles, our consumption of the Earth’s resources, our greed, our economic system, our belief system — all of it — and make big changes. No, we need to reinvent ourselves! Richard Heinberg (The End of Growth), Richard York, Nina Jablonski and others said it very well in this film, and their voices are a wake-up call.
I certainly understand why Bill McKibben, Tom Solomon (350 New Mexico), Michael E. Mann and some establishment environmental groups might take umbrage with Planet of the Humans. It’s really, really uncomfortable to have one’s worldview challenged, and this film certainly does just that. It also calls into question whether there’s an unholy alliance between these environmental groups and the titans of our capitalistic system. Interestingly, none of the responses to the film touch on that last point at all, or dispute those assertions made by the filmmaker.
Use your critical thinking skills —- and you may come away with a different conclusion than mine —- but THAT is the whole point of critical thinking and, I venture to say, the making of this film. The filmmaker is making us think about the issues he has raised. Good for him!