Leon Festinger, the BBC, cognitive dissonance and Ezekiel the Alien | Brussels Blog

Leon Festinger, the BBC, cognitive dissonance and Ezekiel the Alien

posted by on 24th Aug 2017
24th,Aug

I wrote this months ago but held off posting it after a
  discussion with an advisor as to whether referencing
Wikipedia was good enough. I have disputes with Wikipedia
but I still rely on it – after exercising my own judgement
. That is what I do when I read peer reviewed stuff
– use my judgement.  So does Eziekiel the Alien.

Leon Festinger and the Aliens

Drifting to sleep last night listening to the radio, a mention of one of my heroes woke me with a start.

In 1950, Leon Festinger had showed that people tend to befriend their neighbours. It was a brilliant piece of work which I read when I was a Research Fellow at Leeds School of Architecture. I must have read it in 1971 or 1972 because, it guided us in choosing a house to live in: We moved into a co-operative housing development in 1972. Using Festinger’s book we chose the house positioned to make it easier to know our neighbours. It was a good choice.

The architects at the school didn’t seen to know much about how neighbours got to know each other. I don’t think architects do now. Festinger (1950) could do with a refresh and expansion to guide them in an age of mobile phones and Facebook. The neighbours-become-friends effect is still important even if some people know more about their 668 ‘friends’ on Facebook than they do about their neighbours.

That said, this isn’t a rant against the failings of architects: It is a confession: I must be guilty of cognitive dissonance. Simply Psychology describes cognitive dissonance like this:

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

Meaning we fight to maintain our prejudices. I do – and in the case of Festinger’s work my prejudice against invented waffly academic language like “cognitive dissonance” made me ignore his later work. I hate waffly say-nothing academics who take ages of pages text with a high fog index to say not much at all. However, in this case, my own prejudices made me reject something mind-and-attitude altering: My very own case of cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps I should have been more alert, Festinger’s ‘neighbours-become-friends’ book is titled “Social Pressures in Informal Groups: Study of Human Factors in Housing” but it isn’t say-nothing waffle. It contains detailed information which every housing architect should have in the back of their minds. On his theory of cognitive dissonance Simply Psychology also says:

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

Wikipedia describes a sequence of events reported by Festinger:

December 20. The group [led by Mrs Keech] expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.

  • 12:05 am, December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows
  • 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 am. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 am. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 am. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

I have just ordered Festinger’s book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Perhaps it will help me find out why there are so many people who refuse to believe climate experts about climate change. But then I don’t believe many climate experts either: Most of them are just not telling us the whole horrible truth:

IPCC carbon budget: Missing feedbacks ignored
Carbon budgets: A straightforward answer from DECC
Stern: Growth trumps the environment

My belief: the BBC is biased and promotes business and growth over climate change

As you can see, I believe that the BBC is biased – particularly in promoting business and downplaying climate change. I have put in a few freedom of information (FOI) requests to flush this out. (See previous posts ad nauseum as Private Eye says.) So far with little success.

I suppose, like Mrs Keech and her followers, I want to stick to my belief and want to show BBC are climate denying promoters of economic growth. This is despite occasional excellent programmes lauding economic growth – like Jim O’Neills Fixing Globalisation. This has in the introduction:

Lord O’Neill believes that globalisation can be a positive force, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But can this economic engine take care of those left behind by rapid, wrenching change?

In the program, however, he points out that most of the people lifted out of poverty were in China, a country that took on globalisation but controlled access to its markets.  The rest of the poor affected by globalisation weren’t so lucky. This reminded me of Bob Dylan’s North Country Blues:

It’s much cheaper down in the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

This is particularly interesting to me because a growth and globalisation guru accepts one of the massive downsides of the growth model  that seems to have captured the BBC.  This I believe is one of the reasons they downplay the dangers of climate change: Tackling climate  change means de-growth on a global scale. Of course, the BBC is not the only siren for growth but we do pay them to inform and educate as well as entertain.  On growth/climate they fail dreadfully.

I’m not yet ready to cast my belief aside. I’ve begun to want the BBC to be climate denying bad guys. This may be like Mrs Keech wanting the aliens to come – but just because my belief is stubborn, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Evidence (Postscript 3) that fits my theory is in the BBC’s response to my FOI requests . They hide behind “the BBC is not obliged to answer questions which relate to journalism” and I find their answers hard to unpick.

One FOI is based on their refusal to tell me what programmes were actually broadcast during R4’s night time relay of the World Service. I suspected they have not relayed certain programmes because the programmes were about climate change.  Heard on the World Service but not on Radio 4, even though they were on the schedule. I hit the it’s-journalism-so-it’s-exempt barrier again. I even tried the tactic of pointing out that non-journalists (e.g. engineers) will be holding the information for other reasons.   No luck.  But I’m irritated that the BBC refuses to disclose what programmes it has actually broadcast.

To try again to overcome the you-cant-ask-about-journalism barrier, I have hit on a different tactic. I have asked them if they won’t answer the question on the suppression of the programme about the Californian drought because it was an editorial decision.

Answer. Yes. Then someone in the BBC deliberately suppressed that programme.

Answer. No. Then the next FOI is ‘Why did the BBC suppress that and other programmes?’.

By the way have you met Ezekiel the Alien? He’s sitting next to me now.

Postscripts

Postscript 1. I now have Festinger’s book but really can’t stomach wading through it. Wikipedia’s description is good enough for me.

Postscript 2. That BBC FOI request. Their answer included:

The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion.

Postscript 3. What is evidence or (for certain types of philosopher) what is the meaning of the word ‘evidence’? I probably shouldn’t rush into this but the meaning I have of ‘evidence’ (in this context) is anything that contributes to or detracts from belief in a theory.  Yes, and here my theory is that the BBC is biased as described above.

Postscript 3a. Do remember, that I am fan of Paul Feyeraband’s Against Method.

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