All right, I’ve been meaning to write a post on this forever, but a comment from The Oil Drum’s Prof. Goose finally lit a fire under my butt:

It seems to me that one of the keys to the puzzle of why people don’t understand peak oil and other sustainability issues is innumeracy and a lack of understanding spatial functions.

Ah, so that’s it! But wait, it gets better:

However, getting 100*ln 2(~=70, btw)/rate per annum=doubling time in years through your head ain’t that hard…is it?

Oh, well heck no!

But let’s get to the point:

One of the main points of Dr. Bartlett’s lecture is that "we cannot let other people do our thinking for us." So, so true.

Um, no. So, so false.

In fact, we let other people do our thinking for us constantly. If we couldn’t outsource some — nay, most — of our thinking, we would be screwed indeed. People think about their families, kids, boy/girlfriends, health, school, job, finances, parents, weight … now they have to learn calculus?

I’m not trying to be cute. People are busy. Average folk can hope to have in-depth knowledge in one area, maybe two. For many it is sports, clothes, TV shows, hobbies of myriad sorts.

Even those who devote their lives to what we may consider good causes — learning all there is to know about, oh, poverty, or ocean health — do we hold them responsible for not knowing all there is to know about peak oil? Do we hold Prof. Goose responsible for not knowing the basic facts on, say, the tropical lapse rate quandary?

No. Most people rely, for most of their information, most of the time, on other people. They let other people do the thinking for them. It could not be otherwise.

For Mr. or Miss. Average Person, the question about peak oil for is not, "does 100*ln 2(~=70, btw)/rate per annum=doubling time in years?" For Mr. or Miss. Average Person, the question is, "can I trust Prof. Goose [for example]?"

Same goes for global warming — most people have no idea what forcings are, or the difference between the troposphere and the stratosphere. They can’t assess the validity of scientific papers. For them, the question is: who you gonna believe?

The vast majority rely on heuristics: which sources seem trustworthy, seem like good people, seem correct?

For example, take the much-blogged-about Democracy Corps focus groups (pdf) with rural voters. Here’s the money shot:

Particularly among non-college voters, cultural issues not only superceded other priorities, they served as a proxy for many voters on those other issues. With most voters expressing little understanding of the differences between Democrats and Republicans or the relative merits of their positions on economic policy, health care, retirement security, and other issues, they felt it safe to assume that if a candidate was "right" on cultural issues — i.e. opposed to abortion, but most importantly opposed to gay marriage and vocal about defending the role of faith and traditional Judeo-Christian values in public life — that candidate would naturally also come closest to their views on these other issues.

This is not meant to mock rural voters (heaven forfend) but simply as an illustration that heuristics need not always be related to the facts of the matter — in fact, such indicators are often, strictly speaking, irrational. Again I hasten to say, it’s nothing to condemn. The limitations of human cognition make it so. We might say that an educated citizenry, broadly informed, is a worthy goal. But even should such an Eden be achieved, most people will not know calculus and will not be able to independently assess the vagaries of Saudi oil reserves.

For that vast majority of the populace, the legitimacy of peak oil will hinge on such extraneous factors as the perceived size of the consensus, the political and social status of its advocates, its inclusion in popular media, its place in the 24-hour news cycle, whether it gets mentioned on Oprah. Get a peak oil book on Oprah’s book club and boom, your ranks quintuple.

Simply being right, no matter how right you may perceive yourself to be, is not enough to produce change. For that you must indulge in a little branding. You must concern yourself with how your product is perceived in its intended market. Master the intangibles.

Facts and formulas will only take you so far.

POSTSCRIPT 1: This is not, of course, to take any particular shot at Prof. Goose, who does stellar work every day over at his blog, which I assume you already have bookmarked.

POSTSCRIPT 2: It’s been a running joke between my dad and I for years: that my decision never to take calculus will come back to haunt me. He’s an engineer.