Friday, April 29, 2011

Bonanza Column 234 - Leon Festinger, Obama's Birth Certificate, and Boulder Bay

In the 1950’s, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger studied a doomsday cult that believed that the world was going to end (and that they would be rescued from the cataclysm by aliens) on a certain date. They sold their possessions, quit their jobs, etc. and gathered on a mountain top to be picked up by UFOs. When the world didn’t end and you would expect them to have changed their beliefs, they were unfazed – the world didn’t end not in spite of their beliefs, but because they believed and therefore the world was spared. Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe this phenomenon of people becoming more committed to their beliefs in the face of evidence to refute them, and it has since been validated many times.
The past week has given us two great examples of the cognitive dissonance mechanism at work. First, President Obama released the long form of his Hawai’i birth certificate with all the requisite signatures and seals, which should have put the whole “birther” nonsense to rest, right? Not so much. Some birthers questioned the authenticity of the certificate (where does that one end?), some accepted it, but said he must be hiding something, and others just changed “birth certificate” to “diploma” and suggested that this Summa cum Laude graduate of Harvard was faking his educational credentials.
Closer to home, we saw the long approval process for the Boulder Bay project culminate in a twelve-hour meeting of the TRPA Governing Board, at the end of which the project was overwhelmingly (12-2) approved along with the EIS and an amendment to the height restrictions. The public comment at that meeting took four hours, during which some 80 people spoke, with about 80% of the comments solidly in favor of the project. A couple of things struck me about the 10 or 15 comments that questioned or opposed the project. One was the theme of “I don’t really oppose it, but I want it to be smaller.” Given how much the Boulder Bay team has reduced the size over the past four years, one wonders if it could be small enough to satisfy them.
But the other thing that struck me and brought Festinger to mind was some of the opponents’ responses to the traffic studies. There were three studies and a fourth memo clarifying the studies. These studies were done by experts, engineering consultants whose reputation and livelihood rests on the scientific validity of their work. Granted, no forecast can be said to be “the truth” – all forecasting is, in the end, a guess, but these people’s job is to make guesses that are grounded in and can be defended by data, and so it would be reasonable to expect that if someone were to disagree with their conclusions, that disagreement would be based on data as well. Not here – the predominant theme of the objections to the traffic studies could be summarized as “it doesn’t make sense to me that this project won’t increase traffic, so the studies must be wrong.” A couple of the objectors had the credentials to make them worth listening to and challenged the baselines used in the studies, but again failed to give any coherent, data-based objection to the baselines – they just didn’t think they were right.
It would be nice to think we have heard the last of the controversy and that the Boulder Bay project could proceed on schedule – design work this summer and break ground next May – but given the cognitive dissonance mechanism I'm not holding out much hope. As Festinger said: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” As a result, the general expectation in the community as reflected in the online poll conducted during the Bonanza’s live coverage of the hearings, is that there will be lawsuits from one or more of the groups who have been intransigent in their opposition to the project. I'm referring here to the local version of the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance.
Now this is America, where anyone can sue anyone over everything and we let the courts sort it out. Given the exhaustive work and hearings by TRPA over the past four years, I suggest that any suit brought at this point will be groundless and simply a tactic to delay and harass the Boulder Bay group and will be held as such by the courts. These groups, as Wednesday’s hearing showed, represent a very small minority of the community, if that. The NTPA has consistently inflated its membership figures -  many people who spoke Wednesday objected to being listed on NTPA’s rolls of those opposed when all they had done was ask for information – and the rest of us should not stand for their throwing sands into the gears of progress.

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