By John Walker
In late 2015, a video was circulated of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Conscientious fast-food consumers and iced-coffee drinkers all over the Western world were emotionally moved and began demanding new straw “technologies” to replace this single-use plastic product — compostable paper straws, cleanable metal straws, edible straws, etc.
As admirable as this response may have been, it’s a good example of how people can propose a solution to a problem that has little, if anything, to do with the problem’s cause. And no, I’m not going to claim that we should all just stop using straws.
If you live in a nation with effective waste-management facilities, your properly discarded straws (which are generally not recyclable) end up in a landfill far from any waterway that could possibly leech waste into the ocean. That’s the end of the story. No sea turtles, no harmful microplastics. Just a big pile of inert gunk decomposing over millennia.
The real root of the problem is mishandled plastic waste from underdeveloped coastal nations, especially those with enough wealth to consume single-use goods but not enough wealth or infrastructure to properly manage the resulting waste. The Philippines alone account for over a third of the global plastic that flows from rivers out to the ocean — double that of Europe, Africa, and the Americas combined. India, Malaysia, and China come next.
Of course, developed nations consume far more plastic per capita, and I’d love to see such numbers shrink. But what we do consume is handled by relatively effective waste-management systems. So why did so many people latch on to the idea that the solution to this problem is to stop using plastic straws? Why did this become such a powerful yet unquestioned rallying cry in so many circles?
Humans Stirred to Action by Stories and Emotions
Psychology may hold some insight. Humans are stirred to action not by numbers and studies, but by stories and emotions. We see the video of the straw being removed from the nostril of a subdued turtle who is plainly in pain (look it up with caution if you’re squeamish), and we empathize so deeply that we feel compelled to do something. Without widespread knowledge of the subject, it’s easy to focus on the straws themselves and our habitual use of them as the bogeyman. After all, just look at all of the nuisance trash that careless, rich Westerners toss onto our roadsides! It makes sense that we treat oceans the same way, right?
In psychological circles, this phenomenon could be called “substitution.” It’s not a particularly sexy word, is it? But stick with me, and you may see how it can be a particularly powerful way to contextualize certain erroneous beliefs that we and the people around us seem to cling to.
Substitution is, in a nutshell, what happens when we’re faced with a particularly difficult or complicated question; if we lack the knowledge required to answer the question directly, we instead unconsciously substitute a related but simpler question that we can answer more easily.
Inspired by a chapter in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I offer this example: You are approached by someone on the street who asks, “How much would you like to donate toward a cause to save endangered species?” Most people aren’t going to do an exhaustive calculation about the worthiness of the cause or the opportunity cost of giving that money to charity rather than spending it on groceries. Instead, if the solicitor hands you a brochure with a picture of an endangered dolphin along with his request for a donation, you might unconsciously substitute an easier question: “How emotionally invested am I in saving this dolphin, and how much money would that emotion translate to?”
While the number of dollars donated could thus vary wildly from one individual to another, this substitution transforms a vague and intangible question into one that is possible to answer with relatively little effort.
Answering the Wrong Question and Slurping from Soggy Straws
In the case of plastic straws, a question like “How do we stop plastic straws from ending up in the nostrils of turtles?” doesn’t evoke an obviously realistic answer on its own (short of a global effort to ban all straws and scoop every last bit of plastic out of the ocean). So we might be tempted to answer a less complicated question like, “How can I, as a conscientious Western consumer, reduce my use of plastic straws?” This substitution feels feasible; it gives us a sense of agency. However, it works only if we don’t question the implicit assumption that a meaningful amount of discarded plastic straws used in developed nations will end up in the ocean.
Thus, instead of investing in waste-management solutions in the Philippines (which is at least a direct, feasible midterm solution), we end up slurping from soggy, disintegrating paper straws, proud of our sacrifice and of all the (imaginary) turtles we’re saving.
This is not to say that substitution is universally a bad thing. In some cases, the answers it returns aren’t too far off the mark, and in others, we may have to accept it as a necessary evil when the original question is far too difficult to answer by even the most deliberate effort.
In sports, we often inquire about the statistics associated with an athlete or team in place of vague questions about who is “better” than the rest. “Who’s the best quarterback?” might be replaced with “Who has the highest pass-completion percentage?” Similarly, “Who’s going to win tomorrow?” might be substituted with “Who has won more match-ups so far this year?” This isn’t a perfect system, but appeals to statistics are generally going to return more reliable results than claiming that your home team’s quarterback is the best simply because he lives in the same state as you.
A note of caution when talking statistics, however. Those who are familiar with Campbell’s Law and Goodhardt’s Law may recognize the drawbacks of substituting simple values or metrics for more complex evaluations. Imagine yourself a student and consider the question “How well do you understand the material that you’re learning in school?” You could answer by referring to your most recent grades or test scores. But that means substituting a question about understanding for one about grades, and any of us who have received a grade that we didn’t feel we deserved might intuitively recognize how flawed this approach can be.
When we gravitate so strongly to grades and test scores as a metric for understanding, we incentivize students to prioritize chasing higher numbers for their own sake rather than encouraging a functional understanding of the underlying material. In the process, we also penalize those students who, as gifted as they may be, either don’t have the patience for written tests or don’t have home environments conducive to effective studying. Metrics are not always bad, and they are often better than nothing when used consciously and with respect to their drawbacks. But when such substitutions sneak in via lazy and unintentional thinking, we risk being drawn toward the metric as its own end rather than a flawed but necessary substitution toward our true goal.
“Does My Political Tribe Support Wearing Masks?”
The final (and arguably most important) lesson to be learned from this phenomenon regards its role in modern politics, particularly as it pertains to the pandemic. Let’s look at a final question: “Are masks an effective tool for stopping the public spread of Covid-19?” I’m willing to bet that nearly everyone who reads this will quickly and solidly answer yes. But perhaps you see where this is going; can you honestly say that you’re not substituting an easier question? How do you know that your answer is reliable?
Prior to the politicization of mask-wearing (think back to February of 2020), it would have been easier to imagine people acknowledging the complexity of the question by simply saying “I don’t know.” Or maybe some would have substituted reasonable (if imperfect) questions in its place. “Do health experts support wearing masks?” “Do the scientists who conducted the most recent relevant study support wearing masks?” But as with any subject that becomes tainted with today’s divisive politics, we can see why many people now might substitute a more worrying question: “Does my political tribe support wearing masks?”
Sincere acknowledgement that our political allegiances play such a strong role in our beliefs and behaviors makes us vulnerable to an uncomfortable amount of introspection. Perhaps you can honestly say that your decision to wear a mask at the grocery store has every bit to do with your understanding of the science behind the subject and nothing to do with your political allegiance. But I can acknowledge that I, for one, wear a mask at the store in part to avoid being seen as a crazy, irresponsible, Trump-supporting anti-masker. Am I really alone?
There will always be some amount of disagreement among experts, and scientists can make mistakes or be biased by the source of their funding. The point here is not to make a full assessment of the subject of mask-wearing; rather, it is to emphasize that many important issues that we deal with on a daily basis have the potential to be mired in a swamp of contradictory and ambiguous information that we must try to parse in good faith rather than defaulting to easier questions that risk leading us to the wrong answers.
Acknowledging this complexity need not cause us to throw our hands up in frustration, but it ought to encourage us to be more careful about our thinking and the confidence we might place in it. We don’t want to get stuck in the trap of thinking our home team’s quarterback is the best just because we live in the same state.
I hope that, by heeding what the study of substitution (and psychological bias in general) has to say about the squishy lump inside all of our skulls, humanists can serve as an example. Rather than relying on the old and tired formula of appealing to allegedly pure “facts” and “reason” to support our positions, we may better serve society by humbly and openly acknowledging that our brains are as flawed and biased as everyone else’s, and that taking deliberate steps to mitigate the effects of that fact is a far better approach than pretending that they don’t exist.
John Walker is HumanistsMN Board Treasurer.
Very nice essay, thank you. It highlights the difficulties of being a scientist. Science itself is simply a methodology for finding out how Nature works, but scientists are human, subject to all the limitations you highlight in this article. This is why practicing science is “hard”– it is not natural! Thanks again for your insights.