When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

In Pursuit of Logic: Part III of V

There is truth in the world.

Contrary to popular belief, truth is not all socially constructed. Determining truth can be a relatively simple, straightforward process when the facts are assembled by conscious beings other than Homo sapiens.

Once humans get involved, the various lenses through which we view the world start distorting not only what we see, but prevent us from seeing some things all together. Humans can literally look at or hear a factual event and deny its very existence by employing a wild array of rationalizations, logical fallacies, and embellished memories – techniques used to self-justify any action or belief.

On a personal note, I was the victim of my own memory embellishment (or rather, creation) recently when I disagreed with my wife Vicki about how I came to possess a book I was reading, ironically titled Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me. I was convinced I had purchased it recently after my friend Tom recommended it. Not true. Vicki bought it for me in 2019. Of course, I argued this wasn’t true and didn’t relent until I was shown the record of purchase on Amazon. Even then, I rationalized my error as an anomaly – I’ve been so busy lately, I don’t have room in my brain to remember such unimportant details, etc., etc.

On a grander scale, for the Board of Supervisors and staff of San Diego County to admit type conversion could occur in chaparral, a proven phenomenon, would have required them to acknowledge that their plan to add more fire to the landscape through prescribed burning was flawed. The pain of cognitive dissonance was just too much. Consequently, county staff denied chaparral type conversion was occurring at a well known site off Interstate 8 near the town of Alpine that had burned twice in less than 3 years. County personnel repeatedly promoted the idea that the area was recovering just fine. This, despite the fact that the lack of shrub cover and the invasion of non-native weeds could be clearly seen from a nearby highway overlook. The process of self-justification allowed staff to ignore what was right in front of them. The denial was actually a good thing as it inspired us to conduct on-the-ground research that demonstrated the twice burned chaparral had indeed been compromised by weeds and reduced biodiversity. We’re excited about submitting our research for publication soon.

Interestingly, self-justification is not reserved for affirming an individual’s positive view of themselves or their ideas, but also to affirm low self-esteem.

In their definitive book on the subject (the book I thought I had bought), Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson write,

An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand why people who have low self-esteem or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; on the contrary, they often feel like frauds… Indeed, several experiments find that most people who have low self-esteem or low estimates of their abilities do feel uncomfortable with dissonant successes and dismiss them as accidents or anomalies. This is why they seem so stubborn to friends and family members who try to cheer them up. “Look, you just won the Pulitzer Prize in literature! Doesn’t that mean you’re good?”

From first hand experience, you can probably guess the answer you’ll get to that last question. “No, I’m not. It was a fluke.” Trying to convince them otherwise would typically result in further intransigence. The actual research that has demonstrated this is fascinating.

Studying those who rejected vaccines, researchers found the more evidence anti-vaccine parents received about the benefits of vaccines, the less likely the parents would say they would vaccinate their children (Nyhan et al. 2014).

Is there hope in helping people see the light, light that illuminated the darkness in which they live? Tarvis and Aronson present an encouraging metaphor.

Drivers cannot avoid having blind spots in their field of vision, but good drivers are aware of them; they know they had better be careful backing up and changing lanes if they don’t want to crash into fire hydrants and other cars.

So having the wisdom and the humility to accept the fact that all of us have biases is the first step. But how do we get there?

Nature as Common Ground

During our efforts to help people understand chaparral over the past twenty years, we have leveraged the fact that most of us have not formed embedded beliefs concerning the details of natural history. For example, when we share that the common misconception about how oxygen is formed in plants during photosynthesis (it comes from the breakdown of water molecules, not from carbon dioxide), students are amazed, excited. They want to learn more.

We have yet to have someone level ad hominem attacks at us for our ignorance or accuse us of disrespecting the CO2 molecule.

So, since most everyone loves Nature, we have found Nature to be one of the few topics where diverse groups of people can find common ground. Most everyone enjoys hearing birds sing, smelling flowers, and taking in grand, wild vistas. And our mental and physical health depend on it.

This common ground holds until we get to wildfire. Then it becomes personal for a multitude of reasons – billions of dollars are made fighting it, preventing it, and scaring people to death about it. And more recently, as we have discussed in Parts I and II, prescribed fire is being connected with cultural politics (i.e. Native American fire use). So, it is not surprising that cognitive dissonance reduction, as well as perceiving the world through distorted lenses, goes into overdrive when beliefs about wildfire are challenged.

This is one of the reasons we do our best to avoid community fire safety issues these days. Another reason relates to one of our prior assumptions that has been proven to be incorrect. Over the past twenty years we thought if people realized the greatest fire danger is the home itself, not Nature, then there would be fewer efforts the clear habitat. We have succeeded in getting the word out about home flammability and how to solve it, but the government has quadrupled down on habitat clearance efforts.

We’re not arguing about what we’re arguing about

To provide some examples cognitive dissonance over wildfire and a few talking points you can use whenever you are confronted with demands to clear habitat in the name of fire safety, we’ll return to the Marin County discussion we referenced in Part II of this series.

During the discussion, a fire official claimed that an “entire body of research” supports 200-300 foot buffers around communities for effective fire protection. He listed 6 papers, writing that “each of these references the 200-300 buffer, from multiple perspectives.”

The thing is, none of the papers reference “200-300-foot buffers.” In fact, each and every paper presents evidence for taking a completely different approach – protect communities from wildfire by focusing on the house and the space within 100 feet of the house (all six papers are listed below).

The back-and-forth discussion over this and other issues is instructive because it illustrates how individuals (including us) respond to internal triggers or judgements that illicit reactions that are often completely different from what the other individual is actually talking about (i.e., we are talking past each other).

For us, we started off by being triggered by the false attribution of research in support of an approach that we have found counterproductive. So, we reacted to that, quoting from the cited research papers to prove our point.

In response, the fire official was triggered (we think) when we challenged his statements about the research and by our description of the project as a “fuel break.” He defined the project as a “shaded fuel break,” which he claimed did not negatively impact the natural environment in the manner we suggested.

In the end, the mistaken attribution of the research papers was ignored, the information we provided was never addressed, and our discussion about the project potentially being environmentally harmful was characterized as disingenuous. In short, we failed in our effort to change any minds, ticking off a few people off in the process.

We will return to this in greater detail (and with possible solutions) in our next and final installment (Part IV). But in brief, responding to a claim you dispute, analytically, with contrary data as one would on the debate stage may accumulate debating points, but it will typically fail to convince the opposition of anything, and likely entrenching them further.

If the goal is to enlighten, to convince the other person, and to communicate, responding to misunderstandings or falsehoods with cold facts is usually more than a waste of time. It is usually counterproductive.


Here’s an edited version of the comments we made during the discussion mentioned above. We hope you will find them helpful in discussions of your own concerning community fire risk reduction.

We are encouraged that the full project emphasizes both defensible space and home hardening. Few fire safe programs do that (the Idyllwild community is one). We would be interested in knowing what role the project plays in helping to harden homes – facilitating the installation of ember-resistant vents, fire safe roofing, exterior sprinklers?

We do want to point out, however, that what appears to be one of the primary components of the project, the 100-300 foot fuel break, is not recommended in the Syphard, Brennan, and Keeley (2014) paper that is being cited. In fact, to quote the section of the paper that specifically mentions vegetation management, the authors write,

“Structures were more likely to survive a fire with defensible space immediately adjacent to them. The most effective treatment distance varied between 5 and 20 m (16–58 ft) from the structure, but distances larger than 30 m (100 ft) did not provide additional protection, even for structures located on steep slopes.”

There is definitely a place for strategic vegetation management beyond the home ignition zone, but it is important to understand that the primary mechanism for community devastation is the cascade of embers that can travel a mile or more beyond the fire front. This is what happened during the 2017 Tubbs Fire to Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, which was more than three miles away from any wildland area and was on the other side of the 6-lane, Highway 101. A 300-foot-wide fuel break can help during fires burning under moderate conditions, but are not effective during the wind-driven wildfires that cause nearly all the destruction and loss of life.

The funds being used to create the fuel break would be more effective if they were used to make the community itself less flammable.

A key finding in one of the papers cited summarizes the research best:

“… destruction in the WUI is primarily a result of the flammability of the residential areas themselves, rather than the flammability of the adjacent wildlands. It may not be necessary or effective to treat fuels in adjacent areas in order to suppress fires before they reach homes; rather, it is the treatment of the fuels immediately proximate to the residences, and the degree to which the residential structures themselves can ignite that determine if the residences are vulnerable.” (Reinhardt et al. 2008)

This point is critical. The most effective way to protect lives and homes is to address where the actual risk occurs, not by clearing habitat through the construction of 200-300 foot wide fuel breaks across the landscape. In fact, such projects can be counter-productive by creating clear pathways for ember flow and facilitating the spread of flammable, non-native weeds, increasing the flammability of the environment. The science is very clear on these points, being demonstrated in every major wildfire in California where communities, often far from wildland areas, are destroyed by embers that easily jump over 8-lane highways (and large fuel breaks).

The research cited previously does not advocate for or demonstrate the effectiveness of 200-300-foot fuel breaks. In fact, the research cited demonstrates the exact opposite. The focus of fire risk reduction needs to be centered on the home ignition zone – the structure itself and within 90 to 120 feet of that structure.

One of the cited papers (Cohen 2000) makes this clear when the author says,

“An understanding of home ignition potential provides a basis for understanding the wildfire threat to homes, and thus leads to reducing potential W-UI fire losses.”“Specific to the W-UI fire loss problem, home ignitability ultimately implies the necessity for a change in the relationship between homeowners and the fire services. Instead of all pre-suppression and fire protection responsibilities residing with the fire agencies, homeowners should take the principal responsibility for assuring adequately low home ignitability.”

And as another paper (Mutch et al. 2010) suggests, once a community has properly reduced its flammability, a “shelter-in-place” and “stay-and-defend” approach can be considered.

Cohen does an excellent job describing how we can prevent the devastation of our communities from wildfire in his video here.


Below are the six research papers incorrectly cited by the county as supporting the 200-300 foot buffer. They all basically stress the fact that making the home less flammable and creating proper defensible space within 100 feet of the home is the most effective way to make communities fire safe.

Calkin, D.E., Cohen, J.D., Finney, M.A., Thompson, M.P. (2014) How risk management can prevent future wildfire disasters in the wildland-urban interface. PNAS,  Vol.111:2 (687 KB PDF)

Cohen, J.D. 1999. Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes: Where and How Much? U.S. Forest Service, Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-173 (434KB PDF)

Cohen, J.D. 2000. What is the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes? U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. Missoula, MT, Presented at Northern Arizona University, School of Forestry, Thompson Memorial Lecture Series (361KB PDF)

Cohen, J. 2008. The Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Problem–A consequence of the fire exclusion paradigm. Forest History Today. Fall 2008 (1.2 MB PDF)

Mutch, R.W. et al. 2010. Protecting Lives and Property in the Wildland–Urban Interface: Communities in Montana and Southern California Adopt Australian Paradigm. Fire Technology. DOI: 10.1007/s10694-010-0171-z. (453 KB PDF)

Reinhardt, E.D., R.E. Keane, D.E. Calkin, and J.D. Cohen. 2008. Objectives and considerations for wildland fuel treatment in forested ecosystems of the interior western United States. Forest Ecology and Management 256:1997-2006. (191 KB PDF)

In Pursuit of Logic Part I: We’re Getting Indigenous Burning all Wrong

In Pursuit of Logic Part II: Alien Shrubs from Mars

In Pursuit of Logic Part IV: Animals and Plants Have the Right to be Left Alone

THE CONCLUSION – In Pursuit of Logic Part V: Science Provides, Wisdom will Lead

2 Comments on “When Factual Arguments Fail – Nearly Always

  1. This is an interesting essay, and useful for the citations it provides, although I wish there were more than one that does not have Jack Cohen on as an author. No criticisms of Cohen, I’d just like to see more support for his work. In addition, I could not find an author on this, obviously personal, essay.

    • Hi Charles. You can find an excellent list of papers on our Protecting Your Home page on our website here:
      The list of papers by Cohen was the list provided by Marin County Fire used to support the proposed 200-300 buffer. We provided that list in order to discuss the fact that none of those listed papers actually mentioned or supported such a buffer as claimed.
      This essay was written by the Chaparral Institute’s director, Richard Halsey.

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