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August 02 2012

12:36

Are Conservatives Inherently More Biased than Liberals? The Scientific Debate Rages On

In the first round of critical reactions to my book The Republican Brain, there wasn’t much to impress. As I related at AlterNet, the general conservative response to the book was to misrepresent its arguments, rather than to engage them seriously. (The book predicted this, incidentally.)

But now that some researchers have been able to read and process the book, some highly intellectually serious criticism arrives courtesy of Yale’s Dan Kahan, of whose work I’ve written a great deal in the past. You can see Kahan’s first two responses to the book here and here—the latter includes new experimental data. You can see my roadmap for how I plan to respond to Kahan here.

This is the first post of my response, and it is solely dedicated to clarifying my position in this debate. You see, while many people will read this exchange as though I am claiming that conservatives are inherently more biased than liberals—or in other words, claiming that they engage in more or stronger motivated reasoning—it isn’t actually that simple.

The closing words of The Republican Brain are these:

I believe that I am right, but I know that I could be wrong. Truth is something that I am driven to search for. Nuance is something I can handle. And uncertainty is something I know I’ll never fully dispel.

These are not the words of someone who is certain in his beliefs—much less certain of the conclusion that Dan Kahan calls the “asymmetry thesis.”

As Kahan uses the phrase, it is the view that conservatives, more than liberals, or more intensely than liberals, engage in the process motivated reasoning—e.g., letting their emotions and beliefs shape their sense of factual reality in a goal-directed manner, one aimed at preserving their identity, their group’s identity, and so on.

Does The Republican Brain strongly assert and defend the asymmetry thesis as Kahan describes it? Well, not exactly. I discuss motivated reasoning in great detail, to be sure. And I take the position that conservatives often engage in motivated reasoning very strongly—for instance, in denying the science of climate change (to preserve their belief in “individualism”), in believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (to preserve their belief in George W. Bush), in believing that President Obama was not born in the United States (for reasons that you can guess about) and so on.

However, I also observe at many points in the book that liberals, too, engage in motivated reasoning. In fact, they may even do so more strongly than conservatives on certain issues where liberals are themselves highly emotional and (literally) identity-protective. These tend to be matters pertaining to equality, such as race.

In other words, I fully acknowledge that liberals, too, let their emotions skew their reasoning. As human beings, it would be stunning if they didn’t. And yet nevertheless, in modern American politics, conservatives overwhelmingly seem to hold more politically convenient but factually wrong beliefs—so what is up with that?

At the close of the book, I report a new experiment designed by political scientist Everett Young, conducted at Louisiana State University, trying to solve this riddle. We set up an experimental design to test whether conservatives engage in more motivated reasoning than liberals—and the data did not confirm the hypothesis. To be sure, the findings were suggestive at points—especially in showing conservatives to be more biased than liberals about the issue of nuclear power, of all things. But you could hardly call the findings definitive.

Accordingly, The Republican Brain is ultimately pretty agnostic about the issue of “asymmetry” in motivated reasoning. That’s because I was well aware of the scientific uncertainty that lingers around this question, and the difficulty of conducting experimental tests to dispel it. Kahan discusses many of these difficulties, but let me just elaborate a bit myself.

Suppose that a study (one by Kahan, as it happens) shows that conservatives who know more about science are more wrong in their beliefs about global warming, whereas liberals who know more about science are more right in their beliefs about nuclear power. This sounds a lot like an asymmetry in motivated reasoning—especially since we know that more knowledge or political sophistication generally worsens this biased reasoning behavior—but is it definitive proof? Not necessarily. After all, it could simply be that conservatives have stronger emotions about global warming than liberals have about nuclear power—which would make it unfair to compare the two issues.

See the difficulty here? You can’t measure an ideological difference in motivated reasoning unless liberals and conservatives have the same motivations, or at least the same motivational intensity, to begin with. If the motivations are different, or different in intensity, then those might be the true cause of any difference that you observe in the experiment.

Such is the scientific quandary, but do I personally believe in the asymmetry thesis? Let me put it this way. I believe there is something inherent about conservatives, versus liberals, that leads them to process information differently and that, in the current era in American politics, leads them to hold more politically convenient but factually incorrect beliefs. However, there are many candidates for what that something is; and importantly, many of them are much better documented in the scientific literature than is any fundamental left-right gap in motivated reasoning.

I review the candidates for that special something in The Republican Brain—and note that these also might be termed “asymmetries,” although they are not the one Kahan is focused on. They include:

1. Conservatives have different personalities than liberals on average—less openness to new experiences, for instance, and more conscientiousness.

2. Conservatives have different psychological needs than liberals on average—including, importantly, the psychological need for closure, or to have a definitive belief about something…to have certainty. This is not a comment on the quality of conservative reasoning, by the way (something Kahan is mistaken on); rather, it is a comment on conservative motivations in processing information.

3. Conservatives tend more strongly towards authoritarianism, a personality type or disposition associated with an intolerance of ambiguity and seeing the world in sharply defined, black and white terms. Authoritarianism is not a "quality of reasoning" measure either, but this is a trait that has been associated with reasoning errors, such as committing the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), and also with more selective exposure to friendly sources of information.

4. On a moral level, conservatives are more group oriented—more likely to affirm loyalty to the unit, the tribe, the team—and more respectful of authority. This is based on Jonathan Haidt’s work, but it also echoes the research on authoritarianism.

And so on. Really, that just scratches the surface of the research on left and right.

Now, all of these differences could be having downstream effects on how conservatives process information and apportion beliefs in public policy debates. In fact, let me put it more strongly—I’m quite convinced these differences are having all sorts of downstream effects, although I’m considerably less certain about precisely what they are (because the research on this is, as we’ve seen, more scant and more difficult to conduct).

What are some possible downstream effects? Well, one is certainly motivated reasoning—and when it comes to conservatives’ moral convictions and group loyalty, I’m quite sure these are fueling motivated reasoning, asymmetrically or otherwise.

But there are other possible effects. For instance, perhaps conservatives consume or process less information than liberals, a behavior we would expect to see based on their greater need for cognitive closure. And indeed, as I mentioned, some evidence discussed in the book suggests conservatives engage in more selective exposure to friendly information sources, like Fox News. Is that motivated reasoning? Well, not exactly. Is it an important asymmetry? Well, yes: I believe it is.

Let me also note that in the study at LSU, while we did not find clear evidence of worse conservative motivated reasoning, we did find something that smacks of the need for closure: conservatives across the board were spending less time reading the essays provided in the experiment.

And then there is still another factor, one that I ultimately decide, in the book, is probably most important. And it is that liberals and scientists (and social scientists) share a deep psychological affinity—they are explorers, tolerant of uncertainty, always seeking out the different, and the new. They have similar personalities. This leads liberals to want to be scientists, and leads the ranks of scientists to be full of liberals—and thus builds a natural allegiance and affinity between the two groups.

So when it then comes to determining what’s true about reality, liberals are lucky enough to have the “right friends,” as the psychologist Peter Ditto put it to me. And conservatives have the “wrong enemies.” This—not an inherent asymmetry in motivated reasoning—is the most important underlying explanation here, in my mind.

This is a complex explanation, to be sure—but then, I’m a liberal. I can’t help it. The point is that throughout this process, and throughout writing the book, I have strived to apportion my beliefs and my claims to the available evidence. That’s precisely what The Republican Brain does. It is careful because the issues are complex. Indeed, as I painstakingly explain in the book, any inherent left-right differences also play out in a changing cultural, technological, and media context—adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue.

Nonetheless, evidence is very strong that 1) conservatives and liberals are psychologically and morally different; and 2) U.S. conservatives today hold a wealth of demonstrably false, but politically convenient beliefs.

What’s the precise nature of the bridge, the linkage, between 1 & 2? Based on the current state of the science, I do not think we definitively know. However, I think we will find out and that we’ve got a lot of good leads—which is why this discussion is so helpful to have.

So let’s have it. 

July 30 2012

14:56

Conversion Fever! Why The Media Adores Former Climate Skeptics

If you’ve been following the science of global warming for over a decade—as I have—you might find the recent conversion of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller into a climate believer kind of underwhelming. That’s certainly the reaction of many longtime climate scientists, with whom Muller now, finally, agrees.

At this rate, Muller should be caught up to the current state of climate science within a matter of just a few years!” climatologist Michael Mann tweeted. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira also had an amusing take, as quoted by Joe Romm: “I am glad that Muller et al have taken a look at the data and have come to essentially the same conclusion that nearly everyone else had come to more than a decade ago.”

Why, then, does Muller draw New York Times op-ed attention for his conversion? Is it really news that one individual physicist has finally come to agree that the science of climate change is very solid?

Note that this is not the first time this has happened with climate skeptic conversions in the media, or in the New York Times in particular. Remember the former skeptical journalist Gregg Easterbrook, of the New Republic and elsewhere? The New York Times published his conversion op-ed in 2006. Even at the time, some of us thought Easterbrook was pretty tardy in his turnaround—and this was six years ago.

Another prominent 2006 convert was the libertarian publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer. Once again, upon hearing the Shermer news some of us thought, “better late than never, I suppose.” Or as I blogged at the time:

As in the case of Easterbrook, I don’t see why people like Shermer held out so long…but as we all know, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that can lead earnest people astray. So perhaps we should simply applaud these rather late AGW converts, rather than presuming to judge…

So what is up with former climate skeptics, conversions, and media attention?

The short answer is that most non-science journalists (and editors!) simply don’t know much about the science of climate change, or how solid it is. In this area in particular, they are classic low information thinkers, and so they make up their minds about what is newsworthy based upon short-cuts and heuristics.

This has many consequences. For instance, it explains why journalists (like average Americans) are much more likely to focus on climate change in the context of extreme heat and weather. It also makes these non-science journalists highly susceptible to framing effects—which gets to the heart of our story.

There are few frames that journalists dig more than the conversion story, the “Nixon Going to China” narrative, in all its various incarnations. And of course, they don’t dig it for scientific reasons—they dig it for political ones. A convert represents a shift—movement—in the overall political narrative. A convert is also likely a proxy for the public, especially at a time when more and more Americans are shocked and alarmed by extreme weather, and highly open to considering global warming as its cause.

What all of this means, of course, is that while in a scientific sense Muller’s conversion is quite insignificant—in fact, its tardiness may even seem rather trying—in a political sense, his recent arrival is all that matters. So just declare victory, my scientific friends. True, we won over most of the scientists that matter a long time ago. But politically, converts still count for a great deal. 

July 25 2012

14:19

If Conservatives Were Really “Conservative,” They Would Want to Do Something About Global Warming

Originally, when I asked MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to be a guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast, my goal was simple. I wanted someone who could give an expert take on the relationship between climate change and all the freakish weather we’ve been seeing. As for having this individual also be a self-described conservative and onetime voting Republican, and someone who fell under attack from Tea Party types because of his stance on climate change…well, that it was kind of icing on the cake.

As the interview progressed, though, I came to feel something quite different. I felt, ever so tentatively at least, that there is a real persuasive case to be made by conservatives to other conservatives about climate change, one that just might help bring them around to seeing the need for real policy solutions. What’s more, such a case might even prevail if conservatives in the U.S. today truly embraced the principles of their Burkean intellectual forefathers—which one can conclude almost by definition that they don’t, since they largely deny the science of global warming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At the start of the interview, Emanuel expertly detailed why we know climate science is reliable, how climate change manifests itself in extreme weather—statistically, of course, and not anecdotally—and why outright skepticism of global warming caused by humans just isn’t a credible intellectual position for one to hold any longer. So far, so good.

But where things got really interesting was around minute 14, where the conversation shifted towards policy and Emanuel made a conservative case for taking the science of climate change seriously, and finding a solution to the problem. “The thing to do is to get [conservatives] to understand how much they could potentially bring to the table in trying to figure out how we deal with these risks,” Emanuel explained.

What did he mean? Well, if one is a Burkean conservative, then one by definition wants to prevent risk to the existing order of things. One wants to conserve, to ensure stability. And since climate change is clearly a grave risk to economic, ecological, and overall planetary order, Emanuel naturally sees addressing global warming as a conservative idea. As he explained at minute 16 or so of the podcast:

It’s conservative in the little C sense that most people mean when they say, a conservative family insures itself, for example, and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and gambles. And that’s an important point, because what we’re dealing with here is risk. And a conservative approach to risk is, to take out an insurance policy, for one thing. And that’s the way we ought to be thinking about this problem.

Are you listening to that, conservatives?

But that was only the beginning of Emanuel’s conservative argument that today’s U.S. conservatives are doing global warming all wrong. Emanuel then went on to explain how the current state of affairs on energy policy is anything but…conservative:

On the energy side, there are a lot of things [going on] that aren’t conservative at all, that are at the heart of the problem. Is it a conservative free market principle for the U.S. taxpayer to be massively subsidizing one industry at the expense of another? No, I don’t think it is, but that’s precisely what we’re doing with fossil fuels. There are huge tax subsidies.

Is it a conservative principle to permit one business to pass on a major part of its cost of doing business to some completely different industry, make them pay the bill? There’s nothing conservative about that, but we do that massively for the coal industry. The coal industry racks up somewhere around 180 billion dollars a year of health costs, that have to be absorbed by ratepayers of insurance policies, and by taxpayers who are underwriting things like Medicare.

These aren’t conservative principles.

I have to confess that at around this point in the interview, I wanted to cry out, preach it Brother Emanuel. I was getting pretty darn fired up. It all makes so much sense that a conservative wouldn’t want to put up with this kind of stuff. Subsidies? Come on.

But of course, it doesn’t really help for me to have some weird out of body experience and get all psyched up on behalf of conservatives being principled. After all, I’m still a liberal at the end of the day. It’s not me who needs psyching or convincing.

The question, then, is why today’s U.S. conservatives don’t listen to people like Emanuel, despite the fact that he speaks to them in a language that they ought to understand, and furthermore, speaks as one of them?

This is, of course, a question that takes us very deep into the Republican brain. Emanuel, in our the interview, basically blamed it all on the extremism of the Tea Party—the very same extremism that pushed him out of the Republican Party and made him call himself an Independent (although philosophically still a "conservative").

But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. I think that the natural conservative tendency to want order and stability tends to travel along with a lot of other tendencies—to want find such stability in the group, the tribe, the team; to more adhere to dogma and religious beliefs; to staunchly defend the tribe and banish outsiders (like Emanuel)—and an overall tendency towards closure and fixity of beliefs, rather than openness to new ideas. In other words, psychological conservatism all too readily undermines sensible intellectual conservatism—leading to a situation where someone like Kerry Emanuel makes a whole lot of conservative sense…and so-called conservatives want nothing to do with it, because they've gone all in on a worldview that won't allow it.

So perhaps Emanuel’s response, when I bluntly asked him why he didn’t stay around and fight to reclaim his onetime political party, makes sense. He laughed, and then frankly added,

I’m still quite willing to talk to anybody about this problem that wants to listen to it, and talk about the fact that we ought to be debating the things that are really debatable about these problems.

Here’s hoping Emanuel will find a lot of conservative people to talk with. At least in a former incarnation, I think Mitt Romney is just the sort of conservative who would have listened.

Which…yeah. Which gets at the very root of the problem.

To listen to my full interview with Kerry Emanuel, click here.

July 23 2012

13:01

It’s the Weather, Stupid: Slowly Re-Awakening the Public About Climate Change

The Yale and George Mason Centers on Climate Change Communication, collaborators on the well-known “Six Americas” studies of how the public views global warming, are out with their latest report, the fifth in the series. And it hints at an underlying theme discernible in many of these surveys: On climate change, the U.S. public is a lot like a weather vane. When there’s freaky weather—like now—people increasingly worry about global warming. When the weather is what they’re used to and expect, not so much.

Let’s start with some background on the “Six Americas” study: It began in the fall of 2008, that hopeful time when Barack Obama was soon to win the U.S. presidency and many thought he’d address the global warming problem within the short space of a year. In those days, fully half of the public fell into the two “Six Americas” audience segments that evince the most worry about global warming—the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned.” Yet by January of 2010—following “ClimateGate” and the failed Copenhagen summit—the number of Americans falling into these two segments had tumbled by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, the denialist segment of the public—the “Dismissive” category—had ballooned dramatically, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

Those were sad and depressing days for science and environment advocates; and when it comes to public opinion, we have not yet clawed back to where we were in the fall of 2008. But what the latest survey hints at is that the public is growing more concerned again—a finding that is particularly noteworthy in that these data only run through March of 2012, and thus really only take into account the freakily warm winter (not, you know, the summer heat waves, wildfires, and drought).

I’m betting that since March 2012, Americans have gotten even more alarmed over global warming—perhaps moving all the way back to where they were in fall 2008.

Anyway, what’s interesting in the latest data is that from November 2011 to March 2012, the number of Americans falling into the “Cautious” category on global warming had gone up considerably. (See figure 1a). This is a centrist category, leaning more towards being alarmed than toward being denialist, but still not fully convinced that humans are causing global warming. At the same time, the “Disengaged” category—even more skeptical than the “Cautious,” but not particularly fired up about denialism—has shrunk, as some of its members presumably moved in the direction of feeling “Cautious.”

In other words, it looks as though on global warming, the middle ground has been subtly shifting—and again, this is only through March 2012.

What does any of this have to do with the weather? Well, as Yale and George Mason note in a message to readers about the latest survey:

93 percent of the Alarmed92 percent of the Concerned74 percent of the Cautious, and 73 percent of the Disengaged say that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Majorities of these groups also say that global warming made several extreme weather and natural disasters in 2011 worse, including the drought in Texas and Oklahoma, floods in the Mississippi River Valley, and record high temperatures across much of the U.S.

Remember that the “Cautious” and “Disengaged” normally aren’t even sure whether humans are causing global warming. Yet nevertheless, when asked about weird weather in March of 2012, they were quite sure global warming was behind it.

How much do you want to bet that they are even more sure of this now?

Another way of thinking about this is that the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned” are keyed in to the climate issue pretty much no matter what. So, for that matter, are the “Doubtful and Dismissive”—who stick to their denialist guns in the face of all counter-evidence (especially the "Dismissive"). But the “Cautious” and the “Disengaged”—those in the middle—are less reliable, more malleable, and more sensitive to things like weather. That means they’re most likely to move, to change their views.

In recent, powerful testimony before the House of Representatives, Joe Romm called upon our government to “do its job” and tackle global warming. If legislators are up to that challenge, I’m willing to bet the public will increasingly fall in behind them. 

April 02 2012

17:17

Judith Curry Was For Me Before She Was Against Me

I first got to know Judith Curry—the Georgia Tech researcher who blogs at “Climate, Etc.,” and has been drawn into controversy for, in her words, “challenging many aspects of the IPCC consensus”—when I was working on my second book, Storm World. I spent a fair amount of time with Curry, and with the other scientists profiled in the book—interviewing them in person, getting to understand their research. This is what science writers do.

At the time, Curry and her colleagues were just coming off a media feeding frenzy after having published papers linking hurricanes to global warming right in the middle of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

When Storm World came out, it is no exaggeration to say that Curry gave it a rave review. I want to quote in full from her Five Star endorsement at Amazon.com, which is entitled “Science writing at its very best.” Bear with me, this will all become very relevant; and I've italicized a few important parts:

To provide a frame of reference for this review, I and my colleagues Peter Webster and Greg Holland are among the scientists that are featured prominently in Storm World. Our involvement in the issue of hurricanes and global warming began when we published an article in Science shortly before the landfall of Hurricane Rita, where we reported a doubling of the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally since 1970. When Chris Mooney first approached me with his idea for writing a book on this topic, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn't see how this could be accomplished given the rapid changes in the science (I was worried the book would be outdated before it was published), the complexities of the technical aspects of the subject, a concern about how the individual scientists would be treated and portrayed, and a concern that the political aspects of the issue would be handled in a partisan way. Over the course of the past year and a half, it became apparent that Mooney was researching this issue extremely thoroughly and was developing a good grasp of both the history and technical aspects of the subject. Upon finally reading the book, I can only say Storm World has far exceeded any hope or expectation that I could have had for a book on this subject.

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March 29 2012

10:39

Conservatives versus Science: A New Scientific Validation of the Republican War on Science (and Republican Brain) Thesis

For a while now, I’ve been aware of a powerful new paper that directly tests the central argument of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science—and also validates some key claims made in my new book, The Republican Brain. I’ve had to keep quiet about it until now; but at last, the study is out—though I’m not sure yet about a web link to it.

The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:

1) the cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;

2) the alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and

3) the politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.

The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

And not just that.

read more

March 26 2012

12:44

How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?

It’s widely known that Republicans, far more than Democrats, reject modern climate science. And more and more, it has become apparent that this is at least partly because Republicans have a deep distrust of scientists in general, or at least environmental scientists.

But there are many other causes for this rejection as well. These include Republicans’ strongly individualistic system of values—basically, a go-it-alone sense that government is the problem, and markets the solution—and even, perhaps, some aspects of their personalities or psychologies. This is something that I’ve argued in my new book.

There is also, of course, the huge role of Fox News in all of this: Watching it causes conservatives to have more false beliefs than they would otherwise, about issues like climate change. We’ve written about this extensively on DeSmogBlog; and I’ve highlighted a new video on the “Fox misinformation effect” here and below.

Such are some of the factors that seem to build an anti-science Republican; but now, researchers at George Mason, American University, and Yale have swooped in to ask the reverse question. Given that this is so, how do you make a pro-science one? Or in other words, what attributes or beliefs predict being an outlier Republican who actually believes that global warming is real and caused by humans?

The researchers call such Republicans “counter-normative.” That’s academic speak for “out in the cold” in their party right now.

read more

March 22 2012

13:05

The Science of Truthiness: Why Conservatives Deny Global Warming

These are notes for remarks that Chris Mooney gave recently at the Tucson Festival of Books, where he was asked to talk about his new book on a panel entitled “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” Video of the panel is currently available from C-SPAN here. Please note: Mooney’s notes do not necessarily match his spoken word perfectly. 

I want to thank you for having me.

So the question before us on this panel is, “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” And I want to focus on one particularly aspect of humans that makes them very problematic in a planetary sense—namely, their brains.

What I’ve spent the last year or more trying to understand is what it is about our brains that makes facts such odd and threatening things; why we sometimes double down on false beliefs when they’re refuted; and maybe, even, why some of us do it more than others.

And of course, the new book homes in on the brains—really, the psychologies—of politically conservative homo sapiens in particular. You know, Stephen Colbert once said that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And essentially what I’m arguing is that, not only is that a funny statement, it’s factually true, and perhaps even part of the nature of things.

Colbert also talked about the phenomenon of “truthiness,” and as it turns out, we can actually give a scientific explanation of truthiness—which is what I’m going to sketch in the next ten minutes, with respect to global warming in particular.  

I almost called the book “The Science of Truthiness”—but “The Republican Brain” turns out to be a better title.

The Facts About Global Warming

So first off, let’s start with the facts about climate change—facts that you’d think (or you’d hope) any human being ought to accept.

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March 14 2012

16:04

Is James Inhofe Shilling For God, or Oil? The Correct Answer is “Both”

Last week, we were treated to one of those facepalm moments that make those of us who care about the future of planet intensely frustrated. Or worse.

Senator James Inhofe, climate conspiracy theorist, was on a Christian radio program talking about his new book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And here’s what he said (audio at link):

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in [the book] is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

Okay, forget about the biblically-based climate denial for a moment. I’m kind of fascinated by Inhofe’s statement that God is still “up there.” Really? Like, in the sun? Directly over our heads?

Is Inhofe a pre-Copernican as well as a global warming denier? Does he not realize that while “up” might have meant a great deal to Ptolemaic Christians, it has no real significance in the context of modern physics and cosmology?

What’s most frustrating, though, is this bizarre invocation of Scripture to justify the idea that we don’t need to worry about climate change. For those of us who are secular in outlook, it’s not just that this makes no sense. The idea that such sectarian notions—arguments or motivations that cannot be proved by rational argument or discussion with those who do not share Inhofe’s religious premises—could be influencing U.S. policy is, frankly, shocking.

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March 12 2012

21:07

Fox News’s Attacks on Climate Science Now Include The Denial of Basic Physics

There was a time, believe it or not, when Fox New’s Shepard Smith openly mocked global warming deniers—seriously comparing them to a man who got stuck in a portable toilet. (Hat tip to D.R. Tucker for showing me this clip.) But since then, Fox has become a veritable misinformation machine on this topic.

One way the station sows doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change is through constantly putting climate “skeptics” on the air. A study by American University’s Lauren Feldman and her co-authors, for example, found that in the period of 2007-2008, 46 percent of Fox’s guests discussing global warming were climate change doubters. By contrast, only 40 percent of guests defended the scientific consensus.

That’s not just phony "balance"—that’s coverage strongly tilted towards unreality. And if anything, I suspect that Fox has grown still more unbalanced during the Obama years.

One of Fox’s frequent doubter guests is meteorologist Joe Bastardi,  who recently said on the show that carbon dioxide “literally cannot cause global warming.” As Media Matters soon pointed out, this statement seems to throw out over 100 years of science on the greenhouse effect, and the behavior of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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March 07 2012

14:35

Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use—and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

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March 05 2012

15:28

Don’t Blame the Victims: Why Public Outreach By Climate Scientists is More Vital Than Ever

In the last few years—and especially in the wake of the ClimateGate pseudo-scandal—climate researchers have become much more politically engaged. They’ve sought to become better at communication, and to have a greater influence on public policy. They’ve tried to establish rapid response capabilities, and also, better ways of protecting themselves from political harassment and lawsuits.

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because there has been a long term campaign to attack and discredit climate science, and obscure what we actually know. Ultimately, researchers decided that they couldn’t just be silent as their knowledge was distorted, or as their colleagues were attacked.

So what did they do? Just what Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan would have done—and in fact, did repeatedly on the public issues of their day. They spoke out.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is essential. Scientific knowledge is a powerful thing, which is precisely why it is of vital importance that it gets communicated, accurately, in such a way as to influence public policy. If that isn’t happening, then not only is it natural for scientists to step up—they have a moral obligation to do so, and to do so effectively.

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February 29 2012

12:39

New Data: 81 Percent of Climate Deniers Think Scientists Are In It “For Their Own Interests"

The Brookings Institution has a new report out on the public's views about global warming, and most commentators are going for the predictable headline. It's this: Following the post-ClimateGate decline in belief that global warming is happening, we're now seeing a bit of a rebound. More people believe the planet is warming than they did in early 2010—probably in part due to warm weather.

That is good news—not great news by any means, but surely something. People certainly seem remarkably fickle and malleable on this topic, but then, they always are in polls.

To me, though, what you’ve just read is not really the headline. I dug into the Brookings data, and found something much juicier (and newer).

In the poll, 42 percent of Republicans say there isn’t solid evidence that the Earth is warming, and another 11 percent say they are unsure. In contrast, only 15 % of Democrats are out and out deniers. (Note: People were not being asked whether humans are causing global warming, which would have made these numbers much worse.) 

And here’s the thing: Of the deniers—Democrat or Republican, but mostly Republican—81 percent also think that “scientists are overstating evidence about global warming for their own interests.” That's a finding I've never seen before—and a very disturbing one.

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February 27 2012

15:29

James Inhofe Takes the Climate Conspiracy Theory to New Heights—While His Home State Reels from Record Heat

James Inhofe, Republican Senator from Oklahoma, has a new book out. It is entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

I have not read it yet. So I cannot say much about its contents, but I can say this: The title suggests that Inhofe, like Rick Santorum, is endorsing the global warming conspiracy theory. Indeed, where Santorum only muttered the word “hoax” without a great deal of elaboration, it looks like Inhofe is going to put some real meat onto those paranoid bones.

Let me once again reiterate why the global warming conspiracy theory is, well, just plain ridiculous.

To believe that global warming is a “hoax,” or that there is a “conspiracy,” you must believe in coordinated action on the part of scientists, environmental ministers, politicians, and NGOs around the world. It won’t do just to situate the hoax in the United States and its own scientific and NGO community, because the idea of human-caused global warming is endorsed by scientists, and scientific academies, around the globe.

Any one of these could blow the whistle on the so-called “hoax.” That this has not happened either means there is no hoax, or that the degree of conspiracy and collusion—among people who are notoriously individualistic and non-conformist, by the way—is mindboggling. We're talking about some serious cat-herding going on.

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February 24 2012

15:00

Want to Improve Science Communication? Start with Bad PowerPoint Habits

In the past three months, I’ve spoken on panels at two scientific mega-conferences—the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, which draws tens of thousands of scientists, and the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, which this year was held in Vancouver (and pulls in about eight thousand).

As a science communication trainer and advocate, I’ve noticed much at these events that makes me very hopeful. More so than ever before, these conferences are thronged with panels on how to improve science communication, particularly with respect to pressing concerns like climate change. Indeed, a powerful theme at the AAAS meeting, articulated by organization president Nina Federoff, was that science is under attack—an attack that must be countered, including through direct-to-public communication efforts by scientists themselves (of which the excellent communicator Michael Mann provides a great recent example).

Federoff is absolutely right in her message. Science communication is, indeed, vital—and scientific organizations like AAAS and the AGU are driving a very welcome change in scientific culture with their efforts.

But here’s the thing: While these organizations have the best of intentions, there may be inadvertent aspects of what they do that actually undermine their stated goals. In particular, in this piece I’m going to argue we can make science communication better not only by having lots of panels on the matter, but by changing some very simple and basic things about how scientists present their knowledge at conferences like AGU and AAAS.

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February 21 2012

18:02

Rick Santorum, Attacking Scientists, Claims He’s not Anti-Science

Rick Santorum is becoming the anti-science gift that keeps on giving.

Yesterday, while speaking in his home state, the former Pennsylvania senator once again tilted at the idea of human caused global warming, saying that it is based on “phony studies,” and really a case of “political science.”

This is, you will note, a clear attack on climate scientists. It suggests 1) that climate researchers have either done bad research or, worse still, perpetrated falsified or fraudulent research; 2) that the norms of their field are somehow inadequate to prevent dubious conclusions from becoming accepted; 3) overall, climatology is a body of research that you just can’t take seriously.

Any climatologist would find this insulting. Any climatologist would consider this an affront.

Which is why it is so amazing that Santorum then went on to claim that he isn’t anti-science—no, it’s the Democrats who are the problem:

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February 13 2012

16:21

Republicans Aren’t the “Truth Party,” Mr. Santorum. They’re the “Certainty Party.”

Rick Santorum has been talking about the “politicization of science” a lot lately—although (a pet peeve of mine) he seems to have a problem with pronouncing the phrase. He says “polititization.” Check it out here.

Not as bad as the people who say "political-ization," but don't get me started.

Anyway, this is part of a broader narrative Santorum has woven, one in which the left wants to misuse science in order to exert control over you and quash your freedoms. This is particularly apparent in Santorum’s recent CPAC speech, where he once again hints at a climate conspiracy theory: Global warming was made up to help leftists take control of the global economy.

In another recent speech in Oklahoma, meanwhile, Santorum said similar things but made a point of asserting that Republicans are not the ones politicizing science. “You hear all the time, the left: ‘The conservatives are the anti-science party,’” Santorum said. “No. No we’re not. We’re the truth party.”

Well, actually, the data clearly show that Republicans distrust the scientific community more than Democrats do, at least on environmental issues. They really are more “anti-science,” at least when the term is defined in this manner—based on trust in the scientific community.

Nevertheless, I understand what Santorum means.

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February 08 2012

14:19

Santorum Calls Global Warming a “Hoax,” Suggesting a Full-Fledged Climate Conspiracy Theory

Conservatism is a political philosophy that is, at its most fundamental, about resisting change.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an outrageous and absurd line uttered about global warming in 2003—Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s assertion that it is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—has not, nearly a decade later, been discredited on the right. Instead, this idea has persisted.

Indeed, the “hoax” charge was recently reiterated by Rick Santorum—who uttered it in Colorado on Monday en route to his three state primary triumph yesterday.

This raises at least two points for me that bear addressing:

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February 06 2012

15:38

A Conservative Ignores the Science on Why…Conservatives Ignore the Science

David Klinghoffer, of the anti-evolutionist Discovery Institute, has a revealing article in the conservative American Spectator entitled: “Republicans and Science (as opposed to liberals and the science they’ve politicized).”

Why “revealing”? Klinghoffer seeks to explain the real reason why conservatives like himself resist certain scientific findings. But in the process, he shows a surprising, er, inattentiveness to the scientific research on this very topic.

At the same time, Klinghoffer also strikingly affirms the results of that research by…denying science for ideological reasons that are quite obviously rooted in deep-set (and even gut level) conservative moral impulses.

In other words, he’s doing precisely what the science tells us he is going to do.

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January 27 2012

16:23

The Uneasy Relationship Between Explaining Science to Conservatives...and Explaining Conservatives Scientifically

Over the past year or more, I’ve profited from a series of conversations and exchanges with Yale’s Dan Kahan, the NSF supported researcher who has made great waves studying how our cultural values predispose us to discount certain risks (like, say, climate change). Kahan’s schematic for approaching this question—dividing us up into hierarchs versus egalitarians, and individualists versus communitarians—is a very helpful one that gets to the root of all manner of dysfunctions and misadventures in the relationship between politics, the U.S. public, and science.

Kahan says that his goal is to create a “science of science communication”: In other words, understanding enough about what really makes people tick (including in politicized areas) so that we know how to present them with science in a way that does not lead to knee-jerk rejections of it. Thus, for instance, presenting conservatives with factual information about global warming packaged as evidence in favor of expanding nuclear power actually makes them less defensive, and more willing to accept what the science says—because now it has been framed in a way that fits their value systems.

This is a very worthy project—but it doesn’t only tell us how to communicate science to conservatives. It tells us something scientific about who conservatives are. They are people who are often motivated—instinctively, at a gut level—to support, default to, or justify hierarchical systems for organizing society: Systems in which people aren’t equal, whether along class, gender, or racial lines. And they are motivated to support or default to individualistic systems for organizing (or not organizing) society: People don’t get help from government. They’re on their own, to succeed or fail as they choose.

It is one thing to accurately and scientifically explain how these values motivate conservatives. And it is another to reflect on whether one considers these values to be the ones upon which a virtuous and just society really ought to be built.

Kahan’s way of explaining conservatives, based on their moral values, is closely related to other approaches, like the well known one of University of Virginia social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt does it a little differently, talking about the different “moral foundations” of liberals and conservatives. But there’s a heck of a lot of overlap. For Haidt, liberals care about fairness or equality, and they care about protecting people from harm. This is roughly analogous to egalitarianism and communitarianism. Conservatives, however, have other “moral foundations”: They care about respect for authority (e.g., hierarchy). They care about loyalty to the group (or to put a more negative spin on it, tribalism). And they care about purity or sanctity and whether someone does something perceived to be, you know, disgusting (especially sexually).

 Again, when one reflects on whether these values are actually, you know, good ones, I would have to answer “no.” I don’t think respecting authority is so great—authorities are too often naked emperors—and this is of course why I am an anti-authoritarian liberal. I definitely don’t like tribalism, though I do appreciate the power of loyalty in a foxhole or on a football team. And I don’t think the “yuck factor,” or someone’s personal sense of what is disgusting, is a good basis (standing on its own, anyway) for deciding how we ought to be governed.

The point is that it is one thing to understand how to reach conservatives—e.g., frame information in the context of these sorts of values—and it is another thing to understand conservatives, and to really think about what it means that human beings divide up, politically, based upon these kinds of differences.

And of course, Kahan’s and Haidt’s approaches are just two out of many scientific approaches for understanding the differences between what makes liberals, versus conservatives, tick. Other approaches have focused on left-right personality differences, on different physiological responses to stimuli and patterns of attention, on some differences in brain structure and function, and even, believe it or not, on genes.

This stuff is, if anything, even more wildly controversial than Kahan’s or Haidt’s work. But it, too, is good science: peer reviewed, insightful, important.

I bring all of this up, by the way, because Kahan has just written me a “Hey, Chris Mooney” open letter. He knows I have a book coming out on the science of liberals and conservatives, a science to which he himself has contributed, even if this is not his primary goal. He says he welcomes my project, but asks me to imagine a different one—he calls it the “Liberal Republic of Science” project—and whether it is worthy:

Imagine someone (someone very different from you; very different from me)— a conservative Republican, as it turns out—who says: "Science is so cool — it shows us the amazing things God has constructed in his cosmic workshop!"

Forget what percentage of the people with his or her cultural outlooks (or ideology) feel the way that this particular individual does about science (likely it is not large; but likely the percentage of those with a very different outlook — more secular, egalitarian, liberal — who have this passionate curiosity to know how nature works is small too. Most of my friends don't—hey, to each his own, we Liberals say!).

My question is do you (& not just you, Chris Mooney; we—people who share our cultural outlooks, worldview, "ideology") know how to talk to this person? Talk to him or her about climate change, or about whether his daughter should get the HPV vaccine? Or even about, say, how chlorophyll makes use of quantum mechanical dynamics to convert sunlight into energy? I think what "God did in his/her workshop" there would blow this person's mind (blows mine).

I actually do know how to talk to this person about climate change—though I wouldn’t be the best person to do it, since I can’t walk the walk and wouldn’t sound at all authentic. But the answer is to talk about the biblical mandate to serve as stewards of the creation. And research like Kahan’s has been critical in helping us generally understand how to frame science for different audiences—for people like this hypothetical conservative.

Kahan goes on to ask:

I look forward to reading The Republican Brain.

But there's another project out there — let's call it the Liberal Republic of Science Project — that is concerned to figure out how to make both the wisdom and the wonder of science as available, understandable, and simply enjoyable to citizens of all cultural outlooks (or ideological "brain types") as possible.

The project isn't doing so well. It desperately needs the assistance of people who are really talented in communicating science to the public.

I think it deserves that assistance.  

Wouldn't you agree?

Yes, I agree very strongly, though I don’t think the project is ailing as badly as Kahan suggests. If  you look at now, versus five years ago, there is much more openness to the project than there was before. Approaches that I got virulently attacked for advocating in 2007 and 2009—like “framing” scientific information and pushing scientists to engage in outreach, as I did in the book Unscientific America—now scarcely meet with a peep of protest within the scientific community.

So I actually think that ball—call it the “science communication” ball—has left the pitcher’s hand. People are out there trying to communicate science in all manner of sophisticated and increasingly audience sensitive ways (including conservative audience-sensitive ways). Kahan’s research is, I’d wager, having a profound influence on that enterprise.

I’m part of that enterprise, I devote myself to it every month, and I believe in it deeply.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also read my history of science. And it tells me that sometimes, when science comes along, it is fundamentally challenging to the most firmly held worldviews, and meets with adamant rejection—because people just can’t face the music.

This certainly describes global warming science today. It describes the science of evolution. And although we don’t really know yet, it may well describe the science of liberals and conservatives.

In other words, while you may well be able to use research like Kahan’s to make conservatives receptive to certain types of science, there may also be some aspects science that they are just bound to reject. And ultimately, there may be only so much you can do to blunt the force of such science through some type of frame game.

Science is, let us remember, one of the most destabilizing forces on the planet. It is relentless in its constant driving of change—change not only in how we live, but how we think. In this, it is a liberal force—always searching after the new and different. So sometimes, it can’t help but clash with conservative forces—striving to preserve and avert change.

So Hey Dan Kahan, here’s what I’ll say: Without your project we’d be much, much poorer.

But the fact is that when it comes to understanding our politics, and our politics of science, and our science of politics, we live in really….interesting times. Too interesting, I predict, for some people to handle—and too interesting for other people, including scientists, to resist.

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