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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.

read more

January 19 2012

17:24

Who’s Afraid of Kerry Emanuel? Why Republicans Are Attacking a Republican Climate Scientist

Last week, MIT climate scientist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel received email threats for his view on climate change. These were quickly and appropriately condemned by the progressive and environmental blogosphere—as they are condemned by me—but I want to go a bit further and contemplate why Emanuel’s views in particular appear so menacing to some elements of the conservative base today.

The answer may seem deceptively simple on the surface: Unlike most climate researchers, Kerry Emanuel describes himself as a long time Republican. And he’s been speaking out lately. The precise catalyst leading to the emails was a video posted by Climate Desk, capturing Emanuel at an event in New Hampshire organized by maverick Republicans who actually accept global warming and don’t like the way their party is headed. They want to turn it around (hey, good luck with that).

So Emanuel is presumably seen as a turncoat by some Republicans and conservatives—and you might just leave it at that. But I think it is deeper. It is the kind of Republicanism that Emanuel represents—merged with his identity as a scientist, and a premiere one at that—that really presents the biggest challenge.

You see, Emanuel is what you might call an “Enlightenment Republican.”

He joined the party in the 1970s because he personally viewed it as the home of “reason” at a time of left wing excesses. As I wrote after I interviewed him for the American Prospect magazine (Emanuel is also a featured personage in my book The Republican Brain):

In the early 1970s, as an undergraduate at MIT, [Emanuel] remembers feeling surrounded by the "liberal excesses" then prevalent in the "People's Republic" of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I remember hearing fellow students defending Pol Pot and Mao Zedong and Stalin, and I was so horrified," he says. But now Emanuel sees the situation as reversed: The extremes are on the Tea Party right, the Democrats are centrists and pragmatists, and Emanuel—really always a moderate—finds not so much that he has moved but that his party has. "I'm turned off by those people for exactly the same reasons I was turned off by the ideologues of the 1970s," he says.

Emanuel also made these comments to me:

"I don't like it when ideology trumps reason, and I see that the Republicans are guilty of that in spades at the moment," he says.

"I've been toying with the idea of officially switching to independent status," he adds.

In our interview, Emanuel also spoke of his admiration for the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the kind of person that today’s right sorely lacks—a sophisticated and nuanced intellectual in a position of leadership.

In other words, Emanuel’s story tells us just how much American politics have changed in the last three decades, and just what a cliff the GOP has fallen from in its relationship with science and reason.

In the 1960s and 1970s, if you thought the anti-war leftists on the campuses were overdoing it and you disliked ideological extremes, the Republican Party was a great place for you to go. Or at least, so it may have appeared at the time.

Even in the Reagan years, while there were certainly abuses against science there was also much more Republican rationalism and moderation—epitomized by Reagan’s joining the Montreal Protocol to curtail harmful stratospheric ozone depletion from CFCs.

This history, this legacy, led many people of reason—like Emanuel—to feel very comfortable within the Republican ranks. And once you forge a relationship with a political party and develop a loyalty, it is very hard to change it.

But the injuries to Republican reasoners have steadily mounted—from Newt Gingrich presiding over the destruction of congressional science advice in the mid 1990s, to the George W. Bush administration’s undermining of science at every turn, to the Tea Party and the near monolithic rejection of climate science by today’s GOP presidential candidates—and rationalists like Emanuel have a harder and harder time hanging on. Indeed, at this point they’re hanging by a thread.

What’s more, deep down, a lot of the right wing science deniers kind of know that they are pushing these people away.

Don’t get me wrong: They don’t actually believe that they’re factually incorrect. They don’t view themselves as “deniers.” But they definitely know that there is a huge amount of knowledge, intellect, and expertise that they’re flying in the face of. And they feel that disdain, as well as that bafflement, coming from the acknowledged centers of science and learning.

So when one of their “own,” Kerry Emanuel, comes along and states—from an expert scientific perspective—that they’re abandoning reason…the cognitive dissonance is just too great. And because they can’t admit the truth about themselves, they can only lash at the messenger.

Here’s the thing, though. Emanuel may have been a Republican for a very long time. But he and those New Hampshire moderates seeking to reclaim the party for science are, in my opinion, in for a “long wait for a train don’t come” (to quote a really awesome sci-fi movie).

I fully understand their feelings of loyalty—and their desire to rescue what once was. But at the same time, I think they themselves probably recognize that the 60s and 70s—a time when, among other things, the Christian right was not fully integrated into the GOP—will never return. Heck, even I might have been a Republican in that era; I certainly find Frank Zappa’s songs making fun of hippies pretty hilarious. 

But that’s not the world we’re living in today—Republicanism and science just don’t go together much any longer. And the Republicans or conservatives who do stand up for rationality today—people like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Kerry Emanuel—are most easily identified today by one chief characteristic: their banishment and alienation.

January 09 2012

15:19

How to Get a Liberal to Question Global Warming

Readers of my posts will know that I’ve often focused on the work of Yale’s Dan Kahan and his colleagues, who have published fascinating research on how our political and cultural views skew our perceptions of scientific reality. In particular, Kahan et al find that “hierarchical-individualists” (aka conservatives) have very different responses to a variety of facts than do “egalitarian-communitarians” (aka liberals), and that these responses spring not from objective assessments of the evidence, but rather, from deeply seated worldviews that color our perceptions of what is true.

Such research has often been interpreted in a way that has made conservatives look, well, kinda bad. In one Kahan study, for instance, hierarchical-individualists overwhelmingly rejected the very idea that a scientist could be considered a real and legitimate "expert" because of that scientist's opinion that global warming is real and caused by humans. This is not exactly what I would call open-minded behavior.

But the research coming out of the Kahan group is actually quite balanced and does not merely target conservatives. And since I myself am often drawing on these sort of studies to criticize the right, I think it’s only fair to discuss a new Kahan et al study that, if you look closely, appears to show liberals also reasoning in a biased fashion.

[Don’t worry: I still think conservatives have much more deeply rooted issues with science. But it’s a complicated world out there, and it isn’t like liberals and environmentalists are complete innocents all the time. In my view, if we're going to criticize our ideological opponents, we've also got to try hard to see our own blind spots.]

So how do you get liberals to behave in a manner that, at least to my mind, might be called ideologically biased?

The trick, in the new study, was to discuss climate science in the context of geoengineering—the idea that we might have to interfere with the planet further in order to stave off the global warming that we have already set in motion. It's a gravely serious topic: The climate problem has gotten so bad that many responsible scientists have been forced, by the direness of the situation itself, to consider this disturbing possibility.

But because geoengineering is a techno-fix that interferes with the environment, it can be expected to draw more negative responses from liberals and environmentalists (or egalitarian-communitarians) than from conservatives (or hierarchical-individualists). Indeed, many conservatives might even be inclined to applaud geoengineering, since it emphasizes relying on human ingenuity and technology to solve problems. 

Enter the new experiment by Kahan et al. Studying 3,000 people—half of them from the U.S., half from the UK—the researchers asked their subjects to read a mock-scientific article from a journal called Nature Science (yuk, yuk), reporting that global warming is even worse than we thought and, indeed, spinning out of our control. But before reading the fake paper, some of the subjects first read news reports that framed that paper in different ways—either as supporting even stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions, or as supporting geoengineering.

We already know, based previous research, what framing climate science as supporting greenhouse gas cuts does. It makes conservatives—who hate forced restrictions on industry—even more dismissive of the science than they are already to begin with. And indeed, that’s what the new study showed.

But what’s fascinating is that the geoengineering framing—which, to my knowledge, has not been tried before in such a controlled study—had a very different effect. It made conservatives somewhat more accepting of the fake study's findings, and made liberals somewhat more dismissive of them. And it did so in roughly equal amounts.

Granted, liberals were still much more concerned about global warming overall than conservatives were—and also were much more convinced by the fake article. But nevertheless, when the results were framed around geoengineering, they were significantly less convinced by them. See here for details.

Now, something good actually did come out of this: The geoengineering frame made conservatives less dismissive of global warming, and thus helped to depolarize the issue overall. Based on this, Kahan et al conclude that talking more about geoengineering in the context of climate change might actually be a good thing if we want to have a rational, democratic deliberation take place. Because simply put, a conversation that features geoengineering seems to undercut the conservative penchant for denialism.

That's an important finding, but I'm frankly much more interested in what the liberals were up to in the study. To my mind, Kahan et al have done a service by showing that you can definitely put liberals and environmentalists in situations where, just like conservatives, they will call into question science because they don't like its implications—e.g., we might have to pump sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. That's an unpalatable conclusion indeed for many liberals, and this study seemed to capture them reacting to that discomfort.

The interesting question, to my mind, is whether this evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives really are the same kind of creatures after all when it comes to biased reasoning, or responding to inconvenient scientific information.

Kahan has argued that biased reasoning is ideologically symmetrical. I'm not sure I agree, but I do think that he has just captured some biased reasoning on the left.

I think we can go further: There is no doubt that liberals can be made to act defensive when put in ideologically tough positions. So if there is a difference between liberals and conservatives, it is probably not as simple as the notion that one group is always being ideologically defensive while the other not.

However, there still are real differences between liberals and conservatives—big and potentially profound ones, see here—and they still may point to an understanding of why we see so much conservative reality denial.

But we’re going to need a more nuanced explanation for this than simply postulating knee-jerk conservative defensiveness—because liberals can show that too. And the new Kahan study has helpfully pushed us towards this richer line of thinking.

December 19 2011

13:58

The Climate-Media Paradox: More Coverage, Stalled Progress

For those of us who care about global warming, 2006 and 2007 felt like pretty good years. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for An Inconvenient Truth, sharing it with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Media attention to the issue soared, and it was positive attention. Given all the buzz, I—and many others—figured the problem was all but solved.

The next steps appeared deceptively simple. Elect Barack Obama, pass cap-and-trade, go to Copenhagen in the snowy winter of 2009 and take it global—or so I advised in Scientific American. I didn’t expect “ClimateGate,” or the dramatic consequences that an overseas non-scandal (for so I perceived it to be) could have for U.S. climate policy.

Nor did I imagine that virtually the entire Republican Party, rather than just some part of it, would come to reject climate science on this flimsy basis. I expected out-and-out climate change deniers like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe to be further marginalized, not mainstreamed.

Needless to say, I now look back on all this and shake my head.  Clearly, I—and many other people who felt the same way—was missing something rather big. We were far too optimistic in thinking that our governmental and media institutions were up for dealing with this type of problem.

Recently, a new book has helped bring the nature of their failure—and particularly the media's failure—into sharp focus.

It’s University of Colorado media scholar Max Boykoff’s Who Speaks for the Climate: Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change, and it points to a disturbing paradox. In an interview for this post, Boykoff summarized it to me like this: “The crux of the book is that while media coverage has increased on the issue of climate change, rather than greater clarity and consensus on what to do, there has been more confusion than ever.”

Indeed, Boykoff’s book presents data showing that 2009, not 2006-2007, represented the overall global peak of media attention to climate change. Much of that attention, however, was due to “ClimateGate.” And insofar as much of the media coverage out there is "balanced" or focused on doubt-mongering (particularly in the U.S. and the UK), there's every reason to think it is doing more harm than good.

For a striking example of how media attention to climate change can actually hurt, just open Boykoff’s book to page 104:

….during the coverage of COP15 popular Fox News programme ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ pitted the comments of former US Vice-President Al Gore against those of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, with the segment title ‘The Climate Feud.’ Sarah Palin’s authority to speak on the climate derived from an opinion piece she wrote in the Washington Post the day before. In that piece, she confused and conflated weather and climate among other issues, where she opined, “While we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can’t say with assurance that man’s activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.” These error-laden claims apparently passed editorial correction by the weight of her importance and personality-driven arguments.

In our interview, I asked Boykoff to discuss the role of Fox in particular. We have, after all, every reason to suspect that the station’s coverage of climate change actively causes its audience to be misinformed about the issue, rather than more engaged or better conversant with the science.

Here’s how Boykoff put it:

Fox is a sign of what’s to come. General assignment reporters commenting as experts on complex issues like climate science and climate policy. And opinion journalism taking the place of what had formerly been considered straight journalism.

Fox has, under the banner of fair and balanced journalism, infused these spaces with opinion…as viewership increases with Fox, and atrophies with other places like CNN, then this opinion journalism, and general assignment reporter stories will continue and perhaps flourish. That’s detrimental to gaining public attention and more accurate and effective public engagement with the public on this issue.

But Fox is just the most glaring example of the problem. The deepest issue, Boykoff explained, is that we’re using a “20th century media apparatus”—one whose journalists are focused on conflict, on chasing after the “new,” on “balance”—to tackle a “21st century problem”—climate change. The medium just isn't adequate for conveying the appropriate message.

Why? Climate change isn't an issue that we have the luxury to endlessly debate about, to  hear “both sides” on, or to selectively attend to when it’s convenient. It is the issue of the century, if not the millennium.

But at the same time, you really won’t know that unless you are A) insulated from Fox-style misinformation; B) have enough perspective, scientific and otherwise, to see this issue in the context of the global human energy system, and ultimately, the planetary energy balance itself.

Needless to say, human beings who can tick off both box A and also box B are still far too  scarce. And our media, overall, do little or nothing to create them. Indeed, our media are full of people who themselves are either misinformed, missing the broader perspective, or both.

Who, then, speaks for the climate? If you ask me, it’s too often journalists who not only don’t know what they’re talking about, but don't feel that it's part of their job description to do better. And that, really, is the essence of our problem.

To order Boykoff’s book, you can click here.

November 30 2011

17:16

The Science of Debiasing: The New “Debunking Handbook” Is a Treasure Trove For Defenders of Reason

For quite some time here at DeSmogBlog, I’ve been writing about the growing science of irrationality—in other words, our ever-better scientific understanding of why people reject clearly correct information. I believe we can’t possibly get to a better place, in debates over issues like global warming, until we understand why getting facts across turns out to be so difficult.

A large amount of psychological science has now been published on this matter—but boiling it all down into a practical, usable guide for someone who wants to communicate in a scientifically-informed way? Not so much.

Not until now.

I simply cannot believe that John Cook of Skeptical Science and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky managed, in just 8 pages, to create something as magnificent as their new Debunking Handbook. It is packed not only with wonderful graphics, but also with a clear explanation of why many attempts to defeat misinformation fail, and what steps must be taken to do a better job.

The core issue, of course, is one that I’ve written much about—too many scientists assume that that facts win out on their own, but that isn’t actually true. If you base your communication strategy on this misconception, you will fail very badly.

Instead, Cook and Lewandowky explain that there are a variety of “backfires” that can be triggered by uninformed communication styles. Stating a myth before debunking can actually reinforce it. Debunking a myth with an overload of information can also backfire. And attacking a worldview can backfire most of all.

So what do you do? You should read their guide, but basically it boils down to several principles:

1.       Don’t lead with the wrong view you’re trying to debunk, but rather, with the correct view you want to instill.

2.       Don’t overload people with information. Be “lean, mean, and easy to read.”

3.       Don’t attack worldviews—either find more persuadable audiences, or defuse deeply seated ideological resistance through practices like framing and self-affirmation, which reduce defensiveness. “Self affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people,” write Cook and Lewandowsky, “They give the facts a fighting chance.”

4.       Don’t leave someone with nothing to believe—if you want to unseat a myth, you’d better provide a better real explanation in its place. “When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind,” reads the Handbook. “To be effective, your debunking must fill the gap.”

On top of these key points, there are a variety of more practical bits of advice like:

1.       Use graphics to convey correct information. Especially graphics as good as the ones that Cook and Lewandowsky use.

2.       Use sound bites. Your bottom line needs to be Tweet-able.

3.       Sometimes, it is better to reduce the credibility of a source than to frontally attack its wrong claims.

As someone who teaches science communication, I’m going to recommend Cook’s and Lewandowsky’s handbook to as many folks as I can find.

Perhaps the best aspect of all: They follow their own principles. They are short, sweet, use brilliant graphics and….well, if you don’t believe in this approach to science communication already, they’ll change your mind.

If anything can, anyway.

September 14 2011

13:32

Want to Sway Climate Change Skeptics? Ask About Their Personal Strengths (And Show Pictures!)

Readers of my posts over the last half year will be familiar with the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which people’s subconscious emotional impulses lead them to respond, in a biased way, to information that challenges their deeply held beliefs and worldviews. We’ve been focusing on this so much because I believe it explains a great deal of what we here call climate change denial, and the resistance to inconvenient science (and inconvenient facts) in general.

One important researcher on motivated reasoning is Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. In Mother Jones, I described one of his previous studies, demonstrating how motivated reasoning can lead to a “backfire effect” when people are confronted with politically inconvenient information:

Take, for instance, the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed hidden weapons of mass destruction just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. When political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed subjects fake newspaper articles (PDF) in which this was first suggested (in a 2004 quote from President Bush) and then refuted (with the findings of the Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group report, which found no evidence of active WMD programs in pre-invasion Iraq), they found that conservatives were more likely than before to believe the claim. (The researchers also tested how liberals responded when shown that Bush did not actually "ban" embryonic stem-cell research. Liberals weren't particularly amenable to persuasion, either, but no backfire effect was observed.)

So how do you persuade people, if not with factual corrections of the sort run by newspapers? That’s what a new paper by Nyhan and Reifler has undertaken to study.

This time, the contested issues under examination were whether the 2007 troop “Surge” decreased insurgent attacks in Iraq (it did), whether the U.S. economy added jobs during 2010 under President Obama (it did), and whether global average temperatures have risen since 1940 (they have). Those who opposed the Iraq war and supported troop withdrawals were disinclined to credit George W. Bush’s surge with having worked. Those who oppose President Obama are disinclined to credit him on the economy, or to generally believe in global warming—especially that it is human caused.

Nyhan and Reifler once again confronted partisans with information on these subjects that (presumably) contradicted their beliefs—but there was a twist. This time, the contradictory information was sometimes presented in the form of a convincing graph, showing a clear trend (in attacks, jobs, or temperatures). And second, sometimes the individuals went into the manipulation after having undergone a “self-affirmation” exercise, in which they were asked to describe a positive character attribute or value that they possessed, and a situation in which showing that attribute or trait made them feel good about themselves.

And in both cases, the manipulation worked—although by different means.

Presenting an unequivocal graph was powerful enough to change people’s views, even as presenting technical text (at least in the rising temperatures case) was not. Meanwhile, getting people to affirm their values and sense of self also decreased their resistance, presumably because they felt less threatened by challenging information after having had their egos reinforced and their identities bolstered.

This is a really important development, in several ways. First, it shows that scientists who communicate in wonk text, or cluttered graphs that are hard to follow, are shooting themselves in the foot. For instance, here is the wonk text in question, straight from a NASA press release*—the text that failed to work where a graph succeeded:

Groups of scientists from several major institutions — NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the Met Office Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom — tally data collected by temperature monitoring stations spread around the world. All four records show peaks and valleys that vary in virtual sync with each other. They each show an increase in average global surface temperatures of approximately 0.5 degrees Celsius over the last three decades. Data from each source also indicate that the last decade is the warmest since 1940.

By contrast, here is the graph that worked (it is also the image accompanying this post).

But I think the finding about self-affirmation is even more important. Because what this shows is that people are clearly resisting facts because these threaten their identities—which means that arguing back at them factually will only make them more defensive and engender a backfire effect. By contrast, approaching them in an emotionally sensitive and aware manner, and making them feel less threatened, will open them up. (Sometimes, at least.)

Nevertheless, there are also several potential problems that I see with the study, and its global warming portion in particular.

First, none of the study’s manipulations were done in a really partisan context that would have gotten people’s political emotions firing, priming them to be really, really defensive. For instance, people were asked if jobs increased, but they weren’t asked whether “President Obama’s unfairly maligned stimulus worked to help save the economy from disaster, in contradiction to the bogus claims of many Tea Partiers.”

Similarly, the most hotly contested issue in the climate debate is not whether the world has warmed, but whether humans are responsible for that warming. Many deniers will agree that warming has occurred, but then claim that it’s natural. So they might not have found the information presented in the study very threatening. And once again, it wasn’t presented in the most partisan and emotionally arousing way—e.g., they weren’t shown evidence to prove that “Al Gore is right about global warming and those who have been irresponsibly attacking him, like Rush Limbaugh, don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Second, while I am not surprised that John Q Climate Skeptic cannot refute a definitive temperature graph, I think that those who occupy climate denial blogs—a very small proportion of the total public, but individuals who are very engaged on this issue and very intense in their beliefs—would be more than happy to give it a try. In fact, we see them picking apart and undermining graphs, like the Hockey Stick graph, all the time.

In other words, if high bias is combined with high sophistication (as in the case of the most engaged climate deniers), I don’t think the graphical treatment is going to work. Nyhan and Reifler write that “graphs may be effective in reducing misperceptions because they are more difficult to counter-argue”—but some will still be able to. Al Gore showed lots of graphs in An Inconvenient Truth, and that hardly stopped him from being attacked (by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about ;>).

Will the self-affirmation work on such folks? I would imagine at least to an extent. It would make them less defensive. But some people are so set in their beliefs that they are virtually unchangeable.

Luckily, the new study suggests they’re a relatively small proportion of the overall population.

*CORRECTIONThe graph and text discussed above were based on, but did not exactly duplicate, the NASA press release. I regret the error.

September 06 2011

14:42

Why Questionable "Science" Gets Published, Pounced On in the Media, Retracted, Causes Resignations…Rinse and Repeat

An editor resigns after a journal publishes a paper that seems to trash the scientific consensus on climate change—but is heavily criticized by top scientists. Where have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2003 hearing held by Senator James Inhofe designed to bash climate science:

The very day before Inhofe’s hearing, the editor in chief of Climate Research, the small journal where the Soon and Baliunas paper originally appeared, had resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process leading up to the paper’s publication. Several other editors also subsequently resigned…

Where else have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2004 flap over the publication of a pro-“intelligent design” paper in a little-known taxonomic journal called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington:

…soon after the article’s publication—which was accompanied by considerable media attention and apparently caused angry journal subscribers to pester the editorial offices demanding an explanation—facts came to light that cast doubt on whether the work should have been published at all…the Biological Society of Washington has since backed away from the work, claiming that [it] “does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.”

Where else else have we heard this kind of story before? From the vaccine autism story:

The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, has now gone to the extreme of fully retracting a notorious 1998 paper by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues, purporting to show a shocking new cause of autism—the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine…The 1998 paper hit the British public like a thunderclap, triggering a decline in use of the MMR vaccine as well as a resurgence of the measles…ten of Wakefield’s original coauthors (out of twelve in total) had backed away from the work in a 2004 letter to The Lancet….

Dude. We have so been here before. It’s like somebody put on an oldie. It’s like vinyl.

The story over Roy Spencer’s paper in Remote Sensing, which had seemed to undercut the scientific consensus on climate but didn’t, but the conservative media leapt on it, and then the scientists fired back and an editor resigned, claiming the paper was “fundamentally flawed and therefore wrongly accepted by the journal”…Egads! There is a reason why this kind of stuff keeps happening.

There are a fair number “skeptics” out there in politicized and contested fields, and lots of journals. And there is a premium—if you’re a “skeptic” scientist—on getting your point of view published, because of course you believe your point of view is scientific and right and correct. You have evidence and arguments and data for it that you find utterly convincing. (Motivated reasoning affects scientists, too.)

Given the very strong scientific consensus on climate change—and the fact that everybody is aware of the intense politics here—it is still very hard to get a paper published that up and announces that everybody else in the field is, like, totally wrong. Peer reviewers will tend to point out major problems with these kinds of papers, leading to major changes, and so on.

But peer review is hardly perfect, and peer reviewers engage in motivated reasoning too. And “skeptic” peer reviewers will be more likely to find ideologically sympathetic “science” to be of a high quality, and worth publishing.

So it stands to reason that occasionally—some genius may even be able to work out the statistics—you’re going to get a kind of perfect storm scenario, where all the self-serving biases align, a real howler gets through, and then there’s a “scandal”—leading to a resignation, a paper being retracted, etc etc etc.

The real problem here, for the most part, is not the journals or the scientists. They police themselves adequately, albeit rather slowly. The real problem are the media.

Any well trained science journalist knows that one study proves nothing—precisely because of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and so on. If there aren’t a bunch of studies out there, by a bunch of different authors, all converging on a point—or if there isn’t a meta-analysis, a consensus assessment report, and so on—you had better be very careful. Humans are too prone to biases—even scientists—to treat any single study as a new truth.

It’s just looking for trouble.

But who cares about science journalists these days, and the skills they’ve learned over those long careers? The media is shedding them like dandruff. And then there’s Fox News, where they cover the climate issue as if every day is scientific opposite day. (Thereby, of course, playing to the biases and self-serving motivations of their viewers.)

So what can we do about this?

Honestly my answer—short of fixing the economy (for the climate issue), or vast media reform—is to make people more aware of the nature of bias and its subconscious (and frankly, biological) underpinnings. At that point, just maybe, we can begin to realize that weird "science" gets published sometimes, and even gets pounced on in the press…but that still doesn’t mean you should listen.

August 02 2011

12:44

What’s Up With Conservative White Men and Climate Change Denial?

They come at you at public events, wanting to argue. They light up the switchboards whenever there’s a radio show about climate change. They commandeer your blog comments section. They have a seemingly insatiable desire to debate, sometimes quite aggressively.

They’re the conservative white men (CWM) of climate change denial, and we’ve all gotten to know them in one way or another. But we haven’t had population-level statistics on them until recently, courtesy of a new paper in Global Environmental Change (apparently not online yet, but live in the blogosphere as of late last week) by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap. It’s entitled “Cool Dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States.” Among other data, McCright and Dunlap show the following:

— 14% of the general public doesn’t worry about climate change at all, but among CWMs the percentage jumps to 39%.

—   32% of adults deny there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but 59% of CWMs deny what the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists have said.

—   3 adults in 10 don’t believe recent global temperature increases are primarily caused by human activity. Twice that many – 6 CWMs out of every ten – feel that way. 

What’s more, and in line with a number of post I’ve written in the past, McCright and Dunlap also find among these CWMs a phenomenon I sometimes like to call “smart idiocy.” Even as they deny mainstream climate science, conservative white males are also more likely than average U.S. adults to think they understand the science they deny—that they’re right, the scientists are wrong, and they can prove it. Indeed, they’re just dying to debate you and refute you.

The authors bring up two possible explanations for the broad CWM phenomenon, both based on literature in the social sciences. The first is “identity-protective cognition” theory (or what I would call motivated reasoning). The second is “system justification” theory, which is just what it sounds like: the study of why people, often implicitly and subconsciously, are motivated to ratify and reaffirm the status quo—why their default position is against, rather than for, progressive change.

Motivated reasoning suggests that men who have “hierarchical” values—resisting reforms to increase economic or social equality, believing that some people should be running things and some should be taking orders, or that it’s perfectly okay and normal that some will succeed and some will fail—will be more inclined defend a social system that’s structured in this way. Such a tendency has been used in the past to explain the “white male effect”: White men tend to downplay all manner of risks, especially environmental ones, but also risks posed by things like the vast proliferation of guns in America. This, presumably, is both because they’re less harmed by such risks overall (the burden often falls more on the disadvantaged), but also because they have trouble personally conceiving of the reality of these risks (they don’t see the current state of things as being very bad or objectionable).

But why do men downplay climate risks in particular? Here’s where “system justification” theory comes in: If climate change is real and human caused, it potentially threatens the whole economic order and those who have built it and benefited from it. It is the most inconvenient of truths. So the idea is that the men who benefit from the fossil-fuel based energy system will rationalize and defend that system from challenge—and the science of climate change is, in some ways, the ultimate challenge. (More on this here.)

This, by the way, may help to explain why conservatives so often liken the promotion of mainstream climate science, and advocacy for greenhouse gas emission controls, to a secret agenda to advance global socialism or communism. It isn’t—we’re so far from a left wing revolution in this country that the whole idea is laughable—but you can see how this wild claim might make more sense to them than it does to you and me.

There’s also a strong element of groupthink here, write McCright and Dunlap. Conservative white male elites like Rush Limbaugh disseminate the climate denial message, and then their followers come to associate with it and build identities around it:

To the extent that conservative white males in the general public view their brethren within the elite sectors as an ingroup, then we expect that the former also will tend to reject the global warming claims of the scientific community, the environmental movement, and environmental policy-makers. In short, they will espouse climate change denial to defend the information disseminated within their in-group and to protect their cultural identity as conservative white males.

Honestly, while we’re cranking out all these theories, I am surprised the authors didn’t bring up what may be the most biologically grounded of them: “social dominance orientation,” or SDO. This refers to a particular personality type—usually male and right wing—who wants to dominate others, who sees the world as a harsh place (metaphorically, a “jungle”) where it’s either eat or be eaten, and who tends to really believe in a Machiavellian way of things. Fundamentally, this identity is all about testosterone firing and being an alpha male. SDOs are fine with inequality and in favor of hierarchy because frankly, they think some people (e.g., them) are just better than others, and therefore destined to get ahead. 

What are we to make of all of these theories?

Certainly they’re more than just hand-waving: They’re all based on actual survey measurements of various tendencies within the population. So there is clearly some truth to all of them.

They’re also overlapping, rather than mutually exclusive. My sense is that they’re all taking a nibble at something real; some, like “social dominance” theory, may describe certain individuals but not others. But if there’s a central theme uniting them all, it’s the idea that some people, perhaps especially conservative men, will be more comfortable with, and more inclined to rationalize, hierarchy.

Now, do I think conservative white men consciously wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I’m going to go on blogs and attack climate science today so I can screw over the little guy?” Certainly not. 

Rather, I simply think they experience modern climate science and climate advocacy as an affront, an attack on them and what they believe. They were brought up in a certain way, they believe certain things, and they have no reason to think of themselves as bad people—and indeed, mostly they’re not bad people. They give to charity. They go to church. They provide for a family. And so on.

But then they perceive all these attacks on their values coming from outsiders—hippie environmentalists and ivory tower climate scientists. If you didn’t do anything wrong, and you consider yourself as reasonable and intelligent--but people are attacking you and your values—you maybe get kind of outraged and worked up.

From there, the attacks on climate science and climate scientists may begin—and the affirmation of the in-group by attacking the out-group. Needless to say, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, and various climate denial blogs serve to fan the flames.

None of these men, then, are probably consciously aware that they’re engaged in anything like “system justification” or the “rationalization of hierarchy.” However, they perceive the status quo differently, they're more comfortable with hierarchy and may not even notice it--and these then may become their default. 

Oh: And they're maybe a little too defensive.

July 18 2011

14:32

Say Brother, Can You Share My Logic? The Climate Debate and “Talking Past Each Other”

I’ve previously written about University of Michigan business professor Andrew Hoffman’s insightful work on the underlying motivations behind climate skepticism. Now, I’ve come across a more detailed recent paper, in Organization and Environment, that advances the case.

Hoffman’s strategy this time is to examine newspaper editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor from both sides of the issue—795 of them, published between September of 2007 and September of 2009. Hoffman combines a look at these opinion pieces with an examination of the rhetoric at last year’s Heartland Institute climate denial conference.

His conclusion is that the two sides of the debate simply argue past each other. The Heartland folks, of course, think climate science is ideological and corrupt, and action on this non-existent problem will hurt the economy—and that, basically, it’s all an environmentalist power grab. They even detect hints of socialism or communism at the root of the movement for climate action.

But this we know already. What’s more interesting is the newspaper writings.

A large majority of the articles were convinced of climate risks--but there were lots of disagreeing letters to the editor. Overall, “skeptic” opinions came not from journalists or experts, but from average citizens. And what lay at the center of their logic, content wise?

Not surprisingly, almost 90% of skeptical articles reference science. It suggests that the skeptical logic centers on the idea that the problem definition of climate change is the crux of the debate. For the skeptical, there is no problem or there is uncertainty about whether there is a problem.

The skeptic articles are also very interested in diagnosing and explaining the “motives” of those who disagree with them—and in bashing one person in particular. Guess who?

Similar to the terminology of the climate denier movement, nearly 25% of all skeptical articles refer to climate change proponents as “alarmists.” More specifically, the dominant political target of these arguments is Al Gore, who is blamed by skeptical authors for fabricating the problem of climate change for ideological and personal gain. A word count of all the skeptical articles showed that nearly 40% of them mention Gore in one fashion or another.

Not only do skeptics love to talk about Gore—but they think he’s in it for the money, not the planet. Wild, off base? Sure. but that’s what they say. They are going after our motives, and our leaders.

Those who are convinced climate is a problem overwhelmingly talk about it in a different way. They discuss not so much the validity of the science, but the many risks from doing nothing, and the specific solutions—such as legislation—for addressing the issue. 

Hoffman’s conclusion is that the two sides are talking about vastly different things—and also, that the level of demonization is far too high for de-polarization to occur:

The form of the political dialogue illustrated above (which may be suggestive of the denier/believer extreme of the debate) suggests a conflict of positions that are relatively exclusive and rigid, positions that will not yield to negotiation and resolution because they define and establish very strong in-group/out-group distinctions. At the national level at least, it appears that for some of the more extreme elements, political debate has broken down and the two sides are talking past each other. 

No shock, maybe--but certainly the situation is bad, bad, bad. It is increasingly being observed that the climate debate is becoming like the abortion debate—far too polarized and entrenched for any dialogue to occur. Hoffman’s results lend strength to this characterization. 

June 29 2011

13:19

When Facts Don’t Matter: Proving The Problem With Fox News

My two posts about Fox News and misinformation are probably the most popular items I’ve contributed here. They’ve been widely linked, Tweeted and Facebooked hundreds of times, and viewed well over ten thousand times. That’s because they perform a simple task that, at least as far as I had seen when I wrote the first one, hadn’t been done elsewhere: They list studies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) showing that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed about an array of factual—but politicized—issues.

In these posts, I’ve tried to be as dispassionate as one can be on such a matter. I’ve repeatedly said that the studies don’t prove that Fox causes people to be misinformed; they just show a correlation, but the causal arrow could run in either direction (or both). I’ve also said that there may well be other studies out there than the 6 that I’ve found; and there may even be studies out there showing some cases where Fox News viewers are not the most misinformed. Indeed, I could design such a study myself--though it would have to be politically skewed by only asking about topics where liberals and Democrats are likely to be misinformed.

It is interesting, though, that no contrary studies have yet been produced. Until that happens, I don’t see how anyone can dispute what I’ve shown—after all, they’d have to provide evidence to the contrary, which is currently lacking.

Nevertheless, the broader political world seems to have stopped short of acknowledging this obvious state of affairs. Despite the fact that I conclusively refuted the notorious Politifact item that had accused Jon Stewart of being wrong about Fox and misinformation (he wasn’t), I don't think the site is going to turn around and reverse itself. Its silence since then--and its self-congratulatory “Editor’s Note” noting that Stewart went on the air and accepted Politifact’s version of events—suggests that Politifact considers the subject closed.

I'm here to warn Politifact--and the rest of us--that it isn’t. Because while this topic may smolder for a while, it is certain to come up again.

Why? New political misinformation is generated on a regular basis—on science, and on any other matter where somebody has a stake. Just the other day, for instance, Michele Bachmann, apparently unwilling to admit she is wrong about even the most trivial of matters, insisted that John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, was a “Founding Father”--even though he was a child in 1776. Then came attempts to edit Wikipedia to prove that Bachmann’s error was true.

This is how it starts, folks. Sometimes it makes its way to Fox News, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my overall contention is that today, for a variety of reasons, we not only have saturation levels of misinformation, but a lot of it comes from the political right and is baked in an echo chamber, of which Fox is a very central part.

As of now, what’s most powerful about my “theory” is that we have evidence to support it—and we lack evidence to refute it. So until that evidence emerges--or until the next Fox News controversy--I’m signing off. 

 

June 20 2011

17:37

The Fox News Effect: Sea Level Edition

Climate scientists--and other scientists--are always improving and updating their methods. That's how science works. And it's a very good and honorable thing--or at least, it is until conservatives catch on to some particular methodological change and argue that it's political, rather than part of the normal course of scientific events.

And until Fox News--whose viewers are far less likely to accept climate science, as well as various other well known facts--joins in.

In the latest case, a group at the University of Colorado at Boulder added a new correction to their estimates of global sea level rise. What they did is pretty technical, but before going further I’ll have to briefly explain it—more details can be found here.

A correction for glacial isostatic adjustment—or GIA—was recently added to the Colorado group's estimates of the rate of sea level rise. This was done because even as sea level is rising (due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of land-based ice), the land in some areas is also rising a bit, increasing the size of the ocean basins. Why is the land rising? It’s a “rebound” from the disappearance of massive land based glaciers since the last ice age.

Any questions so far?

So the Colorado scientists added a correction to take into account GIA, so that they could measure--in isolation--how much total water volume is being added to the ocean. Due to the rising of land, this cannot be simply inferred from measuring the sea level along the coastline.

Here’s a somewhat comprehensible explanation from the University of Colorado website:

…we have to account for the fact that the ocean is actually getting bigger due to GIA at the same time as the water volume is expanding. This means that if we measure a change in [global mean sea level] of 3 mm/yr, the volume change is actually closer to 3.3 mm/yr because of GIA….We apply a correction for GIA because we want our sea level time series to reflect purely oceanographic phenomena. In essence, we would like our [global mean sea level] time series to be a proxy for ocean water volume changes. This is what is needed for comparisons to global climate models, for example, and other oceanographic datasets.

Okay. Perfectly normal, perfectly justifiable.

However, as we know, climate science is watched closely by conservatives, who are looking for places where they can cry foul and object. And in this case, along comes the Heartland Institute's James M. Taylor, who says the scientists have “doctor[ed]” their data:

Faced with the embarrassing fact that sea level is not rising nearly as much as has been predicted, the University of Colorado’s NASA-funded Sea Level Research Group has announced it will begin adding a nonexistent 0.3 millimeters per year to its Global Mean Sea Level Time Series. As a result, alarmists will be able to present sea level charts asserting an accelerating rise in sea level that is not occurring in the real world.&

Note: Taylor himself admits that the consequences of this correction will only be “1.2 inches over the course of the 21st century.” In other words, if sea level rise is a big deal, then the correction in question certainly isn’t.

But we’re not done yet. Now comes Fox News and its reporter Maxim Lott, who does an “on the one hand, on the other hand” piece about whether the GIA correction is kosher. Suddenly it’s the scientists at Colorado vs. Taylor:

Steve Nerem, the director of the widely relied-upon research center, told FoxNews.com that his group added the 0.3 millimeters per year to the actual sea level measurements because land masses, still rebounding from the ice age, are rising and increasing the amount of water that oceans can hold. "We have to account for the fact that the ocean basins are actually getting slightly bigger... water volume is expanding," he said, a phenomenon they call glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA).

 

Taylor calls it tomfoolery.

"There really is no reason to do this other than to advance a political agenda," he said.

Actually, we’ve already seen the entirely non-political reason to do this.

But we’re still not done. Then Matt Drudge takes up the story, adds some more bias and some embellishment—“Climate change ‘researchers’ caught padding sea level data”—and off it goes. Another byte of misinformation about climate change is now in circulation.

What’s tragic about all of this? Sea level is really rising, and the rate is expected to increase—and adjusted or unadjusted, corrected or uncorrected, this is one of the most transformative aspects of climate change.

May 04 2011

20:56

Facing Four More Years of Harper Inaction, Canadians Must Rally Their Own Climate Leadership

Earlier this week, Canadians flocked to the polls for the fourth time in 7 years. This time around, the election was triggered when the minority government led by Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper was found in contempt of parliament in March for failing to release information related to the costs of proposed crime legislation and the purchase of stealth fighter jets.

From the moment the election was announced, Harper derided it as ‘unnecessary’, and ‘unwanted’ even though public polling clearly indicated widespread displeasure with his handling of the economy, public programming including programs for women, the environment, and for proroguing parliament twice. After the 2008 election, when voter turnout was the lowest in Canadian history (59% overall, and a dismal youth turnout of 37%), people wondered if this so-called ‘unwanted’ election would fail to motivate voters to the polls.

While pundits and pollsters made their best guesses leading up to election day, no one correctly anticipated the outcome. With just under 40% of the vote, the Conservatives finally won the majority they have coveted since ascending in 2006. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 102 seats and formed the official opposition for the first time in history. The Liberal Party was reduced to a mere 34 seats, and the Bloc Quebecois lost 90% of its seats to end up with 4. On the positive side, Green Party candidate Elizabeth May won her party’s first seat in North American history.

Of the 14 closest ridings that Conservatives won seats, the combined margin of victory in all those ridings was 6,201 votes. That means the real difference between a Harper minority and majority was just over 6,000 votes. While 5.8 million people voted for Stephen Harper, another 9 million – the ‘real majority’ – voted for change. But, with his new majority, Harper no longer has to worry about impediments to his extreme ideology; he can ram his anti-science, pro-polluter agenda down the throats of the Canadian public. That spells trouble for Canada's environment, and it's especially bad news for the global climate.

<!--break-->

Despite the news headlines of Harper’s ‘victory,’ sixty percent of Canadians still don't support his economic policy. Harper will likely table the same budget that he presented before the election. It focused on the economy and jobs - and no, I don't mean green jobs. Instead, Harper continues to promote and prioritize policies that hold Canada back from a prosperous clean energy future.

The Harper budget proposes to slash funding for clean energy programs and efficiency incentives – all significant job-creation vehicles that happen to protect rather than harm the global climate system.

The Conservatives have yet to introduce climate legislation to meet science-based international commitments to rapidly curtail global warming pollution. Harper’s position isn’t expected to improve over his last 5 years of inaction and obstruction, during which he failed to put in place any meaningful policy to meet his own weak pollution reduction targets (that aren’t even science-based). These policies made Canada a laughing stock in Copenhagen and Cancun. Now, with four years of unchecked Harper power, we’ll likely see more of Harper’s embarrassing stonewalling at international climate change summits including this fall in Durban.

What else have we to look forward to?  Will the government continue to muzzle scientists, who are required to seek ‘pre-approval’ before speaking with journalists?  

Will Harper even end the wasteful stream of $1.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies to incredibly profitable oil and gas companies? Will he even continue to pay lip service by calling for a gradual phase-out of a small portion of these polluter subsidies? 

The world’s scientists have cautioned that climate disruption won’t wait four more years for a real Canadian action plan to materialize – if it does then – so we must act now, with or without Harper.

Even though we have our work cut out for us, this election caused a noticeable shift in Canadian politics, one that not only felt inspiring during the run-up to the election, but also one that produced a tangible outcome. The feeling that I have is like nothing I've ever experienced, and I know I’m not the only one who feels it.

A movement was born over the past few weeks, when Canadian youth woke up and engaged in politics. They are organizing. 

In my free time outside work obligations, I am one of those organizers. Some friends and I recently staged an action outside of a Harper press conference in Victoria. We criticized Harper’s campaign for failing to mention the issues that really mattered to young people – including climate and the environment.

Because of recent pressure on the Conservatives for kicking a student out of a rally and attempting to nix a special ballot on a university campus, a group of us were invited in (with no media present) to speak with the Prime Minister. In typical Harper fashion, we were allowed to ask 2 questions, the first about post-secondary education, the second about Canada’s horrible reputation for climate change inaction.

Demonstrating how out of touch he is with the most pressing challenge facing humanity, Mr. Harper seemed unfamiliar about the upcoming UN climate talks in Durban, and when he talked about Canada’s representative at the most recent climate talks, he referred to “Minister Prentice” (wrong guy, it was John Baird). At that moment, I worried for the future of my country.  

And I'm not alone. Many people fear what a Conservative majority will mean for the issues that many Canadians care about: banning dangerous tanker traffic on the west coast, ending dirty energy subsidies, and creating binding legislation for global warming pollution reductions. We are faced with an uncertain future, while scientists continue to alert us that there is no time to waste. 

We must work together to hold this government accountable. We need to work together for our First Nations communities that are suffering environmental anguish, for the accountability and oversight necessary to rein in the dirty tar sands boom, and for investment in a renewable energy future. We must demand a clean future, and a world that is safe for our children. 

Over the coming months and years, we must be vigilant, and work with an urgency and sense of purpose. We don't have time to wait for a new government to respond to the environmental crisis. We must respond now.

We must lead now. To the 'real majority' of Canadians out there, are you ready?

April 28 2011

13:48

"Listen to All The Facts"

I have great admiration for Ben Santer. Not only is he a top climate scientist, but the guy went through brutal and unfair political attacks concerning the IPCC report in 1995. (Some of that story is here.) I’m glad Santer is being honored this year by being elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union--a development that, predictably, Joe Romm hails and Anthony Watts mocks.

However, I must confess that I literally received a jolt reading the Lawrence Livermore National Lab press release about this. It goes like this:

Ben Santer is a man with a lot of accolades under his belt: A recipient of the MacArthur "genius" grant; an E.O.Lawrence Award; a Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Distinguished Scientist Fellowship; contributor to all four assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore; and now an American Geophysical Union fellowship. 

But he'd give all the awards up if it meant he could present his research on human-induced climate change to a patient audience -- an audience that would listen to all the facts before making judgments about reality of a "discernible human influence" on climate.

To which I'm afraid my first thought was: Like how the birthers sat back and carefully contemplated the new information when Obama released his birth certificate to them yesterday?<!--break-->

Now, I know that Santer (or whoever wrote this press release) have the best of goals in mind. But the fact is that, beyond perhaps an audience of their peers, climate scientists are never going to get to lecture about their research to a captive public audience with lots of patience and no preconceptions. Public communication is almost never like this.

And even if it was, it’s impossible even for scientists to lay out the facts without frames, judgments, narratives. Those narratives, in turn, evoke emotions, in both audiences and among those who choose to tell them. And emotions integrally shape how we reason, sometimes for the better, sometimes very much for the worse.

Recently, I did a podcast with George Lakoff, author of many influential books, including most recently The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain. Lakoff’s argument is that too many of us—liberals and scientists, especially—are strangely wedded to an outdated 18th century view of the mind, according to which reason is dispassionate, logical, disembodied, objective, and so forth. Lakoff calls this the “old Enlightenment” view.

The “New Enlightenment,” by contrast, uses science itself to understand how people reason. Its answers are a lot more frustrating and depressing, and often mindboggling, but they have the virtue of being accurate and based on the emerging science of the human mind.

The good news is this: In my experience, scientists are open to following the evidence about communication, and persuasion, wherever it leads. They just need some nudging--and, reasonably enough, they need to see the evidence. Well, it is compiling very rapidly now. Let's heed it!

Reposted by02mydafsoup-01 02mydafsoup-01

April 20 2011

14:28

The Ever Growing Partisan Divide Over Global Warming

Depressing doesn’t even begin to capture it.

On the one hand, scientists have become increasingly certain that climate change is real and human caused. They’re now saying “very likely,” a degree of certainty equivalent to greater than 90 percent.

Yet at the same time, the two U.S. political parties have grown increasingly polarized over whether to accept this fact about the world. There’s now a 30 percent gap between Democrats and Republicans in their likelihood of believing the above to be true. This gap has widened, even as scientific doubt has narrowed.

That’s the finding of a comprehensive new study (press release here) on our polarization over climate change by Aaron McCright of Michigan State and Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State. They looked at 10 years of Gallup polling on the issue, and found a steady march in opposite directions for the two parties. Or as the authors put it: “Moving from the right to the left along the political spectrum increases respondents’ likelihood of reporting beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus and of expressing personal concern about global warming.” That’s academic speak, so they didn’t add on the following next sentence, as I would have done: “A lot.”

 But that’s not the only thing McCright and Dunlap looked at.<!--break--> They wanted to examine another issue as well, based on the data: Did the divide over climate change have anything to do with citizen educational attainment or self-expressed understanding of the issue? After all, this is a scientific topic. You’d expect those who understand it better to believe the science more, regardless of party.

But a number of studies have suggested this is not the case if you’re a Republican or conservative, and the sweeping new analysis of McCright and Dunlap confirms this as well. Or as they put it, after crunching the data: “The effects of educational attainment and self-reported understanding on beliefs about climate science and personal concern about global warming are positive for liberals and Democrats, but are weaker or negative for conservatives and Republicans.”

How did we get to such a point—where ideology and party identity not only strongly predict whether you accept science on a critical issue, but also whether your level of education or understanding will make matters better or worse?

McCright and Dunlap have important ideas here as well. They postulate that underlying ideologies about how society should be run, the benefits and costs of industrial capitalism, and whether the market should be regulated, predict different dispositions towards climate change science--but also that the way we currently receive information about the issue reinforces polarization. Let’s give them the last word on this (ever depressing) front:

New information on climate change (e.g., an IPCC report) is thus unlikely to reduce the political divide. Instead, citizens’ political orientations filter such learning opportunities in ways that magnify this divide. Political elites selectively interpret or ignore new climate change studies and news stories to promote their political agendas. Citizens, in turn, listen to their favored elites and media sources where global warming information is framed in a manner consistent with their pre-existing beliefs on the issue (Hindman 2009).We believe this occurred within the American public between 2001 and 2010, and our results seem to bear this out.

Yes, indeed. Motivated reasoning, anyone?

April 06 2011

14:05

What Motivates a Climate Skeptic?

I always like digging around in the academic literature for insights about today’s politicized science battles. Now that social scientists have begun to apply themselves to public fights over the hard sciences, I find that they have a great deal to offer. The latest exhibit: The work of Andrew J. Hoffman, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. 

Hoffman is an “organizational theorist.” As such, he believes that “failing to attend to the deeper social and cultural forces within the climate conflict, and in particular the counter-movements that resist the dominant logic,” is a big mistake.

So he went and studied the “culture and discourse” of climate skeptics—which involved attending their conferences and events--and describes some of the preliminary results in a recent paper in Strategic Organization. As a result, Hoffman argues that three themes are dominant in the movement. And here’s where, to me, it gets really interesting.<!--break-->

1. Stealth Attack on Personal Freedom. Skeptics, write Hoffman, think concern over global warming just a ruse to curtail personal liberties—by increasing the power of government to interfere in the market. This of course carries over to a deep distrust of the U.N. At a climate skeptic conference, writes Hoffman, one presenter “went so far as to suggest that a binding international agreement on climate change would end with individuals being required to carry ‘carbon ration cards’ on their person."

2. Free Marketeers. Relatedly, the skeptics have a “strong faith” in the free market. Renewable energy is distrusted because it needs to be subsidized. Huh—what do they think of fossil fuel subsidies, then? Hoffman does not discuss what seems to me one plausible outcome of this free market commitment: The belief that markets could not really create a problem like climate change, or if they do, markets also will solve it.

3. Distrust of Peer Review. To me, this was the most intriguing finding. Skeptics, write Hoffman, “argue that public funding of science in the post-Second World War era through organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) corrupted the scientific process.” Um, such funding also made us the world’s science superpower—but I digress. The point would seem to be that skeptics distrust all government, publicly funded science because they believe the peer review system has been corrupted and incestuous—after all, it's not a free market system--and the “ClimateGate” brouhaha just served as a confirmation to them of this deeper distrust.

So if you’re one of those people who asks yourself, “how can they believe this stuff?” Well, that’s how.

What’s surprising to me is that none of this is, at base, scientific. It’s all about distrusting some kind of power associated with the government, while very much trusting other kinds of power that are unregulated.

In other words, it’s about how society—not the atmosphere—is organized.   

 

Reposted by02mydafsoup-01krekk

March 30 2011

13:42

Ignorant About Ignorance?

In one sense, it’s no surprise. Frustrated not only by the persistence, but by the powerful resurgence of climate denial, many scientists are outraged. Case in point: Two editorials in scientific journals (hat tip to RealClimate) denouncing the “ignorance” we’re now seeing in Washington on this topic.

By far the calmer editorial comes from Nature. It’s a commentary on the House GOP's bizarre attempt to legislate away the EPA’s endangerment finding (as if you can legislate physics),  and Congress’s dismal climate hearings:

Misinformation was presented as fact, truth was twisted and nobody showed any inclination to listen to scientists, let alone learn from them. It has been an embarrassing display, not just for the Republican Party but also for Congress and the US citizens it represents….the [endangerment finding] legislation is fundamentally anti-science, just as the rhetoric that supports it is grounded in wilful ignorance. One lawmaker last week described scientists as “elitist” and “arrogant” creatures who hide behind “discredited” institutions.

Nature’s editorial is titled “Into Ignorance”—a problematic phrase in my opinion (as we'll see). But in general, I agree with the sentiment expressed in Nature. The way Congress is behaving really is  unacceptable.

However, my germ of worry about the Nature editorial grew into an oak when I read an editorial by two scientists in Water, Air, and Soil Pollution entitled “A Vaccine Against Ignorance.”<!--break--> Here, the authors literally say the public doesn't know what they know and that’s why we have these problems:

Now, some people and special interests continue to propagate misleading information about climate change. They are using all of their newly gained knowledge (on how to fool the public) to enhance their greedy benefits. Once the method of scientific inquiry is understood, and the knowledge of how to evaluate scientific claims is at hand, people are not likely to be swayed or confused by misinformation. Some poorly educated people, on the other hand, will be at the whim of the profiteers, not being able to distinguish a lie from a statement based on scientific data. In fact, the more complex an explanation, the more distasteful it might appear to them. These people do not want to be burdened with factual information that their backgrounds do not prepare them to conceptualize; they want to believe in ideas that require minimal intellectual effort. They are likely to prefer a fairy tale to reality; it's so much nicer (for a while) to think that no serious problems exist. Such people just continue to live in a fantasy world that will dissolve when reality becomes oppressive, just as does a dream fades away after one wakes. Then it will unfortunately be too late to correct the problems that were propagated by ignorance.

This is stunning, in many, many ways.

First, while the charges of “elitism" aimed at U.S. scientists and intellectuals are usually bogus, it's hard to claim they are bogus here.

The passage also, ironically, seems very ignorant about how science denial actually works. As anyone who reads DeSmogBlog knows very well, the top climate skeptics are, you know, scientists. They are not ignorant of the scientific method. They may cleverly twist and abuse its findings, perhaps, but they all learned it, and were awarded advanced degrees for doing so. These are not “poorly educated people” we're dealing with. Not remotely.

And as for the nonscientist citizens who encounter the climate debate, and don’t know what to think? They may be confused, but it doesn’t make them ignorant about the scientific method. They also may be deflated, uncertain about what’s true—because the media is not doing its job of adjudicating.

None of this validates the Water, Air, and Soil Pollution authors’ complaints, however, nor supports their proposed solution—give them more education. Better public science education should be valued for many reasons, but it isn’t going to give us more responsible journalists, or fewer climate deniers. 

Fortunately, Nature Climate Change just ran a very important commentary by Baruch Fischoff of Carnegie Mellon and Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University on what the social and decision sciences teach us about how to deal with the rift over climate change. It places us in a completely different universe from the Water, Air, and Soil Pollution piece. 

There’s much to learn from Fischoff and Pidgeon, but one thing they caution against is the so-called “deficit model”: 

These research results, and others like them, belie the simple behavioural theory underlying the 'deficit model' of the public understanding of science, which assumes that simply teaching more science will bring lay behaviour into line with scientists' expectations. Although the limits to this model are well documented, it has such strong intuitive appeal that communication must explicitly adopt an alternative strategy if it is to respect audiences' values, feelings and need for dialogue and engagement. 

Yup, that’s right—deficit model thinking about why the public doesn't accept science flies in the face of, you know, science.

I very much want scientists to succeed in getting the public to accept and embrace their hard won knowledge. But we're never going to get there if our strategies aren’t also based on the best and most relevant research.

March 23 2011

13:12

Good Communication is Good Scientific Practice

It's always helpful to know what those who disagree with you are saying, and why they do so. Let's consider, then, a recent article in the conservative American Thinker that espouses climate change denial—and that also, interestingly, whacks climate scientists for wanting to do a better job of explaining themselves to the public.

Anthony J. Sadar and Stanley J. Penkala write:

The revelations of Climategate and ten years of stagnant global temperatures have produced a decline of public belief in human-induced climate collapse. But, rather than strengthening the foundations of climate science by increasing transparency in data analysis, releasing raw data for third party evaluation, and allowing their hypotheses to be debated in the literature, government-funded scientists instead have decided it's best to just change their method of messaging.  The latest tactic is for these man-made global-warming faithful to sharpen their communication skills and tighten their influence on the editorial boards of the environmental journals of record.  The intent is to deflect or bury challenges to their climate-catastrophe canon, not defend their hypotheses.

First of all, this is another marvelous example of how climate change denial is not postmodern. <!--break-->Anyone familiar with the field of science studies will find this passage quite naive in its contention that mere transparency, on a highly politicized topic like this one, will somehow restore "objectivity" to the debate, so that the truth will finally become clear to all. Yeah, right. Whatever their faults, postmodernists know that people, including scientists, are a lot more subjective than that--and data do not speak for themselves, especially on so contentious and emotional a topic.

But I really want to tackle this point about communication, which is equally naive or worse--this contention that somehow, climate scientists are dirtying themselves because they now want to communicate to the public. Or that they're just trying to become better spin-meisters.

First, there is no doubt that there is a greatly growing interest in communication in the climate science field. Not surprisingly: Climate scientists overwhelmingly feel they’ve failed to reach the public and to explain their work to them, and polling data strongly supports this concern. So it’s very natural to shift one's attention to communications in this context—and that has indeed happened.

But climate science is hardly the only field in which it has occurred—and there’s nothing dishonest, wrong or otherwise lamentable about this development. Scientists today want to do a better job of communicating about an array of issues—not just the highly politicized ones, like climate change or evolution. Do we reproach them for that? Do we dislike what Carl Sagan did to bring science to the public, and what Neil deGrasse Tyson does today?

The truth is that what scientists are learning right now about communicating will actually help them to fulfill a major civic responsibility they have—especially if they receive public research funding. The whole point of the government's funding of science is that the taxpayer supports work that's expected to create a payoff for society in some way—not necessarily immediately, or in a predictable fashion, but certainly work that is relevant (or could be) to social problems, to generating new innovations, and so on.

In this context, it is essential for scientists to explain to citizens what it is that they’re doing with tax dollars: It’s part of the job description. It is even written into many government research grants—and it should be. It helps to promote accountability and responsiveness in a scientific community that, although often seemingly walled off in an "ivory tower," in fact is intimately tied to a non-scientific public in myriad ways. 

So imagine that you’re a scientist, and you're aware that it's imperative to explain what you do, and why it matters, to non-scientists. Well, in order to do a good job at this task, there are some things you need to think about that you won't necessarily learn in your scientific training. Let’s just use one very simple example.

When it comes to scientific topics, citizens—and journalists, and policy-makers--want to know what the bottom line is, in plain language. They want to know why a topic matters, who it affects, what we can do about it. And can you blame them for feeling this way? There is a lot out there to pay attention to. We're all suffering from information overload, all the time. It is very hard for anything to get through, much less anything technical or difficult.

This fact has huge implications for how scientists communicate, because it suggests an approach that runs strongly contrary to their instincts in many cases. Scientists are often prone to explain themselves through long, stepwise, technical arguments, eventually leading to some type of heavily hedged conclusion. So they'll start out communicating like this: "I study X. X is a particular type of Y, found in Z. Previous researchers studying X had postulated that A and B most centrally influence its formation and development, but my work suggests that to the contrary, C plays the dominant role..."

And so forth. But what non-scientist is going to follow all the steps, trying to keep up with all the jargon and alien terms (here denoted by letters), without even knowing where it is all going to lead and why it matters?

That's why scientists, in communicating, have to unlearn what they've learned in their training and put the conclusion first--followed by the details. For of course, once you understand why the details matter, you are more likely to grow interested in them and want to learn more. Yet this is very different from scientific instinct in many cases. It’s not how scientists are trained to talk to their peers.

This is just one small example of what scientists are learning about communication today, and it has absolutely nothing to do with misleading anyone--or with climate science in particular. Rather, it is about better informing those who pay for the research in the first place, and those who have a huge stake in it, across scientific disciplines--by making the results of science relevant and resonant to those who are not accustomed to the scientific way of speaking or doing things.

Moreover, this science communication trend is certain to continue--as it should. Naysayers aside, making science more relevant to the public that is affected by it is an idea that is here because the merits support it. Science matters; the public both needs and also deserves to know this; and scientists need to help them understand why. It's that simple...and it also changes everything.

March 20 2011

19:46

Yes Men Take On Enbridge With Creative Activism

A flurry of cryptic emails last weekend brought out the usual crowd of Vancouver environmental activists to Enbridge’s doorstep, but something is different. There’s no angry chanting, no snide slogans – not a fighting word within earshot. At the height of lunch hour on suit row, protesters are clogging the street and the atmosphere is, well, light. With free haircuts and mock reporters, the community has come out to help set the record straight. The message? An oil spill is inevitable and Enbridge doesn’t have a plan.

The Yes Men–inspired MyHairCares Initiative invited salons across Canada to donate their hair clippings to help Enbridge prepare for future oil spills with “super-absorbent hair booms.” Greenpeace’s Rex Weyler responded by slamming Enbridge for the paucity of the [fake] initiative. The story was initially picked up by major media outlets across Canada, but as the haze of confusion cleared, the stories were pulled from their websites.

Will the real Enbridge please stand up?
<!--break-->
Enbridge retaliated with threats of legal action against the organizers, calling the hoax a “cynical attempt to take advantage of public concern about the environment.”

But that was just the bait. The pranksters released their own fake statement on behalf of Enbridge, condemning the hoax and committing to creating a $20 billion liability fund for the Northern Gateway Pipeline development, their idea of a reasonable risk management plan. 

The nut: some truths are more ridiculous than the most outrageous ruse.

Satire is as old as politics. With their unique brand of creative activism, Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have revamped the satirical tactics of yore for our post-modern times. They are self-professed culture jammers out to build popular opposition to unethical practices by “correcting identities.” By impersonating corporations and governments, they lie their way to the truth. Their outlandish spoofs are wake-up calls, intended to remind the public of “what's wrong, what could be right, and what's in store if we don't change our ways.”

For activists like Sean Devlin and Jolan Bailey, a little madness goes a long way. As part of the troupe that pulled off the MyHairCares hoax, they were trained at the Yes Men’s Yes Lab for creative activists. There they learned that creative power has real currency when you are up against the formidable economic resources of the corporate sector. Capturing the public’s imagination can be an incredibly potent way to highlight just how ludicrous reality can be. They also learned how to sustain themselves as activists by making the battle enjoyable.

Anti-corporate activist-pranksters? Gonzo political activists? However you label them, the Yes Men and their ilk are undeniably effective when it comes to getting their message out loud and clear. They also know how to have a good time.

In their words, “Who knew fixing the world could be so much fun?”

MyHairCares Enbridge Vancouver

February 28 2011

17:49

Once and For All: Climate Denial is Not Postmodern

If our goal is to do something about the ever-growing problem of climate change denial, I believe we must first understand it—its forms, its motivations, its arguments.

That's why I recoil every time I hear the argument—made over the weekend in the New York Times magazine by Judith Warner—that science denial used to be a left wing thing, centered on the so-called “postmodernists” of academia, but now things have flipped. Now it’s located on the right—witness climate denial. Or as Warner puts it:

That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.

This analysis is so wrong that one barely knows how to begin.<!--break-->

First, the idea that conservatives would be strongly influenced by the abstruse arguments and wordplay of left wing academia doesn't make any sense. Do we not recall that starting in the 1970s, conservatives created an armada of ideological think tanks—including many think tanks that now dispute climate change—precisely so as to create their own echo chamber of “expertise” outside of academia? To them, 1990s postmodernism would be the quintessential example of effete academic uselessness.

But that's not even the biggest objection to Warner's line of thinking. The biggest objection is that climate change deniers do not look, behave, or sound postmodern in any meaningful sense of the term.

As Warner herself recognizes, if postmodernism has any central theme (in relation to science) it is problematizing the idea that there is something called scientific “truth” that can be objectively discerned. The insights of “science studies” were thus deployed in order to show that scientists are quite subjective in how they do things, frequently engaging in personal battles and clinging to ideas that they should let go; that broader cultural and scientific trends color allegedly objective scientific discoveries (is it a coincidence that the phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined at a time of ruthless capitalism and imperialism in the British empire?); that scientists sometimes ignore or sneer at local or indigenous forms of knowledge that actually offer key insights about the way the world works (as in the story of the Cumbrian sheep farmers following Chernobyl); and so forth.

These are all valid insights. The trouble is that some more radical left wing thinkers appeared (for it was always hard to tell how much of it was mere scholarly flirtation and provocation) to take them an extreme, suggesting that science might not really be our road to truth. But that doesn't follow at all from the insights of science studies. It’s one thing to ask that we more realistically understand how scientists behave, and note some of their shortcomings; it’s something else again to say that science isn’t the best method, in the long term, for figuring out how the world works. Of course it is—despite individual scientists’ shortcomings.

In any event, the idea that science is the embodiment of "truth" is something with which climate deniers blithely agree. They think that they are right and that the scientific consensus about global warming is wrong--objectively. They’re not out there questioning whether science is the best way of getting at the truth; they’re out there talking as though their scientists know the truth.

Can you picture James Inhofe citing Derrida or Foucault? The very idea is comical.

Frankly, if climate deniers were more conversant with science studies, I have to believe that they would feel a lot less sure of themselves—and they would never have been able to make such a big fuss about “ClimateGate.” “ClimateGate” is the quintessential example of scientists showing, through their private emails, that they’re people too; that they have passions and feelings, that they say things they shouldn’t and make mistakes. No shock at all to people in “science studies,” who can tell you the same thing about, say, the private writings of Isaac Newton.

Much of the reaction to “ClimateGate,” on the part of both science deniers and the general public, was characterized by a naïve view of science which expects researchers to be rigorously objective at all times—almost like robots. You’re only likely to be shocked to find scientists behaving like ordinary people in their emails if you’ve been wrongly led to think they’re somehow not like ordinary people.  

Similarly, I don't think climate change deniers would be so willing to discard a global scientific consensus, based on the views of a handful of scientists who disagree with it, if they actually paid attention to science studies. For many of these dissenting "skeptic" scientists of course have agendas of their own, rivalries with scientists in the "mainstream," and so on. What on earth makes them so trustworthy, so objective?

If anything, the insights of science studies, properly applied, ought to make us more confident than ever that we should trust modern climate science. After all, do you know how hard it is to achieve a global scientific consensus when every scientist can gain fame and fortune by upsetting or undermining it--and when scientists very much desire fame and career advancement?

If anything, climate change deniers are pretty oblivious to what we've learned from science studies--which is yet another reason to be very skeptical of what they're saying.

February 16 2011

13:14

The Coming Classroom Climate Conflict

I’ve just completed a trip out to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado—a town that’s in many ways the chief hub for our country’s climate scientists, as well as for a variety of other researchers (especially on weather and renewable energy) and many science education specialists. My visit was focused on science communication, but another theme kept coming up: climate science education, and the conflicts arising therein.

A lot of people out here seem worried about growing resistance to climate science teaching in schools. It was a regular topic of conversation, and at the end of my public talk, one audience member asked whether there needs to be an equivalent of the National Center for Science Education for the climate issue. (The National Center for Science Education is the leading organization defending the teaching of evolution in the U.S.). And no wonder: This state has already seen one of the most direct attacks on climate education yet—although it seems to have fizzled.<!--break-->

Last year, a group called “Balanced Education for Everyone” was linked to an effort to try to prevent teaching about human-caused climate change in Mesa, Colorado schools—although the Denver Post reports that the organization has since disbanded, for reasons that seem unclear. “Balanced Education for Everyone" had also been supporting including the anti-global warming movie “Not Evil Just Wrong” in schools, as well as a climate “skeptic” curriculum that went with it.

Similarly, in a recent study published in the Journal of Geoscience Education, researcher Sarah Wise reports on a 2007 survey of 628 Colorado teachers, which sought to determine what they currently teach about climate change and what kind of resistance they’ve seen as a result of doing so. The most troubling finding was that 85 percent of the teachers felt that “both sides” of the “debate” over whether climate is human caused should be presented in the classroom. Furthermore, 13 percent of the earth science teachers surveyed said they had experienced pressure from another teacher, parent, or other party not to teach global warming.  

Does the future hold more of these conflicts? I think the only reasonable supposition is, “yes it will.”

I’ve already discussed here the growing trend towards folding climate change into anti-evolution bills, and singling “global warming” out as a uniquely controversial subject to be critiqued in the classroom. I think the most logical expectation is that the national controversy over climate change will continue to filter into schools just as it diffuses across all levels of society--and moreover, it should follow a predictable pattern.

Just as the general public breaks into “6 Americas” when it comes to levels of knowledge about (and acceptance of) climate change science, so will teachers, school districts, and communities. And in those communities where the so-called “dismissives” (the most devout climate science rejecters, and currently about 12 % of the U.S. as a whole) are most prominent, conflicts will be most likely to erupt.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of what's going on in schools will never draw significant public attention. A recent study on evolution education, for instance, found that 13 percent of public school science teachers in the U.S. actively teach creationism—even though this has repeatedly been ruled unconstitutional. Legally, every one of those teachers (and their schools) could be sued, but we see nothing like a proportionate number of lawsuits erupting. In all likelihood, this creationist teaching is mostly happening in communities where it is perfectly well accepted and not even controversial. It’s under the radar.

Meanwhile, the evolution survey also found that fully 60 percent of teachers “compromise” in some way on its teaching so as to avoid controversy—showing “both sides,” dodging the issue, giving caveats, etc. In light of the politicization of climate science—and the Colorado data above—we have to assume that many teachers will follow a similar pattern on the teaching of the anthropogenic causes of climate change.

What can we do about this? We certainly do need a national organization to defend climate education in schools—and we need much more focus on preparing teachers for handling controversies. Those teachers who are well informed, and confident in their abilities, will be the least likely to fall into the bad teaching traps outlined above, or to cave to political pressure from parents and others in the community. We need to empower them—so they can accurately inform their students about the single most important thing happening to the planet.

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