2010-08-30 19:08:36Psychology of climate change skeptics
John Brookes

jcb@cyllene.uwa.edu...
130.95.128.51

Hi Guys,

Here is a draft of a post which might be interesting.

Any suggestions welcome.

Cheers,

John Brookes

You may sometimes wonder just where climate change skeptics are coming from. There is something about they way they write that implies that there is no doubt, that climate change is a hoax, and that anyone of even moderate common sense should be able to see through it easily:

  • "The supposed empirical proof of the greenhouse theory, as cited and claimed by the AGW alarmist, does not exist."
  • "repugnant to commonsense"


Believers in AGW are labelled as gullible:

  • "for being the naive and gullible guys who seem to have been seized with something like intellectual panic when they heard of AGW theory, (from which) they are slowly recovering as they realize that the sun still rises - apparently - in the east".



They are derided:


  • "They are confusionists. The AGW theory is a fallacy. The theory that CO2 causes warming, and that such warming is a threat to civilisation can only be described as a crazy vagary, a disgrace to our age"
  • "as rational scientists, AGW proponents are fair cyclists"
  • "the moronic brain child of mental colic"
  • "cross-eyed physics"
  • "utterly mad"
  • "the nadir of pure drivel"
  • "voodoo nonsense"



Prognostications are made about how stupid the AGW alarmist crowd will look in the future:


  • "..by 2020 AGW will be considered a joke. Hansen is already dead and buried alongside Anderson, Grimm, and the Mad Hatter"
  • "As I cast my eyes over the whole course of science, I behold instances of false science, even more pretentious and popular than that of AGW, gradually fading into ineptitude under the searchlight; and I have no doubt that there will be a new generation who will look with wonder and amazement, deeper than now accompany AGW, at our galaxy of thinkers, men of science, popular critics, authoritative professors and witty celebrities who have been satisfied to waive their commonsense in view of AGW's fallacies."


And of course there are the out and out nutters:

  • a bid for "Jewish world rule".



Now there is something wrong with these quotes. They have been taken out of context and modified. They are quotes from nearly a century ago, and were addressed to what was then a new theory, by a Swiss patent clerk. Below you will find the quotes, as they appear in "Einstein: a life" by Denis Brian (John Wiley & Sons, 1996).

So it turns out that AGW skeptics are not very original. They come up with the same type of stuff now as people did a century ago, when faced with an idea that offended them. The quotes were from learned people, professors, engineers etc. One, Dr Arthur Lynch, "produced an impressive list of European scientists who,..., turned thumbs down on Einstein's theory: Henri Poincare, mathematician Gaston Daroux, etc etc". Now there is an idea, make a list of scientists who disagree with the new theory.

There was, in Germany where Einstein lived and worked when the furore began, an Anti-Relativity League (also known as the Anti-Einstein League). They ridiculed relativity as being absurd. However, their motives were also racial, as Einstein was Jewish. Some time later, as Nazi's, they decided that relativity was correct, but had actually been invented by a German.

It should be noted that Einstein cranks do still exist, and at least one claims that many scientists agree with him, but are too scared to say so for fear of offending the scientific establishment and losing their jobs. Ring a bell?

Here are the original quotes:

  • "The supposed astronomical proofs of the theory, as cited and claimed by Einstein, do not exist."
  • From the New York Times, about the British: "for being the naive and gullible guys who seem to have been seized with something like intellectual panic when they heard of photographic verification of the Einstein theory, (from which) they are slowly recovering as they realize that the sun still rises - apparently - in the east".
  • "repugnant to commonsense"
  • "He is a confusionist. The Einstein theory is a fallacy. The theory that the 'ether' does not exist, and that gravity is not a force but a property of space can only be described as a crazy vagary, a disgrace to our age"
  • "as a rational physicist, Einstein is a fair violinist"
  • "the moronic brain child of mental colic"
  • "cross-eyed physics"
  • "utterly mad"
  • "the nadir of pure drivel"
  • "voodoo nonsense"
  • "..by 1940 relativity will be considered a joke. Einstein is already dead and buried alongside Anderson, Grimm, and the Mad Hatter"
  • "As I cast my eyes over the whole course of science, I behold instances of false science, even more pretentious and popular than that of Einstein, gradually fading into ineptitude under the searchlight; and I have no doubt that there will be a new generation who will look with wonder and amazement, deeper than now accompany Einstein, at our galaxy of thinkers, men of science, popular critics, authoritative professors and witty dramatists who have been satisfied to waive their commonsense in view of Einstein's fallacies."
  • a bid for "Jewish world rule".

2010-09-01 02:57:15
doug_bostrom

dbostrom@clearwire...
184.77.83.151

Those are fun recastings, John.

I wonder if you could use a subset of those to introduce a brief treatment of "why deny?" The 20-30% of people who are hard-core doubters of selective portions of scientific knowledge are themselves in turn becoming a topic of fascination among social scientists. If you look at results from Leiserowitz and others it's possible to tease out some information about these people. 

Working backwards from Leiserowitz's papers and delving into his references would be a great place to start on this.

http://environment.yale.edu/profile/leiserowitz/publications 

2010-09-02 00:19:10
Ned

ned.flounders@yahoo...
129.170.23.6

I dunno.  I hate to be negative, but somehow this idea just doesn't seem all that appropriate to me.  It might be interesting to have a more in-depth look at how the resistance to previous scientific revolutions was similar to or different to our current situation.  But so far, this mostly seems like "People back then used the same kinds of dismissive and insulting remarks, and they were wrong."  That in itself doesn't prove that similarly insulting or dismissive "skeptics" are wrong today.

The other thing is that I don't think many "skeptic" readers would self-identify with the anti-relativity "skeptics".  People naturally tend to see themselves as the heroes rather than the villains, so in any analogy like this (or the much more common Galileo one) the "skeptics" will probably see themselves as latter-day Einsteins, Galileos, and Alfred Wegeners, with the IPCC and the rest of us "warmists" being the folks who persecuted those fine scientists for the sake of preserving an erroneous "consensus".

2010-09-02 10:02:58Why deny?
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.105.199

I see mostly one reason: People quickly get the sense that dealing with the AGW issue is likely to bring economic hardship (or at least constraints). Not wanting that, they rather look for some reason to disqualify the science. (This psychological analysis applies to "ordinary" people. Of course, if you're a coal or oil executive, it applies in spades, with gasoline on top.)

 

 

2010-09-03 10:00:01
doug_bostrom

dbostrom@clearwire...
184.77.83.151

I see classical denial and cognitive dissonance as scientific phenomena w/a direct relevance to this issue, in some ways more interesting than the basic physics of anthropogenic global warming.

Our better  though still imperfect understanding of how we think is where lies the difference between comparisons with Galileo and what we can usefully say about modern, degenerate "skepticism" of the type we encounter here. 

In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that the scientific challenge of developing better understanding of behavioral economics and other psychological aspects of AGW and thus possibly being able to develop better communications tools is a far more pressing concern at this point than conducting further research into some of the physical aspects of this challenge. 

So-called "skepticism" is undoubtedly cementing emissions into place today that we'll be dealing with for centuries to come; disbelief can be indirectly measured in gigatons of C02.  The 20 years we've spent waffling on this issue will be measurable in many physical ways.

Disbelief is effectively a forcing agent as well as an increasingly tractable scientific phenomenon.

2010-09-03 11:45:00
Ned

ned.flounders@yahoo...
71.168.77.250
Doug writes:
In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that the scientific challenge of developing better understanding of behavioral economics and other psychological aspects of AGW and thus possibly being able to develop better communications tools is a far more pressing concern at this point than conducting further research into some of the physical aspects of this challenge. 

So-called "skepticism" is undoubtedly cementing emissions into place today that we'll be dealing with for centuries to come; disbelief can be indirectly measured in gigatons of C02.  The 20 years we've spent waffling on this issue will be measurable in many physical ways.

Disbelief is effectively a forcing agent as well as an increasingly tractable scientific phenomenon.

Those are excellent points, expressed in very thought-provoking ways.  

However, I'm still uncertain what the best way is to discuss this on a public forum without turning the thread into an angry mess.   I think it would be important for the health of the site as a whole to take great care that any discussions of the psychology of denial are done in a sensitive and non-inflammatory manner.  People tend to take umbrage when they feel you are making critical remarks about their psychology.

Note to self: This is a reminder that I ought to do a better job of ensuring that my own comments on SkS are sensitive and non-inflammatory, regardless of the topic!

2010-09-03 12:26:16Comment
Robert Way

robert_way19@hotmail...
142.162.188.138
I agree with Ned,
I really don't know about the appropriateness of making this an official blogpost on SKS. I understand how it would be interesting but one of the things that I cherish SKS for is sticking to the science and not stepping into Romm or Watts territory...
2010-09-03 14:23:20
doug_bostrom

dbostrom@clearwire...
184.77.83.151

At the end of the day I believe psychology is something we can touch on when all other avenues of explanation for why we're headed for disaster have been explored and found to be dead ends. Skeptical Science was founded (oops, speaking for John but I think I'm right!) on the premise of looking at the physical sciences aspect of climate change, a sufficiently vast topic to entirely preoccupy us.

That being said, a really concrete -blog- post on the psychological aspects might be fun, once. That's a decision that would have to come from Senior Management, I suspect. :-) 

2010-09-06 16:44:41OK.
John Brookes

jcb@cyllene.uwa.edu...
130.95.128.51

Thanks for the feedback guys.  I think I'll let it rest for now and re-visit later when inspiration strikes.

 I think that the psychology of the contrarian movement is a very interesting area.

We all hold in our minds a map of our world. We don't like to change that map - it is painful to do so.  Within the map some things are more important than others.  Like having two arms.  Having to redraw the map after the loss of one arm is exceptionally difficult (but someone born with one arm has only ever had a map with one arm, and its not a problem).  When your house is broken into, it hurts, because (most of us) have a map in which our house is secure.  Having your house broken into means having to rebuild the map, perhaps with the external world not quite as safe as before.  I think that it is at this level that most denialists operate.  They have in their mental map, perhaps quite unknown to them, included the fact that the world is there for them to use as they see fit. Maybe this fits into their concept of "freedom".  So they are fighting, as much as for anything else, to avoid having to change their map of the world.

 This "freedom" concept is far stronger in the US and Australia where recent expansion and conquest of nature is fresh.  It is far less strong in Europe where people have spent centuries living within the constraints of geography and their fellow man.  Hence anti-AGW sentiment is stronger in the US and Australia.  Perhaps this also explains the high representation of geologists in the contrarian camp - after all, their mindset is to find things in the earths crust and exploit them.

 Environmentalists often talk of limited resources, and climate change is about the ability of the atmosphere and ocean to accept gigatonnes of CO2 without any harmful consequences being a limited resource.  Anti-environmentalists recognise another limited resource, their life.  That is, religious beliefs notwithstanding, they think they only have ~80 years to enjoy themselves, and they don't want egg-heads making rules to limit their enjoyment of their allotted time. 

 Christianity, for example, has from time to time been invoked to encourage curtailing your excesses in this world in return for joy in the next.  In psychology, there is a famous experiment where children are left with a tasty biscuit on a plate and told that if they don't eat it, the experimenter will return with another.  The experimenter does not return with another biscuit, but instead waits until the child secumbs to temptation.  How long the child manages to hold out is, apparently, a very good predictor of future success in life.

 A history of the conflict between limited external resources and a limited lifespan might prove interesting.....

2010-09-06 16:48:47Child temptation
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
121.222.93.62
If a child's ability to resist snacking is a sign of future success, I'm a bit concerned about my daughter's future prospects :-(
2010-09-07 03:33:28
doug_bostrom

dbostrom@clearwire...
184.77.83.151
John, no fear, we just need to redefine "success!" :-)
2010-09-07 04:54:32
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.100.6

Maybe it's a question of the kid's willingness to believe an authority figure.

A skeptical kid might decide fairly quickly that the whole "experiment" was a put-up job - and s/he would be right!

2010-09-08 01:46:58Disbelief
jimalakirti

jimalakirti@gmail...
70.56.240.163

Hopefully without sounding angry, I would like to briefly explore a rough categorization of people who deny either Darwin, Einstein, or global warming. It appears that they disbelieve for similar reasons, and can be divided into three rough groups.

1) They don't understand the science or they are simply not interested enough to think about it themselves and they accept the word of someone they consider an authority. 

2) They can understand most of the science pretty well, at least in general, but they deny it because they don't want to believe it. Their reasons may be religious, economic, or political.

The religious denier of evolution, for example, believes evolution theory contradicts the word of God. The same person may believe that God created the earth for mankind to dominate and would not let us harm the earth by our activities. Or they may believe that it is irreligious hubris for humans to presume to want to control the climate.

The economic denier is likely to have an interest in fossil fuels, manufacturing, the stock market, or other issues that might suffer if global warming theory interferes with commerce or the economy in any way.

The non-professional political denier might not want government messing with their life-style by making a bunch of regulations, rules, and limits on things they think ought to be free.

3) There are surely some deniers who understand the science pretty well in general, and who understand it well enough to know that it is probably true, but have ulterior motives for denying it. A preacher might not want to affirm global warming in a sermon to avoid offending or frightening his flock. A politician might deny it because s/he knows his/her constituents don't believe global warming or are hostile to the idea for other reasons. I believe there are a lot of politicians who understand global warming pretty well, but who are denying it now that we are about to have an election where the lines are solidly drawn around global warming. We have senators and congresspersons who have supported and even introduced bills for energy policy based on global warming, who now deny the science and are voting against bills they previously supported. It looks suspicious when nearly all Democrats appear to believe in human-caused climate change, and nearly all Republicans are deniers.

Opinion-makers are hard to figure. Many of them simply want to stir the pot. Their business thrives on controversy and if there is not a controversy going they will invent one. Some of them have literally millions of avid followers. The climate change controversy was practically invented by them and they restir this pot on a regular basis, using the same old, solidly refuted propositions they started out with. They don't give a damn about the science.

Now for the part that troubles me. Which of these groups of deniers is likely to have many members who read Skeptical Science or any scientific global warming articles or books for that matter? Does Skeptical Science have any actual, regular denier readers? Or are we all talking to ourselves, believing with the same kind of faith that the deniers have in their denial, that someone, out there somewhere, is listening and we can change public opinion in time to save the earth for our descendants?

2010-09-08 02:34:16re: Disbelief
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.122.182

jimalakirti,

We cannot force people to think or to read decent science, all we can do is to make it accessible: by preparing it in a form easy to understand, well-suited for the way that questions may come up.

We are never going to convince the committed deniers. But there are occasionally people who are honestly on the fence; and they can be swayed by seeing a good discussion as opposed to a bad discussion.

After all, this is why it is worthwhile to discuss things on a blog: You're not really writing for your opponent (probably hopeless) but rather for the bystanders. Once in a blue moon, I have had someone, who never commented in the blog, thank me for providing some key insights that broke through the deniers' talking points.

SkS provides a convenient reference in blog discussions, in that you can refer someone to a well-documented, well-considered argument that is specific to the topic. I think there is such a thing as a tipping point in public opinion: We haven't reached it yet for AGW; but neither have the deniers. We have to try to win.

 

2010-09-08 05:27:35Neal: thanks for the comments
jimalakirti

jimalakirti@gmail...
70.56.240.163

I actually agree with you most of the time. I have had a climate/evolution/critical thinking/nuclear energy blog for some time so have been reading Skeptical Science for a long time. Disappointed with the relatively low readership of my own blog, I became active on a handful of the best science blogs I know about. I put Skeptical Science at the top of the list of sites that offered the opportunity to be taken seriously and potentially reach a much larger audience. So here I am. So far I have only managed to distribute a dozen or so green thumbs, but I hope to write or edit stuff after I get my bearings.

 But, late at night, under my one-bulb florescent lamp, my Wild Turkey getting warm in the glass, and my head nodding over some quotation from David Hume or somebody, the dark thoughts I expressed above sweep over me and I wonder if anybody out there is listening or if we are crying out in the wilderness.

2010-09-08 05:46:43to quote Oscar Wiide
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.122.182
"All of us are in the gutter; but some of us are looking at the stars."
2010-09-08 08:42:23
doug_bostrom

dbostrom@clearwire...
184.77.83.151

Dr. Ricky Rood (ought to be a radio host w/that name, but he's not) offers some useful analysis of Leiserowitz's work and some thoughts on ways forward with climate change communications, taking politics and psychology into account:

Part 1:

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=169&tstamp=

 

Part 2:

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=170

 

Worth noting, we ignore all this psychological and political stuff at the risk of wasting time and work, unnecessarily and fruitlessly chasing unattainable targets. A lot of us "hard science" enthusiasts are not very onboard with squishy social sciences in part because groups of people can usefully be characterized mostly as population segments, statistical bulges. If it helps, consider that the same is true of a saturated solution in the domain of physical chemistry; we cannot say exactly which salt molecule will be donate its atoms to a solution and what atoms will become salt molecules but we can still characterize and predict the behavior of the solution. 

Rood's point about focusing attention on "the cautious"  is plausible and offers a way of conserving effort for where it is likely to produce results.