2010-09-13 21:02:02Suggested reading for Skeptical Science authors
John Cook


Occasionally I read papers that open my eyes to the complexities of communicating climate science to the general public. Over the years, I've learnt that the human mind is complex (yes, it takes me a while to realise the obvious). Thus the job of communicating science is also complex. It's not just a matter of explaining the facts. We have to take into account the psychology of how people process information, particularly info that challenges them to change their lifestyles. And there is no magic bullet, no one-size-fits-all strategy that will part the waters for us - different audiences react differently. So I'm using this thread to collect valuable papers and resources I've encountered that illuminate about science communication.

The first paper I'll list here is The Psychology of Global Warming: Improving the Fit between the Science and the Message (Newell & Pitman 2010). There are lots of good strategies when communicating face to face with people or a group of people. I've excerpted a few take-home points specifically applicable to writing Skeptical Science rebuttals:

  • Several lines of research suggest that numerical information expressed in a frequency format (e.g., 1 out of 100) is more easily interpreted and reasoned with and has a greater influence on judgments than identical information presented as percentages (1%) or probabilities (0.01). Framing outcomes in terms of numbers like 20 out of 100 (rather than 0.2 or 20%) can engage affective processing because they feel more concrete to individuals than probabilities and percentages.
  • Do not assume that your audience will interpret numerical information and figures as you do (you are unlikely to be speaking to an audience that is as familiar with quantitative relationships as you). Thus, numerical information should be conveyed when possible using an easy-tounderstand format (frequency formats have many advantages) combined with straightforward graphs [e.g., pie charts rather than probability density functions (PDFs)] with a minimum of potentially opaque abbreviations such as ppmv or 106.
  • The public perception and media portrayal of the [climate] community as being unwilling to listen to dissenters combined with an unassailable belief in the correctness of their position need to be addressed. On the perception side, climate scientists must strive to be trusted, credible sources of information without, if possible, engaging in advocacy and divisive rhetoric. In short, try to let the science speak for itself in a clear, comprehensible manner

I'll subsequently be posting more interesting papers on the subject of science communication in this thread. I encourage others if you've read a paper on science communication to feel free to post it here. Can I just suggest as well as a link, that you also include a few take-home points you got from the paper.

2010-09-13 21:52:19What caught my eye


was the discussion on "groupthink":

Groupthink: A label to describe defective decision making that can arise from highly cohesive, insular groups that have directed leadership, a lack of procedures for search and appraisal of information, and low confidence in the ability to find an alternative solution to the one favored by the leader.

Preventative: To avoid public perception that the climate science community has been beset by “groupthink,” steer clear of an us (believers) vs them (deniers) portrayal in your presentations of the scientific evidence.

The point here is to avoid giving the impression that those promoting the views compatible with climate science are an army of brain-washed zombies who cannot hear or think about other points of view.

Part of doing this is to take seriously that there ARE other points of view, that are not inherently ridiculous. They just happen to be wrong; but that has to be shown by reasoning and evidence, not assumed prior to discussion.

2010-09-14 03:01:23Comment
Robert Way

I think although I can see how the tangible effects of using real numbers rather than probabilities will have its effect on the general public, I disagree with the notion of not entering the fray and letting the science speak for itself. I think that we in the scientific community have done a poor job of communicating the science to the average individual who is out there looking. The reason the other side is winning this battle is because they can sit back and pick apart theories and ideas and many of the scientists out there do not step into the fray and show when arguments are obviously diluted with falsified information. There is far too little engagement among those actually writing the science and those who read it. WUWT may be quite the beacon of misinformation but they are doing a better job of mass producing information that influences individuals better than the scientific community. I spent quite a bit of time over at climate audit in the past and ill tell you what, when scientists like rob wilson came in and engaged those there and challenged them and disagreed and showed why, that is where I saw the biggest increase in respect for those members in the scientific community. I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that we let the science speak for itself. On one side we have science that most people can't access and on the other we have blogs purportedly showing that the scientists are incorrect. Whose the public to believe? It is our job as stephen schneider would put it to step in and engage and be straight up when you see dishonesty.

There is a reason that people like Tamino, Eli Rabett, James Annan do so much for the debate compared to the scientists who sit back and publish, write a press release and go about their day. No one says that we have to go all real climate on other groups and be aggressive to dissenting voices but to clearly show the tactics being used by those on the opposing side, then to show the science and let people decide for themselves if they are being mislead is something that I think is necessary.
2010-09-14 03:09:05No one is talking about being a wuss


The issue is flies: honey vs. vinegar

Plus: If you start off with honey, you can always turn up the heat if needed; if you start off with vinegar, there's nowhere to go but down.

2010-09-14 03:22:13Comment
Robert Way

I'm certainly not advocating starting with vinegar, I think that the tongue-in cheek approach is preferable to the straight up honey approach. I think that people need to know how they are being mislead and how simple arguments are being told in a particular way. It is like I said to John previously, to come to the conclusion that glaciers are growing would require a lot more time spent on a WUWT like site than simply an honest arbiter who is just making their way through the internet. I think in the first 10 minutes of jumping into the climate foray it should be easy to be convinced of some of the very key principles like glaciers are losing ice. That being said the issue of antarctica is a bit more argumentative but with respect to glaciers I see it only being that if you are told that glaciers are now all growing then you are being mislead for a reason.

I just think that we have one chance to make an impression and that is it. They are being told on one side that we are fudging the data and out there for grant money and such and yet on our side we are supposed to just say completely and 100% the science. I disagree with that approach because I feel it has been adopted my a lot of scientists and has been ineffective. I do not advocate aggression nor do I advocate unilateral attack or anything of the sort, but I cannot in good conscience advocate pretending that arguments are not being contrived disingenuously....
2010-09-14 03:46:00If their argument is wrong


then explain what is wrong with it: Don't start out by calling them liars.

This is the internet: Nobody can see the tongue in your cheek. 

Sarcasm and irony are inherently ambiguous: using them in a written discussion is like playing with a loaded pistol.

"I just think that we have one chance to make an impression": That's exactly right. So make sure it's a good one.

 "we are supposed to just say completely and 100% the science": That's because we're the adults in this discussion.

If you're in the middle of a discussion and someone pulls a fast one, you can call him on it, and listeners/readers will know where you're coming from. But when you start off an article by attacking people that haven't shown up, you're attacking your own projections. There's nobody there. It doesn't help your case.


2010-09-14 05:00:09Comment
Robert Way

How many times do you actually "catch" these people who are pulling the fast ones and have the populous clue in and call out the person? It doesn't happen terribly often with 90% of the skeptic talking points. No one was outright attacking any other individuals or advocating it. In some ways it seems as though you are building a bit of a straw man with all of this. IT is a comparison between saying basically " if someone tells you this they are probably lying to you " and saying " here is my science, shed aside your preconceived notions originating from liars and just agree with me because the science is in front of you" ... I've just had the impression that it is effective to be straight up and tell people that certain statements they hear are misleading. There is a reason that Greenman's videos are watched by as many people as they are... no one is advocating jumping into the fray swinging like him but sitting on the side like scientists have done for years and just "letting the science speak for itself" has not been reaching as well as the approaches of the author side. In fighting an enemy on their own ground we have to adapt to be able to win.

If it is your impression that the articles this is all alluding to don't make a good impression then i'm sure you must have big issue with the three articles I did on antarctic mass balance before. (here, here and here) I did not get any negative feedback from anyone for the way I framed the issue there. Those posts were a lot more stinging then just saying that someone who is advocating Antarctica is gaining ice is likely trying to invoke confusion rather than a sound understanding of the existing science...
2010-09-14 07:38:00


I probably didn't read them that carefully at the time.

The point is, an opening like:

"There are some individuals out there who still make grand statements such that Greenland is Gaining Ice."

has all the dignity of someone standing up in a bar and challenging anyone to a fistfight.

2010-09-14 08:48:48Just to clarify what I was trying to say when I started this thread...
John Cook


The main point I was making is that the human mind is complex so we need to take into account psychology when we frame our science. One study a psychologist told me about was that when you rebut a wrong argument, it’s not enough just to give the facts – you also need to provide a narrative on how they’re wrong and/or why they’re doing it. Otherwise, it’s just a case of your facts against his. So I definitely agree with Robert – we need to expose the rhetorical methods of skeptics, not just present the facts. Robert's articles on glaciers were very good at doing this and I agree with his approach.

But how we do it is also important. I think on Skeptical Science at least, it needs to be done in a dispassionate manner without divisive, inflammatory rhetoric. Otherwise you alienate a lot of readers. That’s another one of the complexities of communicating science – how you say it is just as important as what you say. As Randy Olsen says, even likeability is a big factor (he goes so far as to say sex appeal is a factor but let’s not go there).

I also avoid accusing people of deception. Not just for strategic reasons – I think people are a lot less deceptive than we think they are. Never underestimate the power of cognitive bias - people can often post wrong, misleading information while being convinced of its truthfulness – or at least convinced they’re doing the right thing in presenting it the way they do. You don’t know what a person is thinking so I focus on exposing their wrong methods and let the reader decide their motives.

So that’s the take-home point from this ‘reading list’ – there’s a whole field of social science that examines how humans process information and how we need to take that into account when we communicate science. We should dip into that body of knowledge so we can be more effective.

2010-09-14 14:20:55I like this thread quite a lot
Jim Meador


I learned a lot by watching the Steve schneider video, but in some ways I don't think he changed many minds. Some of his answers were too quickly dismissive. In several instances his response was "No, that's wrong" without any real explanation. I think he might have changed more minds if he came across as willing to entertain the beliefs held by the skeptics. "Really, what do you base that on?" "Why do you think that?" "Where did you hear that?" "Well I believe that is wrong because ..." Give the person a chance to tell their side, and listen to what they are saying. Automatic rebuttals won't change anyones mind.

Also, the climate science community needs to regain a a claim to some skepticism. Somehow, it is scientists vs skeptics in this debate, when the very top message of this web site is that skepticism is an important part of science. Questioning data, methods, logic, conclusions is a good thing for any true scientist, and we need to try to connect to this aspect of the skeptics. Mind you I am not saying we have to buy into all the goofy, contradictory, unsupported arguments. But we do need to honor the skeptical spirit that keeps all of the scientific enterprise honest. I see this as a way to build bridges to the skeptic community and to prove the integrity of the information we present here. 

2010-09-14 16:18:46Stephen Schneider


did better than I had expected; and I actually suspect that he shook up more people than would admit to a mind change in one round, based on the body language of the interactions. (Just an impression)

But there is a trade-off: On the one hand, in general, I'm a big fan of "give'em enough rope, they'll hang themselves": give them enough evidence and reasoning to expose their contradictions. On the other hand, what do you do with the folks that are convinced that the Moon is made of green cheese? You have to dig deep enough to find SOME foundation of credibility that you can build upon. At some point, it has to count that he is a famous professor on the topic of discussion. That can be a crutch if you over-use it; but didn't think he over-did it.

For most of us in this group, that crutch is not available: We aren't world-famous climatologists. We don't have the "shock & awe" factor. If we're going to win any hearts & minds, it will be through consistently demonstrating good evidence and good sense. Sure, point out rhetorical shenanigans by the other side; but don't use inflammatory language. It's never going to convince the opponent, and it also alienates the third-party readers, whom there is some chance of swaying.

2010-09-15 05:21:00comment
Robert Way


"Sure, point out rhetorical shenanigans by the other side; but don't use inflammatory language. It's never going to convince the opponent, and it also alienates the third-party readers, whom there is some chance of swaying"

If the suggestion was ways in which the inflammatory language can be toned down while showing the shenanigans that the other side employed then certainly there would of been very little debate. However the suggestion was to remove any language which implied any shenanigans were going on in all articles. I think that things would be more reasoned if a less argumentative approach to this debate had been taken. Take doug for example. He came in and made suggestions which I thought were highly helpful that toned down the rhetoric but did not remove all the bite. That is more of what I was hoping to receive through this peer review process rather than such a full-blown issue.

Hopefully those aspects are resolved now and we can move on to trying to deal with how to present the graphs in the articles we were debating over more effectively.
2010-09-15 08:23:50


If you want to show shenanigans, the most effective way is to demonstrate them: Do the explanation right, and display the confusion by contrast. Don't start out swinging.

As someone once said, "Never wrestle with a pig: You get dirty, and the pig enjoys it."

2010-09-15 10:10:41Another paper on psychology and climate
John Cook


I'm going to continue to use this thread as a placeholder for papers on climate science and human pyschology. Another one I just found out about: The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of - and Making Progress In - The American Culture War of Fact (Kahan et al 2007).

Kahan et al. (2007) conducted an experiment with people who held a hierarchical and individualistic worldview (conservative/libertarian) where subjects were provided two versions of a newspaper article that cites a scientific study of global warming. In both versions, the report was described as finding that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth's climate could have disastrous environmental and economic consequences. In one, however, the scientific report was described as calling for increased antipollution regulation, whereas in another it was described as calling for revitalization of the nation's nuclear power industry.

The experiment revealed that individualists and hierarchs who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report—that the earth’s temperature was increasing, that humans were the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed—than were individualists and hierarchs who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Individualists and hierarchs who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were hierarchs and individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story—and thus no information relating to the scientific report that made these findings. Individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.

2010-09-15 14:30:16Cultural cognition of scientific consensus (Kahan 2010)
John Cook


New research, essentially telling us what we already know: Cultural cognition of scientific consensus  (Kahan 2010) (thanks to Julian for the heads up):

The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals' beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns.

More info from a press article reporting on the paper:

"We know from previous research," said Dan Kahan, "that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment."
In the study, subjects with individualistic values were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were over 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change is unsettled.
"The problem isn't that one side 'believes' science and another side 'distrusts' it," said Kahan referring to an alternate theory of why there is political conflict on matters that have been extensively researched by scientists.
He said the more likely reason for the disparity, as supported by the research results, "is that people tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an 'expert' only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial."

And this is the money quote, I believe:

"The problem won't be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe," added Braman. "To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments."
2010-09-15 14:43:38Comment
Robert Way

2010-09-16 22:38:39Schwarz et al 2007 on problems with correcting misinformation


Nice thread topic, John.  Here's one to consider:

Schwarz et al. 2007.  Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight: implications for debiasing and public information campaigns.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 39: 127-161.

From the introduction:

Social and cognitive psychologists discovered an ever increasing number of systematic biases and illustrated their pervasive role in judgment and decision making [...] Similarly, researchers in applied fields, like health and consumer behavior, identified numerous erroneous beliefs that impair good decisions and prevent people from doing what would be in their best interest [...] In both cases, the remedy seems obvious: If people only thought enough about the issues at hand, considered all the relevant information and employed proper reasoning strategies, their decision making would surely improve. This assumption is at the heart of numerous strategies that attempt to debias human judgment [...] it is likewise central to public information campaigns designed to dispel erroneous beliefs and to replace them with more accurate information [...]

Sounds just like what we do here at Skeptical Science, right?  But it apparently doesn't work:

Unfortunately, these attempts to improve decision making often fail to achieve their goals, even under conditions assumed to foster rational judgment.  [...]  Presumably, erroneous beliefs can be dispelled by confronting them with contradictory evidence. Yet attempts to do so often increase later acceptance of the erroneous beliefs, as known since Allport and Lepkin’s pioneering research (1945) into rumor transmission. Again, the unintended effect arises because the educational strategy focuses solely on information content and ignores the metacognitive experiences that are part and parcel of the reasoning process.

The paper is very long, and though the first part of it is rather slow reading, there's a lot of thought-provoking material in later sections.  One finding (see pp. 147-153) which got a lot of attention is that repeating a piece of commonly held misinformation, then debunking it, tends to actually solidify the misinformation in people's minds in the long term.  If you are worried about people believing myths about the safety of vaccines, and you try to educate them using an approach like:

     Myth: Vaccines contain mercury-based preservatives which cause autism.

     Fact:  [...]

people may accept your explanation at the time, but in the long run what they remember is "There's some problem involving mercury in vaccines, which makes kids develop autism or something like that...."

 You might not want to wade through the whole paper, but definitely check out this summary from the Washington Post:

Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach

2010-09-16 22:52:55If we believe the article above,


"Myth-busters, in other words, have the odds against them."

But in fact, the entire approach of SkS is to identify myths and to take them apart. 

So how would we change our strategy?

Or are we just aiming for the people for whom the findings above do not apply?

2010-09-17 01:10:14


nealjking, I see a couple of answers to that, though I don't know whether they're satisfactory.

First, the "debunkings" here are very useful for people who just want answers to a specific question.  Is Greenland gaining or losing ice?  Was the Medieval Warm Period global?  How do we know CO2 is rising?  Type any of those into Google, and Skeptical Science is the first or second result that comes up.  

This is a bit different than the Schwarz et al situation.  A fact sheet with counter-arguments to myths about vaccination might be useless (or worse) in shaping opinions of the general public, but perhaps it's very useful in answering specific questions when put into the hands of people who are already actively seeking answers to those questions.

Second,  I also think the visual imagery is very important in shaping impressions.  It's possible that, given the two statements "Skeptic claims X, but Science says Y" people may not remember the pro-science argument a week or a month later.  But if there are clear, strong visual materials that reinforce the pro-science argument, that might be much more effective in influencing people's long-term impressions.

Third ... and this is the main point, but also one where I might be on more shaky ground ...

The real value of this site may not come in changing the opinions of people who arrive here with already-formed skeptic viewpoints, but in shaping the opinions of people who arrive here with questions in mind but who don't already have strong viewpoints.

In other words, all of our arguing with Berenyi, Ken Lambert, RSVP, etc may be useless in convincing them, no matter how much evidence we provide.   But there may be other people following the "back-and-forth" who will be convinced to join one side or the other.  The point of this article is that, yes, we have the evidence on our side, but unfortunately the quality of evidence isn't necessarily the most important thing in terms of getting those bystanders to identify with the pro-science side.  We need to write in a way that will convey impressions of trustworthiness, openness, and reasonableness so that Ms/Mr Anonymous Lurker will feel both intellectually and emotionally inclined towards the pro-science side of the argument.   We have the facts on our side, but that won't matter if we make a negative emotional impression.

I forget this all the time -- I get too focused on arguing with the denialist-of-the-day, and get unreasonably annoyed when she/he fails to concede defeat in the face of my obviously superior evidence.   :-)

What's important is not that Jane Doe visits the site and then a month later can correctly answer the question "Why is there a lag between temperature and CO2 in the ice cores?"  Instead, what's really important is that Jane Doe visits the site, has fun, explores some more, learns a bit about climate and how the Earth's climate works ... and a month later self-identifies with the pro-science side of the argument.

Does any of this make sense?

2010-09-17 04:51:50The point is to win the people, not just the argument



What you're saying reminds me of the situation in technical standards: You need to have good technical arguments to make your case, but what's really going on is political. It's really, really helpful if the people you're dealing with think that your approach to matters is fair and reasonable, and that they can trust you to keep your word. 

If they can't trust you and basically don't like you, it's very difficult to get anything done: Nobody will cut you any slack.

In doing these expository articles for SkS, I think it's important to convey an open mind that is fundamentally respectful of other people's right to have an opinion. On that basis, you can also point out problems with opinions that don't happen to be correct. Ideally, as you said, a visitor should have a little fun visiting the site: Reading an article should provide some learning, some insight; it shouldn't be like enduring a preaching or a fight.

OK, so maybe we don't have to give up the ship right away.

2010-09-17 06:44:00The danger of reinforcing a myth
John Cook

The cognitive scientist Steve Lewandowsky showed me those studies about how rebutting a myth can reinforce the myth. My initial reaction was horror: I'm making things worse! But Steve put the studies in context. Firstly, the myth reinforcing happened mostly with older people, not so much with younger folk. Secondly, the reinforcing depended much on how you presented the rebuttal. Having the skeptic argument in big bold heading made it more likely to stick in the persons mind. Consequently I went through all my rebuttals and changed the headings from having the skeptic argument as the page title to a more neutral, open question. I also tried to strengthen the visual formatting - the red skeptic box, the green 'what the science says' box. I think having snappy one liner rebuttals helps provide an answer that sticks in the readers mind.

So the take home for me was HOW you do the rebuttal is just as important as your content. Your tone is also important. As Neal says, an open minded, respectful tone is important in not alienating readers. And it also highlighted to me the importance of social science and the imperative of factoring in human psychology when communicating science. Hence this thread. I think it's excellent we're discussing our approach based on these studies.

2010-09-17 21:12:19


John, thanks for the explanation of how you've responded to the challenge of countering myths without reinforcing them.  That's fascinating!  All of your "adaptations" seem sensible to me. 

This also seems worthy of comment:  "And it also highlighted to me the importance of social science and the imperative of factoring in human psychology when communicating science. Hence this thread. I think it's excellent we're discussing our approach based on these studies."

I'm increasingly convinced that social science and psychology are the most important "fronts" in the movement to minimize/mitigate climate change.  It may sound odd coming from a physical scientist, but ... we already have all the physical sciences research we need to justify action.  More research is of course interesting, and useful in improving our understanding of the earth system, and it will certainly be necessary for effective planning of mitigation strategies.  The things that are holding us back right now are all in the psychologists' and social scientists' court. 

That said, I'm always a bit bothered when we veer into "public" discussions of things like the psychology of skepticism/denialism on the main site.   People understandably don't like having their "side's" psychological issues dissected, particularly by people on the other "side".  They naturally think that they've come by their own opinions rationally and objectively, and suggesting otherwise will both (a) annoy them, and (b) reduce the credibility of the rest of the site in their eyes.

So I guess I'd say it's great to talk about the psychology of skepticism in semi-private forums like this, or perhaps in a blog context that was clearly differentiated from the rest of the Skeptical Science site ... but it seems best to avoid introducing the subject directly into the stream of discussion on the main site itself.   (The same goes for politics, too ... these two subjects both have the potential to make people's minds snap shut if they're not handled sensitively....)

2010-09-17 23:37:21

Ned, I agree: This is an internal discussion.
2010-09-19 03:57:21Comment
Robert Way

I really agree with Ned on that one too. I am certainly a lot more inclined to having discussion of physical sciences rather than try to get into the psychology behind certain views. You can find a percentage of any population which is skeptical of many well understood theories and facts. When you start trying to say you're in their head then people get very hostile and we start looking like we are trying to play God a little.

In terms of forums like this, yes it is very interesting and helps going into the future. I think that personally the largest disconnect that we see in climate science communication is caused by a lack of engagement by the scientific community. Although there are a lot of scientists who are out there and engaging there should be far more direct engagement of the skeptic community. I always find that although there will be several skeptics who will ardently defend anything, some of the periphery ones realize very quickly how much knowledge scientists have when they hear or see them actually talking about these things. The impression a lot of skeptics give is that the scientists aren't as knowledgeable as they are. I find a real big issue I see also is because when you see scientists in the media or debating or on shows on tv, you always hear them saying, the earth is warming, glaciers are melting... and so on... but you rarely hear them say "We can see using satellites that the greenhouse effect is increasing where more CO2 is in the atmosphere."

I just find I so rarely see scientists come out on these programs and say the evidence that we are causing it, it is instead always the evidence that it is warming. Every time I hear that on TV (and I heard it the other night on the Colbert Report during an interview with a climate scientist) I think that they are given a chance to hit a home run but instead they're hitting a single... Sure they're on base but... 
2010-09-19 14:31:53Evidence for human influence on climate
John Cook


That's why I find weird too. I'm always going on about the 'human fingerprint' but rarely see other sources going on about it. Even the NOAA's "State of the Climate" hardly touched it, focusing instead on 10 signs of warming. Consequently a few days after that report came out, I felt the need for a "sequel", the 10 human fingerprints. Is there a reason hardly anyone else is expounding on the empirical evidence for human influence on climate? Is it because the evidence isn't as robust as I imagine or is it because scientists don't realise the main skeptic beef is attribution, not whether global warming is happening? Or some other reason?

BTW, my Dad is a climate skeptic and he won't even talk to me about it nowadays. Which is very frustrating, believe me! But he did watch that Steve Schneider show and afterwards, said it was "very challenging". That said to me there is incredible value in this kind of outreach by climate scientists. The next major thing I hope to do with Skeptical Science is try to get climate scientists more in direct contact with the public.

2010-09-19 15:43:22Well look at that...
Robert Way

Hey John,
Im having a late night but I also have had an epiphany in some of my own work. Nevertheless it got me thinking and here is the output of my thoughts:


Almost too perfect isnt it... Oh yeah... r2: 0.906 and statistically significant at greater than 99%

I know regressions are spurious but... well sometimes you have to sit there and really think about how simple some things really are... Oh by the way, correlation does not equal causation of course... I mean Global temperatures could be causing the AMO and CO2 to react that way.... lol... There is a causation test (Granger I believe) I might play around a little...

With respect to what you had to say... My cousin is a huge skeptic of everything... Ive got him to the coveted lukewarmer position but I dont think hes gonna make it any further than that. Good luck with your father though... it is a tough message to sell to some folks but really when they hear how smart the science people really are, then they start to think differently about things... but when they hear the non-stop the earth is warming kinda stuff (sorry about punctuation but my computer turned french on me and I have to restart it, long story) it doesnt reinforce a belief that we caused it. The most important thing today is really attribution and for people to hear the actual empirical evidence. Problem is most scientists dont talk about that and they bring up models too much... I find myself just always thinking... yes I know glaciers are melting... stop repeating it and say how we know we are causing it... I know myself personally though, that I am well armed NOW at least. In the past I wasnt but I feel like I am in a pretty good place for putting together a convincing argument. My paper that Im working on hopefully will do so eventhough it is for a small region. I have a presentation im putting together for a conference, i wouldnt mind if you could have a look at it sometime and let me know what you think.

2010-09-19 16:13:12Conference presentation
John Cook


Would love to check it out, Robert - either email it over or if you'd like more eyeballs looking at it, post it here on the forum.

Okay, about your graph. Firstly, interesting stuff. I love a graph that tells a story. Now, let me put my skeptic hat on. So what this graph is suggesting is that the major drivers of temperature in the 20th Century were the AMO and CO2? What about aerosol cooling mid-century? Solar warming in the first half of the 20th century? Volcanic cooling? Might it be more appropriate to do a fit of net radiative forcing + AMO? Eg: external forcing + internal variability?

2010-09-19 16:49:38Comment
Robert Way

Oh I agree, I dont think it actually does explain the majority of variations but I think its an interesting little exercise with an output that makes you wonder. Im actually not big on the aerosol theory myself. I know it has basis but a lot of uncertainties also.

With respect to the analysis... id prefer to just have your eyeballs at this point and then maybe a few more but im not inclined to have my research looked at by too many people before it has been published. Understandably so. I ran the same regression using the solar forcing added into this and it increases the r2 by 1%... so instead of 0.9 it goes to 0.91... theres no real noticeable difference. I think that one theory ive seen is that what happens is TSI itself doesnt warm the earth but just initializes processes which do. Im not saying I agree with that theory but it is kinda a teleconnections sort of thing between the NAO, TSI and AMO in one way or another. Volcanic cooling you can see there but its just a matter of amplitude. I mean I can see krakatau in 1883 or 84 and pinatubo in 1991 or 1992 and so on. I also think you can see the missing TSI values if you look at the 1940s.. Big discrepancy there... Strong La Nina in 2008 shown. Basically I have a hypothesis that globally CO2, the AMO (mixed in with NAO) and TSI explain long term changes. Amplitudes vary because of El Ninos or La Ninas and with volcanic eruptions and so on... but Globally it probably is a matter of teleconnections in one way or another. I think ill label the prominent features for you at some point... Just kinda to visualize that if you smooth out the La Ninas and El Ninos and volcanic eruptions it would fit amazingly. Svalgaard himself doesnt think the TSI has much strong effect on climate at all. I tend to disagree but like i said its a theory.
2010-09-19 16:54:49Comment
Robert Way

Net Forcing could certainly work better. But like I said this was unrelated work that led to this... So if I do get the data for forcings (where would I find that... ) then I can try a fit...
2010-09-19 16:56:23the problem is


that you cannot prove that it is due to humans; strictly logically, you can never prove causation. You can only show that that is the most reasonable conclusion, if you look at all the evidence. It's a tough argument to make, if a) the listener/viewer is not a scientist, used to dealing with uncertain and parallel lines of evidence; and especially if b) s/he doesn't want to believe it.

A good reason why scientists don't often go into the public sphere with their thoughts is that, frankly, many of them are not good at it. When there are debates between real climate scientists and denialists, the denialists usually win the debate (as measured by listener reaction): The scientists very often come across as defensive and dogmatic. It's not "fair", but it's the way it is: A confident smile and a good voice are much more important to winning a debate than a good sense of logic.

2010-09-23 10:56:43
Andy S


I think that it's very important to maintain the respectful, measured tone of the discourse at SkSc. Many lay people are offended by what they see as arrogance and elitism by climate scientists. I've had online debates with climate skeptics who are intelligent and articulate people but who think with their gut rather than their brains when it comes to climate matters. I tried hard to win them over, but for every ten good arguments I made, I would undo all that progress with one bit of snark or aggression. I'm not sure in the end that I changed any hard-line skeptic's mind but there were a lot of lurkers on that forum and who knows what impression they came away with. I think that what SkSc needs to do is help move the needle a little for the folk in the confused middle and not worry too much about changing the opinions of the real nutters.

Having said that, I do occasionally post some material anonymously on a blog that is almost pure snark. I'm not sure how much good it does in winning hearts and minds but it certainly provides some therapy for me. If anyone here needs to let off some steam in this way, email me (anonymously is OK) at agskuce@gmail.com


The following text comes from a letter I wrote to a prominent climate blogger, hoping that he would pick up some new ideas in psychology and run with them (he hasn't, yet). They may be relevant to the overall subject of this thread but I found them to be interesting in their own right.

I wouldn't be surprised if you were already aware of this but I think that there is a good deal of illuminating ideas in some of the talks at a recent Edge conference.

In particular, I like Jonathan Haidt's talk on his idea of five moral instincts with his analogy to the five fundamental food tastes . Are we failing to communicate because we (WEIRD people) focus too much on one or two  "taste" sensations? The WEIRD people paper that he mentions is also worth reading. 

The other two talks that impressed me were by Joshua Greene and David Pizarro. I think that the trolley-car examples are instructive in that we humans seem to have an instinct to favour a bad "natural" outcome over a better--but still bad--outcome in which we have actually taken some influential action. People are naturally reluctant to do anything (carbon tax, say, with immediate negatives for some) to alleviate the inevitable, seemingly irresistible effects of climate change 
By the way, WEIRD means  Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. Here's an extended quote from Jonathon Haidt's talk:
And finally, why is reasoning so biased and motivated whenever self-interest or self-presentation are at stake?  Wouldn't it be adaptive to know the truth in social situations, before you then try to manipulate?

The answer, according to Mercier and Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, and it's here on your handout, "The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things."

Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We're sitting here at a conference. We're reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other's reasoning. We can't find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that's what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.

But the private reasoning of any one scientist is often deeply flawed, because reasoning can be counted on to seek justification and not truth. The problem is especially serious in moral psychology, where we all care so deeply and personally about what is right and wrong, and where we are almost all politically liberal. I don't know of any Conservatives. I do know of a couple of people in moral psychology who don't call themselves liberal. I think, Roy, are you one?  Not to out you, but ... (Laughter). 


2010-09-29 20:41:42Weekly Global Warming News


Just in case nobody else has noted it, in the way of routine updates of an extraordinarily comprehensive nature, be sure to check in routinely w/H E Taylors weekly compendium, "Logging the Onset of The Bottleneck Years"


Compact indexes are available here:


Typical fluffed up version via All Things Ill Considered here:



Taylor does an amazing job. Another resource of the type I worry over; what if the guy gets sick of doing this?  

2010-10-07 01:30:55
Michael Searcy


There's now an excellent YouTube video to go along with the paper referenced by John in the opening post.  They use an image in the video that depicts media coverage lending false equivalency to the two sides that I think makes for an excellent infographic.


Climate Change Media Portrayal 

Click on image to see the larger version

2010-10-11 21:48:38


"This video contains content from University of New South Wales, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds."

Why on earth a University should limit the access to its videos?

2011-01-03 13:55:19Unpublished letter to Physics World
Glenton Jelbert


Hi All.

 Some time back, when lawson wrote his book, I wrote this to Physics World.  They didn't publish it, but I think it may be germane to the discussion.

"Dear Sir

I note that Lord Nigel Lawson has started the global warming policy foundation to bring "reason, integrity and balance" to the debate over climate change.  In principle an anthropogenic global warming skeptic might achieve this by arguing as follows:
A: Statement showing flaw in climate change science.
B: Consensus answer by climate change scientists that show specifically why A is not correct.
C: Reasons why this consensus view is incorrect.

But in all the reading I've done, every single skeptic argument has presented only A.  A is typically a sound-bite - easy to remember, sounds plausible, and leaves the scientists stumbling because B is typically a little more subtle.  It's things like:

(1)  The whole thing is based on computer simulations/models.
(2)  If we can't even predict tomorrows weather, how can we predict the climate 100 years from now.
(2)  Clouds aren't accounted for by these models, and they act like an iris:  when it gets warmer, more clouds form and reflect the sun and so it will regulate the planet.
(3)  The whole thing is simply a natural cycle (vulcanos, or solar flares or whatever).  Human contribution is insignificant.
(4)  Temperature went up before carbon dioxide levels, so cause and effect is the wrong way around.
(5)  Carbon dioxide is not the most significant green house gas.

It seems to me that this disingenuous style of argumentation (combined with a general human belief in our own innocence) has led to the success of the skeptics in the public debate.  Scientists often respond by simply trying to state B and come across as overly defensive, or perhaps just reinforce the notion that there are two sides to this debate.

But the simple fact that the skeptics only present A already damns them as egregious.  Either they are ignorant of B, or they are willfully hiding it.  In neither case should they be presenting their arguments to the public who will ultimately decide how the nations behave.  Humanity has reached the moral point of no return.  And, as we know from the abolishion of slavery, politicians typically only act when compelled to do so by the public:  morals versus money is sadly no contest. 

The comparison with slavery is apt:  large numbers of people will be severely effected by the continued actions of the wealthy nations;  there is a clear moral need to act; and there is great financial cost to acting.  Skeptical arguments which state only point A (which includes every single one I've ever read) need to be exposed as villainous and possibly even criminal.  Afterall, they are essentially inciting the public to violence through inaction.

Yours sincerely

Glenton Jelbert"


To me, this is what's going on.  Can explaining this model be useful to the debate?  Explain that it isn't a debate at all really, and treating it as such provides a misconception?

2011-01-10 17:00:14introduction and comment - the elephant in the room
Peter Miesler

Hello, this is my first post, John has done me the honor of inviting me to this forum because he’s familiar with some of my essays and such and my sincere commitment to the effort of educating the public, if on a very feeble level.  I feel humbled because I know your backgrounds go way beyond mine, and I appreciate the opportunity to listen in on your discussions.  Thank you to John Cook.
This has been a thought provoking thread.  
Though I try to be sensitive, I think I possess an abrasive undercurrent that I can’t quite recognize.  At times combative even, although that’s more tactical and I think I can recognize that one.  I allowed this to come out full force in a biographic kind of post over at SkepticalForum where I’ve become the terror of their Environmental Wars Department (thanks to the support of a couple true contrarians who demand the last word... the one I won’t allow them).  Now I seldom let go like that post and sure don’t see it as a template, but it felt good, especially since it was the beginning of a dialogue, and I was able to add more nuance to the original post.
I share it as example and a bit of biography. regarding that chip on my shoulder ;-) , I just reread it, I repeat this is how not to do it, and it makes me feel compelled to add another post that comes closer to something I feel I can be proud of An Essay Concerning Our Weather .

The cool thing about SkS is that the dialogue is kept clean and unpolitical and on topic.  I believe those who come to your site with a curious mind, can’t help but be impressed and learn from it. 
~ ~ ~
The thought that I want to add to this discussion is what about the elephant in the room?
The fact that the public doubt factor is rooted in a strategic, ruthless effort to deny and confuse legitimate information.  This debate from the scientist’s perspective is about teaching and learning, dare I say a bit of enlightenment.  But our “opponents” do not want either education or learning, they are goal oriented on confusing - what I come to describe as OJ Simpson Defense Team Think.

How does one deal with the spokesmen who’s only goal is to deflect attention?  When these are the folks the masses prefer to believe because they’ve sex-ed up their story line and presentation so well.  To say nothing of their shear volume.



Peter Miesler

Just received this from the http://ClimateChangeDenial.org blog,  it seems apropos:

January 10, 2011


George Marshall @ 12:35 pm

 I post a video presentation that provides accessible (and hopefully entertaining) summary of current research into the psychology of climate change- in particular the key question explored by this blog: why it is so hard to accept ? It covers a lot of ground in just 20 minutes and I hope that you enjoy it. . .

2011-02-26 09:08:59


I have read and know COMPASS well, I would like to give another suggestion to communicating science to the general public. COMPASS has a good amount of resource, and Nancy Baron has written a new book, which I have read it and recommend, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to making your science matter.