2011-06-10 10:22:37Post-mortem of my Geologists & Climate Denial article
John Cook


Very interesting responses in the comments to my ABC article Geologists and climate change denial. What I notice is many deniers can't get past the initial section that criticises geologists so they don't even seem to be reading the second section that discusses the evidence.

This reaction got me thinking about this article on motivated reasoning by Chris Mooney. Here are the important excerpts:

Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it.

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.

In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

I think what I've done in my article is the opposite of what Chris Mooney suggests. I've attacked the values of geologists and this has turned off many climate deniers. Hence I didn't "give the facts a fighting chance" - deniers are already switched off by the time they get to the evidence for man-made global warming.

So did I take the wrong approach? Should we be appealing to positive values before we engage with the facts? Would a denier deny the evidence regardless of how I started the article? Is the target audience not deniers but undecideds who need to understand the narrative of denying geologists? Lots of questions, welcome discussion on how we should frame our message and approach the issue of values and evidence.

2011-06-10 10:47:42
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

"You can catch more flies with honey"

So true an adage.  It's not what you say, but how you say it that matters.  By sugar-coating the "poison pill" you get more people to take it.  "Sell the sizzle, not the steak".

Basically, with a hostile audience, you need more foreplay before you get down to it.

Let me see if I can locate some of my material on personality types, John.  Pretty cool stuff, if I can find it.

2011-06-10 10:52:32


Hi John,

I think you are right on target. 

Why not try (re)writing the article the way Chris Mooney suggests?  It would offer a useful example for us (SkS folks), and, if you posted it somewhere, you could directly compare the responses you get.  In other words, it would be interesting to put the theory to the test.  I'd love to see the reaction.



2011-06-10 11:53:55Rewriting article
John Cook


I don't know if I'll do the exact article but I will try a different approach next time I get the opportunity to write in a mainstream outlet and see what the response is.

I was planning to write a follow-up to my ABC Drum article and was going to call it "Being in denial about climate denial" - but that's alienating too! Might have to rethink it.

One commenter said "name 5 papers that show causation of AGW". Maybe I should commend them for their respect for peer review and then answer their question.