Guest essay by Andy West
Posts at WUWT have often featured scientific papers that are clearly impacted by a cultural bias towards CAGW. Given the impressive reach of WUWT and the likelihood that a number of folks from academia will be peeking here, some examination of the impact upon conclusions, and also how bias has occurred for particular scientists or organizations, not only keeps alive healthy skepticism in science but hopefully might result, one day, in a reduction of the CAGW bias. In that spirit, this post revisits ‘Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change’ by Lianne M. Lefsrud and Renate E. Meyer, LM2013; It is not pay-walled.
An article at Forbes plus the Investor’s Business Daily on the paper, triggered a WUWT post here. Unfortunately however, the former articles misfired into a tangent that was not well considered, greatly distracting from a deeper look at the paper; hence also from something that I believe is valuable, plus deeply ironic for the authors.
The post is adapted from supporting material in my essay The CAGW Memeplex summarized in a WUWT guest post here. However, no particular memetic insight is invoked here and none is needed to see how the authors of this paper have fallen victim to bias and ended up with unsupportable conclusions; just an appreciation (from history) that social narratives can acquire an inertia of their own, a kind of insistent culture that sometimes dominates events while leaving facts far behind. This can happen not only where the narrative is long-lived and wide in scope, e.g. mainstream religions evolving over many generations, but also where an original narrative is narrow in scope, e.g. Lysenkoism. Such narratives and counter narratives compete in our social space and may do so via strong or weak alliances and wider coalitions, for instance Lysenkoism was strongly coupled to Stalinism in the USSR, and the culture associated with Eugenics was loosely allied to right-wing politics in various countries, later becoming strongly coupled to Fascism especially in Germany. Religions have often found alliances within shifting maps of state and regional politics. The increasing number (and depth) of comparisons between CAGW and religion (e.g. see the varied selection: UK MP Peter Lilley , blogger John Bell, Michael Crichton via blogger Justice4Rinka [Jan 10, 2013 at 10:07am], Richard Lindzen, blogger BetaPlug, philosopher Pascal Bruckner, blogger sunshinehours1 [cult], professor Hans Von Storch [prophets], Evangelical skeptics, and a Climate Etc post discussing this area, plus very many more), acknowledges that CAGW is a (successful) social narrative, an ‘insistent culture’ that has indeed left reality behind.
With the above in mind, the approach of LM2013 seems at first to be admirable. For instance social coalitions (termed ‘discourse coalitions’) are understood to be important entities backing the survival / growth of competing ‘storylines’ within a contestable narrative space, where coalition members attempt to ‘frame’ the debate so as to promote their storylines while trying to ‘break the persuasiveness’ of competing stories, a process within which apparent truths are relative (‘…experts construct interpretive packages or frames that stand in for the ‘truth’.’) It is also recognized that these ‘frames’ are intimately linked to the legitimacy and identity of the framers: ‘Besides defining the issue, framing is also the means by which professionals draw from broader values (Hulme, 2009), construct their self-definitions and expert identities.’ The latter is consistent with literature (e.g. the concept of the ‘The Social Mind’ by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniger) essentially saying that our thoughts and identities are in some part formed by the societal entities we’re embedded in. This concept not only helps with understanding the motives of the players, it also helps regarding awareness of one’s own social embedding and hence the attempt to distance oneself from personal bias, as presumably the LM2013 authors would wish. Ultimately the authors appear to grasp that it’s a narrative war out there, in which ‘the truth’ may not always win out.
So what’s not to like? Shouldn’t a paper that recognizes these principles be robustly impartial? In trying to analyze the various ‘storylines’ shouldn’t the authors have attempted to position themselves, at least so far as is possible, outside of all of the relevant narratives? Well, unfortunately not…
The survey that forms the heart of the paper was conducted upon experts from or associated with the petro-chemical industry (in Alberta, Canada), showing that within this sector frames largely supporting the ‘C’ in CAGW add up to 41% of respondents, and frames that are largely unsupportive add to 51%. These findings and others lead the authors to a large discussion and conclusion section that includes for instance this bold assertion: ‘it seems unlikely that the defensive institutional work by those in powerful positions within fossil fuel-related firms and industry associations can be breached in the near future without global enforcement mechanisms.’ While other conclusions are not so audacious and there is a reference to ‘scientific disagreement’, readers would be correct in assuming a similar flavor. The rather strident tone of this quote leads one to suspect a fatal flaw within the whole analysis, namely that the authors have failed to recognize their own framing, and hence have done nothing to prevent this framing from biasing the whole analysis. A search for such bias and inherent framing is all too easily rewarded.
For instance there is more than a nod to the ‘storyline’ that older males in senior positions ‘are more defensive’ to climate regulation. This invokes what is effectively a cultural cliché now, therefore alerting us regarding potential misuse to aid a particular framing. Of course within the context of the sector the authors are analyzing, whose interests lie largely in the petro-chemical industry and wider economy of Alberta, it is true; their survey is no doubt correct. But having read many of the Climategate emails, it is clear for instance that the core of defensiveness from the ‘Hockey Team’ (as they once called themselves) against making climate science more open, sharing data, and embracing rather than suppressing scientific uncertainties, also comes from older males in senior (academic) positions. Another similar scenario is that the core of defensiveness against toning down alarmism inside environmental NGOs, comes from older males in senior (administrative) positions. Regarding the latter, see the article about male domination within the leaderships of the WWF and Greenpeace, at No Frakking Consensus here: http://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2013/05/09/the-male-dominated-green-landscape/.
So, by isolating a narrow (climate-change ‘resistive’) sector completely from the context of the wider narrative competition, the authors have thus succeeded in morphing a relatively firm metric that surely we all knew about anyhow (i.e. older males dominate org leaderships), and one that is neutral with respect to climate narratives, into a storyline that is not neutral with respect to climate narratives, and is subtly deployed within their CAGW supportive frame to try and morally undermine those who are leaders in the petro-chemical sector. The implied storyline is: ‘those bad old dudes are harming the climate for self-interest; dudettes and younger dudes are way cooler than those stuffy old types anyway’. This storyline is a recurrent meme within the social phenomenon of CAGW and indeed within other cultural movements that foster radicalism and seek a change to the current regime, sometimes attempting to frame that regime in terms of an ‘Ancien Régime’. Yet a universal truth regarding the statistically dominant position of older males in society (which recent changes addressing gender bias have not yet balanced out), lends no legitimacy whatever to subcultures like CAGW that attempt to leverage this fact for demonization of opposing leaderships; let CAGW adherents look to their own frame-related leaderships, most of which will have the same male over-weightings.
The ‘older male’ storyline within LM2013 is only a minor contributor to the total narrative of the paper. But it exposes the fact that the authors have failed to recognize the full scope of the narrative competition and hence their own place within this contest, and thus are working within their own inherent framing. At the heart of this blindness is a critical and fatal error; the assumption that framings are to a large extent consciously constructed, deliberate if you will. This error occurs despite the authors having recognized a link to identity (and so potentially to subconscious behavior).
Hence I speculate that the authors’ reasoning regarding personal bias would run somewhat like this: “we are not consciously or deliberately constructing any frame, we are merely ‘seeking the truth’, hence we must be impartial.” But this is not so. They have not grasped that their own identities are linked to a very powerful framing (i.e. *C*AGW) within the wider contest, and so they’re unknowingly engaged upon promoting the storylines within that framing as though these were unbiased ‘truths’. This error is in turn based upon the lack of recognition that CAGW, with an emphasis on the ‘C’, is simply another framing in itself, i.e. another (and aggressively infectious) culture if you like. They have mistaken this framing for ‘scientific facts’ or ‘environmental reality’, and then identified with it.
This all too common mistake is revealed by the opening of the ‘Discussion and Conclusion’ section: ‘Climate change could irreversibly affect future generations and, as such, is one of the most urgent issues facing organizations’. While the authors mitigate slightly with the word ‘could’, the level of impact and urgency (if any!) is precisely one of the relative truths that is being fought over in the narrative contest of storylines and their alliances within frames. Above a certain level of scientific uncertainty about climate behavior and interactions, there is no absolute truth regarding the major issues of impact and urgency. Despite (at one time) a successful narrative about ‘settled science’, it transpires that there is and always was a wide enough uncertainty to allow a blossoming of arbitrary narrative competition (in essence, no scenario could be completely ruled out). Hence every position, including of course that of the IPCC itself, is just an interpreted package (frame) filled with storylines that promote this position. This does not mean that all frames are completely devoid of facts, just that the ability to compete in a narrative war is rewarded more than the level of verifiability, a situation which typically results over the long-term in factual content being skewed or drowned out. (Skeptic and Luke-warmer narratives have tended to compete poorly, in my opinion partly because they rely more heavily on unadorned facts, including the realities about uncertainty, which thus seed much less sensational storylines).
LM2013 applies terms that lend an inappropriate emotive weighting to certain frames; for example the terms ‘resist’ or ‘resistance’ are used to describe the defensiveness of professionals against challenges to expertise or legitimacy, but the context is always in the sense of those groups resisting (the cause of) climate change or associated emissions regulation. This short statement within the conclusion effectively summarizes the context of LM2013’s usage: ‘With our findings, we provide additional insights into climate change resistance.’ Yet there appears to be no equivalent terminology regarding the resistance of professionals to that which calls out problems with Consensus climate change theory or related policy (and which skeptics might be tempted to call ‘science resistance’, though I’d be kinder and call it something like ‘debate resistance’). An objective analysis of the narrative competition ought to apply the same terminology and associated meaning to all players, all frames. Where no-one does or can own ‘the truth’ (the authors must assume this in order to aspire to complete objectivity), no differential weighting of terms should be applied. So it is perfectly fair to use ‘climate resistance’ only if one also uses ‘climate-debate resistance’ and ‘moderate policies resistance’ and all the other ‘resistances’ that each frame is engaged upon for their own best interests. (For this same reason I expressed all my frame comparisons five paragraphs above using same term ‘defensive / defensiveness’). In the great majority of cases, ‘their own interests’ will be inclusive of what the frame promoters believe is a good course for society as well as self, but belief is not absolute knowledge and is formed in part from narrative immersion.
Despite the above interpretive bias LM2013’s assessment of the emotive content of frames is likely reasonable, and says of the ‘economic responsibility’ frame (which is unsupportive to the ‘C’ in CAGW): ‘They express much stronger and more negative emotions than any other group’. Yet once again we must remember that only a small sub-sector of the total narrative competition is considered, and one that is relatively skeptical overall. So while no doubt in this extremely limited context their results are once again true, what of the full narrative competition and the content of all frames?
Well even a cursory look at the full picture regarding CAGW shows that many frames are absolutely saturated with emotive content, which also appears to be heavily biased towards pro-CAGW frames (e.g. as supported from the major NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF, advocacy orientated climate scientists, mainstream media, political framings allied to CAGW, mass comments on pro-CAGW sites, etc.) Content includes the highly exaggerated language of disaster, the inappropriate emotive leverage from ‘threatened grandkids’, demonization of ‘denialists’ and more, all of which proliferate. This does not mean that the cynical and emotive content within ‘climate resistive’ framings per the LM2013 examples (centered on ‘scam’, ‘hoax’, or ‘left-wing conspiracy’ perceptions) doesn’t exist, but within the full narrative contest these are heavily outgunned by opposing emotive storylines such as (I paraphrase) “we’re all gonna fry”, “your coastal cities are gonna drown”, “your grandkids are gonna die”, “only N days to save the planet”, and the attempted suppression of argument by deployment of the ‘denier’ term, which diverts enormous and negative emotive power from a completely different narrative domain (Holocaust denial) and injects this into the climate arena.
This high level of emotive expression is not merely from some fringe framing. It is mainstream and systemically applied, plus legitimized by influential folks in the media, government, charities and science. Indeed many from all of these domains use the ‘denier’ term, and the scientist that folks associate most with Global Warming, James Hansen, not only pushes the psychological hot-button regarding threatened grandchildren, but calls coal trains ‘death trains’. Due to such a high level of promotion there is also mass public adherence to these emotively charged frames, an adherence that overwhelms skeptic numbers (and also objections). Yet attempts to find plausible real-world drivers for this excessive emotive content show only that Consensus science as summarized by the IPCC itself does not support any of the above paraphrases or the actual quotes they represent; the emotive content is due to iterative framing activity, and so is not rooted in likely outcomes (at least for approx a century timescale), even as perceived by the majority of scientists who contribute to the IPCC. Indeed AR5 confirms that the IPCC now fosters at least two frames, if not more; the framing represented by the summary for policy makers being significantly more alarmist than the core Consensus science framing.
Surveying the environmental NGO and activist sectors using the methods defined by this paper would likely produce results off-the-scale regarding plays of emotion, and most especially negative emotion. Yet no context or balance from the wider narrative competition is invoked by the authors, which would enable readers to realize for instance, that the ‘economic responsibility’ frame as defined by LM2013 is very far from being the strongest emotive play in the whole game. Providing this balance would almost certainly give the paper a very different flavor and undermine the current conclusions. Though the authors have limited their scope to just one narrow sector (which they regard as ‘resistive’), I’d love to see a similar survey of the entire CAGW narrative landscape, including all the Catastrophe ‘sympathetic’ sectors, using the same criteria to characterize frames. I suspect very different conclusions would then emerge.
The emotive term ‘denier’ is also used in the conclusion of LM2013; this is yet another sign that the authors are blind to their own inherent frame and associated framing activity. It does not appear in the sense say, of merely acknowledging the use of the term by others or attempting to analyze its arising and effect; the authors do actually use it to identify and label a class of opposition to CAGW. For instance: ‘However, given the polarized debate (Antonio & Brulle, 2011; Hamilton, 2010; McCright & Dunlop, 2011), gaining access to the reasoning of deniers and skeptics (Kemp, Milne, & Reay, 2010), let alone unraveling their framings, is far more difficult than analyzing supporters of regulatory measures.’ I have not followed up Kemp, Milne, & Reay, which appears to be pay-walled. But my opinion is that this statement is sheer myth. It is no more difficult to analyze skeptical framings than any other. But if one starts from the position that they are ‘deniers’, ‘an aggressive framing in action’, one will seriously cloud any data one may attempt to analyze further, and most likely it is therein that lies the source of their problem. All framings contain some level of narrative aggression, this is their entire point. Yet all are analyzable using a single methodology, unless one is too immersed oneself in a particular frame within the competition, especially a frame that attempts to characterize opposing frames as ‘not normal’. No analysis of the relevant competition can survive such an immersion bias. Essentially, another storyline is being promoted here: ‘regulatory supporters are normal and so can be analyzed; skeptics are not normal and so cannot easily be analyzed’. This of course is utter tosh!
I return now to this snippet from the conclusion: ‘it seems unlikely that the defensive institutional work by those in powerful positions within fossil fuel-related firms and industry associations can be breached in the near future without global enforcement mechanisms’. Underneath the trappings of academia and the raft of references, this quote highlights that LM2013 is treating us to more than a hint of those calls from highly immersed green street-activists; i.e. CAGW must be right and thus forcing regulation must also be right, where in the activist case overriding democracy plus direct action against oil and coal interests are both candidates for action. No doubt, unfortunately, such activists will benefit from this type of academic work. What a disappointing and very unenlightened dead end to a promising approach, which if it were but wider in context could hardly fail to identify to the authors their own framing work, and maybe provide a good formal entry port into an analysis of the memetic mechanisms that drive narrative wars. Not to mention exposing the aggressive framing of the self-named ‘Hockey Team’ (the small core of climate scientists promoting the original Global Warming theory). As the well-known climate commenter and contributor to BEST surface temperature series, Stephen Mosher, said: ‘Rather than using this methodology to understand skeptics, it’s probably better used to understand “the team” .’ See here for the original comment.
In not explicitly mentioning that the same process (of narrative competition) occurs across all sectors, and also in taking the word of the IPCC as an ‘absolute truth’ that is somehow magically defined as outside of this entire competition, the authors have painted a picture of the narrative struggle as though it is merely a secondary issue. An issue regarding only the dissemination of this ‘absolute truth’, plus the consequent policy action (or lack thereof), both of which are impeded or accelerated by the resistive or supportive frames within their arbitrarily narrowed contest. Yet the authors’ own frame and the supportive home for their storylines is enabled entirely by (unacknowledged) CAGW culture, by far the most dominant uber-frame within the environmental domain. Hence a very intelligent and careful work, no doubt associated with a great deal of effort to conduct their survey and analyze the results etc. is in my opinion completely undermined by a cultural bias to which the authors appear almost entirely blind.
To summarize: The authors’ haven’t sought to distance themselves from their own immersion in a (dominant) frame within the narrative competition they seek to analyze. Hence LM2013 is highly entangled with their own framing activity, including emotive content. While equal terminology ought to have been applied to all frames, this simply cannot be done in any case when only one small sector (experts from or associated with the petro-chemical industry [in Alberta]) of the battleground is considered; many entire frames that prosper outside this sector aren’t even acknowledged! One cannot analyze a single narrow sector in isolation from the wider narrative competition, and still draw useful conclusions about that wider competition. Even the more limited conclusions one might draw should be tested for possible framing bias from the wider competition. Nor can one take a near universal truth (e.g. regarding older males in society) as being meaningful for or against any particular frame in a given narrative competition; it will have near equal weight in all frames and hence should be disregarded. The authors appeared to recognize that all ‘truths’ in the total narrative competition are relative, yet then contradict themselves by singling out one particular relative ‘truth’, i.e. that of the orthodox IPCC view, and granting this the status of an absolute. While they may claim that the law (in the form of emissions regulation) supports their ‘absolute truth’, it is well established that arbitrary framings can in any case alter the law* and even morals* in their favor; hence this is no excuse for ceding objectivity. [*see my essay for more on this, including supporting refs].
NOTE: The 41% largely supportive of the ‘C’ in CAGW (or at least the need for strong controls on human emissions to combat climate change) is made up of two frames, a 5% ‘regulation activist’ frame and a 36% ‘comply with Kyoto’ frame, of which only the latter strongly believes that ‘humans are the main or central cause’ of global warming (the 5% frame accepts the possibility of a larger natural component). Some skeptics have thus made much of this result, i.e. only 36% of the respondents, a significant minority, believe ‘humans are causing a global-warming crisis’. For example see the Forbes article and IBT article (later discussed at Watts Up With That here). However this article, which calls the LM2013 survey respondents simply ‘geo-scientists and engineers’, fails to point out that the entire sample consisted of experts from or associated with the petro-chemical industry in Alberta, Canada, a state in which this industry also dominates the economy. Hence the respondents would clearly be defensive of their industry and economy and thus pretty biased towards skepticism. I very much doubt that a truly broad world-wide sample even among generic ‘geo-scientists and engineers’, would produce anything like this result. While I agree with the Forbes article regarding unmistakable bias, and indeed the article makes a similar point to me regarding biased terminology, stretching the LM2013 results inappropriately ‘out of sector’, a similar error to those the authors themselves make, is not the way to set matters straight. In my opinion this paper completely falls apart on its own merits; it needs no push whatsoever. (The comment by Brian Angliss at WUWT alerts to inappropriate assumptions in the Forbes article, as do various comments below the article itself – though the scientist/engineer ratio is not a critical issue and I am not endorsing or otherwise further comments by Brian – the limited sector of the respondents is highly relevant). In their own objection at Forbes, Lesfrud and Meyer warn against making generalizations from a ‘non-representational data set’. The data is indeed not at all representative of the whole narrative contest, and hence should not make assumptions about unexamined frames within the contest, such as for instance that IPCC framings contain ‘more truth’, or indeed ‘an absolute truth’.
Once a major narrative war is well under way, the accumulated weight of narrative frames will tend to dominate over any truths that may still survive beneath the battle. Critically, highly persuasive storylines from winning frames will actually alter perceptions so much that searches for the truth (scientific or otherwise) will very likely become highly biased or outright corrupted, as occurred in the historic examples mentioned at the top of this post (and it is all too easy to see this in climate science). Hence the successful narratives will tend to maintain conditions that maximize those uncertainties which led to the narratives arising in the first place. The apparently rampant CAGW bias in academia is a result; very likely the extremely poor progress on bounding climate sensitivity in the last twenty-five years (perhaps the single largest contributor to uncertainty) is also a symptom of this mechanism.
Many articles at WUWT have highlighted CAGW bias in academic papers across a great diversity of topics from ‘threatened’ butterflies to agricultural impacts to core climate metrics like temperature and sea-ice extent. I picked this particular paper because its mode of investigation holds both a very deep irony for the authors, and also something very well worth rescuing indeed; something immensely valuable in fact. I mentioned above that more and more folks in the climate sphere, whether well-known or less so, and some even from within the Consensus itself, are applying religious metaphors to CAGW. Also they are increasingly using terms like ‘framing / reframing’, ‘meme’ and ‘narrative’ (e.g. ‘narrative competition’ ‘successful narratives’, ‘reframing the Climate Change narrative’, ‘dominant narrative’ etc) to characterize the evolution of the CAGW phenomena and the many struggles this spawns. LM2013 homes in upon this angle, and it is the right angle, a highly valuable angle, for attempting to understand the social phenomena of CAGW. Religions are essentially successfully evolved narratives, and the same mechanisms that support them also support the rise of CAGW. Reality (including acknowledging the real uncertainties) has been left far behind because once conditions were right for a narrative war to blossom, narrative success became more important than factual content; the winner so far in this particular war is the aggressive CAGW culture. Understanding that culture will help defeat it.
The deep irony for the authors is that they had in their hands the right tool that could provide a much better understanding of what is really happening regarding CAGW, yet they discovered nothing of note. They failed to acknowledge their own cultural immersion and hence have not realized their uncritical acceptance of CAGW supportive frames. While I see no reason to doubt the immediate findings of their survey of Alberta’s petro-chemical industry, what this paper doesn’t say regarding the whole narrative contest, plus the fact of the authors’ CAGW cultural bias, together rob the conclusions of any real meaning and betray the paper’s supposed objectivity. Rather than remain neutral as academics should, they have significantly furthered the purpose of their own frame with LM2013, which might be labeled ‘authority of academia’, and which appears to be wholly allied and committed to CAGW.
Religious narratives essentially never run out of fuel; there is and likely always will be some level of uncertainty about the existence of God(s). Secular narratives, especially those spawned by science, should in theory run out of fuel one day, *if* the scientific method survives of course, as this is the means to eventually remove uncertainty. But there is vast social inertia behind CAGW now, to the extent that even a 17 year ‘hiatus’ in global temperatures has had surprisingly little impact on the big narrative beast. Most likely it won’t be tamed for some years yet, but understanding the nature of the beast can only help.
Footnote 1: I make the caveat here that the narrative competition is essentially unrelated to whatever is happening in the real climate, and whether that is good, bad, or indifferent. Social narratives feed upon uncertainty, and even if a ‘bad’ real climate scenario emerged (though this seems increasingly less likely), most of the excesses of the aggressive CAGW culture would swiftly die-out. This is because a real enemy not an array of fantasy ones would now be identified, and just like for a war or a natural disaster, society would soon grasp what to do and folks would simply get on and do it.
Footnote2: References regarding various points above, such as the comparison by many folks of CAGW with religion (or use of religious metaphors), narratives altering the law, etc. can be found in my essay The CAGW Memeplex; a cultural creature. A memetic perspective provides great insight on the competition of social narratives, and allows a detailed exploration of how and why these happen, which is simply not possible in the space of the post above.