Guest essay by Andy West
∙Third of 3 posts examining papers by Lewandowsky & co-authors before ‘conspiracy ideation’ claims. These papers warn of cognitive bias effects, all of which occur in the CAGW Consensus, confirming it is heavily biased. Can’t admit this? Skeptics exposing the dilemma? So… push skeptics beyond the pale, minimizing cognitive dissonance.
From the first post in this series, and summarized as warnings for an individual seeking to avoid bias, the various papers by Lewandowsky and associated authors (see refs at end) include the following wisdom:
Type 1: Beware of the bias from one’s worldview.
Type 2: Beware of the bias caused by explicit emotive content.
Type 2A: Beware of implied emotional content, which via a powerful type 1 reaction may
enhance or attenuate Type 2 (essentially an interaction of 1 & 2).
Type 3: Beware of the bias from the CIE, which can never be wholly eliminated.
Type 3A: Beware of information that does not come with health warnings.
Type 3B: Try to be aware of corrections / retractions; be suspicious if these are not on a par
with the vigor of the original information transmission.
Type 3C: Be healthily skeptical; suspicions based on innate skepticism reduce the CIE.
Type 4: Beware of the ‘third person effect’, especially for oft repeated / saturating information.
Post 2 showed how each of these warnings is highly applicable to the CAGW Consensus. Yet before we continue regarding the fuller implications of this truth, there is one more important finding from the Lew papers that is important to know about. This finding concerns a psychological tactic employed by both the Consensus and the skeptics, while also providing an excellent candidate explanation for the ‘riddle’ of public inaction on climate change (also described in post 2), which so many in the Consensus obsess over.
Bias warning type 3C says: Be healthily skeptical; suspicions based on innate skepticism reduce the CIE. Yet knowledge about innate skepticism and its effects opens up the possibility of attempting to subvert this healthy characteristic. I.e. one can theoretically trigger the mechanism in people by casting false (or at least highly speculative and unverified) suspicion upon a source of the information one is attempting to counter. Both sides in the climate debate have followed this course. On the skeptic side, this is essentially the tactic of the ‘hoax’ and ‘liberal conspiracy’ arguments. On the Consensus side, the tactic is manifested by the ‘evil Big Oil’ argument, plus the ridiculing and demonization (e.g. ‘deniers’) of skeptics. Yet for both sides attempting to induce false suspicion has resulted in only partial success, and has caused some damage to the home sides too.
For skeptics, the main thrust of their argument has always stayed pretty close to science issues (e.g. the use of questionable statistics, or the divergence of models and observations), hence conspiracy theories have been secondary. And those shouting ‘hoax’ have tended to damage the skeptic position rather than enhance it. Yet more subtle leftwing conspiracy arguments have likely found some purchase with the public, more so of course with right-wingers and it seems also in particular countries, probably where politics is already more polarized. Skeptics adopting the milder tactic of merely pointing at the leftwing / redistributionist worldview alignment of certain Consensus heavy-weights, may not technically be inducing false suspicion, because at least where quotes are provided (see the example quotes in post 2), this alignment is self-proclaimed. Such an alignment does not imply conspiracy though, only a heavy cultural bias, i.e. from an initial political platform now heavily juiced by the culture of catastrophe, which itself is based upon the misinformation of certainty. Nor of course is there anything inherently bad about being leftwing, only in being extreme (to left or to right) or through bias improperly amplifying or leveraging climate worries for political ends (which therefore quotes should show). However, despite some climate justified left activisms that are becoming more obvious, plus the fact that various secondary intrigues and agitations will accompany any major movement from whatever origin on the political spectrum, it seems too easy a step to make from highlighting alignment, to incorrectly deducing a global conspiracy. Quite a few skeptics don’t resist this step, with mixed results when their deduction is then broadcast. Overall, the attempt to induce false suspicion may well have gained skepticism barely more supporters than it has lost them, yet it has almost certainly contributed to a stronger alignment of sides in the debate, with pre-existing political poles. (Likewise to above, deducing rightwing conspiracy only from rightwing alignment, is incorrect).
Overall, the media punch of the skeptic side, whether broadcasting genuine information (e.g. about real uncertainties), or indeed false suspicion, is still very weak compared to the public pile-driver deployed by the Consensus. It was weaker still until the recent official acknowledgement of ‘the pause’. Hence as noted before, Consensus information (whether true or false) continues to dominate. Yet at first sight curiously considering the vast efforts pumped into them, Consensus attempts at inducing false suspicion have also achieved only a relatively modest payback. Tellingly, the impact of the technique is domain-orientated. In what might be considered the core domain for the Consensus, i.e. the elite science and policy circles, the environmental NGOs, plus the majority of the mainstream media organizations, the de-legitimization and demonization of skeptics has worked pretty well, despite some blowback from a few more moderate Consensus adherents. However this is largely preaching to the converted, and it is in this very domain that the message originated in the first place. Hence what we’re really looking at here is a consolidation and entrenching process. While certainly very significant, for instance in largely locking skeptics ‘out of the system’, the main audience that the Consensus-orientated media are actually aiming at, i.e. the general public, seem surprisingly resilient to this tactic.
The Consensus seems to acknowledge this major failure to eliminate the credibility of skeptics in the public domain. There seems to be plenty of angst in the ranks expressed via phrases like ‘the deniers are winning’, or even ‘the deniers have won’. A wide range of reasons is cited, some of which conflict and at the extreme end of which (I guess simply as a comfort blanket), invoke the very technique that has failed, e.g. a ‘Koch conspiracy’ and / or nasty propagandist techniques by skeptics. Yet considering how little skeptic messaging actually makes it past the orthodox Consensus gatekeepers, we must be talking about incredibly potent stuff here. And considering too the deluge of demonization over decades, skeptics must surely be super-cyborg Teflon ducks for this all to simply slip off their backs – the public is still listening to them! OR, there’s another explanation, a much simpler and less fantastical one.
And surprise surprise, psychologists already know about this alternate explanation, or at least the surface evidence for it; even Lewandowsky and his colleagues know. Yet after welding together a hotchpotch of potential reasons and still ending up puzzled, they haven’t turned to this much more obvious explanation, because that would seriously challenge their worldviews and cultural belief, i.e. a belief in the certainty of catastrophe that is practically synonymous with the Consensus. So what is the explanation? Well, in fact it’s something that skeptics have said all along, albeit gleaned from personal observation and experience rather than psychological knowledge. Check out the quote below from E2010 [underline mine]:
‘The literature thus suggests that suspicion may be capable of reducing the CIE. However, suspicion will be useful in reducing the CIE only in situations in which people believe that there are reasons to be suspicious in the first place, and, in many situations, it will not be feasible to plausibly induce suspicion. Moreover, as we discussed earlier, the effectiveness of induced suspicion may be moderated by a person’s level of skepticism, which may represent a stable personality trait (Lewandowsky et al., 2009); hence, it is difficult to manipulate.’
In short this amounts to: there are some narratives folks simply won’t buy, no matter how hard the related issue is pushed at them and how much time and money is spent on it. At least within a generation or so. But it’s critical to grasp why (there is a highly plausible reason), and what sort of things they won’t buy. For instance the reason the majority of the public is still not buying the demonization of skeptics, or indeed are still not fired into action by the endless Consensus messaging about inevitable catastrophe, has very likely nothing to do with the skeptics themselves, and nothing to do with climate.
Before we delve into the why and what above, it’s worth just a little time to be entirely clear about what the E2010 quote really means. From post 1, the Lew and crew bias warning type 3C says: Be healthily skeptical; suspicions based on innate skepticism reduce the CIE. The Continued Influence Effect means that many people will still retain some belief in misinformation whatever is done to correct or mitigate it, yet being healthily skeptical does reduce this hold or grip of the CIE. However, in a situation where an organization (e.g. a government) attempts to subvert healthy skepticism, for instance by casting (false) suspicion upon sources challenging its misinformation, then as the quote notes this tactic won’t work too well unless there are pre-existing or ‘innate’ reasons to be suspicious in the first place. For completely or largely false suspicion, this will not be the case. It seems that there’s a level of skepticism which is too deep to be subverted, much too difficult to manipulate, which Lewandowsky posits is based on a stable personality trait, ‘an instinct for the truth’ if you will. Hence in our example the government in question will not find it feasible to induce suspicion about those who are questioning its misinformation. So indeed there are some narratives folks simply won’t buy. The attempted de-legitimization and demonization of skeptics falls into this domain, a majority of the public simply don’t buy it.
The answer to the question ‘what sort of things won’t the public buy?’ helps to reveal the most plausible reason as to why they are so resistant, and where the ‘innateness’ and ‘instinct’ come from. The full answers are a very long story, involving findings from other disciplines than psychology, most notably cultural evolution. I’ll attempt a very compressed and conditional summary here (see the note at the end of the post for a pointer to much more). Suspicion can come from many sources, for instance mere suspicion of one’s political opponents, but we’re interested in deeper, innate skepticism. Climate change is a good field to find this (calamity it is supposed to be ‘scientifically certain’, and for instance all the main political parties in the UK push the Consensus message), revealing the most notable characteristic of the public’s resistance to certain narratives, which is that this has little or no dependency on any of the actual facts of the topic. The public knows very little indeed about who the skeptics are or how the climate works. Their resistance to the Consensus undermining of skeptics cannot therefore be based upon domain knowledge; it is almost certainly based upon how the Consensus present their message. More generally, excess certainty and demeaning of the opposition and certain other characteristics embedded in the narrative, are what trigger public resistance. These features are independent of the actual topic, and whatever that topic, the public appear to ‘know’ (this will be subconscious in many cases) that these features mean there are fundamental problems hidden beneath the narrative. So the answer to ‘what sort of things won’t the public buy?’ turns out to be ‘things that are presented in too coherent, too certain, too forceful (e.g. suppressing other views), too emotive and too arrogant (e.g. demeaning the opposition) a manner’, whatever the actual topic is. These narrative features betray that the topic is not sound.
As to why, there is a great deal of evidence that this is an instinct resulting from our long co-evolution with cultural entities. While there’s an overwhelmingly large net advantage to the cognitive mechanisms that allow cultural alignment (civilization itself rests on such alignments), this doesn’t mean there aren’t serious downsides, including cultures with strongly negative aspects and indeed fully parasitical cultures. Hence we have developed instincts that counter cultural trends adopting too negative an aspect, and it is highly plausible that this underpins the ‘stable personality trait’ which Lewandowsky refers to. We cannot expect this effect to be a universal constant; a useful model is to think of negative cultures as viruses and the instincts countering them (which themselves can be bolstered by positive cultural traits and opposing biases), as conferring immunity. Just as the response of any particular population, or indeed individual, to a specific virus will vary depending upon all sorts of inherited or acquired immune factors, so it is with negative cultures. The immunities chase the negativities in an endless race throughout time and across populations. We have in fact been attacked countless times by heavily biased cultural contagions like CAGW. Ironically those individuals with the greatest domain knowledge, yet who are steeped in the orthodox bias of an associated negative culture, will be the least protected. The weight of their supposed knowledge suppresses their instinctive immunity; as part of the endless war negative cultures have developed various features to suppress our immunities (e.g. hitting emotional hot-buttons to override). [And cultures which start negative yet take generations to penetrate society, tend to become more benign over time, may end up being net positive; otherwise their hosts would be out-competed by other, unaffected populations].
Within the climate change domain, these skeptical instincts have implications far beyond the failure of the long and occasionally extreme Consensus campaign that attempts to discredit skeptics in the public eye, by trying to induce suspicion. As shown in post 2, at the heart of the Consensus is a major transmission of misinformation, i.e. the misinformation about the certainty of calamity. If we add in the targeted emotive campaigns that are freely admitted, plus the suppression of opposing views and demonization of skeptics and all the general characteristics of typical climate Consensus narrative, we indeed arrive at messaging which is too coherent, too certain, too forceful, too emotive and too arrogant. Completely independent of what is happening in the climate and whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, plus completely independent of any knowledge or lack thereof about the players, these narrative features alone betray that the topic is not sound. And at some level, subconscious for many, more conscious for others, explicitly expressed for a few, the public will know this.
This fundamental suspicion that the CAGW narrative is flawed and so hides an unsound topic, is a very plausible candidate for the most major component of public disbelief and inaction, to explain which a large and improbable array of psychological factors have been welded together by Consensus aligned psychologists (see quotes / examples at the opening of post 2) with external factors such as the recession bolted on. While a few of these factors may still play to some extent, the mere fact that the issue remains highly puzzling to them, a ‘riddle’, is an acknowledgement that their welded array is not up to the job. Also, Consensus aligned papers and assessments explicitly acknowledge the general extent of this disbelief and inaction; not all folks in the Consensus are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to realizing their low (and declining) impact for what ought to be the ultimate cause (saving the planet). Which means they are at least perceiving their real problem, if not the true reasons for it. This extract from S&L2014 is one of many such assessments.
‘Americans have been somewhat concerned about global warming for many years, although in recent years, public concern about global warming has decreased. For example, in 2009 only 35% of Americans considered global warming a very serious problem compared to 44% in 2008. In a series of nationally representative surveys conducted between 2010 and 2012, Leiserowitz et al. found that fewer than 12% of Americans said they were “very worried” about global warming, an overall drop of 5 percentage points or more since 2008. A similar drop in public opinion has also been identified in comparable polls conducted internationally. Surveys conducted in the United Kingdom, for example, found that between 2005 and 2010, British public concern about the issue dropped approximately 10 percentage points. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this period of increased scepticism, including issue fatigue, the 2008 global financial crisis, and decreased media attention (see Pidgeon and Brulle et al. for reviews).’
An irony in all this is that, as mentioned a few paragraphs above, skeptics were very probably right all along regarding this issue. Comments on skeptic websites have for many years speculated that the very nature of the narrative reveals how implausible is the subject matter at its core, i.e. a certainty of (near) catastrophe, and this often independently of particular climate knowledge or claims. The nature of the narrative itself reveals that the claims have been manufactured, reveal that somewhere inside the biased core of CAGW, unseen yet sensed by the public, there nevertheless must be rampant uncertainty about all sorts of foundational props for this narrative. The skeptics and the public nose both appear to have been proved right, as Climategate and ‘the pause’ have begun to reveal. Western government agencies and environmental NGOs have been defending their misinformation by ratcheting up the attempts to induce suspicion on skeptic sources, a policy which may win over some, but will only confirm in the minds of the bulk of the public, an original suspicion that something is very wrong with this whole global warming / climate change thing (hence the declining poll figures). This ploy has also opened a widening gulf between core Consensus fortresses (such as the ruling bodies of science councils and universities, the NGOs, some government departments etc) and the public. However, decades of misinformation will not be erased by mere suspicion and much of the public, some sectors more than others, will be subject to the tenacious bonds of the CIE for a long time to come.
So, repeating and extending slightly the summary paragraph from post 2 about warnings from the Lew papers as applied to the Consensus, we have: Regarding type 1, beware of the bias from one’s worldview: support for the Consensus is highly aligned to specific worldviews and this is self-declared; worldview endorsements will produce no less bias than worldview challenges. Regarding type 2, beware of the bias caused by (explicit or implied) emotive content: the Consensus is saturated with emotive messaging, both within itself and projected out to the public (within which its science and policy contributors are inextricably embedded). Deliberate and sustained emotive messaging campaigns have been carried out over decades, and the Consensus proposes to tune these for more efficient hits on the appropriate emotive hot-buttons, and continue hitting those buttons as hard as possible for the foreseeable future. This can only result in heavy bias. Regarding type 3, beware of the bias from the CIE (with subtypes): the Consensus has transmitted critical misinformation (primarily regarding the certainty of calamity), from the highest possible levels on downwards to every imaginable media channel and local interaction. It is hard to think of any other message in history that has received so much global attention from practically every nation upon Earth. The Consensus did not accompany their message with appropriate health warnings. Even when challenged by ‘the pause’, the Consensus has not promoted cautions, corrections or retractions at the same level of vigor as the original information; indeed it actively seeks to resist this activity and only acknowledges the absolute minimum adaptations, which are typically transmitted in the most obscure manner possible (while all along attempting to maintain undamaged the narrative of an inevitable looming calamity, which it still promotes). When healthy skepticism that might reduce the CIE is expressed, the typical response of the Consensus is to de-legitimize and in cases even demonize the skeptic voices. This is in fact an attempt to subvert healthy skepticism about false certainty by inducing suspicion, which while it has largely failed in the public domain, has certainly borne fruit within core science and policy circles. Overall this means that the CIE, which even in the best of circumstances can never be wholly eliminated, will continue to play a big role in biasing both the public and also the current core Consensus contributors themselves, the latter of whom are now still more entrenched as a result of the induced suspicion. Regarding type 4, the third person effect: the massed drums of the Consensus, amplified by authority, which for decades have repetitively beaten out the narrative of ‘the science is settled’, and ‘calamity is certain’, will indeed have had the effect of causing considerable bias in any scientist honestly struggling to uncover the truth, let alone in the public, who are far less armed to resist such false certainty.
Major, coherent social entities that drive high levels of bias via various mechanisms as described above, will tilt society itself towards their narratives, producing an envelope of responses in adherents (there will be a range of levels of belief), and tearing apart social bonds between adherents and cynics, which tears will often follow existing lines of weakness (though not exclusively), e.g. elite / public, religious / secular, pre-existing political divides etc. or some mix of these. This is certainly what we see regarding CAGW (and incidentally these characteristics, even when sustained over generations, are not unexpected or ‘wrong’ for a philosophical movement, say, yet they are for policies whose premise ought to be rooted in hard science), but we can look for deeper confirmation of the rampant cognitive bias effects that are super-glue for the Consensus, for instance at a personal level. If the social entity has not come into some sort of dynamic stability within society as a whole, and continues to evolve away from reality (i.e. the bias effects continue to strengthen), then considerable stress will eventually be experienced by adherents, especially those within the ‘core’ of the entity (for CAGW this is the science and policy hub). So at the more passionate end of the envelope of responses, we will expect to see expressions of this stress. Such expression will likely include depression, despair, desperation, excess personal identification with ‘the cause’, a gaming of the current system, illegal actions or calls for such, and so on. [NOTE: this does NOT mean Consensus folks are delusional or deranged! We are all subject to cultural influence and to stress; in the climate Consensus domain there just happens to be a lot more of those things right now].
To be counted as evidence, such things would have to be significant and systemic, not just one-off observations, and I’ve done no survey plus know of none assessing this area. However, I think the cache of Climategate emails reveals that gaming the system was certainly a systemic activity. While apparently an isolated incident, the Gleick affair reveals illegality at a personal level, yet rather more worryingly there is evidence of gaming the law itself in favor of CAGW (see note at end for refs). Staying with the personal, this series of letters from Australian environmental scientists (h/t WUWT), which show an astonishing level of personal revelation regarding thoughts about climate change, certainly seems to me to represent a slide into despair. Whether or not that’s formally true, the level of emotion here completely trumps reason, and the fears expressed seem to have lost touch with the science the IPPC itself presents in the AR5 technical papers. There is no attempt to conceal the level of emotive motivation, which implies utter belief, mainly in the misinformation of certainty, and these letters are simply laden with memes that have prospered in historic social entities, apparently now having found a snug new home within CAGW. Once again the false ‘riddle’ of public inaction, discussed above and also in post 2, appears as the incomprehensible and apparently insurmountable blockage to the noble cause of these scientists, abetted by betrayal of leaders, the media, vested interests, and you name it. The sense that ‘these guys know our doom and yet no-one lets them run the show’, is palpable, and quite evocative of old style Gnostic narratives such as found in the Cathar and Nizari Ismaili movements. Evidence such as this supports the likelihood that the core Consensus truly believes its own narrative about certainty, despite the increasing stress of maintaining this message within the same stable as rapidly diverging science. [For some in the Consensus, even big-wigs, self-consumption of recycled scare memes is far worse still, pretty much to the point of goblin fiction; see the great book review here, not written by a skeptic, exposing an example].
In another recent series of messages from environmental scientists in Lewandowsky’s homeland of Australia, at Scared Scientists (h/t WUWT),the emotive focus shifts from a sympathy-grabbing sadness and bewilderment to a straight pitch at fear, as one might gather from the label of these guys and gals. Each of 8 messages (1 from each scientist) is headlined in capitals ‘FEAR: XYZ’, where XYZ is the particular fear each scientist claims is their particular biggy. Aside from the usual parasitical memes of alarm getting a cozy living once more, overall the transmission of misinformation about the certainty of various dooms, plus the certainty in the simplistic solution, is quite something to behold. This is a very strong pitch indeed; it seems these scared scientists haven’t seen the research threads mentioned in post 2 (from within the Consensus!) pointing out that fear-based appeals don’t work and tend to turn people off. Or maybe they ignored that; the whole exercise has more than a whiff of desperation. The kind of desperation folks feel when the real world crashes into the serious cultural bias one has been soaked in for years, or maybe decades; in this case, the culture of catastrophe founded upon the misinformation of certainty.
In the article ‘a climate of despair’ from the Syndey Morning Herald, we learn that climate depression (aka “ecoanxiety” or “doomer depression” or “apocalypse fatigue”) is apparently not uncommon, and on the rise. Psychologist Susie Burke is quoted in the article:
“We can be very sure that many people in the field of climate change are distressed – highly distressed – and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing.”
The article highlights the case of one sufferer, biologist and ecologist Nicole Thornton, who slid towards some kind of breakdown after the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. In her own words:
‘“Every time I talked about environmental issues, I would start crying, which I think is a really unusual response,” she says. “I’m a scientist, so I like to break things down – to drivers and causes – but I was confused. I had never heard of anyone who had something like this.”’
Fortunately Thornton sought help and is much improved, now using her experience to help others.
‘Thornton, 41, is currently on a break – of sorts. She is part of a fellowship program with the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, with 49 other aspiring change agents. She is using her time in that program to create an online health and wellbeing hub, catered to cases like her own. “Peers have talked to me about burnout, anxiety, panic attacks, complete disengagement, and frustration leading to despair and, when you think about it, this stuff is always around you in the environmental field. It’s notorious. They get so involved, and they’re so passionate and they don’t take breaks.’
The really interesting thing is that there appears to be an awful lot of folks needing help, and some of the symptoms discussed in the article are serious. Yet this is exactly what one would expect from a clash of reality with cultural bias. ‘Apocalypse fatigue’ is a highly appropriate term. The Consensus has massively oversold the certainty of apocalypse, leading to bewilderment and despair, and worse, within its ranks as they perceive the world is not reacting sufficiently. In the minds of these unfortunate folks, we are driving towards a brick wall at high speed, why wouldn’t they be stressed?!
There is not a whiff of skepticism in this Sydney Morning Herald article; all is pitched from a Consensus viewpoint regarding attitudes to climate change. For instance early this year, Burke presented on mental health and the environment at one of Al Gore’s Climate Reality shindigs. Yet despite they are trying to help, apparently no professionals have even started to question, at a fundamental level, why their ‘weary campaigners’ are falling over like ninepins. Instead, they seem to be concentrating on sticking plasters:
‘Burke has gone so far as to release “tip sheets” to help people face the reality of climate change without a sense of dread – a kind of step-by-step guide for managing feelings and changing behaviour.
She and her colleague, Dr Grant Blashki of the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, have even been called on by organisations that need help dealing with the overall melancholy affecting their troops.’
Actually sticking plaster is probably a very kind description. Most of the webpage for the tip sheets is about changing behavior to be more eco-conformant, not in any way that might address one’s actual psychological problem. The sticking plaster sections recommend taking a break from news and TV, spending time with loved ones (well fine, but this is a ‘sugar meme’), being optimistic (good) and being well-informed (great… but An Inconvenient Truth is suggested). Hmmm… given a high court judge ruled regarding An Inconvenient Truth that nine key errors arose “in the context of alarmism and exaggeration”, and that the “apocalyptic vision” presented in the film was politically partisan and not an impartial scientific analysis, does anyone think this would be a good cure for one’s eco-anxiety or apocalypse fatigue? Even if there were zero errors in it, would yet another apocalyptic vision be a workable cure? The ‘change your behavior’ parts of the webpage (by far the majority) include many eco-friendly things one is advised to do, plus other behaviors such as ‘associate with like-minded people’ and ‘encourage others to change’. Depending on the eco-policies supported this may or may not be good for the planet (some eco-policies seem to be causing more distress and damage than good, for instance the bio-fuel debacle), but either way this isn’t going to actually address a sufferer’s core psychological problem. And any cult leader would recognize a basic formula beneath the gentle and erudite words here: perform the acts of faith, associate with the faithful, convert the unfaithful. Even if all this was provably and unquestionably ‘right’ regarding the bigger picture, such advice is all about helping the cause, not about helping the individual.
Other supposed healers such as psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, take the same ‘change your behavior’ approach in an attempt to cure ‘climate anxiety’ using discussion groups:
‘Through conversation, we have a lot of material which we use in the groups which show people where the emissions are and what the actions are that they can do to affect that. We talk about what the obstacles are, and what the process is of making those changes.’
This is all much too reminiscent of telling shell-shocked troops to simply pull themselves together, believe in the next big push, and get back in the trenches to carry on fighting; recommendations given before shell-shock became a recognized medical condition. There appears to be a similar and sizeable gap in understanding here; a major inconsistency with how mental trauma would be analyzed and addressed in non-climate domains.
There are other inconsistencies revealed by the tip sheets. For instance, and I’m sure by now coming as no surprise to readers, skepticism is no longer indicative of a stable personality trait that will help individuals resist manipulation and misinformation and the CIE. It is no longer Lewandowsky’s ‘key to accuracy’ as perceived in non-climate domains. Within the climate domain it is perceived negatively:
‘The caution expressed by climate change sceptics could be a form of denial, where it involves minimising the weight of scientific evidence/consensus on the subject. Or it could indicate that they perceive the risks of change to be greater than the risks of not changing, for themselves or their interests.’
Yet if skepticism is a fundamental behavior, it must work in the same manner for CAGW and for WMD and for all other topic domains (at least when observed as a significant net effect over many individuals), i.e. only one way or only the other! If this is not the case, then skepticism must be dependent upon other variables and thus is not a fundamental behavior after all; in which case it can neither be used to explain innate resistance to manipulation and the CIE, nor ‘denial’ in climate skeptics and others. My own feeling is that the evidence presented by Lewandowsky and associated authors per type 3C here, is right, hence the oft-expressed skepticism in the climate debate is a sign of valid suspicions.
There’s a couple of major contradictions lurking on this tip-sheet page too. Some common feelings and reactions to climate change threats are cited: ‘People may feel anxious, scared, sad, depressed, numb, helpless and hopeless, frustrated or angry’. Yet much of the Consensus messaging, for instance that of the ‘scared scientists’ above, appears exactly geared to make folks feel sad and scared and frustrated and angry, i.e. in an attempt to motivate them (though ‘helpless and hopeless’ may I guess be an unintended consequence). It would be much better to remove the sources of fear-based messaging rather than stick plaster on the wounds, yet are psychologists clamoring for this messaging to stop? I think not! Likewise some good advice is given: ‘It is also important that people don’t over-react and start behaving as though catastrophic change is imminent’. Yet this advice emotionally contradicts the common Consensus story given by presidents and prime ministers on downwards, which is based upon the misinformation of certainty of catastrophe and amounts to: ‘only X days to save the planet’. I think with UK prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009, X was 50; apparently we are too late already. So are psychologists clamoring for this oft-repeated scare-story to stop? I think not!
There is more stress and climate depression here at Grist, with corresponding survival tips also. In this instance there does seem to be some slight inkling that all this emotion might be a cause of bias, yet this thought is immediately subsumed into a fear the mythical ‘enemy’.
‘Even if scientists did bring a little emotion to their findings — which raises questions about the importance of objectivity in the sciences — Kiehl worries that such honesty would just provide even more fodder for climate deniers.’
My advice would be to forget about those survival tips and take Judith Curry’s advice instead:
‘But then I woke up as a scientist and realized that my belief in dangerous anthropogenic climate change was second order belief – based on the IPCC consensus. That is I believed in the consensus, without having done a real detailed assessment of my own. Then when climategate triggered me to closely examine everything, notably the IPCC’s attribution argument, I realized that the fingerprints were ‘muddy’, the climate models are running too hot, the forcing data is uncertain, no account is made for multidecadal and longer internal variability, and they have no explanation for the warming 1910-1940, the cooling 1940-1976, and the hiatus since 1998. Once you raise questions about 20th century attribution, then your angst about impacts that you think are attributable to AGW becomes much less justified.’
Lacking a survey about stress in the Consensus, from articles / websites like the above there does at least appear to be no shortage of evidence within easy reach that such stress is a big problem. Serious enough to be addressed at an organizational level (and bear in mind that all of the above evidence comes from solidly Consensus sources). This confirms expectations regarding a clash of reality with a highly biased culture, itself fostered by the misinformation of a certainty of catastrophe. But if the climate scientists / organizations and their ‘troops’ are so badly affected, how does all this impact psychologists who’ve entered the fraught social domain spawned by climate change worries? They after all, are the ones who are supposed to know what’s going on with respect to the interplay of competing social pressures and individual behavior. Yet given that the above cure (and similar advice) is at best sidestepping the problem, and at worst sending wounded troops back into an impossible fray with no serious help (merely a short rest and some more drafts of noble cause), then one can only conclude that psychologists aren’t looking in the right place for their understanding or solutions. In order to find out what’s really going on, they would have to delve deeply into the workings and psychological impact of the Consensus itself; so why haven’t they done that?
I suggest for the majority of the discipline at least, it’s not because they won’t, but because they can’t. Being themselves subject to all the biases detailed by Lewandowsky and associated authors as discussed in this series, they are blinded by these to anything that questions the culture of certain catastrophe, in some cases to the extent that their belief has left behind even the collective positioning of the IPCC, itself stretched to the point in AR5 whereby a large tear has appeared between the summary for policymakers and the technical papers. This also means that they’ll be subject to all the same stresses which they’re seeing in ‘the troops’.
I suspect that the long dominant ‘science is settled’ narrative has had a huge impact on the social sciences, who are I think somewhat conditioned to accept the output of supposed ‘hard’ science as unquestionable ‘truth’, which is a major mistake. The wicked problem of climate is mired in many complexities and many uncertainties, so very little within is unequivocal. The social sciences should have remembered, more than anyone else, that claimed certainty in output may not mean actual certainty or unadulterated output (nor does the use of physics and math on the more known parts of the system imply it is all known, nor deterministic either). There are many thousands of individuals and much social process between the input data and the output message, and the process of science itself has frequently gone off the rails due to rampant bias. The fact that the ‘science is settled’ narrative has now fallen victim to ‘the pause’ has not changed perceptions very much either, as yet; the Consensus is pivoting to stances which thus far are managing to preserve the perceived certainty of calamity, and as noted in Lew and crew warning 3, the CIE is very powerful and cannot wholly be eliminated, even if anyone was actually trying to.
Despite the above adaptation of the Consensus, the cultural space it occupies is under attack, is slowly shrinking and fragmenting, which of course is the cause of adaptation. The prior ‘science is settled’ message was very broad-brush, effectively underwriting yet also sealing every sub-topic. Hence every fundamental new question now arising, such as the lack of trend in most indices of extreme weather, or the record Antarctic ice, and of course ‘the pause’ itself, by implication challenges the central Consensus narrative of the certainty of catastrophe. As noted above some of the many explanations offered for these unforeseen real-world outcomes are theoretically still consistent with that narrative, but it is the very number of new explanations, plus the lack of prediction, which broke ‘the science is settled’. This change is leaving climate scientists who fail to adapt, who are putting out the same unjustifiable scare stories in the same old way, very exposed. The Consensus appears to be distancing from some of these individuals (e.g. see here at Bishop Hill). The shrinking cultural space will also impact any folks from other fields that have heavily committed themselves in defense of the Consensus, including psychologists, and Lewandowsky appears to be very highly committed indeed. Yet in the case of psychologists there’s a sense in which much more is at stake; these are the guys who should have see the bias effects within the Consensus, who should have warned us in the first place.
Lewandowsky in particular seems to have a long and productive contribution to the understanding of cognitive bias effects, a portion of which is referenced in this series. So for him, this raises the stakes still further. While the relative levels of various bias types occurring within the Consensus are debatable, the case for significant overall bias as outlined here using Lewandowksy’s own theories, is hard to refute. Even a case for overwhelming bias looks not unreasonable. For anyone so deeply committed to the Consensus, this represents a serious clash of ideals with reality, which could well have manifested in cognitive dissonance, a typically subconscious discomfort that may in turn lead to redoubled yet ever more strained contributions towards ‘saving’ the Consensus ideals from the various recent threats. While providing temporary relief, such efforts will likely worsen the long-term situation, also lessening the chance of a graceful evolution to a more accommodating position. And we have seen recent redoubled efforts from Lewandowsky, in three critical areas that are threatening the Consensus most: uncertainty, the credibility of skeptics and to a lesser extent the infamous 97%. Auditors have claimed that these latest contributions are not just strained, but worse; plus they all appear to be converging towards a hard line of defense that the mainstream Consensus itself seems unlikely to stand behind, increasing the likelihood that Lewandowsky will become isolated on an isthmus of his own making.
Taking these topics backwards, Lewandowsky frequently both defends and utilizes (e.g. regarding advice on climate communication) the storyline that ‘97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is man-made’, often quoting the paper purportedly proving this by his close colleague at the UWA school of psychology, John Cook. Yet quite apart from the fact that this paper has received very strong criticism, with still more here, both Cook and Lewandowsky’s messaging typically uses the 97% result to imply a certainty of catastrophe, when no such implication or corresponding question was included in obtaining the result. Any questions that do probe possibilities of catastrophe produce much more mixed responses. These basic problems have caused Professor Curry to declare the 97% consensus (on attribution to man) dead. While there is little doubt that milder positions, such as ‘does CO2 cause some warming (if all other things in the climate system remained static)?’ would indeed produce an overwhelming majority in the affirmative, perhaps even 100% of climate scientists, this would likely include 95% or thereabouts of skeptics too, so it would not be a particularly useful metric. However, Lewandowsky continues using storylines of overwhelming majority and reference to this paper in particular, to promote messaging about inevitable (absent severe emissions cuts, that is) calamity.
On the second topic, the credibility of skeptics, as mentioned at the start of the first post Lewandowsky’s attempted use of ‘conspiracy ideation’ to delegitimize skeptics has received withering criticism. His papers ‘Moon hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ have prompted pretty much inarguable challenges to their detailed methodology and data collection, the legitimacy of such approval procedures as occurred, and even the ethics of the papers; essentially the entire validity of these works. Indeed ‘Recursive Fury’ was eventually withdrawn from the journal Frontiers of Psychology on ethical grounds. PhD candidate in Social Psychology Jose Duarte, has called out ‘Moon Hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ in the strongest terms (‘this is fraud’, ‘wildly unethical’).
On the first topic, the papers described at Science Daily put forward Lewandowsky’s take on the uncertainty monster (I think credit is to Curry for this name). Find Uncertainty and unabated emissions Climatic Change (Stephan Lewandowsky, James S. Risbey, Michael Smithson, Ben R. Newell, John Hunter) here: Part 1, Part 2 (paywalled). These papers are also the backbone of an article in The Guardian by environment writer Dana Nuccitelli, aided by the above mentioned John Cook: The climate change uncertainty monster – more uncertainty means more urgency to tackle global warming . While an acknowledgment of significant uncertainty at last leaves behind the old and now broken storyline of ‘the science is settled’ (though I doubt the authors would explicitly admit as much), there’s a bold attempt to preserve and indeed to amplify the urgency of the more powerful component of the overall narrative, i.e. imminent catastrophe. The heart of Lewandowsky’s argument is [underline mine]:
‘in the case of the climate system, it is very clear that greater uncertainty will make things even worse. This means that we can never say that there is too much uncertainty for us to act. If you appeal to uncertainty to make a policy decision the legitimate conclusion is to increase the urgency of mitigation.’
This appears to be a false application of the uncertainty principle, which Judith Curry, Professor of atmospheric science at Georgia Tech, explains in a post here. Below gives a flavor:
As [Gregor] Betz points out, there is no simple decision rule for dealing with this kind of deep uncertainty.
Alarmism occurs when possible, unverified worst case scenarios are touted as almost certain to occur. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry frequently does this, as does Joe Romm (and Rachendra Pachauri). A recent example from Dana Nuccitelli, John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky:
The climate change uncertainty monster – more uncertainty means more urgency to tackle global warming . [i.e. the above article based on the Lewandowksy et al papers].
The problems with this kind of thinking is summarized in my two previous posts (cited a few paragraphs above); in summary this is a stark and potentially dangerous oversimplification of how to approach decision making about this complex problem.’
And in turn, part of the Betz quote Curry uses is:
‘Where even probabilistic prediction fails, foreknowledge is (at most) possibilistic in kind; i.e. we know some future events to be possible, and some other events to be impossible.
Gardiner, in defence of the precautionary principle, rightly notes that (i) the application of the precautionary principle demands that a range of realistic possibilities be established, and that (ii) this is required by any principle for decision making under uncertainty whatsoever.
Accepting the limits of probabilistic methods and refusing to make probabilistic forecasts where those limits are exceeded, originates, ultimately, from the virtue of truthfulness, and from the requirements of scientific policy advice in a democratic society.’
My reading of all this is that it is not terribly truthful to pretend that the uncertainty can be described in statistical terms when it cannot. Doing so also tends to inappropriately emphasize the thin and possibly mythic tail that leads into the catastrophic. Given too that the models have pretty much parted company with observations, and even since AR5 a flurry of papers are suggesting lower climate (temperature) sensitivity to CO2 doubling (ironically decreasing uncertainty for this one metric that the IPCC have claimed for decades is critical), such a stance seems still less intuitive. Not to mention that some of the ‘insurance policies’ put forward under the precautionary principle are very costly indeed to society and/or damaging in their own right too. Yet whatever the merits of the different arguments about uncertainty it is very clear that Lewandowsky has stepped outside of psychology here, to directly help shore up a core though recently pressured storyline of the Consensus, one which clings to the catastrophic.
The above three topics together confirm a strained defense that appears to have long since lost objectivity regarding a psychological analysis of the full social landscape within the climate change domain. Actions appear to be about preserving worldview and preventing, at any intellectual cost, the clash of well-understood theory about bias with the hard reality of how the Consensus works (further confirmation is cited below). The latter is itself exposed by many threads of emerging and challenging new science, plus of course the increasing disagreement of Consensus theory with observations. And Lewandowsky has made further commitments to the Consensus that are outside of psychology. For instance contributing directly to Consensus aligned climate science in the paper Well-estimated global surface warming in climate projections selected for ENSO phase. And choosing questioners from the audience for climate scientist Michael Mann in the latter’s recent lecture at the Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK. Even if speculation that the questioners were filtered in some fashion is completely false, this is a very curious role to serve to a physical climate scientist whose adamant discourse sometimes raises eyebrows inside the Consensus, let alone outside it. While there is nothing in principle ‘wrong’ with these and similar connections, the increasing commitment of this kind will help to keep any blinds of bias fixed in place, will lessen objectivity still further regarding psychological insights on both the Consensus and skeptics.
There are clues as to how Lewandowsky arrived in what appears to be a heavily conflicted position. While laudably not giving a free pass to the political left in some papers, Lewandowsky shows much less flexibility within the climate domain and rarely misses an opportunity to point out that policies to fight climate change (which tend to imply large-scale government control) are resisted by those with strongly free-market or conservative views. Overall a strong ‘progressive’ leaning is not hard to detect. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it may have been the open door to self-latching bias within the climate domain. A strong association and shared works with John Cook, who runs the website Skeptical Science (despite its name an ardent support site for the Consensus), may have pulled Lewandowsky further away from objectivity regarding climate related issues, at the critical time when he had yet to be fully informed regarding this domain. A further clue: folks in fact often let slip their worldview alignment (and its relative strength) when they feel that they’re with a home audience, but rarely as explicitly as in the quote below. From the video associated with L2014, a lecture given to the Consensus aligned AGU Chapman conference (underline mine), Lewandowsky says:
‘The possibility that there might be some tacit acceptance by scientists, of a particular frame or narrative that was actually dictated by somebody else, outside the scientific community, who may not share our er, methods or worldview…’[starts at 4.22].
This is an admission of the belief that ‘scientists’ must all have a particular worldview, and one which Lewandowsky shares, hence also the implied flipside that those individuals with differing worldviews cannot by definition be scientists, which of course is wholly wrong.
Clues are not fact, but some route of this kind would explain subsequent actions. While it is true that some conservatives resist policies on climate change due mainly to their worldview, this is not an overwhelming truth. Skepticism is a very broad church and the most effective pews have always been those that present science-based, apolitical arguments, not least of which is the growing discrepancy between (largely model-based) theory, and observations. And anyhow, active skeptics muster tiny numbers compared to the Consensus, which also still acts to suppress part of the former’s voice. By dint of sheer numbers the worldview alignment of Consensus adherents is a far more important factor, and being a consensus, these views are more focused. The worldview of very many individuals within the Consensus, including it would seem Lewandowsky’s, will have been confirmed, amplified, flattered and warmed by the ‘logic’ they find therein, which is based on misinformation. As L2012 states:
‘Given that people more readily accept statements that are consistent with their beliefs, it is not surprising that people’s worldview, or personal ideology, plays a key role in the persistence of misinformation.’
The approximate path Lewandowsky travelled (albeit partially speculated here) helps to inform what is happening now, as individuals will react differently depending on when they meet worldview challenges, relative to the occurrence of other cultural influences. Other clues of a likely path to, and also demonstration of, bias, are revealed by events such as Lewandowsky’s acceptance of super-zealous pro-free-market responses within his survey data for a paper, when these caricatures of ‘the enemy’ could, according to Steve McIntyre’s analysis, really only have been false responses. Where an alliance of worldviews exists, bias regarding one part of the alliance (e.g. anti-free-market), can lead to bias regarding another part (e.g. pro-culture-of-the-catastrophic, as fostered by the Consensus).
Regarding what is happening now, L2012 points out this about misinformation:
‘From a societal view, misinformation is particularly damaging if it concerns complex real-world issues, such as climate change, tax policies, or the decision to go to war. The preceding discussion suggests that in such real-world scenarios, people will refer more to misinformation that is in line with their attitudes and will be relatively immune to corrections, such that retractions may even backfire and strengthen the initially held beliefs (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010).’
I couldn’t agree more. Right now Lewandowsky, like many others within the Consensus, appears to be immune to any corrections on the misinformation about the certainty of catastrophe (which has been broadcast for decades), because this misinformation is in line with his attitudes and worldview. I agree too that this misinformation has been highly damaging, both to society and the environment too. L2012 also emphasizes the backfire effect:
‘When the corrections were worldview-dissonant (in this case, for Republican participants),
a “backfire” effect was observed, such that participants became more committed to the misinformation.’
I suggest that Lewandowsky himself is deep into a backfire effect. Far from updating his local copy of misinformation regarding the chances of catastrophe, as the climate domain widens and new science comes in and our observations improve, he is strengthening his commitment to initially held beliefs. This is the most plausible explanation for his increasing and increasingly strained defense of the Consensus, which indeed has tempted him out of psychology and into the domain of physical climate science and associated climate uncertainty estimation. I concede some imprudent bravery here however, leaping from the tower of psychology into the trenches at a time of danger for the Consensus. I doubt in the long run that this will rewarded. (I will just remind folks here too that no-one is completely free of bias, so of course including me, and via the mechanisms above it can sometimes self-latch. We must all be vigilant).
The questions raised by skeptics, and the corrections that very slowly are starting to seep into climate science (e.g. some acknowledgement of the weakness of models and some acknowledgement of a larger role for internal variability) are worldview-dissonant for most folks within the Consensus. This is why they are so fervently resisted, and why discussion of any science challenges to Consensus theory are so often deflected into ad-homs or argument from authority etc. Given that the emotive culture of certain catastrophe swirls constantly around the mainstream media (both paper and electronic), plus social media too, and has done for a very long time, dwarfing the voices of skepticism and moderation alike, corrective science faces a huge uphill struggle that has nothing to do with actual scientific content, and everything to do with its challenge to an established alliance of worldviews. L2012 says:
‘Whatever the underlying cognitive mechanism, the findings of Ecker, Lewandowsky, Swire, & Chang, (2011) suggest that the repetition of initial misinformation has a stronger and more reliable (negative) effect on subsequent inferences than the repetition of its retraction does. This asymmetry in repetition effects is particularly unfortunate in the domain of social networking media, which allow information to be disseminated quickly, widely, and without much fact-checking, and to be taken only from sources consonant with particular worldviews.’
This in part also explains why even papers suggesting some divergence from core Consensus theory must genuflect to the catastrophic, as has often been noted by skeptics. Otherwise, they wouldn’t make it into the repeat loops of the dominant mode, and hence would simply not be read. Even if they were read, the amplified dissonance caused by leaving out the genuflect, would then result in the authors being labeled as heretics. Yet bear in mind that this isn’t a fully conscious process, deep bias will cause a belief in core values despite some results that counter those values. Hence science itself can be seriously skewed; while bias effects do not change the infra-red properties of CO2, for an infant science working on a wicked problem they can certainly change expectations about what total effect those properties imply, and may do so for decades and possibly generations, preventing a genuine understanding of whether good, bad, or indifferent climate may result.
Incidentally, Lewsandowsky agrees that active skeptics are small in number and that, despite he believes their voice is disproportionately loud and their motivation is tied to conspiracy theories, their impact is modest. From his blog Shaping Tomorrows World, in response to a question about ‘science deniers’:
‘In fact, our work shows that those beliefs are not exactly widespread: Not only is the number of climate “deniers” relatively small—and highly disproportionate to the public noise they generate—but conspiratorial thinking accounts for only a modest component of the variance in people’s opinions about climate change.’
This ties to the discussion in the few paragraphs above, confirming that Consensus culture and Consensus aligned worldviews are dominant in the setting of world events, and hence any bias within this culture will also dominate, whatever level of opposing bias skeptics may or may not also foster. This confirms too that after decades of dire messaging from practically every source of authority including national leaders and the UN, it is not active skeptics that are holding the public back from concern and action on climate change, which inaction is revealed by many polls, but instead Lewandowsky’s key to accuracy, i.e. innate and healthy skepticism. And Lewandowsky himself clearly acknowledges the truth of these polls, believing indeed that the public are not concerned. From the video associated with L2014, he says:
‘…the public, and the so-called merchants of doubt, er are kind of, you know, of the firm belief that they know we have nothing to worry about.’ [starts at 2.46].
These posts arose from curiosity. I was very curious about how someone like Lewandowsky, who is so familiar with the mechanisms of cognitive bias, who indeed has contributed to current understanding of same, apparently cannot see or admit to these mechanisms operating within the climate Consensus; at least to an extent which compromises the high expectation of catastrophe and / or the need for urgent global action against catastrophe. I ended up being surprised. Not only at the high degree of accuracy with which the Lew and crew papers explain and characterize the various bias effects that over the years have become a major feature of Consensus culture, but also at the highly plausible explanation these papers provide regarding why Lewandowsky would be unable to see this. Constrained so tightly by his own findings, wrapped if you will in Lew papers, and yet also possessing a worldview that is highly challenged by any questioning of the climate change Consensus, results in an impossible internal conflict, and one which cannot be admitted! Failing a realization of internal bias and so a wholesale rejection of the climate Consensus, an unlikely kind of St Paul moment, the only other route for short-term comfort is to reduce cognitive dissonance by ratcheting up the defense of the Consensus itself, and attempting to push its main challengers, the skeptics, beyond the pale, reframing them as way-out conspiracy theorists whom no-one should listen to. Hence the release of the highly controversial (even among some Consensus commenters) ‘Moon hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ papers. However, I suspect that this course can lead only to further stress and certainly to no meaningful victory, because despite all their hard work it is not primarily the efforts of the skeptics that have led to the current critical challenges, it is the climate itself. If it were not for ‘the pause’, at the time of writing between ~14 and ~18 years long depending upon which temperature series you prefer, I strongly suspect that skeptic challenges would still reside deep in shadow, rather than starting their slow emergence into the light.
Pretty much no-one is free of bias. And folks can often be severely blinded by it, an effect which also is domain orientated; so someone can seem completely balanced in most topic domains, yet (in extreme cases) be a complete slave to bias in just one other particular topic domain. Surely though it is an ultimate irony that for Lewandowsky, the topic he appears blinded to by bias is the excellent applicability of his very own bias theories to the workings of the climate Consensus. To avoid the obvious truth of this applicability, he practically has to turn the whole psychological analysis of the climate domain upon its head. And despite Lewandowsky’s papers plus stance are the primary example in this series, he is only one prominent practitioner among very many who are probing the psychology and sociology surrounding climate change, and this appears to be their general approach. Albeit dressed in erudite expression, the essential outcome is various versions of the old falsehood: ‘those who disagree with or even question our theories, must be crazy’.
Andy West : www.wearenarrative.wordpress.com
Notes, Plug, and Homework
As noted a few paragraphs above, these posts not only provide insight on prejudiced climate psychology and psychologists and climate depression and public inaction and such, they also open a window onto a major engine of Consensus culture, i.e. a positive feedback loop of rampant bias and misinformation. The workings of this ‘bias engine’ are straightforward to identify using standard literature and even, indeed as demonstrated, when one is limited almost exclusively to papers by Lew and crew themselves, of whom a subset at least are ardent advocates for CAGW (for instance Ecker, also from CogSci at UWA, has led a collaboration with Lewandowksy and Cook on work including a strong climate Consensus perspective).
However, the window on Consensus culture provided here is narrow, is only a part of the bigger picture, only a part of the way towards scoping an ultimate why all this happening. I have hinted at the role of memes and cultural co-evolution in a couple of places: the fact that emotive punch is rewarded more than veracity regarding narrative success, also with respect to ‘innate skepticism’, i.e. Lewandowsky’s key to accuracy. I’ve avoided follow-up on those hints because a) for this bounded and brief view which focuses on cognitive bias and Lewandowsky’s papers plus position in particular, this simply isn’t necessary, and b) because due typically to common misunderstandings about memetics, both in and out of academia, the very mention of that field can cause as much auto-defensive reaction as we see in the climate Consensus. I didn’t want to cloud with possible prejudice what is a straightforward reveal of cognitive bias here.
However for those who are not afraid for their souls, a much more comprehensive view on the workings of Consensus culture can be seen through the lens of memetics; see the (long!) essay here, published about a year back at Climate Etc and WUWT. This is hypothesis, by no means accepted fact, but the memetic explanation does have the advantage of not resting upon any political or philosophical positions as a foundation, only upon value-neutral mechanisms such as the penetration of memes into the psyche (in part via the bias mechanisms seen in this series) and the differential selection of successful narratives (which are not agential and not sentient). This doesn’t mean that, for instance, highly activist style politics isn’t an important factor, but it isn’t a root factor because this too is driven by value-neutral mechanisms beneath, which work in the same manner for any political stripe (and memetics is one useful way of perceiving those mechanisms). The memetic explanation also does not imply in any way whatsoever that Consensus folks are in the slightest degree deranged or delusional or ill or impaired. Due to common misunderstandings a lot of folks appear to vector down that path the moment they see the word memetics, and stop reading any further. Memeplexes are normal territory for all humans.
The linked essay includes a section on the law, covering personal and corporate responsibility regarding biased cultures, plus CAGW changing the law; the latter topic was mentioned in the main text of this post. The section is substantially built on a paper from Duke Law regarding memetic impact on law (see the essay for references). Regarding personal responsibility for those who have been heavily influenced by aggressive cultures, who in the terms of this series of posts are utterly lost to various bias effects, the conclusion of the Duke Law paper and my own (quoted) is in relative harmony:
‘…deal firmly with the wrong-doing influenced, albeit the emphasis should be on deterrence and rehabilitation rather than retribution, else the power of the law is undermined. In other words, the ‘culture’ of CAGW is not an excuse for arbitrary breaking of the law, and folks attempting this must be responsible for their actions.’
However, straight law-breaking is the easier case to deal with, at least where the law has not yet changed to favor the biased culture. Gaming the system yet remaining inside the law is more difficult. How to deal with scientists and psychologists alike whose bias has led to this behavior? Very firm condemnation of poor practice such as expressed by Steve McIntyre and Jose Duarte is a good start, but when said practice supports a highly dominant culture, complaints of this nature tend to be drowned out.
Getting back to the bias mechanisms described in this series, one needs no buy-in at all of memetics to perceive that these are a major engine of Consensus culture. One does need some buy-in of mainstream psychology, including the papers on cognitive bias by Lew and crew, which discipline has over a long time become relatively familiar with these mechanisms. Some folks who distrust psychology altogether, or at least Lewandowsky altogether, may be uncomfortable with this. Myself I think it’s the ultimate irony. Consensus bias preventing the understanding that accepted, indeed championed bias mechanisms, are rampant within the climate Consensus. But this is also a fundamental warning, confirming that even in circumstances where the presence of heavy bias would seem to be almost bizarre, it very obviously can still grip us. More generally no-one is free of bias, though also, being relatively free within one domain appears to provide little or no immunity in other domains.
Given that heavy bias towards the certainty of catastrophe steers policy-makers soaked in Consensus culture as well as the great majority of climate scientists, then very harmful side-effects are occurring. There are far too many to list, yet a common theme of many policies is that the supposed reason for implementation, i.e. a significant temperature reduction, could not realistically be achieved by these policies anyhow. For instance the $1.7 trillion spent on windmills and solar over the last dozen years, for little contribution to energy output or emissions reduction, or indeed the whole bio-fuel debacle. These policies are harming people, and most likely killing people too (via raised food prices, and raised energy costs leading to more excess cold deaths) plus harming the environment too. It needs a transition from understanding rampant bias, to understanding that the biased culture becomes an end in itself and a promoter of itself, to perceive that human or environmental costs are simply not relevant to its growth. The culture has a (non-agential, non-sentient) agenda of its own, in the same way that primitive parasites do, and this agenda serves the culture, not us.
Homework: Lewandowsky and Cook based the methods in their Debunking Handbook on a subset of the principles of cognitive bias as presented in the various Lew and crew papers. While attempting a short generic guide based on foundational principles is ambitious regarding usefulness in the sophisticated cut and thrust of real debate, resulting (imho) in a rather clunky abc, it nevertheless is not without worth. An amusing exercise for readers is to see why the examples regarding climate change are wrong in the guide, and to employ the methodology minus these errors to debunk Consensus myths, a purpose for which I’m sure the guide was certainly not intended 😉
Main Reference Papers
L2014 = abstract for the video presentation Scientific Uncertainty in Public Discourse: The Case for Leakage Into the Scientific Community, by Lewandowsky. Video and text of the abstract at WUWT.
L2012 = Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, by Lewandowsky et al.
E2011 = Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction, by Ecker et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky).
E2010 = Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation, by Ecker et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky). You may need to cut and paste this link into your browser: http://rd.springer.com/content/pdf/10.3758%2FMC.38.8.1087.pdf
G2008 = Theoretical and empirical evidence for the impact of inductive biases on cultural evolution, by Griffiths et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky).
S&L2014 = The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition, by Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz, (Lewandowsky not a contributor).