Lew’ed behavior: The Strange Case of the Psychologist, the Gun and the Foot

Guest opinion by John Ridgway

“Return your sword to its place, for all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.” – Mathew, 26:52

Fans of Stephan Lewandowsky have learnt that an awful lot can be ‘explained’ simply by invoking the cognitive bias of your preference. To demonstrate the power of such a strategy, I recently shared with you my Climate Skeptic’s Guide to Cognitive Biases. Although at times tongue-in-cheek, the guide nevertheless had a serious point to make – whichever side of a debate you may choose to take, you can always appeal to cognitive bias to put your opponents in their place. Unfortunately, the fact that my guide included over sixty biases meant that I couldn’t go into too much detail for any single one. So I have decided to return to the subject, but this time to concentrate upon a single bias to further illustrate the point.

The bias I have selected for this purpose is the Backfire Effect, which I have chosen for two main reasons. Firstly, the effect is deemed to be the quintessential vice of the climate sceptic. Secondly, accusations of Backfire Effect appear to be Lewandowsky’s favorite barb, since they form the pretext for his notorious Debunking Handbook. I hope you’ll agree it would be remiss of me to write about this effect without engaging in a bit of Lewandowsky baiting.

The Backfire Effect Redux

The first thing to remind you about the Backfire Effect is that it is easy to summarise: When people are confronted with information that refutes their previously held beliefs, they respond by strengthening the belief rather than relinquishing it. This is a surprising outcome, and so one should expect it to be difficult to explain. However, explaining the effect turns out to be very easy; the challenge is getting any two psychologists to agree upon the explanation. After just the briefest of internet searches I was able to find the following offerings.

People respond to refutation by strengthening their beliefs because they:

  • Feel they are being persecuted
  • Are inappropriately self-confident due to consensus fallacy
  • Are emboldened by a supportive availability cascade
  • Are demonstrating a reactive confirmation bias
  • Are over-enthusiastic in their self-affirmation
  • Are reacting to a perceived threat to their self-interest
  • Exhibit bravado in the face of embarrassment
  • Suffer from a cognitive deficit1
  • Suffer cognitive dissonance and so fall back on belief bias
  • Reject the refutation as being part of the conspiracy
  • Succumb to cognitive laziness
  • Suffer from biased assimilation
  • Are desperate to avoid the identity crisis that an abandonment of their belief would entail
  • Are reacting negatively to refutation overload
  • Subconsciously respond to a perverse form of the availability cascade simply by hearing their own myths repeated during the refutation

With so many explanations on offer, one has to wonder whether the pundits are all talking about the same thing. The Backfire Effect is beginning to look like the catch-all explanation for any situation in which a debate didn’t go the way someone expected. Moreover, one should keep in mind that the Backfire Effect was confirmed in controlled experiments that were conducted by a discipline that has a meagre 39% success rate when it comes to reproducibility.2 That doesn’t mean that I rule it out as the potential cause of an individual’s perverse intransigence, but my level of trust in the psychological explanation is such that I find it perfectly plausible that sometimes the real explanation might be one that isn’t actually on the psychologists’ list. Maybe the backfire happens simply because the refutation isn’t actually a refutation.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But

Whenever examples of the Backfire Effect are discussed, the two ‘wacko’ groups that are invariably cited are the anti-vaccination campaigners and the climate change ‘deniers’. So this is the deal: Any belief that a climate sceptic may have can be taken, a priori, as incorrect. This, of course, means that any counter-argument to their belief is, necessarily, a refutation. Any resultant strengthening of the belief, therefore, has to be a perfect example of the Backfire Effect. The sceptic is debunked but mindlessly carries on in a state of delusion.3

At least, this is how psychologists will see it. The problem, of course, is that the Backfire Effect only applies when dealing with an axiomatic truth, but when it comes to climate science, one wonders how psychologists (who let’s face it are no more experts on climate science than I am) are able to identify such truths. This is a vitally important point, because if you are in the business of peddling axiomatic truths, then you had better be certain of your facts. Which brings me back to Professor Lewandowsky.

The Debunking Handbook

Lewandowsky thinks he knows why he can say that the climate science uncertainties are bogus, and he thinks he knows why climate sceptics are therefore deniers in disguise. This much is evident from reading his Debunking Handbook, which carefully explains the reasons for the Backfire Effect and the best strategies for overcoming it. The reasons, incidentally, are the last three mentioned in my list given above. The strategies are basically: When dealing with your denier, provide the “core facts” that debunk the myth before referring to the myth you are debunking; immediately prior to mentioning the myth, make sure you explicitly warn that you are about to reveal a falsehood; and make sure you leave the denier with the correct belief, in order to fill the gaping hole you have just created by your debunking.

Helpfully, Lewandowsky provides examples, one of which is the debunking of the ‘myth’ that there are still fundamental uncertainties that are preventing a meaningful consensus within the climate science community. In keeping with his debunker’s strategy, he opens with his “core fact”:

“97 out of 100 climate experts agree humans are causing global warming.”

Of course, no citations are offered to support this statement, although it might as well be said that none of the candidate papers that come to mind are above criticism, particularly those produce by the Debunking Handbook’s co-author, John Cook.. It should also be pointed out that Lewandowsky’s preoccupation with consensus figures betrays a basic misunderstanding of how science works. However, most importantly, this statement of “core fact” fails to understand that it is not causation but the degree of attribution that troubles most sceptics. Nor should we overlook that Lewandowsky blithely ignores the sociological factors that seriously undermine the validity of the consensus. This all means that the supposed core fact is far from factual and anything but core. So anyone who thinks it serves as an axiomatic truth capable of debunking a myth, is being seriously optimistic.

The Backfire Effect – A Case Study

So here is how the Backfire Effect works on this occasion:

You read a document that professes to demonstrate the best way of debunking your own views. It provides examples. However, in the very first example you look at, you come across a statement that is supposed to serve as a straightforward refutation but is, in reality, highly contentious. Concerned, you look into the author’s other works and you come across a paper titled, “Conspiracist Ideation as a Predictor of Climate-Science Rejection”. You then discover that its findings are authoritatively disputed.4 You don’t presume that the disputation is valid but it looks pretty damming. Then you discover that the same author has produced a paper titled, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation”. This paper takes the supposedly misplaced criticisms of one of his previous papers5 as further evidence that the accusations he had made in that paper were valid. You look into it and quickly discover that this argument is an obvious begged question, and so you wonder how such pseudo-scientific nonsense got through peer review. This just adds to your misgivings. Nor does it help to reflect upon the high profile that the author has amongst the pro-CAGW pundits, or indeed amongst his own profession. As a result of this experience, you are left even more sceptical than you were at the outset.

Bingo! It’s the Backfire Effect! You’re a cognitively challenged conspiracy theorist.

I’m sure I am as guilty as anyone for succumbing to the Backfire Effect. But next to Stephan Lewandowsky I am an amateur. Lewandowsky has taken a humble and commonplace cognitive bias and out of it created a thing of beauty. The more you get frustrated by his ill-formed arguments and motivated reasoning, the more this strengthens his belief. He has created for himself a meme that includes the idea that frustration with the meme provides evidence of its validity. This is a recursive delusion. Lewandowsky purports to be an expert on the psychological pathology that lies behind the Backfire Effect, and yet in his own hands he has elevated the effect to the status of an all-encompassing but ultimately sterile logic.6 So, if anyone can be said to have shot himself in the foot, then it has to be everyone’s favourite psycho-warrior, Stephan Lewandowsky.


1 I think in this instance ‘cognitive deficit’ is being used as a euphemism for stupidity.

2 A ‘Reproducibility Project’, undertaken by the journal Science, found that only 39% of the results of experimental and correlation studies published in three prominent psychology journals could be replicated.

3 And before you start, I’m not using the term in the narrow sense used by psychiatrists. There is no presupposition of mental illness; just a false belief that is held strongly enough to serve as a motivation.

4 Dixon R., Jones J., “Conspiracist Ideation as a Predictor of Climate-Science Rejection – An Alternative Analysis”, Psychological Science, March 26, 2015.

5 I am referring to,NASA faked the moon landing – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science”.

6 Expressed in doxastic logic’s terminology, Lewandowsky is a Conceited Reasoner regarding matters of climate sceptic argumentation, including his assumption that climate sceptics thrive upon the capacity to be Peculiar Reasoners. A Conceited Reasoner is defined by:


and a Peculiar Reasoner is one for which:


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December 4, 2017 10:53 am

Author or editor is Note 7 going to be completed?

Reply to  Gene
December 4, 2017 11:00 am

Thanks, fixed. That was a publishing error combined with a numerical error on the number of references. Both have been corrected.

Reply to  Anthony Watts
December 4, 2017 12:50 pm

Thank goodness for that. Note 6 was enough for me

December 4, 2017 10:57 am

If you asked Lewandowsky to paint a room, he will always end up in a corner.

Henry Galt
Reply to  Sparky
December 4, 2017 12:56 pm

With all the money, Sparky. Lots of nice big grants from once esteemed universities and academies. Oh, and the fear hungry MSM to back them up, big them up and diminish ‘our lot’. And the self-identified “climate scientists” who love to believe in themselves and their guesswork. And the useful idiots in all those places. Their corner looks huge from my perspective.

Reply to  Henry Galt
December 4, 2017 4:13 pm


Reply to  Henry Galt
December 5, 2017 11:19 am

But is still a corner.

John Smith
Reply to  Sparky
December 4, 2017 6:11 pm

Even if the room was circular.

Reply to  John Smith
December 5, 2017 8:19 am

What about spherical?
That would be impressive to create a corner in a spherical room!

Steve Fraser
Reply to  Sparky
December 4, 2017 7:17 pm

And cut off from unpainted areas.

December 4, 2017 11:01 am

In the corporate environment when some executive makes an incredibly stupid decision, say buying useless hardware and software based on some peddler’s false promises for some department or hiring high dollar “consultants” (Dogbert) to solve some ill defined self-inflicted “problem”.

Nobody is going to actually admit that after spending millions of dollars the problem wasn’t solved and woe be to any poor soul who remarks on the naked emperor (first hand experience).

When the result is disastrous for that department, the executive’s response is to double down and push the decision out to the entire company. The doubters and critics begin to doubt/wonder if the problem might be theirs, that maybe there is something they are missing or don’t understand. SoP in many government agencies, DMV, VA, military, etc.

Echo chambers. The trip to Abilene syndrome.


Ben of Houston
Reply to  nickreality65
December 5, 2017 4:05 am

I’ll agree. Casual observation does support that the backfire effect exists. It even has its own catchphrase in business, “throwing good money after bad”.

However, I think that Mr. Ridgeway is correct that in many cases, it’s heavily supported by bad reasoning and arguments.

For example. Take Trump. One of ABC’s top reporters pulls out an outright lie about the Michael Flynn case last week (that he was sent to talk to the Russians before the election). The media and liberal commentators outright cheered. It was later found to be false (it was after the election, and thus, his job). The net result? Anyone in Trump’s camp is now MORE likely to believe Trump is right and that the media are out to get him. This makes them less likely to believe any future refutations.

This has happened repeatedly these past two years.

Tom in Florida
December 4, 2017 11:05 am

The real reason people respond to refutation by strengthening their beliefs because they:

Don’t want to admit they are stupid.
Don’t want to admit some one is smarter than they are.

Jeff in Calgary
Reply to  Tom in Florida
December 4, 2017 11:19 am

You could also add

Don’t understand the refutation.
Understand the refutation, but see multiple holes and/or fallacies in the refutation.

Alan Mcintire
Reply to  Jeff in Calgary
December 5, 2017 5:18 am

In the case of multiple fallacies and/ or holes, it isn’t a refutation, it’s a rebuttal. We chess players are very familiar with the term: When our gambit is “refuted” we wind up getting crushed in the game. When our gambit is merely “rebutted” we can wind up with an interesting struggle that may go either way, or even end in a draw.

sy computing
Reply to  Tom in Florida
December 4, 2017 11:25 am

Or they’ve built their entire world around a particular belief system, in which case it would be extremely difficult, frightening even, to suddenly discover that everything you thought you knew to be correct wasn’t.

Or they’ve built a career around a particular belief system (e.g., AGW or politics), in which case a refutation of that system means you’re out of a job. One doesn’t necessarily have to believe in what one is doing in this case, hence, intelligence or the lack thereof wouldn’t be part of the equation.

This in addition to Tom’s valid reasons above.

Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 2:12 pm

“Or they’ve built their entire world around a particular belief system, in which case it would be extremely difficult, frightening even, to suddenly discover that everything you thought you knew to be correct wasn’t.”

People like to maintain their worldview. They don’t like the thought that they may have an incorrect worldview, so they hang on hard to the one they have.

Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 2:27 pm

I had a worldview once: I thought the U.S. military was the toughest military in the world. All indications during my whole life said I was correct.

Then the Vietnam war came along and the Mainstream Media was totally Leftist and totally anti-war, and so they lied about how the war was going, and from the reports they were making from the battlefields, one would have thought that the U.S. military was losing the war badly, it was hopeless, and the U.S. was barely hanging on in South Vietnam by their fingernails, and the North Vietnamese, the toughest soldiers in the world, according to the MSM, were about to score a devastating victory over the U.S.

Well, I read about this while safe and sound on the homefront, and could not believe what I was reading. I said to myself, there is no way North Vietnamese troops are defeating American troops. No way.

But instead of rejecting this worldview presented by the MSM, and going and hiding in a corner,I decided to go see for myself whether this was true or not by volunteering for Vietnam service so I could see for myself if my worldview was wrong, because I had to know. Whether it was wrong or not, I had to know which one was correct. I wanted the correct worldview, whether I liked it or not.

After I got to Vietnam, I had my worldview confirmed: The U.S. military was kicking the hell out of the North Vietnamese military, just like I assumed they would do.

The anti-war Left and the MSM were distorting the truth for partisan political purposes, just like they do today. That was my first inkling that the MSM were not telling the truth, and I have never trusted them again, and with very good reason, because they are untrustworthy and actually dangerous because they mislead millions of people into doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

So my worldview wasn’t changed, but I was willing to put it to the test.

I’m willing to put CAGW to the test, too, but have never seen anything that supports the CAGW claims. Just a bunch of assertions.

Phil R
Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 3:35 pm


+many, just +many. I grew up during the Viet Nam war but was too young to go (full disclosure, not sure what I would have done had I been old enough to be drafted). I was way too young to know, or even understand, if I was conservative or liberal, for the war or against the war, but I was old enough to abhor (even though I didn’t know the word yet) the way soldiers coming home from Viet Nam were treated. That probably influenced my later intellectual (such that it is) development, and why I deplore people like Lewendowski & Cook.

Sorry if this was a little OT.

Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 4:16 pm

Phil R, the anti-war Left and the Mainstream Media managed to demonize those who fought in Vietnam for many years (the Left always has to have a demon to hate), but I am happy to report that Vietnam veterans are treated very well nowadays. People go out of their way to thank Vietnam veterans for their service, in fact.

I went to a VA hospital recently for an operation and everyone concerned treated me like a rock star. I didn’t know how to act. 🙂

Doing away with the draft had this calming effect on demonizing the military, I think. While the draft was going on, college kids were subject to it, and as you can imagine, not every college kid wanted to go off to war, they had better things to do, so they found ways to find fault with going to war, and organized against it, so they wouldn’t have to go. In the process they demonize those who do go to war.

Now that the draft is gone, the young people are much less concerned, so don’t feel a need to demonize those who do serve. That’s a good thing. And a volunteer military is a good thing. The only reason we would need a draft in the future is if we were to go to war with Russia or China, and I don’t think that is too likely.

North Korea is different, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we go to war with them, but if the war is limited to North Korea, I don’t think we will need a draft afterwards. The U.S. military can take care of North Korea without drastic changes.

I heard Senator Lindsey Graham over the weekend advising U.S. military dependents in South Korea to evacuate areas close to Seoul and get out of the line of North Korean fire. I think that is real good advice. If I was a military dependent in South Korea, I would be taking a long vacation back in the good ole USA. Kim Jung-un is pushing his luck.

Phil R
Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 5:59 pm


Thanks for your response. Even when I was young, I always thought:

the U.S. military was the toughest military in the world.

For the most part, it’s the politicians that s*ck.

Reply to  sy computing
December 4, 2017 6:34 pm

Well, you need to factor risk/reward. What is the reward for changing your belief in favor of climate change to one of skepticism? Loss of prestige, loss of money, embarrassment at being wrong. The reverse is not even remotely true – skeptics are highly incentivized to change their beliefs.

All the incentives are against climate change skeptics, yet still they persist.

Most economists believe that economics drive a lot of human behavior, and this case is no different.

Reply to  sy computing
December 5, 2017 1:57 am

The Vietnam war involved the USA because of a mistaken premise(A) that USSR and China and others formed a monolithic block.
This monolithic block (they thought) was in danger of swallowing up the entire world so it had to be stopped.
An alternative premise(B) was that the Vietnamese were essentially a nationalist movement that wanted to free the country from colonial domination.
Just like George Washington rallied the USA patriots to fight the British Colonialists.

The Vietnamese fought the Japanese then the French (under Viet Min) then the USA to that end.
The USA army could not be defeated and yet could not defeat the Vietcong.
So a bloody stalemate was reached where endless casualties was all that the future could offer.
The draft did not involve all American males of fighting age
G W Bush and Donald Trump for instance missed service in Vietnam.
Time has moved on and most rational people were glad that the war came to an end.
History has shown that premise (B) was correct.
For instance Vietnam and China came to blows not long after the Vietnam War over a border dispute.
At present it looks like the still communist Vietnam will be an ally of the USA against a capitalist China over disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Ben of Houston
Reply to  sy computing
December 5, 2017 4:20 am

Bryan, let’s not let this tangent go too far off topic. In Vietnam, America won essentially every battle, but still lost the war (very similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, where we easily won the war but lost the peace). There are very good discussions there, but for another time.

However, as TA said, popular depictions had our army losing battles in Vietnam badly, which was very much not the case.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  sy computing
December 5, 2017 5:05 am

@ sy computing – December 4, 2017 at 11:25 am

Or they’ve built their entire world around a particular belief system, in which case it would be extremely difficult, frightening even, to suddenly discover that everything you thought you knew to be correct wasn’t.

Right you are, …… and a prime example of the above, which many, many people have witnessed about themselves …….. or witnessed happening to another person, …… occurs when ever a person suddenly realizes “the actual factual undeniable truth” …… that their long time spouse or partner that they dearly loved and worshipped had been engaging in extramarital “affairs” for many months or many years.

Ray in SC
Reply to  sy computing
December 6, 2017 4:12 pm

TA, thank you for your service during a very difficult time. My service was during the ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union and was, I am sure, a cake walk compared to Vietnam.

Reply to  Tom in Florida
December 4, 2017 1:17 pm

They have been taught to be lazy and dependent, and that it is their right to choose an identity and expect the world to conform to it..

paul courtney
Reply to  Tom in Florida
December 5, 2017 8:11 am

If his “97 out of a hundred” is a refutation, then my beliefs are strengthened by the three holdouts. Those 3 staunch climate experts inspire me! The real question is, why do Cook and Lew keep these guys in the group? Surely they got the “refutation” memo from the 97; if they are “backfiring”, then how can they still be climate experts? Long past due for Lew to put those three out of the group, along with the non-temperature-sensitive strip barks. This will allow them to conclude, “97 out of 97 climate experts”. Isn’t that what they call “statistics”?

alastair Gray
December 4, 2017 11:08 am

I suppose that 97% of even climate scientists would have to agree that Lewandowsky’s psychobabble is utter nonsense or they would lose their right to be accorded the the status of “scientist” Perhaps John Cook should ask his climate scientisists the question and he chould write a paper on it..

Reply to  alastair Gray
December 4, 2017 11:51 am

I agree you could make the argument 97% aren’t real scientists but are climate scientists 🙂

Mumbles McGuirck
Reply to  LdB
December 4, 2017 1:19 pm

Actually, the Doran and Zimmerman (2009) study only included those AGU members who identified as climate scientists and had published 25+ papers in the field. So, yeah, it is 97% of climate scientists agree… they want to keep their jobs.

Reply to  LdB
December 4, 2017 2:10 pm

Well, what did they agree on? My recollection was that there was no statement that global warming was a critical problem in the near future, yes or no? Fuzzy all the way.

Reply to  LdB
December 4, 2017 2:46 pm

The Doran and Zimmerman 97% was based on 75 out of 77 “earth scientists”.

The Cook et al 97% was based on the fact that 0.5% of the abstracts in their survey claimed that man was mainly responsible. (That is, 99.5% did not claim that man was mainly responsible.) Most of their paper is spent not mentioning the 0.5% and not being too forthcoming about how that translated to “97% of scientists”.

Reply to  LdB
December 4, 2017 3:12 pm

Those 77 responses were out of thousands of surveys sent out and a few hundred actually returned.
They applied several filters to get down to the select 77.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  LdB
December 5, 2017 5:21 am

No one actually knows how many people around the world there actually are or even claim to be a ,,,, “climate scientist” so anyone stating “97% agree” on something other than “water is wet” or the “sky is blue” …… has to be a “mimicking” blithering idiot.

Mumbles McGuirck
Reply to  LdB
December 5, 2017 5:47 am

What 97% (77) climate scientists agreed on was that the global temperature had gone up over the last 100 years and that mankind had played a “significant” role in climate change. No definition was offered for what “significant” meant in this case. No questions were asked about what portion of climate change was anthropogenic nor whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. Given all that this was simply an opinion poll about whether the atmosphere had warmed since the Little Ice Age and whether people had some part in any climate change (not just temperature). Most reasonable people would agree to those positions since no values or percentages were specified.
The Cook et al study was a bunch of BS in a wet paper sack. Its methodology was compromised and its results meaningless. That its resulting number was also 97% has only led to confusion about the two papers. But then neither prove anything about CAGW.

Ray in SC
Reply to  LdB
December 6, 2017 1:52 pm


The questions are below.

1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global tem- peratures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?

2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The first is a no-brainer since it is well accepted that temperatures have risen when compared to pre-1800s levels (ie. the end of the Little Ice Age).

The second is not so straightforward. While it is clear that man has had an effect on the climate and temperature of particular locales through land use changes, irrigation, deforestation, and the urban heat island effect (to name a few), it is not apparent to me that this has amounted to an increase in the global mean temperature to any measurable degree. If there has been an affect, it has not, IMHO, been significant on a [global] scale.

Ray in SC
Reply to  LdB
December 6, 2017 1:54 pm

Excuse my cormatting error, the italics were meant to only apply to the questions.

Ray in SC
Reply to  LdB
December 6, 2017 2:08 pm

Thank you for correcting my post.

Jeff in Calgary
December 4, 2017 11:16 am

Whenever skeptics are accused of cognitive bias, it appears to actually be a case of projection disorder.

December 4, 2017 11:17 am

One unmentioned response in the Backfire Effect list is a person’s increased conviction that they are right because they are indeed right. If a skeptic knows his/her science, they need to stick to their guns and knowledge, despite whatever is aimed at them.

It is wrong to not include the idea that a person could be right in their stand on something.

Reply to  higley7
December 4, 2017 12:40 pm

Yes, Higley, I was going to say the same thing. It clearly hinges on the quality of the refutation – the implication being in the word ‘refutation’ that one is offering a scientific statement that does indeed refute the holder’s belief. The 97% consensus statement above is clearly not a fact that is substantiated or a fact in fact defined. Therefore it is a non-refuting refutation; a failure of a refutation.

But I might add, what about the, “is that all you’ve got?” effect. Whereby the holder of a belief is presented with such a poor quality attempt at refutation, which is clearly held in such high esteem by the presenter, it leads the holder of the belief to strengthen their belief based on the fact that the best attempt at refutation is so poor. Which reminds me a of a quote: “There are an almost limitless number of way in which my hypothesis can be falsified. But your opinion isn’t one of them.”

Reply to  higley7
December 4, 2017 3:13 pm

Most alarmists seem to believe that shouting your wrong constitutes a refutation.
If that isn’t sufficient. Calling names constitutes reinforcement of the refutation.

Reply to  higley7
December 5, 2017 12:30 am

Good point. Effectively Lewandowsky’s methodology ignores an important alternative – the null hypothesis. In other words, in his arrogance (or delusion) he fails to recognise that the skeptic view could actually be the true facts and it is Lew and his cohorts that has it wrong.

Notice that in my explanation, unlike Lew, I use words like “could” to describe the skeptic view thus demonstrating that I am open-minded and not dogmatic.

Andy Pattullo
December 4, 2017 11:22 am

I suspect everyone with an ounce of self doubt asks themselves once or more during their life if they are, in fact sane. While none of us can answer that question with absolute certainty, the existence of Lewandowsky and his various paper-base emissions allows all of us to relaxe a bit and know that, by comparison, we’re mostly all doing pretty well.

Reply to  Andy Pattullo
December 4, 2017 11:47 am

As a scientist you are supposed to doubt yourself and everything else. It politics that needs consensus and belief and Climate Science mixes both often not in equal parts.

In God we Trust, all others bring data … William Edwards Deming

December 4, 2017 11:39 am

It seems to me that the fundamental cause of the backfire effect, especially as related to climate science, is political bias. Nobody on the left wants to agree to any position taken by anyone the right and visa-versa. The cognitive dissonance is an uncompromising appeal to emotion to the exclusion of logic and nothing is more emotional than the fear mongering used to support the warmists position and nothing is more logical than the science overwhelmingly disputing the need to be afraid. This bifurcation of issues based on emotion driving the left and logic driving the right is behind nearly every political controversy. In a nutshell, it’s rainbows and unicorns vs. cold hard facts.

Reply to  co2isnotevil
December 4, 2017 3:18 pm

You are exactly right, the backfire effect also known as the boomerang effect or in M. Sherif’s Social Judgment Theory, as the latitude of rejection is intimately tied to the degree of ego involvement or commitment of the individual to his beliefs. Most frequently those beliefs are a function of the groups he identifies with. To attack the normative beliefs of a group is to attack its members sense of self, and to stand idly by while that is happening is tantamount to disloyalty and betrayal.

Bruce Ploetz
December 4, 2017 11:40 am

The classic example of cognitive dissonance is described in Leon Festinger’s work “When Prophecy Fails” https://www.amazon.com/When-Prophecy-Fails-Leon-Festinger/dp/1578988527

In this classic work, Festinger explores what happens when a prediction of an extraterrestrial visit fails to materialize. In some cases, this extreme form of adverse criticism causes the adherents to fall away, but for a few it confirms and hardens their belief.

The theory is that the cognitive dissonance caused by contrary true data is so painful that the believer retreats even further into the false belief just to avoid the discomfort. They invent even more fanciful theories (the saucer people found us unworthy) or just say they were wrong about the date but the saucer people are coming. Just you wait and see.

Leon Festinger’s work is a bit long in the tooth these days but the phenomenon he describes is so close to the antics of the CAGW true believers that it serves to illustrate the point.

CD in Wisconsin
Reply to  Bruce Ploetz
December 4, 2017 12:42 pm

. I bought Festinger’s book some years ago and have read it at least two or three times now. LIke you, I find it quite interesting to draw parallels between what happens in the book and the CAGW narrative today. Even though Festinger’s study was done (and the book published) back in the 1950s, its application to what is going on today makes it as interesting to read today as it was 60-some years ago.

It is indeed much less painful and easier for the believer to sink deeper into his narrative than to accept that there is anything wrong with the belief system when confronted with refuting evidence. I guess that is just the way the human mind is genetically programmed to work in many cases.

It’s sad really, and Lewandowsky’s handbook appears to to little outside of helping the sufferer of cognitive dissonance deal with his problem as best he can.

Reply to  Bruce Ploetz
December 4, 2017 12:50 pm

Yes. There are two striking similarities. One is that belief fades among the elite first, they start to worry about the more confident and aggressive predictions by the lay faithful, so they back off first. But, they have lost control by now and cannot slow it down or moderate it.

The second is that when the prophecy fails, the first reaction of the lay faithful is not to abandon the belief, but to cling to it more, and more aggressively the worse the evidence.

And to trash all the non-believers even worse.

December 4, 2017 12:06 pm

I think Lewandowski mistakenly believes that everything that he believes is fact. If he really believes the claim that “97% of climate experts believe humans are causing global warming” then he has a big problem. To start with, the claim is ambiguous. Is he claiming that ALL global warming is caused by humans ? If so, then that is not a demonstrable fact. If he claims that he means some global warming is caused by humans, then he is not making a claim that contradicts very many global warming skeptics – most agree humans are having SOME effect, albeit small. He also has a big problem the statement is not an uncontested fact, far from it. The claim he is repeating was made by Cook who looked at scientific papers written years and even decades ago, Even if the study correctly calculated the scientists’ views, those numbers refer to a distant past, before the pause in global warming, which has changed more than a few minds. They do not reflect current views and thus can not be considered fact, irregardless.

Colin Peterson
December 4, 2017 12:09 pm

this is a misleading title. I thought the author was going to cover how Lewandowski is charged with sexual assault by numerous interns, female profs etc.

leopoldo Perdomo
December 4, 2017 12:22 pm

This argument of Lewandowsky is a little stupid. People to tend to accept as true the first thing he hears, specially if it is often repeated. The famous saying: ten thousands repetitions make a truth.
This specially the case for anything that looks science. People, in general accept that matters taught them in school, without any farther investigation or doubt. Then, as global warming looked like a scientific paradigm some people accepted without any hesitation. Only if the rare student is skeptic can be prone to doubt and to search in deeper into the question. So, in general, a good student to not embrace a concrete paradigm if he had not been carefully search. It does not make any sense to accept a scientific theory you had not studied carefully.
What he had proved Lewandowsky with this book is his own gullibility and lack of scientific skepticism.

Joel O’Bryan
December 4, 2017 12:23 pm

“97 out of 100 climate experts agree humans are causing global warming.”

With that statement you do as Dr. Judith Curry does, stipulate to that. For the question is not “are human’s with our CO2 emissions causing warming?” But rather the pertinent questions that Lewandowski must firmly avoid is, “What is the amount (of anthropogenic global warming)? And then does increasing CO2 become a benefit if sensitivity is low enough?.” The way the climate scam has been perpetuated, like any well-engineered propaganda comapaign, is to take a factual truth, and then start wrapping iit in ever more lies. So that if someone points out the lies, then the propagandist claims they are trying to deny the original truth.

Unwrapping the layers of climate propaganda junk from a truth, the unavoidable climate lie that must continue to be exposed is: the climate models are easily shown as junk science merely by their subjective parameter tuning and refusal to falsify them by comparison to observation. Instead, modelers create a false confirmation by their intercomparison projects, which is nothing but junked-up GroupThink.

Regardless of whether the models do or don’t simply amplify and propagate errors, the fact that they are subjectively tuned and then not rejected for failing to meet observation is the clearlest proof to the braoder science community of the junk science that is climate science.

And without the models, the climate alarmist argument falls to shreds.

When confronted thus, Lewandowski and his ilk usually then retreat to their fallback position — The Precautionary Principle. But a man far, far smarter than Lewandowski wrote about why the Precautionary Principle in climate change argues against the Precautionary Principle. Dr Michael Crichton discussed why the Precautionary Principle was self-contradictory in regards to economic development and climate alarmism.

And that is where the dishonest hucksters like Lewandowski and Cook fall down. That those two can even call himself a Professor is a disgrace to the profession and their employers (UWA and UQ).
And finally, Lewandowski’s and Cook’s intelligence must be called into question when they operate without ethics while claiming to be intellectuals.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 4, 2017 2:12 pm

So that if someone points out the lies, then the propagandist claims they are trying to deny the original truth.

Isn’t this similar to Motte and Bailey?

“In short: instead of defending a weak position (the “bailey”), the arguer retreats to a strong position (the “motte”), while acting as though the positions are equivalent. When the motte has been accepted (or found impenetrable) by an opponent, the arguer continues to believe (and perhaps promote) the bailey.
Note that the MAB works only if the motte and the bailey are sufficiently similar (at least superficially) that one can switch between them while pretending that they are equivalent.”


December 4, 2017 12:46 pm

Freudians do, used to do, the same thing. The logic is the same, at least. You deny that X reminds you of Y. The stronger your denial, and the less your recognition of the truth of my insight, the more you are giving evidence of the truth, which we can be increasingly confident is fundamental and important, or it would not be so deeply repressed and resisted.

Resistance is futile, I am the analyst, and I am right.

leopoldo Perdomo
December 4, 2017 12:46 pm

The author of the article said,
Maybe the backfire happens simply because the refutation isn’t actually a refutation.

A refutation is only valid for rational beings. A person that believes something, in a god, in a political theory do not understand the reasons why he believe. Then, it is impossible to refute what he thinks is right, a true god, a true ideology, a true theory, a true religion, etc. In fact the brain of most people is a repetitive chamber, or en echo chamber. He thinks what he has in his brain is true, and not is clear why it is, except for arguments he had not verified. Then, he is unable to see if the arguments propping his believes or his knowledge are valid or not.

Non Nomen
December 4, 2017 1:00 pm

What is this? A Movie poster of the new
The Bad, the Worse and the Ugly?comment image

Reply to  Non Nomen
December 4, 2017 1:20 pm

It looks the patients plotting to take over the asylum.

Non Nomen
Reply to  Eric Coo
December 4, 2017 1:25 pm

Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts of Traal?

Reply to  Eric Coo
December 4, 2017 6:00 pm

Nyuk nyuk nyuk

Ian H
December 4, 2017 1:00 pm

Scientists reason this way. A scientific model that survives an attempt at falsification is given more weight as a consequence.

December 4, 2017 1:09 pm

I don’t know ho those 3 fellas are in the photo (except for Mannchild), but I suspect it would be ripe for a caption contest.

Reply to  icisil
December 4, 2017 1:10 pm

They may be ‘ho’es, but I meant ‘who’

Reply to  icisil
December 4, 2017 2:56 pm

I think they are, from left to right: John Cook, Michael Mann and Stephan Lewandowsky.

Ray in SC
Reply to  icisil
December 6, 2017 2:39 pm

Yes, that’s Mann in the middle and Lee on the right. That may be Cook on the left but I do not recognize him without his Nazi uniform.

Ray in SC
Reply to  icisil
December 6, 2017 4:23 pm

I need to work on my proofreading skills. Lee = Lew (Lewandowski) on the right. And yes, there is a self made portrait of Cook in a WWII German SS uniform. I will not post it here but Google reveals it to those who care to look.

Reply to  icisil
December 4, 2017 3:24 pm

There’s a good example of the Beady-Eyed Bald Weasel in the middle.

December 4, 2017 1:43 pm

Minor correction: the Reproducibility Project for Psychology had a 36% (35/97) success rate. See minute 7 of the linked video.

December 4, 2017 2:05 pm

On topic…but slightly off topic I would like to point out that

The Backfire Effect doesn’t just apply to Warmism. It also applies to Religion.
When people are confronted with information that refutes their previously held beliefs, they respond to refutation by strengthening their beliefs because they:
Feel they are being persecuted
Are inappropriately self-confident due to consensus fallacy
Are emboldened by a supportive availability cascade
Are demonstrating a reactive confirmation bias
Are over-enthusiastic in their self-affirmation etc etc etc
This is a very good reason NOT to attack someone’s religion.
Nothing strengthens a religion like PERSECUTION.

Reply to  Charles Gerard Nelson
December 4, 2017 3:17 pm

It applies to all religions, even those that deny that there is a God.

December 4, 2017 2:17 pm

lew was practicing trollcraft.
his gambit was clever- if you thought he believed anything, you missed the mark
see him and cook joking about how well it worked?
by troll rulez, score is kept by how many words of response are returned per word of trollery.
he’s had a tremendously successful ROI
and this article is just more win, from his perspective.
his trick still commands the attention and capturing the imagination.

December 4, 2017 2:18 pm

I am not sure why we need climate scientists at all anymore.

Experts on the climate such as Lewendowsky and his ilk are personally gifted with a quite unique ability to assess and to define what is the correct interpretation of the science that relates to the climate.

A personal characteristic that is unique to Lewendowsky and his fellow travelllers and one which he reminds us all of quite regularly.

As such and as the science has been done on the climate and the correct conclusions have been reached according to Lewensdowsky , the science is fixed and therfore no further scientific work on the climate is required nor is there a need for any climate scientists anymore.

Lewendowsky is also uniquely and personally gifted in that the climate science he espouses is unique and never changing .
It is fixed for eternity and as such Lewendowsky and his compatriots can confidently publicise the correct interpretation of the science of the climate without fear of being contradicted by any climate scientists who might be so opinionated and presumptuous as to doubt and even, god forbid, publish scientificallty researched data that runs counter to Lewendowsky’s and his fellow traveller’s very firm understandings and beliefs on what is the correct interpretation of the science as related to the climate.

Reply to  ROM
December 4, 2017 3:19 pm

I misread Lewendowsky as Lissenko.

Michael of Oz
December 4, 2017 2:22 pm

Homo identifies with their collection of beliefs, a diminishing of the collection or part of the collection of beliefs is felt as a diminishment of the self, “if i’m not all that i believed was of value…what am i?…of no value?” then dissonance then “chimping out” or litigation.

December 4, 2017 2:25 pm

“97 out of 100 climate experts agree humans are causing global warming”
Wrong, even if you ignored the serious methodological issues, and that is one hell of big elephant. All this ‘resarch’ did is look at sub-section of publications which did not even represent the majority of papers in the area. Cook work is BS from the top all the way down. It’s biggest achievement is how it’s claimed to be 101 things it is not.

December 4, 2017 3:18 pm

“humans are causing global warming” is true. We build homes, and heat them, just for the purpose of keeping us warm! The effect is more or less (correct me if wrong) equivalent to 1 hour of sun more in a year.
And this is supposed to be the big deal, worthy of giving all power to some worldwide bureaucracy? seriously?

December 4, 2017 3:20 pm

For those who wish to revisit it, the “97%” paper is here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009EO030002/epdf. The most obvious hole in the paper is that the sample size, from which the 97% was deduced, was a mere 77. I suspect there are more holes which readers at the time didn’t see, but which might be more obvious now. And there are plenty of people in this forum far more eagle-eyed about such things than I am.

George Daddis
Reply to  Neil Lock
December 4, 2017 4:17 pm


1. When compared with pre- 1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

In addition to continuous filtering of responses until they got the answers they wanted, the REAL takeaway is that the supposed conclusions are in no way controversial, would be agreed to by most of this blog’s readers and certainly did NOT say that the warming was catastrophic or even an immediate danger (which of course a previous President DID say when he pretended to quote the study.)
A. Who were the several “climate scientists” who thought present temperatures are NOT higher than pre-1880 (they missed the Little Ice Age in their studies?)?
B. This was a survey sent to scientists, so the meaning of the word “significant” is relevant. If they meant “occurred more than could be explained by chance” then of course humans HAVE contributed (deforestation, UHI and of course CO2). However, even if they meant the word as it is used in the vernacular (“major” as in “significant injuries”, the conclusion is STILL meaningless because they asked if human activity was a CONTRIBUTING FACTOR to the warming (in contrast to Lewandowski’s statement). Again, who on this blog would disagree?

Steve Fraser
Reply to  Neil Lock
December 4, 2017 7:32 pm

And there were other method errors, to boot.

December 4, 2017 3:38 pm

Anyone who works professionally as a negotiator and persuader is familiar with the rebound effect. Putting aside all of Lewinsky’s academic jargon, I think it has a simple, common sense explanation. If you attack a person, he will defend himself. In a verbal argument, if a person perceives his deeply held beliefs are being attacked, he will attempt to marshal all of the evidence and arguments that support his position. When he does so, his beliefs are reinforced rather than weakened. Moreover, the more threatening he perceives the intensity of the attack, the more likely that the argument will engage the limbic “fight or flight” systems of his brain, which simultaneously shuts down pre-fontal cortex, the center of rational thought.
There is a great deal of literature in the field of negotiating how to avoid the rebound effect, none of which Lewinsky suggests. A few of the most basic points are these:

1) When people are arguing, rather that discussing, they are not in a frame of mind to be open to persuasion. The first step in changing this is to follow the simple advice of Stephen Covey, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you want to persuade a person, you first need to understand why he believes as he does. To be most effective, you need to understand the other person’s argument better than he does. This not only helps you understand how to frame your position, but also starts to reduce the other persons defenses. One of the most effective things you can say in an argument is, “I understand how you arrived at this position” followed by a succinct summary of their arguments. If a lawyer is writing a brief on a complex case and he thinks that his opponents arguments are silly, he is not doing his job right.

2) To change a persons openness to being persuaded, it is helpful to find some common ground, which is almost always possible. I in no way buy into conspiracy theories that suggest that the Apollo lunar landing was faked. I could, however, imagine saying to someone who does, that “I don’t always trust what government officials say, especially when they have an incentive to mislead”

3) Once the above steps have been followed, you still must avoid attacking your opponents’ position directly. Instead of making assertions that point out why he is wrong, ask questions such as “have you considered . . .? or “have you read what so and so has said on the subject?” Asking questions encourages a person to reconsider his position rather than to defend it.

4) Almost no one will not immediately change a deeply held belief on the spot. Persuasion is a process. Allow people to mull things over and don’t immediately back them into a corner. Allow them to save face.

Having provided what I would view as a common sense way of persuading someone to change his position, I will say that Lewinsky follows none of my advice. He loses, personally, me at step one because he has no idea what parts of climate science I dispute or why. I could care less about the 97% consensus because I would consider myself part of it as I understand how it is defined. When he accuses Steve McIntyre of being a “denier” or a conspiracy monger, it is obvious that he has absolutely no understanding of Steve’s arguments.

Reply to  Pauld
December 4, 2017 7:15 pm

I agree with your comment. I would add, however, that you also have to be prepared to have more people maintain their beliefs than change them.

Reply to  Sheri
December 5, 2017 1:31 am

I think people don’t ever really change belief. They, however, accept two things
* to lose faith in people and organizations that were supposed to hold the same belief (like, communists losing faith in USSR and communist parties after Berlin events showed the people were discontent)
* to put the belief down the list of their motives, while other motives step up
CAGW believers are not really concerned about the “GW” part, they are concerned with the “CA” part: that humans mess with Nature. When the GW scare will wane, and it will, they will feel deceived and dirty, they will find it harder to trust the next scaremonger, but they won’t stop to be worried.

Non Nomen
Reply to  Pauld
December 4, 2017 10:27 pm

In other words, Lewandowsky, although being a “psychologist”, doesn’t understand these obvious and simple things as laid ouf by you. That man is completely nuts. Bristol University, where he is giving lectures, seems to be hoarding nuts by the Zetaton.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Non Nomen
December 5, 2017 6:09 am

although being a “psychologist”, doesn’t understand these obvious and simple things as laid ouf by you

HA, “being a psychologist” is nothing to brag about, to wit:

Excerpted from above published commentary:

At least, this is how psychologists will see it. The problem, of course, is that the Backfire Effect only applies when dealing with an axiomatic truth, but when it comes to climate science, one wonders how psychologists (who let’s face it are no more experts on climate science than I am) are able to identify such truths.

The literal fact is, psychologists and psychiatrists are no more capable of “identifying such truths” than they are capable of identifying and/or explaining “why and how” people “think” and “act” the way they do…….. simply because, …. most every practicing psychologists and psychiatrists don’t really have a “clue” why they, themselves, “think” and “act” the way they do.

And iffen one can’t explain the “root source” of their own “actions” ….. there is no way they can define or explain the “root source” of the “actions” of others. Thus, the actions of said psychologists and psychiatrists are little more than “Monday morning ‘Quarterbacking’ in the Health Care game”.

Non Nomen
Reply to  Non Nomen
December 5, 2017 11:26 am

@ Samuel C Cogar
I put the noun psychologist in “quotation marks” to show that I am not really convinced of their science. But I still believe that they have some advanced insight into matters John Doe has not. And, yes, I do agree with what you insinuated: some psychologists badly need a psychiatrist. This will end like a fight of Goliath vs Goliath, both dropping dead.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Non Nomen
December 7, 2017 5:21 am

@ Non Nomen

IMLO, there is very little if any “actual” science involved in what psychologists and psychiatrists are touting as “reasons & causes” of personal problems that are directly associated with one’s re-occurring and debilitating “spells” or “attacks” of emotional or mental discomfort.

But I still believe that they have some advanced insight into matters John Doe has not.

HA, a broken clock has “advanced insight” into what the exact time will be at two different occasions each day.

The practice of psychology and psychiatry are still primarily “rooted” in the written commentary of a late 19th Century heroin addicted author, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

And the only thing the “P& Ps” have actually accomplished during the past 100+ years has been the development of new prescription drugs for “masking” the emotional effects of the afflicted person(s) ….. and the “coining” of dozens of “new names” to describe the original problem.

Iffen it is a “nurtured problem”, ……. then the only cure for it is …. the afflicted person has to “re-nurture” or “un-nurture” it him/her self. No one else can do it for them.

Roger Knights
Reply to  Pauld
December 5, 2017 8:06 am

“4) Almost no one will not immediately change a deeply held belief on the spot.”

Ray in SC
Reply to  Pauld
December 6, 2017 4:35 pm


Your comment is very informative and well presented.

December 4, 2017 3:41 pm

From the article: “In keeping with his debunker’s strategy, he opens with his “core fact”: “97 out of 100 climate experts agree humans are causing global warming.”

Lewandowsky “core fact” is actually a lie. There is no 97 percent consensus. This is a lie. If he is going by his sidekick Cook’s study, the real figure is actually less than a 2 percent consensus, which is no consensus at all.

That’s what we expect out of activists Alarmists: A bunch of lies, and Lewandowsky does his part here.

December 4, 2017 5:13 pm

Allegiance to a group is strong in primates, people will defend their beliefs because these beliefs are connected to a group they associate and are in allegiance with, to change their beliefs is to abandon the group and become isolated, which is not a good survival strategy. Conformity to one’s group has been strongly selected for.

Gunga Din
December 4, 2017 5:43 pm

Guest opinion by John Ridgway

“Return your sword to its place, for all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.” – Mathew, 26:52

The points of the post are valid.
But the verse quoted, while often quoted as a “proverb”, does not apply.
He was speaking to his disciples at that time, at that place, in the the circumstances they were facing.

F. Leghorn
December 4, 2017 9:20 pm

a discipline that has a meagre 39% success rate when it comes to reproducibility

This is why I did nothing with my BA in psychology. And btw there is no way psychology has a 39% success rate. That number is as phony as the 97% meme.

While psychology is excellent at figuring out where a problem originated I don’t believe it has ever “cured” anyone. And only very rarely even helped anyone.

I could have made (not “earned”) much more money if I had stuck with it but I would have gone crazy from the cognitive dissonance.

December 5, 2017 4:22 am

I’ve been using #ConfabulatoryConfirmationBias on twitter for a few years now having read all the Warmist BS 😀

December 5, 2017 5:28 am

Lewandowsky is the best example of his own latest theories. Interestingly, before he jumped off the deep end into climate psychology and conspiracy ideation, he did reasonable work. Even more interestingly, much of it is about bias effects that are clearly occurring in the climate consensus. I think this explains his bizarre position. It was either give up a world view (CC has become highly aligned with left of center views in some countries, like the US, and Oz where Lewandowsky comes from), which all his own theories showed was wrong, OR sacrifice everything to insist that the certainty of imminent CAGW is unquestionable, yet having to turn his prior theories completely upside-down relative to the social data, in order to try and fit this false picture.


December 5, 2017 5:28 am

Psychologist make too many claims about groups of people, many of them are just wrong.
Psychologist are stuck in their own bias-sets, and all too often see everything that people do as a result of some prior personal experience. This is mostly BS on the part of the psychologist.
The very basis of this piece is just wrong built as it is on nothing more than BS.
But then again I’m very biased again all social ‘science’. On an individual basis a psychologist can be useful to the troubled, but in trying to expound broad generalities to whole population they(Psychologists) are on very shaky ground.

December 9, 2017 8:00 am

Some news:

Lewandowsky has realised the ‘back fire effect’ is only relevant is people aren’t really paying attention…

ie it is nonsense… if people are actively engaging/listening… their is no ‘backfire effect’

he has even published this in ‘peer reviewed’ science…. lol


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