Everybody who's written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They're predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities. To cite a recent example:
What part of “we haven't warmed any in 16 years” don't you understand? Heh. “Cherry-picking” as defined by you alarmists: any time period selected containing data that refutes your hysterical hypothesis. Can be any length of time from 4 billion years to one hour. Fuck off, little man!
It was reasonably obvious already that these folks were doing nothing good for the public's understanding of the science of climate change (to say nothing of their own comprehension). But now there's actual evidence to back this idea up.
In the first round of critical reactions to my book The Republican Brain, there wasn’t much to impress. As I related at AlterNet, the general conservative response to the book was to misrepresent its arguments, rather than to engage them seriously. (The book predicted this, incidentally.)
But now that some researchers have been able to read and process the book, some highly intellectually serious criticism arrives courtesy of Yale’s Dan Kahan, of whose work I’ve written a great deal in the past. You can see Kahan’s first two responses to the book here and here—the latter includes new experimental data. You can see my roadmap for how I plan to respond to Kahan here.
This is the first post of my response, and it is solely dedicated to clarifying my position in this debate. You see, while many people will read this exchange as though I am claiming that conservatives are inherently more biased than liberals—or in other words, claiming that they engage in more or stronger motivated reasoning—it isn’t actually that simple.
The closing words of The Republican Brain are these:
I believe that I am right, but I know that I could be wrong. Truth is something that I am driven to search for. Nuance is something I can handle. And uncertainty is something I know I’ll never fully dispel.
These are not the words of someone who is certain in his beliefs—much less certain of the conclusion that Dan Kahan calls the “asymmetry thesis.”
According to Ms. Wente, the impacts of climate change remain a future fantasy, unquantifiable by data collected through “insanely complicated” climate science. Her perspective is informed by the omission of facts, falsehoods, and fake experts. In a dance with smoke and mirrors she creates issues where none exist and ignores others that do.
There was a time when I couldn’t understand what motivated writers like Wente to stand so firmly against such clear and solid science. The psychology of “confirmation bias” has provided the answer for me.
Like all of us, Wente has her biases, and most of us, like her, like to have those biases confirmed. So we seek out the information that confirms what we already believe and disregard that information that might prove us wrong.
As a columnist, Wente presents the information which confirms her ideological beliefs as truths and facts to the readers of the Globe and Mail. She excels as a columnist in part because she mocks and jeers her detractors. This pleases the people who agree with her but makes her loathed by those who don’t. It provokes reaction on both sides, and eliminates any possibility of civil conversation.
Yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada, for another installment of an enterprise to which I’ve been increasingly devoted over the last year: Training scientists in communication, public engagement, and media outreach. Working with the National Science Foundation, but also sometimes on my own, I’ve now probably been involved in training over a thousand scientists in these, er, “arts.”
In this, I’m just one part of a much broader communication and outreach wave that is sweeping the science world. This wave, in my view, has built up for two related reasons: 1) ongoing frustration in the research community over the failure to get its knowledge “out there”—successfully disseminated—especially on controversial subjects like climate change and evolution; 2) the decline of science coverage itself in the traditional media, and the concomitant rise of the new media. This development is both exhilarating and also rather terrifying, because it increasingly places the scientist him- or herself in the position of serving as a direct-to-public communicator, rather than in the old role of communicating through an intermediary (the journalist).
My co-authored 2009 book Unscientific America noted these trends and called for greater outreach efforts—and now, I’m also heavily involved in trying to realize the vision. As a result, I think it’s worth laying out some conclusions I’ve drawn so far from the “sci comm” training enterprise, as well as to describe what appear to be the next steps. (This is also something I’m going to be talking about more at two conferences coming up: The Soil Science Society of America annual meeting in San Antonio in October, and the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union this December in San Francisco.)
To me, the key tension at the center of this exercise is between “theory” and “practice.” And we have to ensure it’s a productive one.
Readers of my posts over the last half year will be familiar with the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which people’s subconscious emotional impulses lead them to respond, in a biased way, to information that challenges their deeply held beliefs and worldviews. We’ve been focusing on this so much because I believe it explains a great deal of what we here call climate change denial, and the resistance to inconvenient science (and inconvenient facts) in general.
One important researcher on motivated reasoning is Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. In Mother Jones, I described one of his previous studies, demonstrating how motivated reasoning can lead to a “backfire effect” when people are confronted with politically inconvenient information:
Take, for instance, the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed hidden weapons of mass destruction just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. When political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler showed subjects fake newspaper articles (PDF) in which this was first suggested (in a 2004 quote from President Bush) and then refuted (with the findings of the Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group report, which found no evidence of active WMD programs in pre-invasion Iraq), they found that conservatives were more likely than before to believe the claim. (The researchers also tested how liberals responded when shown that Bush did not actually “ban” embryonic stem-cell research. Liberals weren't particularly amenable to persuasion, either, but no backfire effect was observed.)
So how do you persuade people, if not with factual corrections of the sort run by newspapers? That’s what a new paper by Nyhan and Reifler has undertaken to study.
They come at you at public events, wanting to argue. They light up the switchboards whenever there’s a radio show about climate change. They commandeer your blog comments section. They have a seemingly insatiable desire to debate, sometimes quite aggressively.
They’re the conservative white men (CWM) of climate change denial, and we’ve all gotten to know them in one way or another. But we haven’t had population-level statistics on them until recently, courtesy of a new paper in Global Environmental Change (apparently not online yet, but live in the blogosphere as of late last week) by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap. It’s entitled “Cool Dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States.” Among other data, McCright and Dunlap show the following:
— 14% of the general public doesn’t worry about climate change at all, but among CWMs the percentage jumps to 39%.
— 32% of adults deny there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but 59% of CWMs deny what the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists have said.
— 3 adults in 10 don’t believe recent global temperature increases are primarily caused by human activity. Twice that many – 6 CWMs out of every ten – feel that way.
What’s more, and in line with a number of post I’ve written in the past, McCright and Dunlap also find among these CWMs a phenomenon I sometimes like to call “smart idiocy.”
In a recent post, I sought to explain, from a motivational standpoint, why it is that climate deniers can reject the overwhelming evidence that humans are causing the Earth to warm. We already have reason to think their motivations are not scientific, e.g., not driven by a quest to understand the truth about the atmosphere. Rather, climate denial seems closely linked to conservative and libertarian politics—the sense that the free market simply couldn’t have made such a mess of things; and the deep distrust of large scale government solutions that involve intervening in the economy.
We also know that the selective attention to biased information sources plays an important role. For instance, watching Fox News correlates closely with being less trusting of climate scientists, and with being misinformed about whether scientist think the Earth is warming.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.