Understanding Climate Denial, Continued: Motivated Reasoning

Mon, 2011-04-18 06:05Chris Mooney
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Understanding Climate Denial, Continued: Motivated Reasoning

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.

But there’s another key factor. And it happens to be the subject of a major feature story of mine that just came out in Mother Jones magazine, entitled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” Here, I discuss a phenomenon referred to in the political psychology literature as “motivated reasoning”:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

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

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. “They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Taber, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

Yes, that’s right: The mental processes that lead to climate denial, and to cleverly arguing back against any new study that comes out supporting the scientific consensus, may be largely automatic and rooted in subconscious emotional responses, which in turn call to mind, from memory, a battery of standard arguments—and which also motivate new ones. The emotions would be generated by one’s strong political perspective—and, notably, intelligence is not  necessarily any protection against motivated reasoning. Quite the contrary:

Republicans who think they understand the global warming issue best are least concerned about it; and among Republicans and those with higher levels of distrust of science in general, learning more about the issue doesn’t increase one’s concern about it. What’s going on here? Well, according to Charles Taber and Milton Lodge of Stony Brook, one insidious aspect of motivated reasoning is that political sophisticates are prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues. “People who have a dislike of some policy—for example, abortion—if they’re unsophisticated they can just reject it out of hand,” says Lodge. “But if they’re sophisticated, they can go one step further and start coming up with counterarguments.” These individuals are just as emotionally driven and biased as the rest of us, but they’re able to generate more and better reasons to explain why they’re right—and so their minds become harder to change. 

Clearly this applies to the rejection of climate science—but motivated reasoning can occur on any topic where there are strong beliefs and motivations, and even (or perhaps especially) in one’s personal relationships. No one is immune. In the article, I further use motivated reasoning to help explain diverse phenomena ranging from vaccine denial to the persistence of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But if this is really what’s going on—climate change is an emotional issue, e.g., highly politicized, and that’s driving the generation of skeptic arguments—then it follows that refuting skeptics scientifically might not always work. Rather, we may need to depolarize the issue, come up with solutions that they can accept—and get everybody to calm down.

There’s much more about motivated reasoning, and the implications, at Mother Jones. From now on, because I think there’s real explanatory power here, I’ll be including references to motivated reasoning in much that I write about climate change denial.

Previous Comments

Chris,

It’s not news that we are affective…that our judgments are a mix of feeling and fact. See the Intro of my book, and tons of research in lots of places that say the same thing. Slovic and Finuance coined the phrase “the Affect Heuristic” in a paper in 2001. Or see Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio in 1995. Motivated reasoning is just an attractive semantic title for what we’ve known for a long time, that once we pick our vies we stick with them. D’uh!

The real question is…what are the subjective influences that lead to those views in the first place. Why do some people judge the same facts one way, and some another, on climate or anything. What are the “motivations” of motivated reasoning. For that you have to dig deeper, into Cultural Cognition, the theory that we shape our opinions so they match those in the groups with which we most strongly identify. (www.culturalcogntion.net) I argue that it is ADAPTIVE to do so, since agreeing with the group strengthens OUR group’s dominance in society and our group’s acceptance of us as a member in good standing, and we rely on our group for our SURVIVAL. THAT gets to the heart of science denial of climate, or nuclear radiation, or anything. Not why we stick to the positions in the face of the facts…but why we take the positions in the first place.

Group, as you know, is not about political affiliation, or religion, or any of those labels Mother Jones and others too simplistically turn to. As powerful as those affiliations are, they are surface labels for the underlying general ways we want society to operate. Are we Individualists (the tribe should mostly leave us alone) or Communitarians (we are all in it together)… Are we Hierarchists (we feel safe in a rigid predictable status quo) or Egalitarians (we prefer a society that is more flexible and not locked in by class and patterns from the past.) From those underlying drivers come our choices for political affiliation,and positions on issues of the day.

Motivated reasoning merely describes what happens AFTER that, to maintain those reassuring views. It explains why the structures of our views are so rigid but not what built them in the first place, so it’s not the deep answer you’re looking for.

I have this very simple view I was taught back in the dark ages at TAFE Introductory Psychology course. We were told the mind when we were born was like an empty bird cage.

What we learnt from observing the world around us was absorbed into the cage or our brain. As time went on, all new information was assessed and analysed, before being stored. We used the earlier information we had in the cage to do this. In other words, we form all our views, using what we already believe or know, regardless as how accurate it is.

I found as I continued on to University, the more I learnt, the less I knew. This was a disturbing but exciting fact. I believe that there is probably no one answer to anything. As they say, there is more than one way to skin a rabbit, none being the only correct way.

What I find sad is those who have little power or wealth, fighting the battles of the strong, especially when they have little to gain. What is good for the wealthy a powerful, is rarely good for the weak.

For the reasons you explain, would we be better focusing on costing and charging the direct externalities of burning fossil fuels and take the emphasis off that which is less direct and being disputed? They have the same conclusion minus the distracting argument.

Why make it so difficult. Let’s try Occam ’s Razor:

1/. Can it be as simple as folks can see and personally observe the lack of empirical evidence?

2/. Can it be that folks observe the relentless spin of just about anything blamed on global warming?

3/. Can it be that folks remember the catastrophes’ that were forecast 5-10 years ago and have had to be re-assessed when current events have disproved them? A prophet is only as good as his last forecast and global warming prophets have zero in the bank.

4/. Can it be the relentless support and the dismissal of bad science as being irrelevant that folk’s have lost faith in the science?

It’s so simple than all this ‘motivated reasoning’ stuff and pigeon holing into Fox, Republican and the like. Getting real and questioning until you get answers is just basic common sense. Nothing more or less.

Lets check that razor

Against #1: there are 150 years of science and the data is pretty damn clear. To observe a lack of empirical evidence would require a massive overhaul of the human perception. Multiplying the required explanations.

Against #2: requires that there be spin, that it be pointless and that it consists of “just about anything” can be blamed on global warming under those circumstances. Again this requires a plethora of extra assertions to be made.

Against #3: What forecasts? What current events have disproved them? This isn’t any form of razor, merely assertion of the truth as you wish to see it.

Against #4: In science, bad science IS irrelevant. Again, no razor here.

When are you going to get real and start getting answers rather than making unsupported assertions? Common sense is not anywhere in appearance with people who assert “more common sense is needed”.

Lets take - “Against #1: there are 150 years of science and the data is pretty damn clear. To observe a lack of empirical evidence would require a massive overhaul of the human perception. Multiplying the required explanations”

No massive overhaul required. Let’s keep it ‘simple’. I’ll just ask for the top 3. That should be real easy with 150yrs to chose from.

After you done with that will get on to 2/.

“No massive overhaul required. Let’s keep it ‘simple’. I’ll just ask for the top 3.”

http://www.aip.org/history/climate/co2.htm

More than the top 3. All the science from over 150 years.

http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/

http://www.ssmi.com/msu/msu_data_description.html

http://www.friendsofscience.org/assets/documents/FOS%20Essay/Climate_Change_Science.html

(note the CO2 absorption spectra, something attested to by astronomers too)

Remarkable that you simultaneously missed the point by backing into it.

Occam’s Razor provides a much more plausible explaination: that PR hacks have manufactured a disinformation campaign.

“Conspiracy theorists claim to believe that global warming is a carefully constructed hoax driven by scientists desperate for … what? Being needled by nonscientific newspaper reports, by blogs, and by right-wing politicians and think tanks? Most hard scientists hate themselves or their colleagues for being in the news. Being a climate scientist spokesman has already become a hindrance to an academic career, including tenure. I have a much simpler but plausible ‘conspiracy theory’: that fossil energy companies, driven by the need to protect hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, encourage obfuscation of the inconvenient scientific results.” http://climateprogress.org/2010/07/25/jeremy-grantham-everything-you-need-to-know-about-global-warming-in-5-minutes/

It is not fossil fuel companies preventing action, it is we the citizens. We are informed and educated enough to know that to reduce CO2 emissions would require massive upheaval and dislocation in our economy as well as a drastically reduced standard of living.

It is we, the general public, who are hesitant at present to undertake such drastic action. So if you are going to blame someone, blame me and most other Canadians.

You don’t speak for anyone but yourself.

I speak for more Canadians then you do VJ.

That would be one, then.

Chris, I liked your previous post somewhat better where you used the less argumentative term, “climate skeptic”.

Denialists have closed minds, skeptics have open minds and a lot of questions.

chris, just wondering if you think that what you speak of could possibly happen to you? and just to remind me “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 “…can you just enumerate the top three things that overwhelm you as far as evidence…just the top three please because i am sure that the way my brain works i would not be able to comprehend much more i.e. “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”..i just think of china here and get confused. thanks for your help. rich

Why stop at three? Here are ten indicators that the world is getting warmer.

http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-key-climate-indicators-point-to-same-finding-global-warming-is-unmistakable.html

Plus ten indicators that humans are contributing to climate change:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html

And the evidence can be found by following the links provided there.

i’ll check em out.

Warming is an accepted fact. Folks can see and appreciate this. A minimal gradual increase of a degree or two (CorF or whatever takes your fancy) over the past 150 years which is well within the bounds of known natural variations. And the hot spot that was the empirical evidence has failed to arrive.

Just cannot get excited about this one. So one piece of evidence down two to go. What’s next?

And since it’s been 50 years to get 0.8C warming and we’re accelerating, what is it?

“A minimal gradual increase of a degree or two”

Taking us from ice age to interglacial is only 4-6C. Your measure for minimal is hopelessly miscalibrated.

“over the past 150 years which is well within the bounds of known natural variations.”

Wrong (thought it IS the current echo chamber comment, trying to defend Christy):

http://www.skepticalscience.com/christy-crock-3-internal-variability.html

The point being that any one day varies by as much as 80C. However, that trend is over the decadal period zero.

Variation isn’t trend. If the trend goes up, the maximum goes up because the variation adds on top.

Your comments/links do not gel with me. Nor from what I read and understand. Particularly historical stuff. Try this link for a perspective:

http://www.longrangeweather.com/global_temperatures.htm

I’m sure you could pick holes but I see it’s close to the historical records from the litrature of the times. Can’t lay my hands on a nice list that records these in cronological order. If I find I’ll publish.

For me personally I’m so happy that temperatures have risen in the last 150 years and long may they continue. Do you have any idea or imagination as to what it was like living in the early part of the 1800’s? And they were coming out of the little ice age which was even colder. You must be made of tough stuff wanting those days to return.

So the only empirical data we have identified so far, that would support AGW, is the temperature hot spot and that is not happening. I do not see anything else other than theroy, if’s and maybe’s. So one down two to go. What’s next?

Titus said

“Your comments/links do not gel with me. Nor from what I read and understand. Particularly historical stuff. Try this link for a perspective”

Don’t you think that a scientific source would be more reliable than reading tea leaves?

As for your comment:

“So the only empirical data we have identified so far, that would support AGW, is the temperature hot spot and that is not happening. I do not see anything else other than theroy, if’s and maybe’s”

This shows that you do not understand climate science at all. The tropical hotspot is expected of any global warming and is not specific for AGW. On the other hand, stratospheric cooling (shown by scientists to be happening), nighttime warming greater than daytime warming (from actual measurements) and less heat escaping to space (measured by satellite) are indicators of human caused global warming (in case you don’t know what anthropogenic means). It pays to read the scientific literature and credible sites rather than accepting nonsense from denier sites.

Ian Forrester says:
“Don’t you think that a scientific source would be more reliable than reading tea leaves?”

Here’s the sort of source I was referring to.

http://www.breadandbutterscience.com/Weather.pdf

Can’t find the excellent one that goes into a lot more detail. If you think these are ‘tea leaves’ then you are in a sorry state of understanding (or perhaps its denial).

And why should I need to understand climate science to tell me how to believe in stuff. Let’s be honest. it does not have a good track record.

And then you say:
“The tropical hotspot is expected of any global warming and is not specific for AGW

Surely then this means that we have no warming at all. Problem solved according to your science.

Sounds like poor old Titus is suffering from Dunning Kruger Syndrome. Good news is that it is easily curable. Just spend some time in a reputable library and read some elementary texts on physics and chemistry then you may be able to understand simple climate science.

By the way, the tropical hot spot has been found:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/tropospheric-hot-spot.htm

As I said, Dunning Kruger is curable but you need to admit that you are suffering from it first. Are you ready to admit it yet?

Ian Forrester says:
“Sounds like poor old Titus is suffering from Dunning Kruger Syndrome”

In my world I have the exact same analysis of you. You have data and knowledge in abundance but you show no signs of understanding and not even an inkling of wisdom. Take a trip down to your local library and get some history behind you. It’ll change your perspective in multiple ways and may even lift you onto the first stage of understanding

BTW. I grew up in UK and passed maths. physics and chemistry at ‘A’ level and got a BSc in Applied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist for many years.

Let’s call a truce because this conversation has deteriorated passed usefulness. My apology for encouraging.

Your supposed (how can we even trust you to be telling the truth about your qualifications) make you even more of a Dunning Kruger sufferer. In fact, if your qualifications are true it makes you so blatantly dishonest.

At least if you pretended to be scientifically ignorant (which in fact you are by the nonsense you have posted) you would not be classified as dishonest. However, claiming to have a physics and chemistry background makes your comments dishonest. The basic science behind climate science is very simple. Why are you denying it.

And just what have I posted that makes you think I am a Dunning Kruger Sufferer. That is a blatant ad hominem attack. My opinion of you is backed up by the nonsense you have posted therefore you can not claim that I am using an ad hominem attack on you. Must have failed your English courses too.

Your conversation passed usefulness a long time ago. It is time to apologize to the readers of the blog for wasting their time by having to read your lies and distortions.

Ian Forrester says:

“The basic science behind climate science is very simple”.

Whooow. This makes you also delusional in my world.

Think deeply on that statement and you may get a taste of what understanding is all about. Science is a great tool for gathering data and gaining knowledge and useful as an input into understanding but you need to broaden your mind.

I started this conversation by sharing that I believe that natural causes explain more easily and the shenanigans that surround this whole debate have produced doubt and distrust. I’m further reinforced in that claim.

What natural causes? It’s not enough to just say “it’s natural”. What’s the mechanism?

Chris,

Do you maintain that this adherence to dogma - the denial of informatiom that conflicts with ones preexisting beliefs - is to be found only on one end of the spectrum? Skeptics but not believers? Republicans but not democrats?

Ian Forrester you says:

“The basic science behind climate science is very simple”.

Whooow. This makes you also delusional in my world.

Think deeply on that statement and you may get a taste of what understanding is all about. Science is a great tool for gathering data and gaining knowledge and useful as an input into understanding but you need to broaden your mind.

I started this conversation by sharing that I believe that natural causes explain more easily and the shenanigans that surround this whole debate have produced doubt and distrust. I’m further reinforced in that claim.

You don’t really have a clue, do you? The climate warms because it receives more energy than it re-emits. Now isn’t that a simple concept?

That is the basis for global warming, more energy in less energy out and it warms.

There are a number of factors, called forcings, which vary with time which affect the net energy flow. Scientists understand these and can account for them all to varying degrees. Over the past 50 years or so the only forcing which has a significant warming effect is rising green house gases which can be attributed to the burning of fossil fuels.

So please stop your slandering and smearing of scientists and start acting like one, if in fact you are one as you have claimed. I just cannot believe that you can have the qualifications you claim and be so ignorant of science and to be so nasty in your comments about climate scientists.

Are “climate deniers” the only ones susceptible to motivated reasoning, while true believers in dangerous anthropogenic global warming are immune?

Not immune. That’s why science stands apart from any given individual. Each person adds a piece to the puzzle, but it’s possible to see the whole picture without the puzzle being complete.

Of course, if one is piecing together a landscape of butterflies, it does not help to have others add in bits of cathedrals.

Do you realize, almost all of the comments posted here are founded on the author’s own emotional attachment?

We love to argue. It’s what we do best.

Just like birds love to fly. It’s a practical ability, but it’s also fun.
Just like cats love to caterwaul. That’s not so practical, but it’s easy and self-sustaining.

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