Ordinal Language may undermine climate change deniers’ efforts.

While 97% of climate scientists concur on the causes and dangers of climate change, merely mentioning “uncertainty” often allow deniers to rally their following. Recent research suggests that using language that links increased risk to uncertainty can help orient people to the real dangers of climate change.

See: http://www.salon.com/2014/04/19/why_climate_deniers_are_winning_the_twisted_psychology_that_overwhelms_scientific_consensus/

3 thoughts on “Ordinal Language may undermine climate change deniers’ efforts.

    • Ha ha.

      My bio is fully open in all my activities. I work in the energy business including oil & gas, no secret.

      And, no I’m not a climate change denier either. Far from it. Anthropogenic global warming is obvious and needs to be taken seriously. What I “deny” is the apparently scientific rhetoric used in many arguments around it. They unnecessarily create delay and either undermine confidence or lead to misguided decisions and non-optimum actions

      And finally, I’m not “in their midst” I’m one of the originators of this web site, and those of us who set it up already knew each other from, many years of on-line interaction. The point of the site is to promote alternatives to the narrow / naive objectively scientific approach to rationality – Wisdom.

  1. Lewandowsky’s approach to communicating the “consensus” on climate change has to do with standing the word “uncertainty” on end, at least with respect to its rhetorical meaning, when combating the forces of climate change denial. Instead of “uncertainty” indicating a lack certainty with regard to whether or not our human activities are changing the global climate (frequently given as a reason not to “invest money” in solving this problem), we can now understand that “uncertainty” applies to what we should expect with regard to the future, given that anthropogenic climate change is already well underway. Rosenberg writes “Uncertainty grows with risk, exposure and potential loss, especially with complex nonlinear systems like the global climate system,” something he calls “a simple fact that your typical scientist already knows intuitively.” I would rephrase that to read “the uncertainty about what things will be like in the future increases the more we increase the deviation of atmospheric CO2 levels from pre-industrial levels, and the likelihood of potential loss (of life as well as “economic damage”) also grows with this increasing uncertainty.” Obviously, to reduce these adverse effects we should curtail emissions, and why this should ever have been considered by some to be “180 degrees away from ‘common sense'” is hard for me to understand, though that is no doubt indicative of the fact that my own “worldview” is rather different from anything that could be simplistically bisected according to “attitudes about the free market.” So far I’m with Lewandowski’s concern to have people wake up to the increasing uncertainty about continued stability of our climate system. However, he seems to find optimism in a finding that “the more that people perceived scientific consensus, the more they accepted scientific findings.” and also one showing that “highlighting” the scientific consensus not only increased acceptance but “neutralized” the effect of “worldview,” as narrowly defined–findings that, upon reflection, trouble me somewhat.

    I visited most of the external links provided by this article, and I especially appreciated the one at Vox Media (“How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” by Ezra Klein) giving Yale researcher Dan Kahan’s take on the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (from which Lewandowsky’s hypotheses differs importantly, as I will point out below, though not in a way that would make Kahan’s criticisms any less applicable), the view that “the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate,” a thesis commonly taken to imply that More Information will solve this problem. Kahan’s position is that, for most humans at least–contra Nick’s perennial complaint about the academy as an institution exclusively engaged in “finding out the truth” about something–they “reason for purposes other than finding the truth–purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe.” He calls his theory “Identity-Protective Cognition”: “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Kahan is thus skeptical of Lewandowsky’s position; “people use more information to rationalize what they already believe, rather than to question and reformulate it,” as Ezra Klein summarizes his findings.

    Where Lewandowski goes off the rails, however, is when he gets into exploring what he terms “conspiracist ideation,” a second factor, along with “worldviews,” that he identifies as a type of “motivated reasoning which interfere[s] with scientific truth-seeking.” On a closer look at what he’s saying, it seems that Lewandowsky is all about making people buy what is an externally supplied “consensus”–he’s about getting the general public to “accept” what a group of experts agree upon among themselves, rather than about the average citizen becoming educated him- or herself on the science of climate change, in order to understand _why_ climate scientists say what they’re saying. As Rosenberg reports, “‘If you are faced with agreement among scientists, you have two choices,’ Lewandowsky told me. ‘You either accept that they’re on to something, or . . . You think they all conspire to create a hoax for some nefarious reason. There aren’t too many other options, are there?'” Well, yes there are, Professor Lewandowski–another option is that you can try to study the issue yourself, by learning as much as you can about the science of the matter, and then thinking it through in light of the obvious facts (such as 7-billion-plus people all “consuming” and emitting carbon to the best of their abilities) and reaching your own conclusion. The basics of climate science, or of the even larger human takeover of the planetary systems in the Anthropocene epoch, aren’t all that hard, though the details may be exceedingly complex. But apparently Lewandowsky would rather than most people NOT think for themselves, just as Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule would prefer that they do not, but rather let themselves be “immunized” against certain kinds of heretical thoughts, as detailed in a controversial essay to which Lewandowsky refers numerous times in his several articles that Rosenberg references.

    Lewandowsky’s uncritical attitude toward what he assumes is a scientific “consensus” in several areas displays an unfamiliarity with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or Kuhn’s general body of thought, to be sure: scientific paradigms can “rule” for periods of time, often for many of the same reasons noted by Kahan, they can exist in tension with variant models, and they can shift rather suddenly, also often for many of those same reasons, even as they aspire to achieve internal consistency and correspondence with the empirical “facts.”

    But Lewandowski’s article in PLOS fails to consider any of these issues. For example, he simplistically reports finding “a high level of trust in science” among “liberals” (a “worldview” construct) that is “extended to GM foods”–apparently a reassuring finding in his view–but in this area, unlike climate science, I don’t think it can be said that there is a consensus among scientists–the very few–who are actually addressing questions of GMO safety directly. One very serious issue is this: when you change the primary structure of a protein, you are likely to be changing the tertiary structure as well; given what we now know about prion disease, that an altered three-dimensional structure of a protein can cause serious and even fatal disease, where are the rat feeding studies with GM crops? The ones that aren’t conducted in-house by the industry seem to have been banned from publication or officially retracted (e.g., G.-E. Seralini et al., Food Chem. Toxicol. 50: 4221-4231; 2012). I tend to think the reason why it may appear that there is a scientific consensus that GM foods are safe largely has to do with Kahan’s factors: “our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe, or at least our social standing within the tribe.” Many scientists who are aware of the possible risks of GM foods have not as yet addressed them directly, simply because, so far, many scientists have not done so–who wants to be the squeaky wheel? Moreover, since GM foods have become so widely consumed in certain parts of the globe, if problems are discovered and disclosed now, well, that just might qualify the situation as one of those “things that should be viewed as really terrifying, threatening influences in American life,” as Klein quotes Kahan as saying about the conditions predisposing a person to engage in Identity-Protective Cognition. My perception is that there is much cognitive dissonance going on within the scientific community on this issue, if little discussed openly so far.

    But Lewandowsky gives away his own lack of scientific insight very clearly when he takes the next step, drawing the expected link between “conspiratorial thinking” and skepticism about the official 9/11 conspiracy theory, the theory holding that all the events of that day were carried out by a handful of Middle Eastern men. Explaining that conspiratorial thinking “gives people a sense of control,” Lewandowski charges that “it may be more comforting to some people to think that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ than accepting that it was a fairly random event triggered by a few fanatics.”

    “A fairly random event”? What on earth could that mean? Two skyscrapers, each constructed of about 500,000 tons of steel and concrete, plus a 47-story building disintegrate into dust? If that’s a “fairly random event,” I guess I don’t want to get very close to any high-rise building anytime soon–if such natural-law-violating occurrences can happen “randomly,” no, I guess I wouldn’t have much of a “sense of control”! If there’s an outstanding issue that virtually cries out for directed scientific attention, it’s the question of what happened to all that inertial mass, such that the top of a building–3 buildings, in fact–could “fall right through” the path of greatest resistance in a few seconds’ time. But we don’t have much directed scientific attention focused on this issue as yet for the same reason that we don’t have much directed toward the GMO issue, only in spades this time–_because we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe_, and _our social standing within that tribe_. I have yet to hear any credible scientific explanation of how those buildings came down as they did under the influence of heat and gravity alone, without the action of explosives. There is hand-waving toward a postulated pile-driver-in-the-sky, accompanied by much emotionality, betraying precisely the kind of Identity-Protective Cognition that Kahan describes.

    People that like to strut their superiority to the climate change deniers need to look into their own sorts of denial before they get too smug. In order to seriously reduce our carbon emissions, we are going to have to make major changes in the way we live, all of us–yes, it is a “worldview” that has to change, and in a much bigger sense than some sort of movement along a left-right axis in relation to “free market” ideology would indicate. But if we’re really to seek the truth through a scientific appraisal of empirical evidence, there’s a lot more “identity-protective cognition” that we’re going to have to slog through. It’s a good thing that these issues are being aired, finally; as Kahan says, “the point of doing studies like this is to show how to fix the problem” of how our cognition can become so distorted. The good news is, if we do it, we may have the opportunity to rebuild our social reality in a much sounder and more sustainable form–once we see how our taking for granted the existing structures, and looking to an external “consensus” instead of thinking for ourselves, has allowed things go so badly astray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *