Child Prophets and Proselytizers of Climate Catastrophe

The role of children in the culture of climate catastrophism.

Some long overdue housekeeping. This is a mirror of my guest post at Prof Curry’s ‘Climate Etc’ just over a year ago:

(See bottom of last page for a link to the Footnotes file).

  1. Serious scenarios for children: reality or culture?

1.1 Frightening our children: When do we find it acceptable to institutionally frighten children? While our first thought is perhaps that this should never happen, in practice there are at least two scenarios where it’s considered morally acceptable. The first is where dangerous hard realities beyond adult control, require that children must be taught a respect of such realities. This may often involve a certain amount of fear among other techniques, in hope that this will help children autonomously keep themselves safe. An example is gas-mask training in WW21, because adults can’t be everywhere at once to assist all children with their masks in time. The second scenario is where it’s morally acceptable by virtue of supporting a culture that has defined the moral landscape (or an up-and-coming culture that is attempting so to do). In this second case, instilling culturally approved fears is considered normative, to achieve desired social behavior, grant access to group benefits, and provide supposed cultural rewards. An example is scaring children about sin or Hell or the Crucifixion2, in order to reinforce Christian social behavior and introduce the partnering carrot of going to Heaven (instead of Hell) for conformance.

1.2 Children Protesting: When do children band together to try and make a communal voice of protest heard by society? As above, there are at least two scenarios where this happens. The first is a reaction to an existing and widespread serious wronging of children (and possibly adults too) of some kind. The second is in reaction to strong culturally instilled fears, which have incorrectly been interpreted as a real and present threat or harm (section 5). In both cases some action is sought from adults, in order to remove or mitigate the problem. Some adults are typically involved in the organization of a children’s movement, having aligned interests; anything from genuinely safe-guarding their children (or children’s interests) to virtue signaling. Example scenarios follow later.

1.3 Children in charge: When do society’s leaders advocate and implement (or attempt to) main policy expressed by a child? Once again, there are at least two scenarios where this happens. The first is where a widespread wronging such as in the paragraph immediately above, promoted to social leadership by a representative child victim, is deemed to cry out for redress. Whether children are seriously disadvantaged or suffering psychologically or physically or all of these, and indeed whether or not causation involves cultural elements, this is essentially a hard reality issue of present harm. The second scenario is where leaders are emotively disabled from resisting / contradicting the child’s policy, even if impacts are likely net very negative, because this expresses some culturally approved fear that the former are already primed for. Or at least for an up-and-coming culture, resisting is still a major challenge for leadership. Cultural bias blinds folks to downsides, and our ingrained instincts to avoid stigma are likely sharpened in those who want to retain leadership; a lack of support risks serious cultural stigma, including shame for failing to acknowledge moral censure by a ‘wronged’ (i.e. according to the accepted cultural narrative) child. Example scenarios follow later.

1.4 Which is which? A secular, reasoning and reasonable society should aspire to avoid the cultural scenarios from all these cases, which lead to needless fears, trauma, false hopes and inappropriate social actions. A reasonable religious society should aspire to limit context to core values, and prevent alarmist / extremist leverage of our emotive concern for children, plus damage to children who are pushed beyond benign religious participation. Yet for any given protest, or policy expressed to leadership, or instilling of fear, how can we know which scenario is which? And so indeed whether the constant fear about climate change instilled into our children (section 5, last para), the consequent children’s climate strikes, and the dramatic aspirations expressed by Greta Thunberg, fall into the reality bracket or the cultural bracket? Is Greta’s pitch to the UN as reality based as Malala Yousafzai’s pitch, yet needing from them immensely more support for worldwide change? Is the nature of the school climate strikes ultimately as material and justifiable as the 1963 children’s crusade, yet where the scope of the problem being protested by children is hugely more extensive? Large swathes of society enthusiastically support the school strikes and Greta; they’d surely say ‘yes’ to the latter two questions. But how do detailed comparisons actually pan out?

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CAGW: A Snarl Word?

The term has both appropriate and inappropriate usage.

This is a mirror of my guest post at Prof Curry’s ‘Climate Etc’ blog last week:
CAGW: a ‘snarl’ word?

(See bottom of last page for a link to the Footnotes file here, which is common to ‘The Catastrophe Narrative’ companion post below).

  1. Introduction

Rational Wiki says: ‘CAGW”, for “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming”, is a snarl word (or snarl acronym) that global warming denialists use for the established science of climate change. A Google Scholar search indicates that the term is never used in the scientific literature on climate.’10

Where in turn the link for ‘snarl word’ says: ‘A snarl word is a derogatory label that can be attached to something (or even to people), in order to dismiss their importance or worth, without guilt. When used as snarl words, these words are essentially meaningless; most of them can be used with meaning, but that seldom happens.

So setting aside the snarl implications of the word ‘denialist’11 above, is all the usage of the ‘CAGW’ acronym meaningless, i.e. it is essentially a snarl word only? Or is there significant meaning associated with some usage? i.e. does it have legitimate, ‘non-snarl’ currency also, associated with real meaning?

In typical usage ‘CAGW’ may be followed by words such as narrative, message, story, line, debate, controversy, mantra, meme, myth, scare, hysteria, hoax, scam, religion, cult, cause, movement, believers, faithful, crowd, advocates, promoters, proponents, consensus, theory, hypothesis, premise, claim, case, conjecture and various others. Or it may appear in sentences without any direct descriptors such as those above, for example: ‘Proof positive that CAGW is about power, politics and greed is the fact that…’, ‘Without this strong feedback there is no real basis for CAGW since…’, ‘I have been waiting for someone, anyone, to enunciate a unique, broadly accepted goal for a program to “dodge” the CAGW “bullet”…’, ‘Cost / benefit analysis is apparently against the rules when it comes to CAGW…’, ‘The alarm is not about a warming of the globe, nor particularly AGW. It is about CAGW’.12

These demonstrate a much wider application than for just the ‘established science’, which I take to mean mainstream science, as expressed in the Working Group Chapters13 of the IPCC’s latest full report (AR5), so hereafter AR5WGC. Whether or not any such usages of ‘CAGW’ are justified, they are broadly categorized (albeit with overlaps, especially meme and consensus at the boundaries) as follows:

  1. expressing a communication aspect, applicable not only to climate scientists but to any parties communicating or exchanging on climate change, such as social authority sources, policy makers, NGOs, businesses, other scientists, whoever, and reflected by the words above starting narrative, message and similar.
  2. expressing a social phenomenon aspect, whether assumed to have deliberate causation or emergent causation, and reflected by the words starting, myth, scare and similar.
  3. expressing the aspect of adherents of the phenomena in b), as reflected by the words starting believers, faithful and similar, OR of subscribers to the science per d), OR both.
  4. expressing the science aspect, as reflected by the words starting theory, hypothesis and similar.
  5. expressing the aspect of actual physical climate change, sarcastically or not, as being potentially catastrophic (usually without extra descriptors in this context).

Usage without descriptors per the example sentences, are generally contextualized by one of these same categories.

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The Catastrophe Narrative

A narrative propagated by emotive engagement, not veracity.

This post came out on Prof Curry’s most excellent blog ‘Climate Etc’ yesterday.
The catastrophe narrative

(See bottom of last page for a link to the Footnotes file here, which is common to ‘The Catastrophe Narrative’ companion post below).

  1. Introduction

Within the public domain there is a widespread narrative of certainty (absent deep emissions cuts) of near-term (decades) climate catastrophe. This narrative is not supported by mainstream science (no skeptical views required), and in the same manner as an endless sequence of historic cultural narratives, propagates via emotive engagement, not veracity.

The catastrophe narrative is propagated by all levels of authority from the highest downwards, granting it huge influence, and differentially via favored functional arms of society, plus at grass roots level. Over decades, various forms via which the catastrophe narrative best propagates have become established via selection, and can be categorized. While covering a large range, these forms typically feature powerful emotive cocktails (mixed emotions invoked simultaneously) and great urgency, which are highly adapted to undermining objectivity.

This narrative elephant in the room not only tramples upon the mainstream output of science, but all other  attempts at objectivity, at a minimum invoking bias wherever it propagates, and at maximum a complete disconnect from domain realities. While the catastrophe narrative is sometimes acknowledged even by those on the orthodox side of the climate change issue, it is typically neither studied nor opposed (and not infrequently its propagation is praised). On the skeptic side, there is often misunderstanding regarding who propagates this narrative and who merely fails to oppose it, which leads to mis-labelling. These issues are discussed in more detail within a companion post to be released shortly. Below deals just with narrative propagation and the forms via which this occurs.

  1. Propagation by authority levels and functional arms / orgs

The catastrophe narrative has emanated from many of the most powerful and influential figures in the West throughout the twenty-first century, as exampled by 39 quotes from 26 sources in footnote 1. While based only on English language reportage, this sample nevertheless includes leaders, ex-leaders and candidate leaders from 8 Western nations (with the US, Germany, UK and France being economically 4 of 7 and politically 4 of 6, top world powers9), along with high ministers, high UN officials, the Pope and UK royalty, over about the last 15 years. The narrative is also framed in a most urgent and emotive manner, which hugely increases its re-transmission capability14, is global in scope (‘the planet’), and unequivocally attributes the imminent catastrophe from global warming to humans (via ‘emissions’), i.e. the ‘C’ is due to AGW. Regarding policy, impending catastrophe is often cited as the main reason to act.

Propagation of the same catastrophe narrative is highly visible below the primary leadership level, as exampled by 28 quotes from 26 sources in footnote 2, which covers lesser-ranking / local politicians, leaders of less influential nations, NGOs, economists and influencers. Further down still becomes a sea of comments dispersed over all media that are often hard to attribute and too voluminous to study in detail, without some serious research-time / manpower.

It appears that the catastrophe narrative finds a home much more readily in some functions of society than others. While this seems obvious for the case of say environmental science or government environmental workers, there appear to be other cases such as the caring professions (who wield much authority), with consequent propagation of catastrophe narrative either as part of expectations for future coping (i.e. with catastrophe), or as advocacy for action by some medical authorities or associations. Though needing more investigation than I’ve had time for, footnote 8 provides a brief insight via a few catastrophe narrative quotes from authorities in the medical / health domain.

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The Denialism Frame

An inadequately testable and inappropriate framing.

Well this post is extremely late, it was up at Climate Etc back in April 2016 but I never got around to mirroring it here. Better late than never, I guess. See ‘update’ section at the end for 2 minor tweaks, and link to Footnotes file. Climate Etc link:

  1. Introduction

Geoff Chambers commenting recently in a Cliscep Post reminded me of the paper ‘Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?’ by Diethelm and McKee (D&M2009). Chambers calls this paper ‘the standard scientific work on Denialism’, and rightly so I think. Certainly the paper is quoted or referenced in support of many works1. Its principles also form the core of the wiki page for Denialism. Though the word ‘denialism’ existed prior to D&M2009, the paper appears to have contributed to increasing usage4 along with academic legitimization. I found no in-depth analysis of the popular framing of ‘denialism’ as promoted by D&M2009, despite its impact on several domains and not least that of climate change. So my own analysis follows.

  1. Criteria for recognizing ‘denialism’

As noted the wiki page for Denialism references D&M2009, in support of the assertion that denialism presents common features across topic domains via which denialist behavior can be recognized. Wiki summarizes the same five characteristics proposed by the paper thusly5:

  1. Conspiracy theories — Dismissing the data or observation by suggesting opponents are involved in “a conspiracy to suppress the truth”.
  2. Cherry picking — Selecting an anomalous critical paper supporting their idea, or using outdated, flawed, and discredited papers in order to make their opponents look as though they base their ideas on weak research. [This is number 3 in D&M2009, and some sources point to cherry picking of data too].
  3. False experts — Paying an expert in the field, or another field, to lend supporting evidence or credibility. [This is number 2 in D&M2009].
  4. Moving the goalpost — Dismissing evidence presented in response to a specific claim by continually demanding some other (often unfulfillable) piece of evidence.[In D&M2009 this is framed more as an impossible standard of proof rather than a moving target, yet the essence is the same].
  5. Other logical fallacies — Usually one or more of false analogy, appeal to consequences, straw man, or red herring.

So identifying denialism is apparently as straightforward as testing the target individual or social group for the above characteristics. Yet D&M2009 provides no methodology for achieving this objectively, and there are major problems with simply attempting a direct assessment.

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Climate Culture

NOTE: from 20th November this Post was up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

A frequent topic at Climate Etc. is the ‘consensus.’ An argument is presented here that the climate consensus is as much about culture as it is about climate science.

For about 150 years we’ve been learning how cultures work and evolve. Great progress has been made on a wide range of topics such as the mapping of cultures, cultural coalitions, the categorization of underlying bias mechanisms, gene-culture co-evolution and others, even if much mystery remains, for instance at the fundamental level of what happens inside the mind regarding the social / individual interface, gnawed at from different directions by anthropology, memetics, psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines.

This accumulated knowledge on cultures is directly relevant to understanding the climate movement. So that we don’t have to relearn the 150 years experience again in the climate domain as though this is all something new, it is crucial to acknowledge the cultural nature of the consensus and bring this wealth of acquired knowledge to bear.

Climate culture recognition

I’ve long since lost count of the many parallels drawn between the climate consensus and religion, from both notables and many blog commenters within the climate domain1. While these tend to be instinctive expressions and are mostly from skeptics, there are a few from the consensus side2 and still more from this side describing climate change as a transformative culture. The former sometimes draw the worst possible connotations or even invalid consequences, yet nevertheless correctly discern the underlying truth that the climate consensus is a cultural phenomenon, while the latter fail to appreciate that cultures of this kind do not so much communicate the truth, as manufacture it.

I’ve prepared a 3 step basic social analysis that I hope will be straightforward to follow, conveniently available as a Word file and also posted below, showing the cultural nature of the climate consensus. The 3 steps are first executed for the creationism / evolution domain, and then in exactly the same manner for the climate change domain. The analysis takes the ‘robot from Mars’ view; it is possible to identify a culture with very little knowledge of domain details, and best to do so if possible in order to maximize objectivity. The steps are built on data from public surveys and Dan Kahan’s great data from Cultural Cognition.

Despite the large commentary about cultural characteristics that pervades the climate change domain, there does not appear to be recognition that the Consensus, with its narrative of imminent (decades) calamity, *is* a formal culture. All the disciplines involved in cultural understanding, such as anthropology, psychology, memetics, neuro-science and others, think climate change is merely a matter of science; why would they even attempt apply their knowledge in this domain? Unless perhaps to try and explain ‘deniers’, of course. So what might these disciplines think if they weren’t blinded by the science label?

A thought experiment

A professor in one of bio-cultural evolution who researches and favors the strong Darwinian end of the current range of cultural evolution theories, is returning from a field trip in the Pacific. He runs into trouble of some sort, and ends up stranded for over 30 years, like Robinson Crusoe, on an isolated island. Hence he receives no knowledge of the climate change phenomenon. Then sailors rescue him, and tell him that the whole world is hugely worried about climate change and is spending trillions to try and avert an imminent (decades) calamity. Before any other detail gets discussed, one sailor happens to add that he’d read a recent article showing that the climate change consensus (along with the wider movement it inspires) advocating urgent action to save the planet, was shown to be a formal culture. The professor immediately has strong suspicions that:

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Who is Who

Detecting a cultural position in debates, with focus on creationism and climate change.

  1. Classes of debate

There are different classes of debate. Some debates occur between two or more culturally defined (CD) positions, of which none are ‘correct’; all positions are simply a matter of cultural support and beliefs. An example of this class is the clash between two sides of a religious schism.

Some debates occur between evidentially defined (ED) positions where, nevertheless, the current state of knowledge is such that no resolution can yet be attained. In such a debate there is theoretically a ‘correct’ answer, despite it is not yet uncovered. An example of this class is the dark matter debate, on which the scientific method could take decades or longer to eliminate challenging uncertainties. In scenarios like this all competing positions claim evidential support, but the uncertainties are wide enough such that the total evidence cannot yet resolve candidate theories, and indeed may even include what seem to be (from a state of limited knowledge / data) complete contradictions.

Other debates are hybrids of the above cases, wherein one side is largely characterized by (an) evidential position(s) while the other side is largely characterized by a cultural position. In this ED versus CD class the ‘correct’ answer may, like the ED versus ED case above, simply be unobtainable yet. Or the correct answer may actually be available, but it is largely obscured by the cultural inertia working in opposition (and so also keeping a debate alive). Or the very process of obtaining an answer is likewise resisted and undermined by the opposing culture. An example of this class is the evolution versus creationism debate.

It should be borne in mind that for any debate that actually matters to society at large, there is never a complete absence of cultural bias. And oppositely, even strong cultural arguments may co-opt real-world evidence (albeit selectively). However, debates may be largely CD versus CD, or ED versus ED, or ED versus CD. In the first case there is no ‘correct’ answer. In the second case, no answer is yet obtainable (otherwise there would be no debate). In the third case, whether the answer is obscured or genuinely not yet available, and without any detailed knowledge on the actual subject of the debate, social analysis can nevertheless tell us who is who. That is to say it can confirm an ED versus CD scenario, and tell us which side is arguing (largely) from the cultural perspective, and which (largely) from an evidential perspective.

Note: in this context ‘evidentially defined’ by no means indicates correctness. A range of evidential positions may even include at the fringe, wacky theories. It indicates a position or range of positions that whatever their merits, are not based mainly on a cultural argument or culturally enforced consensus, but on (potentially subsets of) evidence, no matter how well or how badly that evidence has been interpreted, or indeed how complete or incomplete the total evidence available currently is. Rather than stretch ED bounds still further, i.e. to arguments from complete ignorance or arising from misinformation or emotive memes that nevertheless have not been culturally co-opted, it seems more appropriate to tag these as non-evidentially-defined (NED), the main point still being that they are not CD.

  1. The Robot from Mars

A cultural entity can be detected by its artifacts and alliances and by direct bias effects upon society, the latter of which typically form a positive feedback reinforcing the culture. Critically, culture contributes to identity, so a strong CD position will be tangled with identity; this is not the case for ED/NED positions.

A principal artifact of mature culture is a narrative text, and often physical objects too that serve the principles of this text (for instance the bible and churches). Yet when seeking to identify the presence of a culture, how would we know that it is not our own influences from culture which lead us to assume for example that the IPPC AR5 is more akin to the cultural narrative we know as the bible, or indeed more akin to, say, the evidential collection of works defining General Relativity?

A good way to address this issue when executing social analysis, is to attempt maximum objectivity by taking the view of a robot from Mars. This robot initially knows nothing about the Earth’s religions or what evolution is, nor indeed anything regarding climate change and associated science. It picks up only the most basic public expressions of these (from all sides) as it goes along. Of course we do have to grant it knowledge of social analysis, and it also knows what the general endeavor of science is about, along with other basics like what education is for. And if our robot focuses mainly upon societal effects and alliances, these can be observed more or less independently of domain knowledge (e.g. about religion or climate change), hence avoiding the need for value judgments made on specific texts or other artifacts or enterprises that may or may not be largely the product of arbitrary cultural emergence.

  1. A classic ED versus CD debate

The creationism versus evolution debate is a classic ED versus CD model that we can use to walk through our robot’s analysis method, to see whether it correctly identifies the scenario and also who is who.

WiWFig1The first big clue as to the nature of this debate comes from Figure 1, which shows that views on evolution in the US polarize with increasing science knowledge. I.e. going right on the X-axis, those leaning more to religion believe (slightly) more emphatically in creationism, and those leaning less towards religion believe (much) more emphatically in evolution. This is a sign of strong cultural influence; polarization of this kind arises because initial bias sets people upon educational paths to different knowledge, and also for the culturally influenced, the use of more knowledge to better support their cultural position. The different gradients for the two lines provides further clues (see footnote 1), but these may be too subtle for our detached robot. At this point it simply assumes strong culture is involved, but is this a CD versus CD scenario, or CD versus ED? And if the latter, which side is which?

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