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 Cherry picking — Selecting an anomalous critical paper supporting their idea, or using outdated, flawed, and discredited papers in order to make their opponents look as though they base their ideas on weak research.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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‘Climate Culture’ versus ‘Knowing Disbelief’: A Test

NOTE: as of yesterday this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

(…and the embedded links pointing to referenced previous posts are set to the Climate Etc. version of these posts).

  1. Introduction

In a previous post at Climate Etc I showed two analyses on US public attitudes to climate change, based upon data from psychologist Dan Kahan’s studies plus some independent surveys. Both of these seek to explain what social / psychological mechanisms are driving the observed attitudes. The first analysis is Kahan’s own, which concludes that identity defense by adherents of particular political views / parties is the chief mechanism explaining the data, of which ‘knowing disbelief’ is the strongest form exhibited by those Conservatives / Republicans who are science aware. The second analysis, mine, demonstrates that the concept of a ‘climate culture’ provides a much better fit to the data, a culture that has adherents in its own right plus asymmetrical alliance with politics; also that Kahan’s conclusion is largely a product of his own bias due to a major influence from this same climate culture.

For some time before the above post was published (Jan 30th), I’d been looking out for a particular kind of survey that ought to provide significant evidence supporting either one or other of the above analyses. Unfortunately there seemed to be no such survey measuring the group I was interested in, so I had to run without this. However I noticed in June that a Gallup poll (G1) had appeared at the end of March, which while not ideal does measure a superset grouping in an appropriate enough manner to provide useful insight. This new poll data matches closely what the ‘climate culture’ hypothesis expects, and I believe it strongly challenges the ‘knowing disbelief’ hypothesis. While G1 covers respondents from the full US political spectrum, the most insightful data comes from the Independents. The next section is thus helpful context for understanding this data. (Note: for new readers wanting a short-cut, or prior readers wanting a refresher, there’s a compressed summary of Kahan’s theory versus mine in the ~700 word Appendix at pg4).

  1. A brief characterization of US Independents

In an interesting 2012 Washington Post article (WP1), journalist and political analyst Linda Killian says: ‘In hundreds of interviews with independent voters, I found that they tend to be well informed and care about the political process — even though the two parties have done their best to alienate them through attacks, gridlock and dysfunction.’ And later: ‘Sixty percent of independents say they are not aligned with a party because they agree with the Republicans on some things, such as the economy and national security, and with the Democrats on social issues.

Another Gallup poll (G2) from 2013 claims that 42% of Americans identified as Independents, of which figure 16% percent generally lean towards the Democrats and also 16% lean towards the Republicans, so have partial predictability. This leaves 10% of ‘centrists’ whose allegiance is still less consistent and will always swing on particular issues. However, the WP1 article claims it is ‘a myth’ that most Independents are ‘leaners’, and that in fact about half are ‘truly independent’. A Pew pole quoted in a CNN article (C1) about Independents, approximately agrees with the figures in G2, yet whether it is a quarter or a half of Independents who are ‘leaners’, everyone seems to be agreed that Independents generally are much less partisan, and are driven away from the main parties in part by negative tribalism:

The CNN article C1 says: ‘The shift away from partisan affiliation has occurred during a sustained period of government distrust and distaste for partisan politics. In the last year, negative impressions of government have displaced the economy atop Gallup’s monthly measure of the nation’s most important problem.’ The article WP1 says: ‘Independents are more turned off than partisan voters by negative campaign ads and are more likely to say they want more substantive discussions from the candidates and the media. Independents take voting seriously but are less moved by partisan appeals.’ Poll G2 says: ‘The rise in political independence is likely an outgrowth of Americans’ record or near-record negative views of the two major U.S. parties, of Congress, and their low level of trust in government more generally.

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A key admission regarding climate memes

NOTE: as of today this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

The version as posted here has a very short extra section (5), which refers to Appendices tacked onto the end that aren’t at the Climate Etc version, one of which explores Ben Pile’s position on the L2015 and pause memes.

  1. Introduction

At the beginning of May, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky brought out a new paper continuing his theme of highly eccentric challenges to climate skeptics and skeptical positions. Previous works include ‘Moon hoax’ and the (later withdrawn) ‘Recursive Fury’, dismantled here, here, and here. Naomi Oreskes is one of the co-authors of the new paper (L2015), which focuses upon the social psychology surrounding the concept of ‘The Pause’ in Global Warming. L2015 claims that a ‘seepage’ of contrarian / skeptical / denialist ‘pause’ memes into the scientific process has introduced unwarranted uncertainty, and even that the physical phenomena of the pause does not actually exist.

However despite being highly implausible, L2015 contains a profound admission which is critical to the climate debate. This post explores that admission and also the interesting role of ‘pause’ memes.

  1. The admission

While L2015 is yet another strenuous attempt to attack skepticism by any means to hand, it reveals some knowledge of a key process via which the climate Consensus arose in the first place. Namely, narrative competition. In L2015 Lewandowsky rather surprisingly admits both that this process is in play, and that it can trump science.

As some commenters (e.g. hidethedecline) have pointed out, terms like ‘the pause’ and ‘the hiatus’ are changing the climate conversation, are impacting the perceptions of Consensus scientists. Lewandowsky is right in this regard; he understands enough about narrative competition to recognize this issue and is attempting to fight back in kind. Hence he is seeking to stigmatize ‘pause’ memes, in order to halt or to significantly reduce their advance against orthodox anthropogenic global warming memes.

Yet whether they realize it or not, in opening this front Lewandowsky and Oreskes and their co-authors are taking a huge gamble. L2015 essentially states that the entire mainstream climate science community has been significantly impacted by [arbitrary] memes. And not only that, they have a great case; over the last couple of years ‘pause’ memes have indeed spread through the Consensus and caused many adherents to make an accommodation of some kind. Hence L2015 exposes the fact that climate science is not by any means a purely factual domain, that social factors as expressed by popular memes can change the perceptions of climate scientists, and so can alter the very nature of the consensus they contribute to. In turn this places front and centre the possibility that the original, ‘unsullied’ consensus on CAGW might also be a product of memetic influence, and is not after all an objective and unquestionable truth.

Of course Lewandowsky and Oreskes would argue that CAGW memes conform to reality and ‘pause’ memes do not. But do either fully conform to reality anyhow? And if not, what determines their relative success? I.e. the replication and spread rates of each of the competing memes? (and hence the narrative frameworks in which they are grouped).

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Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

NOTE: as of 24th April this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:

Section 1: Universal acknowledgement of emotional bias.

The psychological phenomena of emotional bias, a distortion in cognition and decision-making due to emotional factors, has been known of for millennia. I perhaps should say ‘enhanced’ emotional factors, because emotional reaction is a core part of our thinking machinery and hence wholly rational perceptions or decisions would likely be a rarity at best, and possibly non-existent. Yet as emotional factors increase to something that truly touches us, distortion away from what might be termed ‘regular’ (i.e. no strong emotions present) or ‘rational’ or ‘balanced’ thinking, becomes much more significant.

This distortion is so well known that consciously or sub-consciously, arguments often employ an appeal to emotion exactly because this significantly increases the chance of overcoming opposing views. From the link immediately above (warning, wiki; short summaries of this topic are hard to come by) we are told that Aristotle (died 322BC) in his treatise Rhetorica described emotional arousal as critical to persuasion, while Seneca (died AD 65) warned that “Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions.”

Many studies in the modern era back this general understanding, adding more sophistication plus detail of the underlying mechanisms (though to date these are by no means fully understood). Apparently the role of ‘affect’, emotional reaction, underwent somewhat of a de-emphasis within social psychology for a time from the early 1970s, returning some thirty years later but on a wider stage, acknowledged to have other cognitive players with which emotional bias can interact or fuel to varying degrees. According to Daniel Kahneman, from his Nobel Prize in Economics Lecture, December 8 2002: ‘It is worth noting that in the early 1970’s the idea of purely cognitive biases appeared novel and distinctive, because the prevalence of motivated and emotional biases of judgment was taken for granted by the social psychologists of the time. There followed a period of intense emphasis on cognitive processes, in psychology generally and in the field of judgment in particular. It took another thirty years to achieve what now appears to be a more integrated view of the role of affect in intuitive judgment.

So, while the leading-edge understanding of emotional bias mechanisms is dynamic and ongoing, aided considerably by the recent assistance of MRI scans, in its very long wake is a general understanding that all psychologists and sociologists and associated disciplines have to be very familiar with. Along with professional communicators, probably most politicians and I should imagine a great many of the general public too, they will know at the very least about the power of appeal to emotion plus the danger that rationality will be compromised, or even derailed, when such an appeal is powerfully and / or repeatedly enacted. And while emotional bias has beneficial properties (e.g. condensing a large range of options and also promoting group cohesion / consensus), disrupting rationality can work out very badly indeed. For examples at various scales emotional bias can strongly contribute to: skewed jury / legal decisions and extremist politics, bad business practice and financial meltdowns, cults and the spread of misinformation, and yes the social hi-jacking of science too, for instance the Eugenics saga in the first half of the 20th century.

Hence there are increasing efforts to limit emotional bias effects in society. The business community have joined that campaign in recent times, not just to limit corporate damage from emotively driven negative culture, but also for reasons of direct profitability (See ‘Bottom Line’ at Investopedia).

Of all those masses of professionals who know about the characteristics of emotional bias, a subset are playing an active part in the climate change Consensus. This does not alter their knowledge of the former topic. Indeed a few of this subset are even helping to push forward our understanding of emotive bias mechanisms. For instance Stephan Lewandowsky has a string of papers (with associated authors) about cognitive bias impacts, which include insights on emotional bias. The paper Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing by Lewandowsky et al, posits that emotive content significantly increases the degree to which misinformation both spreads and persists. Resistance to vaccines based on emotive scare stories is an example Lewandowsky highlights. A similar point is made in Theoretical and empirical evidence for the impact of inductive biases on cultural evolution by Griffiths et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky). This paper supports the evidence that cultural concepts with an emotional component are easier to memorize, which in turn appears to result in them being retained for longer plus better transmitted to others in society, than is the case for similar concepts minus the emotional component. I.e. an emotive load provides arbitrary bias favoring the concept.

Lewandowsky is an ardent advocate for the certainty of dangerous man-made climate change, and at least some of the associated authors (e.g. Cook and Ecker) have comparable sentiments. So emotional bias is most certainly understood and accepted by the strongest end of the spectrum of CAGW support. Similarly the role of emotional bias, at least in broad-brush terms, is just as much a part of the mind-set of all the psychologists, sociologists, professional communicators, etc. who work in or actively support the climate Consensus, as it is for those belonging to these same professions who don’t happen to work within the climate Consensus. I.e. this knowledge is simply part of their job; they must all grasp both the power and danger of emotional bias independently of their climate domain credentials. Hence the understanding of emotional bias is absolutely not something that the climate Consensus supporters could abandon when inconvenient, nor something that could possibly be framed as some kind of climate skeptic invention.

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