CAGW bias in academia; Lesfrud and Meyer 2013 revisited.

Well I am very late in posting this at my own blog; bar 1 minor correction (old retained as strike-through) it is repeated below exactly as it appeared at Watts Up With That, the most viewed climate site on the planet, on 27th January. There is useful discussion in the comments there.

Posts at WUWT have often featured scientific papers that are clearly impacted by a cultural bias towards CAGW. Given the impressive reach of WUWT and the likelihood that a number of folks from academia will be peeking here, some examination of the impact upon conclusions, and also how bias has occurred for particular scientists or organizations, not only keeps alive healthy skepticism in science but hopefully might result, one day, in a reduction of the CAGW bias. In that spirit, this post revisits ‘Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change’ by Lianne M. Lefsrud and Renate E. Meyer, LM2013; It is not pay-walled. An article at Forbes plus the Investor’s Business Daily on the paper, triggered a WUWT post here. Unfortunately however, the former articles misfired into a tangent that was not well considered, greatly distracting from a deeper look at the paper; hence also from something that I believe is valuable, plus deeply ironic for the authors.

The post is adapted from supporting material in my essay The CAGW Memeplex summarized in a WUWT guest post here. However, no particular memetic insight is invoked here and none is needed to see how the authors of this paper have fallen victim to bias and ended up with unsupportable conclusions; just an appreciation (from history) that social narratives can acquire an inertia of their own, a kind of insistent culture that sometimes dominates events while leaving facts far behind. This can happen not only where the narrative is long-lived and wide in scope, e.g. mainstream religions evolving over many generations, but also where an original narrative is narrow in scope, e.g. Lysenkoism. Such narratives and counter narratives compete in our social space and may do so via strong or weak alliances and wider coalitions, for instance Lysenkoism was strongly coupled to Stalinism in the USSR, and the culture associated with Eugenics was loosely allied to right-wing various politics in various countries, later becoming strongly coupled to Fascism especially in Germany. Religions have often found alliances within shifting maps of state and regional politics. The increasing number (and depth) of comparisons between CAGW and religion (e.g. see the varied selection: UK MP Peter Lilley , blogger John Bell, Michael Crichton via blogger Justice4Rinka [Jan 10, 2013 at 10:07am], Richard Lindzen, blogger BetaPlug, philosopher Pascal Bruckner, blogger sunshinehours1 [cult], professor Hans Von Storch [prophets], Evangelical skeptics, and a Climate Etc post discussing this area, plus very many more), acknowledges that CAGW is a (successful) social narrative, an ‘insistent culture’ that has indeed left reality behind.

With the above in mind, the approach of LM2013 seems at first to be admirable. For instance social coalitions (termed ‘discourse coalitions’) are understood to be important entities backing the survival / growth of competing ‘storylines’ within a contestable narrative space, where coalition members attempt to ‘frame’ the debate so as to promote their storylines while trying to ‘break the persuasiveness’ of competing stories, a process within which apparent truths are relative (‘…experts construct interpretive packages or frames that stand in for the ‘truth’.’) It is also recognized that these ‘frames’ are intimately linked to the legitimacy and identity of the framers: ‘Besides defining the issue, framing is also the means by which professionals draw from broader values (Hulme, 2009), construct their self-definitions and expert identities.’ The latter is consistent with literature (e.g. the concept of the ‘The Social Mind’ by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniger) essentially saying that our thoughts and identities are in some part formed by the societal entities we’re embedded in. This concept not only helps with understanding the motives of the players, it also helps regarding awareness of one’s own social embedding and hence the attempt to distance oneself from personal bias, as presumably the LM2013 authors would wish. Ultimately the authors appear to grasp that it’s a narrative war out there, in which ‘the truth’ may not always win out.

So what’s not to like? Shouldn’t a paper that recognizes these principles be robustly impartial? In trying to analyze the various ‘storylines’ shouldn’t the authors have attempted to position themselves, at least so far as is possible, outside of all of the relevant narratives? Well, unfortunately not…

Next page (2) for more…

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6 Responses to CAGW bias in academia; Lesfrud and Meyer 2013 revisited.

  1. Great stuff, if a little heavy going for the average reader. There’s a sociology professor Reiner Grundmann at Nottingham University who had a very useful quote at Notrickszone a while back about the absolute necessity of applying the same analytical criteria to both sides of a debate in this kind of a study.
    Neurology and memeplexes are on way of looking at the question of the spread of ideas; there’s another I’ve been meaning to look into since a commenter at a French sceptic site pointed it out, due to a physicist called Serge Galam who has developed a mathematical model of how ideas spread. Some of his papers are in English. They’re full of graphs with what look like sums of hyperbolic functions, giving unpredictable tipping points. His basic idea is that a small number of people with a fixed idea can spread that idea to a majority in a surprisingly short time, given the right starting conditions. Lots to look into.
    I haven’t looked into your SF stories yet, but I will. Have a look at Alex Cull’s blog at http://alexjc38.wordpress.com/
    He’s big on SF.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Thanks for dropping in Geoff, your comments much appreciated.

    I’ve been over to Alex’s place a couple of times; he read my sceptical cli-fi / sci-fi novelette ‘Truth’ when it first came out, and left a compliment on the BH thread about the book at that time. His blog is one of many I’m discovering on my CAGW wanderings that I would love to spend more time at. But with the full-time job taking precedence, and needing time for my own contribution in various domains too, time to wander pleasurably in the words of others whether fact or fiction, is an increasingly rare luxury for me ): Enjoyed your great contribution at BH over recent years though, and I’ll definitely check out this Serge Galam chap and his very interesting theory, thanks for the pointer. Regarding the absolute neccessity of the same analytical criteria being applied to both sides of the debate, I have a potential Lewandowsky related post on precisely that issue, *if* I can find the time to work it up of course!

  3. Nick Drew says:

    Do you check comments here regularly?

    Having just carefully read (and re-read) your fine CAGW Memeplex essay, and noting your invitation for suggestions, I have one such suggestion to offer.

  4. andywest2012 says:

    Nick Drew says: September 1, 2014 at 10:48 am (Edit)

    Hi Nick, many thanks for reading it and for your compliment, and I’m more than happy to receive suggestions. In practice, given I’m so busy with the day job and other projects, I may never get around to an update (which I’d hoped to do, and there is still some chance one day). On a more immediate timescale I’ll actually be occupied with other matters for almost 2 weeks, so may not get a chance to reply to you until then. But by all means suggest away and I’ll reply when I’m free again.

  5. Nick Drew says:

    A tactical suggestion born of strategic considerations which latch onto the time-honoured principle of reductio ad absurdum, in a field with no shortage of manifest absurdity. Highlight the contradictions abounding in promotion and subsidy of industrial-scale burning of biomass as a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

    Not all categories of bioenergy are manifestly absurd. Burning certain organic waste products for fuel (including for electricity generation) may be entirely logical by many standards – almost certainly by the CAGW-promoted standards of CO2 reduction and sustainability, and maybe even including economic viability (though they do all seem to be looking for subsidies …).

    But biodiesel and other liquid biofuels, and most particularly fuel-pellets made from ‘roundwood’ (mature trees) are a different story. In the case of the latter being used in millions of tonnes to generate electricity it has been shown pretty conclusively (by the highly-regarded Prof David MacKay among others) that there are scenarios in which this can be significantly worse for the environment – including levels of CO2 emissions – than burning coal: and that’s saying something. (The assessment is complex, involving careful analysis of the counterfactuals for use of the timber and use of the forest land. But some of the results are extremely damning.)

    In the case of liquid biofuels, these are frequently produced at the expense of food production and/or highly damaging change-of-use of the land involved. Although governments are slowly waking up to all this and may change the relevant policies over time, the status quo is that many categories of bioenergy have been given a free pass, i.e. they are ‘deemed carbon neutral’ for qualifying for subsidies and for meeting renewables targets – irrespective of the facts.

    The beauty of industrial-scale bioenergy as a point of attack on the memeplex is that it plays directly to the (rational) sensibilities, indeed the primary sensibilities, of many of its adherents (should be most of them: but one finds plenty whose kneejerk reaction is blindly to defend biomass burning – encouraged by the very well-funded biofuels lobby). The most ‘honest’ greens see the point immediately; and several NGOs strongly associated with, if not actually paid-up adherents of the memeplex are becoming increasingly hostile to such biofuels.

    However, this is not remotely an attack based solely on expediency, schadenfreude or mere troublemaking for the memeplex: it’s an important battle to win in its own right, for every reason. Reversion to wood-burning, even in the form of ‘high-tech’ pellets, is an astonishing return to primitivism, neglecting nearly 300 years of history, science and technology: the thermal density of wood is pitiful when compared with coal; its EROEI (for those who are counting) is likewise badly inferior; and its net emissions include not only (in some cases) more CO2 than coal, but all manner of harmful particulates we thought we’d eradicated from our air. If ever there was a case of CAGW imposing too high a ‘taxation’ burden, this is it.

    As I say, many greens know this to be correct, and are on the side of putting an end to it. (There are new single-issue green groups springing up with this as their cause.) The issue therefore stimulates (a) green-on-green strife, with the ‘antis’ using many of the weapons the memeplex itself has fashioned over the years; and – because no green wants to go against another without some science to hand – (b) a blessed and all-too-rare emphasis on really careful analysis.

    I can provide more detail if desired. As a dispute it doesn’t require much stirring: it shows every sign of building into a civil war of its own momentum. It is a far more direct, internal-to-CAGW, green-on-green contradiction than, say, countryside supporters vs windfarms, which are two distinct, if loosely overlapping memplexes.

    And with real science being deployed! Who knows where this might lead, if it becomes a habit …

  6. andywest2012 says:

    Nick Drew says: September 2, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Apologies Nick for the ridiculously long time in answering, am a bit overwhelmed with stuff at the moment.

    While not deep into detail, I’m somewhat familiar with the arguments against biofuels. Not least in causing their own environmental damage, pushing up world food prices, and in some cases (due to harvesting, processing, transport, storage) having little carbon footprint advantage to boot. I’ve sometimes highlighted this angle in conversations with folks who know only the mainstream CAGW narratives as gleaned from the press, because as you point out it is pretty hard to refute, and an increasing number of greens are themselves opposing the more damaging bio-fuel policies (I think the sad tale of Drax is helping to open eyes on this angle). It’s a good way to guide folks into what other things may be wrong.

    But having said that, and apart from this being another piece of evidence that the (not sentient, not agential) ‘agenda’ of the memeplex has us doing things that suit it and not us, this isn’t where I want to focus my own efforts. Such spare time as I have is focussed on advertising the fact that CAGW is an insistent culture in its own right, *is* a memeplex, plus the pyschological issues that surround this such as inherent bias (the thread we’re in here being one example). In that sense I’m not so much combating CAGW, but identifying its characteristics such that others can better see the nature of the beast, and hence help to tame it. With the limited time I have, I can’t afford to widen my focus too much, I guess we each help in our own way.

    But your point is well made, and I think hitting on the absurdity and damage of some bio-fuel policies is a good way to challenge CAGW, and to help dismantle policies that, in any context, shouldn’t be happening anyhow.

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