CAGW bias in academia; Lesfrud and Meyer 2013 revisited.

The survey that forms the heart of the paper was conducted upon experts from or associated with the petro-chemical industry (in Alberta, Canada), showing that within this sector frames largely supporting the ‘C’ in CAGW add up to 41% of respondents, and frames that are largely unsupportive add to 51%. These findings and others lead the authors to a large discussion and conclusion section that includes for instance this bold assertion: ‘it seems unlikely that the defensive institutional work by those in powerful positions within fossil fuel-related firms and industry associations can be breached in the near future without global enforcement mechanisms.’ While other conclusions are not so audacious and there is a reference to ‘scientific disagreement’, readers would be correct in assuming a similar flavor. The rather strident tone of this quote leads one to suspect a fatal flaw within the whole analysis, namely that the authors have failed to recognize their own framing, and hence have done nothing to prevent this framing from biasing the whole analysis. A search for such bias and inherent framing is all too easily rewarded.

For instance there is more than a nod to the ‘storyline’ that older males in senior positions ‘are more defensive’ to climate regulation. This invokes what is effectively a cultural cliché now, therefore alerting us regarding potential misuse to aid a particular framing. Of course within the context of the sector the authors are analyzing, whose interests lie largely in the petro-chemical industry and wider economy of Alberta, it is true; their survey is no doubt correct. But having read many of the Climategate emails, it is clear for instance that the core of defensiveness from the ‘Hockey Team’ (as they once called themselves) against making climate science more open, sharing data, and embracing rather than suppressing scientific uncertainties, also comes from older males in senior (academic) positions. Another similar scenario is that the core of defensiveness against toning down alarmism inside environmental NGOs, comes from older males in senior (administrative) positions. Regarding the latter, see the article about male domination within the leaderships of the WWF and Greenpeace, at No Frakking Consensus here: http://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2013/05/09/the-male-dominated-green-landscape/.

So, by isolating a narrow (climate-change ‘resistive’) sector completely from the context of the wider narrative competition, the authors have thus succeeded in morphing a relatively firm metric that surely we all knew about anyhow (i.e. older males dominate org leaderships), and one that is neutral with respect to climate narratives, into a storyline that is not neutral with respect to climate narratives, and is subtly deployed within their CAGW supportive frame to try and morally undermine those who are leaders in the petro-chemical sector. The implied storyline is: ‘those bad old dudes are harming the climate for self-interest; dudettes and younger dudes are way cooler than those stuffy old types anyway’. This storyline is a recurrent meme within the social phenomenon of CAGW and indeed within other cultural movements that foster radicalism and seek a change to the current regime, sometimes attempting to frame that regime in terms of an ‘Ancien Régime’. Yet a universal truth regarding the statistically dominant position of older males in society (which recent changes addressing gender bias have not yet balanced out), lends no legitimacy whatever to subcultures like CAGW that attempt to leverage this fact for demonization of opposing leaderships; let CAGW adherents look to their own frame-related leaderships, most of which will have the same male over-weightings.

The ‘older male’ storyline within LM2013 is only a minor contributor to the total narrative of the paper. But it exposes the fact that the authors have failed to recognize the full scope of the narrative competition and hence their own place within this contest, and thus are working within their own inherent framing. At the heart of this blindness is a critical and fatal error; the assumption that framings are to a large extent consciously constructed, deliberate if you will. This error occurs despite the authors having recognized a link to identity (and so potentially to subconscious behavior).

Hence I speculate that the authors’ reasoning regarding personal bias would run somewhat like this: “we are not consciously or deliberately constructing any frame, we are merely ‘seeking the truth’, hence we must be impartial.” But this is not so. They have not grasped that their own identities are linked to a very powerful framing (i.e. *C*AGW) within the wider contest, and so they’re unknowingly engaged upon promoting the storylines within that framing as though these were unbiased ‘truths’. This error is in turn based upon the lack of recognition that CAGW, with an emphasis on the ‘C’, is simply another framing in itself, i.e. another (and aggressively infectious) culture if you like. They have mistaken this framing for ‘scientific facts’ or ‘environmental reality’, and then identified with it.

This all too common mistake is revealed by the opening of the ‘Discussion and Conclusion’ section: ‘Climate change could irreversibly affect future generations and, as such, is one of the most urgent issues facing organizations’. While the authors mitigate slightly with the word ‘could’, the level of impact and urgency (if any!) is precisely one of the relative truths that is being fought over in the narrative contest of storylines and their alliances within frames. Above a certain level of scientific uncertainty about climate behavior and interactions, there is no absolute truth regarding the major issues of impact and urgency. Despite (at one time) a successful narrative about ‘settled science’, it transpires that there is and always was a wide enough uncertainty to allow a blossoming of arbitrary narrative competition (in essence, no scenario could be completely ruled out). Hence every position, including of course that of the IPCC itself, is just an interpreted package (frame) filled with storylines that promote this position. This does not mean that all frames are completely devoid of facts, just that the ability to compete in a narrative war is rewarded more than the level of verifiability, a situation which typically results over the long-term in factual content being skewed or drowned out. (Skeptic and Luke-warmer narratives have tended to compete poorly, in my opinion partly because they rely more heavily on unadorned facts, including the realities about uncertainty, which thus seed much less sensational storylines).

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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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