Wrapped in Lew Papers: The psychology of climate psychologization – Part1

Warning type four concerns the repetition of persuasive messages and the ‘third person’ effect.

From the abstract for the video presentation Scientific Uncertainty in Public Discourse: The Case for Leakage Into the Scientific Community (L2014), which presentation was given by Lewandowsky as part of the AGU Chapman Conference on Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future, is this concerning the ‘third person effect’ and the constant repetition of a message:
∙∙∙∙∙∙To illustrate with an example, the well-known “third-person effect” refers to the fact that people generally think that others (i.e., third persons) are affected more by a persuasive message than they are themselves, even though this is not necessarily the case. Scientists may therefore think that they are impervious to “skeptic” messages in the media, but in fact they are likely to be affected by the constant drumbeat of propaganda.
You can find the video along with the text of the abstract at Watts Up With That here.

Yes, yes I know, Lewandowsky cites ‘(climate) skeptic propaganda’ as his proffered example of the third person effect, I’ll return to the context and validity of this of this in the later posts. But the point is that L2014 cites the third person effect as having a real influence upon folks, an influence that typically will be increased by narrative repetition. Plus it is indeed a well-known effect, which therefore will receive no further explanation here, yet does play a part in the dominance of the climate Consensus.

That’s probably enough causes of major bias. To summarize these as warnings for an individual seeking to avoid bias, the various papers by Lewandowsky and associated authors include the following wisdom:
Type 1: Beware of the bias from one’s worldview.
Type 2: Beware of the bias caused by explicit emotive content.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Type 2A: Beware of implied emotional content, which via a powerful type 1 reaction may enhance or attenuate Type 2 (essentially an interaction of 1 & 2).
Type 3: Beware of the bias from the CIE, which can never be wholly eliminated.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Type 3A: Beware of information that does not come with health warnings.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Type 3B: Try to be aware of corrections / retractions; be suspicious if these are not on a par with the vigor of the original information transmission.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Type 3C: Be healthily skeptical; suspicions based on innate skepticism reduce the CIE.
Type 4: Beware of the ‘third person effect’, especially for oft repeated / saturating information.

I figure that by this point, a lot of readers can already see how this list of warnings about cognitive bias is directly applicable to the dominant environmental culture promoted by the CAGW Consensus 🙂 . Yet given that this biased dominant culture will slip towards every possible means to misunderstand objective analysis, then explanations have to be both very clear and very thorough, including implications, and also based as far as is possible (I think I’ve managed this exclusively) upon data from the Consensus itself, hence avoiding um… denial. So that is the job of the next two posts.

Before signing off on this post, I’ll point out that I have not looked into any of the experimental methods or math described in some of the referenced papers (and such basic skills as I once had in statistics have atrophied decades ago anyhow!) As mentioned above the conclusions are taken at face value, and while to some extent what matters in this series is that Lewandowsky and associated authors believe them, in my limited experience the conclusions appear to mesh reasonably with other literature and are not far out on a limb, as one can only conclude regarding the Moon Hoax / Recursive Fury papers. And while the variety of real-world examples invoked is I suppose rather narrow (for instance E2010, E2011, L2012 and other Lewandowsky contributions all feature information about ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ during the Iraq war), which may allow in some bias by the back door, there nevertheless seems to be a laudable attempt at objectivity, plus conclusions that do not appear to all come out as weighted in a single direction. For instance L2012 contains various statements that might surprise those only familiar with Lewandowsky’s conspiracy ideation work and climate related articles (which generally have strong alignment to alarmist positions from governments, NGOs, and academic press releases that promote climate alarmism, plus include attempts to characterize climate skeptics as beyond the pale). Here are some of those statements:
∙∙∙∙∙∙Governments and politicians can be powerful sources of misinformation, whether inadvertently or by design.
∙∙∙∙∙∙The magnitude of opposition to GM foods seems disproportionate to their actual risks as portrayed by expert bodies (e.g., World Health Organization, 2005), and it appears that people often rely on NGOs, such as Greenpeace, that are critical of peer-reviewed science on the issue to form their opinions about GM foods (Einsele, 2007). These alternative sources have been roundly criticized for spreading misinformation (e.g., Parrott, 2010).
∙∙∙∙∙∙For example, after a study forecasting future global extinctions as a result of climate change was published in Nature, it was widely misrepresented by news media reports, which made the consequences seem more catastrophic and the timescale shorter than actually projected (Ladle, Jepson, & Whittaker, 2005). These mischaracterizations of scientific results imply that scientists need to take care to communicate their results clearly and unambiguously, and that press releases need to be meticulously constructed to avoid misunderstandings by the media (e.g., Riesch & Spiegelhalter, 2011).
Added to which list, the important insight about skepticism from the same paper is worth repeating:
∙∙∙∙∙∙Skepticism: A key to accuracy. We have reviewed how worldview and prior beliefs can exert a distorting influence on information processing. However, some attitudes can also safeguard against misinformation effects. In particular, skepticism can reduce susceptibility to misinformation effects if it prompts people to question the origins of information that may later turn out to be false.

Given an understanding that governments and NGOs can be potent sources of misinformation regarding, say, weapons of mass destruction or GM crops, it seems at best highly inconsistent to give them a free pass regarding the cultural juggernaut of CAGW. And the 3rd quote is even related to climate change! So once upon a time at least, it seems Lewandowsky acknowledged that bias towards the catastrophic point of view can occur within this domain. Yet what proportion of climate change related academic or NGO press releases actually take heed of the above advice in L2012? I guess WUWT on its own has probably racked up a log of hundreds that are most certainly ambiguous, resulting frequently in mischaracterized results, sometimes wildly so (even w.r.t. the IPCC technical reports as ‘the norm’). And what proportion are well-written and accurate, especially where doing this would disadvantage the Consensus? Or at least not promote it. Given the cumulative feedback effect of the totality of press releases upon the course of climate science over decades, how can psychologists believe that all those poor ones won’t be causing very significant bias?

None of the social effects occurring within the domain of CAGW are new, and cognitive mechanisms underlying these effects are bequeathed to us from the evolutionary trajectory of homo-sapiens-sapiens. Psychology has made slow but useful progress in understanding these mechanisms over the last 150 years. But as confirmed in the follow-on posts, possessing knowledge of cognitive bias by no means guarantees protection against it; through avoiding their own collision of worldviews Lewandowsky and many of his colleagues simply don’t apply these hard-won findings to the entire social landscape of the climate change domain. Instead, they appear to assume that the dominant paradigm is magically free of bias, and focus only upon negative reactions to that paradigm, namely inaction and skepticism; within the latter of course some bias will indeed be found. However, most psychologists soon find themselves mired deep in tar regarding public inaction, the apparently inexplicable riddle of a largely unmoved rump of the public; kind of ‘inert skeptics’. They find only puzzlement, or a string of secondary strength explanations like psychological distancing or issue fatigue, and many more (we find in this series the real reason). At least the practitioners who stop at this point realize that such large numbers of people can’t be dismissed as ‘out there’, nor can the tiny community of ‘active skeptics’ really be driving them all. A few practitioners nevertheless persist in trying to assign various degrees of villainy, fingering the ‘deniers’. Lewandowsky has travelled the extra mile of the mythic, beyond the merchants of doubt meme and on to a highly improbable theory of conspiracy ideation. One psychologist at least, PhD candidate in Social Psychology Jose Duarte, has been brave enough to call out ‘Moon Hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ in the strongest terms (‘this is fraud’, ‘wildly unethical’). I wonder how many of his silent colleagues in the discipline are ‘only’ biased, or instead, afraid of condemnation for stepping out of the Consensus line?

Probing deep into Consensus culture and peeling off the surface of climate pyschologization, the rest of this series presents extensive evidence supporting the above paragraph, examining Lew and crew’s list of cognitive biases presented here in relation to the entire social domain of climate change. It becomes very clear that this list is in fact excellently applicable to the dominant culture of the catastrophic within that domain, clear also that acknowledging the truth of this would cause a severe clash of worldviews with reality for many folks, including Lewandowsky and it seems (at least from a first pass search) almost all psychologists who have stuck their fingers into the muddy mess of climate change mind-sets.

Andy West : www.wearenarrative.wordpress.com

Footnote
The social phenomenon of CAGW is largely independent of anything that is happening in the climate, and whether this is good, bad or indifferent. CO2 worries acted as a trigger, but once triggered the social processes have a developmental trajectory of their own. While scientific uncertainties surrounding the wicked problem of understanding the climate system remain broad, science will be unable to constrain or shut down these social processes, which are currently dominated by a culture of catastrophe.

Main Reference Papers
L2014 = abstract for the video presentation Scientific Uncertainty in Public Discourse: The Case for Leakage Into the Scientific Community, by Lewandowsky. Video and text of the abstract at WUWT.
L2012 = Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, by Lewandowsky et al.
E2011 = Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction, by Ecker et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky).
E2010 = Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation, by Ecker et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky). You may need to cut and paste this link into your browser: http://rd.springer.com/content/pdf/10.3758%2FMC.38.8.1087.pdf
G2008 = Theoretical and empirical evidence for the impact of inductive biases on cultural evolution, by Griffiths et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky).

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