And surprise surprise, psychologists already know about this alternate explanation, or at least the surface evidence for it; even Lewandowsky and his colleagues know. Yet after welding together a hotchpotch of potential reasons and still ending up puzzled, they haven’t turned to this much more obvious explanation, because that would seriously challenge their worldviews and cultural belief, i.e. a belief in the certainty of catastrophe that is practically synonymous with the Consensus. So what is the explanation? Well, in fact it’s something that skeptics have said all along, albeit gleaned from personal observation and experience rather than psychological knowledge. Check out the quote below from E2010 [underline mine]:
‘The literature thus suggests that suspicion may be capable of reducing the CIE. However, suspicion will be useful in reducing the CIE only in situations in which people believe that there are reasons to be suspicious in the first place, and, in many situations, it will not be feasible to plausibly induce suspicion. Moreover, as we discussed earlier, the effectiveness of induced suspicion may be moderated by a person’s level of skepticism, which may represent a stable personality trait (Lewandowsky et al., 2009); hence, it is difficult to manipulate.’
In short this amounts to: there are some narratives folks simply won’t buy, no matter how hard the related issue is pushed at them and how much time and money is spent on it. At least within a generation or so. But it’s critical to grasp why (there is a highly plausible reason), and what sort of things they won’t buy. For instance the reason the majority of the public is still not buying the demonization of skeptics, or indeed are still not fired into action by the endless Consensus messaging about inevitable catastrophe, has very likely nothing to do with the skeptics themselves, and nothing to do with climate.
Before we delve into the why and what above, it’s worth just a little time to be entirely clear about what the E2010 quote really means. From post 1, the Lew and crew bias warning type 3C says: Be healthily skeptical; suspicions based on innate skepticism reduce the CIE. The Continued Influence Effect means that many people will still retain some belief in misinformation whatever is done to correct or mitigate it, yet being healthily skeptical does reduce this hold or grip of the CIE. However, in a situation where an organization (e.g. a government) attempts to subvert healthy skepticism, for instance by casting (false) suspicion upon sources challenging its misinformation, then as the quote notes this tactic won’t work too well unless there are pre-existing or ‘innate’ reasons to be suspicious in the first place. For completely or largely false suspicion, this will not be the case. It seems that there’s a level of skepticism which is too deep to be subverted, much too difficult to manipulate, which Lewandowsky posits is based on a stable personality trait, ‘an instinct for the truth’ if you will. Hence in our example the government in question will not find it feasible to induce suspicion about those who are questioning its misinformation. So indeed there are some narratives folks simply won’t buy. The attempted de-legitimization and demonization of skeptics falls into this domain, a majority of the public simply don’t buy it.
The answer to the question ‘what sort of things won’t the public buy?’ helps to reveal the most plausible reason as to why they are so resistant, and where the ‘innateness’ and ‘instinct’ come from. The full answers are a very long story, involving findings from other disciplines than psychology, most notably cultural evolution. I’ll attempt a very compressed and conditional summary here (see the note at the end of the post for a pointer to much more). Suspicion can come from many sources, for instance mere suspicion of one’s political opponents, but we’re interested in deeper, innate skepticism. Climate change is a good field to find this (calamity it is supposed to be ‘scientifically certain’, and for instance all the main political parties in the UK push the Consensus message), revealing the most notable characteristic of the public’s resistance to certain narratives, which is that this has little or no dependency on any of the actual facts of the topic. The public knows very little indeed about who the skeptics are or how the climate works. Their resistance to the Consensus undermining of skeptics cannot therefore be based upon domain knowledge; it is almost certainly based upon how the Consensus present their message. More generally, excess certainty and demeaning of the opposition and certain other characteristics embedded in the narrative, are what trigger public resistance. These features are independent of the actual topic, and whatever that topic, the public appear to ‘know’ (this will be subconscious in many cases) that these features mean there are fundamental problems hidden beneath the narrative. So the answer to ‘what sort of things won’t the public buy?’ turns out to be ‘things that are presented in too coherent, too certain, too forceful (e.g. suppressing other views), too emotive and too arrogant (e.g. demeaning the opposition) a manner’, whatever the actual topic is. These narrative features betray that the topic is not sound.
As to why, there is a great deal of evidence that this is an instinct resulting from our long co-evolution with cultural entities. While there’s an overwhelmingly large net advantage to the cognitive mechanisms that allow cultural alignment (civilization itself rests on such alignments), this doesn’t mean there aren’t serious downsides, including cultures with strongly negative aspects and indeed fully parasitical cultures. Hence we have developed instincts that counter cultural trends adopting too negative an aspect, and it is highly plausible that this underpins the ‘stable personality trait’ which Lewandowsky refers to. We cannot expect this effect to be a universal constant; a useful model is to think of negative cultures as viruses and the instincts countering them (which themselves can be bolstered by positive cultural traits and opposing biases), as conferring immunity. Just as the response of any particular population, or indeed individual, to a specific virus will vary depending upon all sorts of inherited or acquired immune factors, so it is with negative cultures. The immunities chase the negativities in an endless race throughout time and across populations. We have in fact been attacked countless times by heavily biased cultural contagions like CAGW. Ironically those individuals with the greatest domain knowledge, yet who are steeped in the orthodox bias of an associated negative culture, will be the least protected. The weight of their supposed knowledge suppresses their instinctive immunity; as part of the endless war negative cultures have developed various features to suppress our immunities (e.g. hitting emotional hot-buttons to override). [And cultures which start negative yet take generations to penetrate society, tend to become more benign over time, may end up being net positive; otherwise their hosts would be out-competed by other, unaffected populations].
Within the climate change domain, these skeptical instincts have implications far beyond the failure of the long and occasionally extreme Consensus campaign that attempts to discredit skeptics in the public eye, by trying to induce suspicion. As shown in post 2, at the heart of the Consensus is a major transmission of misinformation, i.e. the misinformation about the certainty of calamity. If we add in the targeted emotive campaigns that are freely admitted, plus the suppression of opposing views and demonization of skeptics and all the general characteristics of typical climate Consensus narrative, we indeed arrive at messaging which is too coherent, too certain, too forceful, too emotive and too arrogant. Completely independent of what is happening in the climate and whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, plus completely independent of any knowledge or lack thereof about the players, these narrative features alone betray that the topic is not sound. And at some level, subconscious for many, more conscious for others, explicitly expressed for a few, the public will know this.
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