Wrapped in Lew Papers: The psychology of climate psychologization – Part3

Taking these topics backwards, Lewandowsky frequently both defends and utilizes (e.g. regarding advice on climate communication) the storyline that ‘97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is man-made’, often quoting the paper purportedly proving this by his close colleague at the UWA school of psychology, John Cook. Yet quite apart from the fact that this paper has received very strong criticism, with still more here, both Cook and Lewandowsky’s messaging typically uses the 97% result to imply a certainty of catastrophe, when no such implication or corresponding question was included in obtaining the result. Any questions that do probe possibilities of catastrophe produce much more mixed responses. These basic problems have caused Professor Curry to declare the 97% consensus (on attribution to man) dead. While there is little doubt that milder positions, such as ‘does CO2 cause some warming (if all other things in the climate system remained static)?’ would indeed produce an overwhelming majority in the affirmative, perhaps even 100% of climate scientists, this would likely include 95% or thereabouts of skeptics too, so it would not be a particularly useful metric. However, Lewandowsky continues using storylines of overwhelming majority and reference to this paper in particular, to promote messaging about inevitable (absent severe emissions cuts, that is) calamity.

On the second topic, the credibility of skeptics, as mentioned at the start of the first post Lewandowsky’s attempted use of ‘conspiracy ideation’ to delegitimize skeptics has received withering criticism. His papers ‘Moon hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ have prompted pretty much inarguable challenges to their detailed methodology and data collection, the legitimacy of such approval procedures as occurred, and even the ethics of the papers; essentially the entire validity of these works. Indeed ‘Recursive Fury’ was eventually withdrawn from the journal Frontiers of Psychology on ethical grounds. PhD candidate in Social Psychology Jose Duarte, has called out ‘Moon Hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ in the strongest terms (‘this is fraud’, ‘wildly unethical’).

On the first topic, the papers described at Science Daily put forward Lewandowsky’s take on the uncertainty monster (I think credit is to Curry for this name). Find Uncertainty and unabated emissions Climatic Change (Stephan Lewandowsky, James S. Risbey, Michael Smithson, Ben R. Newell, John Hunter) here: Part 1, Part 2 (paywalled). These papers are also the backbone of an article in The Guardian by environment writer Dana Nuccitelli, aided by the above mentioned John Cook: The climate change uncertainty monster – more uncertainty means more urgency to tackle global warming . While an acknowledgment of significant uncertainty at last leaves behind the old and now broken storyline of ‘the science is settled’ (though I doubt the authors would explicitly admit as much), there’s a bold attempt to preserve and indeed to amplify the urgency of the more powerful component of the overall narrative, i.e. imminent catastrophe. The heart of Lewandowsky’s argument is [underline mine]:
∙∙∙∙∙∙in the case of the climate system, it is very clear that greater uncertainty will make things even worse. This means that we can never say that there is too much uncertainty for us to act. If you appeal to uncertainty to make a policy decision the legitimate conclusion is to increase the urgency of mitigation.

This appears to be a false application of the uncertainty principle, which Judith Curry, Professor of atmospheric science at Georgia Tech, explains in a post here. Below gives a flavor:
∙∙∙∙∙∙I have written two previous posts that address the idea that uncertainty increases the argument for action: Uncertainty, risk and (in)action , The case(?) for climate change alarmism .
∙∙∙∙∙∙As [Gregor] Betz points out, there is no simple decision rule for dealing with this kind of deep uncertainty.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Alarmism occurs when possible, unverified worst case scenarios are touted as almost certain to occur. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry frequently does this, as does Joe Romm (and Rachendra Pachauri). A recent example from Dana Nuccitelli, John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky:
∙∙∙∙∙∙The climate change uncertainty monster – more uncertainty means more urgency to tackle global warming . [i.e. the above article based on the Lewandowksy et al papers].
∙∙∙∙∙∙The problems with this kind of thinking is summarized in my two previous posts (cited a few paragraphs above); in summary this is a stark and potentially dangerous oversimplification of how to approach decision making about this complex problem.
And in turn, part of the Betz quote Curry uses is:
∙∙∙∙∙∙Where even probabilistic prediction fails, foreknowledge is (at most) possibilistic in kind; i.e. we know some future events to be possible, and some other events to be impossible.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Gardiner, in defence of the precautionary principle, rightly notes that (i) the application of the precautionary principle demands that a range of realistic possibilities be established, and that (ii) this is required by any principle for decision making under uncertainty whatsoever.
∙∙∙∙∙∙Accepting the limits of probabilistic methods and refusing to make probabilistic forecasts where those limits are exceeded, originates, ultimately, from the virtue of truthfulness, and from the requirements of scientific policy advice in a democratic society.

My reading of all this is that it is not terribly truthful to pretend that the uncertainty can be described in statistical terms when it cannot. Doing so also tends to inappropriately emphasize the thin and possibly mythic tail that leads into the catastrophic. Given too that the models have pretty much parted company with observations, and even since AR5 a flurry of papers are suggesting lower climate (temperature) sensitivity to CO2 doubling (ironically decreasing uncertainty for this one metric that the IPCC have claimed for decades is critical), such a stance seems still less intuitive. Not to mention that some of the ‘insurance policies’ put forward under the precautionary principle are very costly indeed to society and/or damaging in their own right too. Yet whatever the merits of the different arguments about uncertainty it is very clear that Lewandowsky has stepped outside of psychology here, to directly help shore up a core though recently pressured storyline of the Consensus, one which clings to the catastrophic.

The above three topics together confirm a strained defense that appears to have long since lost objectivity regarding a psychological analysis of the full social landscape within the climate change domain. Actions appear to be about preserving worldview and preventing, at any intellectual cost, the clash of well-understood theory about bias with the hard reality of how the Consensus works (further confirmation is cited below). The latter is itself exposed by many threads of emerging and challenging new science, plus of course the increasing disagreement of Consensus theory with observations. And Lewandowsky has made further commitments to the Consensus that are outside of psychology. For instance contributing directly to Consensus aligned climate science in the paper Well-estimated global surface warming in climate projections selected for ENSO phase. And choosing questioners from the audience for climate scientist Michael Mann in the latter’s recent lecture at the Cabot Institute in Bristol, UK. Even if speculation that the questioners were filtered in some fashion is completely false, this is a very curious role to serve to a physical climate scientist whose adamant discourse sometimes raises eyebrows inside the Consensus, let alone outside it. While there is nothing in principle ‘wrong’ with these and similar connections, the increasing commitment of this kind will help to keep any blinds of bias fixed in place, will lessen objectivity still further regarding psychological insights on both the Consensus and skeptics.

Next page for more…

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2 Responses to Wrapped in Lew Papers: The psychology of climate psychologization – Part3

  1. Michael 2 says:

    Brilliant. Everything I would say on the subject if I had your literary skill and passion for it.

    “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.”

    I am reminded of the flexible sapling that can withstand high winds and storm versus the brittle old tree that is strong until it breaks.

    Keeping impossibly conflicting ideas in separate compartments (sometimes left brain / right brain since one is cognitive and the other emotive) is a thing probably impossible for a person to detect by himself, since each “side” is also observed through that side’s filters.

    My own father is an example; one moment scientific and arguing for evolution because he thinks I am opposed to it; his worldview requires that I oppose it. So when I argue that not only has evolution taken place but that it is continuing to take place through selective breeding, he suddenly argues that dolphins cannot be made more intelligent by US Navy breeding programs; they are always dolphins, they have always been dolphins — negating his earlier assertion regarding evolution. You see, that is his other worldview, a residue of his Lutheran religion.

    While he abandoned the outward trappings of religion, he cannot escape that his formative years were immersed in Lutheran culture and belief. He *is* Lutheran, it is the way he was made. This can lead to some confusion by people around him but he does not see it himself.

    Another aspect of your comment is brittleness. Occasionally these two worldviews CAN be brought together like matter and antimatter with some risk of annihilation — but it also releases energy that can dramatically accellerate a person’s maturation. In my own case I had grown up without any imposed religion and yet it is cultural, everywhere present, or at least it was during my formative years. So I believed in a young earth even without having gone to church once!

    One day when I was a teenager I hiked in the mountains and sat on a rock to rest. I noticed that it was composed almost entirely of long slender cone shells embedded in very hard black rock, highly resistant to chiseling (I tried to bring home a piece). At any rate, it was conspicuously older than 6,000 years old; it had been at the bottom of a sea but now was exposed by weathering and was at 7,000 feet elevation or so. In other words, really, really OLD.

    So I discarded that part of my belief system but not the rest of it. This is where many people have problems — just because one part of your belief system is wrong is not a reason to discard all of it.

    But many people, including my friends, tend to chain things together so if one part breaks it all does. This can be scary to observe. I had a roommate in the Navy, a born-again inerrantist Christian. That worldview depends on a single belief: Inerrancy. In the case of my roommate, he had one other absolute belief, that anyone of my religion was going to hell. So one day I said, “Jesus is come in the flesh”. That is all. It must be said exactly that way. To the inerrantist, only a man of God can say that; and yet, he was exactly as sure that I was an enemy to God.

    So I brought these worldviews into collision and I feared for his sanity. I regretted the stunt. Still, I met him a couple of years later and he was vastly more pleasant to be around. He still had his religion but now knew that it had some warts and he had to use his own intelligence to know what parts were the important parts — the two great commandments which boil down to just one — loving your neighbor.

  2. Michael 2 says:

    I may have quite a lot to say about memetics when I have more time and have read your writing on it. It may relate somewhat to Carl Jung’s “archetypes”, persons having an affinity for certain things or ideas without obvious explanation. An example is “dragon”, almost everyone on Earth knows what is a dragon, or at least has some conception (but rather variable), yet no such thing exists or ever existed in human memory.

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