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

These posts arose from curiosity. I was very curious about how someone like Lewandowsky, who is so familiar with the mechanisms of cognitive bias, who indeed has contributed to current understanding of same, apparently cannot see or admit to these mechanisms operating within the climate Consensus; at least to an extent which compromises the high expectation of catastrophe and / or the need for urgent global action against catastrophe. I ended up being surprised. Not only at the high degree of accuracy with which the Lew and crew papers explain and characterize the various bias effects that over the years have become a major feature of Consensus culture, but also at the highly plausible explanation these papers provide regarding why Lewandowsky would be unable to see this. Constrained so tightly by his own findings, wrapped if you will in Lew papers, and yet also possessing a worldview that is highly challenged by any questioning of the climate change Consensus, results in an impossible internal conflict, and one which cannot be admitted! Failing a realization of internal bias and so a wholesale rejection of the climate Consensus, an unlikely kind of St Paul moment, the only other route for short-term comfort is to reduce cognitive dissonance by ratcheting up the defense of the Consensus itself, and attempting to push its main challengers, the skeptics, beyond the pale, reframing them as way-out conspiracy theorists whom no-one should listen to. Hence the release of the highly controversial (even among some Consensus commenters) ‘Moon hoax’ and ‘Recursive Fury’ papers. However, I suspect that this course can lead only to further stress and certainly to no meaningful victory, because despite all their hard work it is not primarily the efforts of the skeptics that have led to the current critical challenges, it is the climate itself. If it were not for ‘the pause’, at the time of writing between ~14 and ~18 years long depending upon which temperature series you prefer, I strongly suspect that skeptic challenges would still reside deep in shadow, rather than starting their slow emergence into the light.

Pretty much no-one is free of bias. And folks can often be severely blinded by it, an effect which also is domain orientated; so someone can seem completely balanced in most topic domains, yet (in extreme cases) be a complete slave to bias in just one other particular topic domain. Surely though it is an ultimate irony that for Lewandowsky, the topic he appears blinded to by bias is the excellent applicability of his very own bias theories to the workings of the climate Consensus. To avoid the obvious truth of this applicability, he practically has to turn the whole psychological analysis of the climate domain upon its head. And despite Lewandowsky’s papers plus stance are the primary example in this series, he is only one prominent practitioner among very many who are probing the psychology and sociology surrounding climate change, and this appears to be their general approach. Albeit dressed in erudite expression, the essential outcome is various versions of the old falsehood: ‘those who disagree with or even question our theories, must be crazy’.

Andy West : www.wearenarrative.wordpress.com

Notes, Plug, and Homework
As noted a few paragraphs above, these posts not only provide insight on prejudiced climate psychology and psychologists and climate depression and public inaction and such, they also open a window onto a major engine of Consensus culture, i.e. a positive feedback loop of rampant bias and misinformation. The workings of this ‘bias engine’ are straightforward to identify using standard literature and even, indeed as demonstrated, when one is limited almost exclusively to papers by Lew and crew themselves, of whom a subset at least are ardent advocates for CAGW (for instance Ecker, also from CogSci at UWA, has led a collaboration with Lewandowksy and Cook on work including a strong climate Consensus perspective).

However, the window on Consensus culture provided here is narrow, is only a part of the bigger picture, only a part of the way towards scoping an ultimate why all this happening. I have hinted at the role of memes and cultural co-evolution in a couple of places: the fact that emotive punch is rewarded more than veracity regarding narrative success, also with respect to ‘innate skepticism’, i.e. Lewandowsky’s key to accuracy. I’ve avoided follow-up on those hints because a) for this bounded and brief view which focuses on cognitive bias and Lewandowsky’s papers plus position in particular, this simply isn’t necessary, and b) because due typically to common misunderstandings about memetics, both in and out of academia, the very mention of that field can cause as much auto-defensive reaction as we see in the climate Consensus. I didn’t want to cloud with possible prejudice what is a straightforward reveal of cognitive bias here.

However for those who are not afraid for their souls, a much more comprehensive view on the workings of Consensus culture can be seen through the lens of memetics; see the (long!) essay here, published about a year back at Climate Etc and WUWT. This is hypothesis, by no means accepted fact, but the memetic explanation does have the advantage of not resting upon any political or philosophical positions as a foundation, only upon value-neutral mechanisms such as the penetration of memes into the psyche (in part via the bias mechanisms seen in this series) and the differential selection of successful narratives (which are not agential and not sentient). This doesn’t mean that, for instance, highly activist style politics isn’t an important factor, but it isn’t a root factor because this too is driven by value-neutral mechanisms beneath, which work in the same manner for any political stripe (and memetics is one useful way of perceiving those mechanisms). The memetic explanation also does not imply in any way whatsoever that Consensus folks are in the slightest degree deranged or delusional or ill or impaired. Due to common misunderstandings a lot of folks appear to vector down that path the moment they see the word memetics, and stop reading any further. Memeplexes are normal territory for all humans.

The linked essay includes a section on the law, covering personal and corporate responsibility regarding biased cultures, plus CAGW changing the law; the latter topic was mentioned in the main text of this post. The section is substantially built on a paper from Duke Law regarding memetic impact on law (see the essay for references). Regarding personal responsibility for those who have been heavily influenced by aggressive cultures, who in the terms of this series of posts are utterly lost to various bias effects, the conclusion of the Duke Law paper and my own (quoted) is in relative harmony:
∙∙∙∙∙∙…deal firmly with the wrong-doing influenced, albeit the emphasis should be on deterrence and rehabilitation rather than retribution, else the power of the law is undermined. In other words, the ‘culture’ of CAGW is not an excuse for arbitrary breaking of the law, and folks attempting this must be responsible for their actions.
However, straight law-breaking is the easier case to deal with, at least where the law has not yet changed to favor the biased culture. Gaming the system yet remaining inside the law is more difficult. How to deal with scientists and psychologists alike whose bias has led to this behavior? Very firm condemnation of poor practice such as expressed by Steve McIntyre and Jose Duarte is a good start, but when said practice supports a highly dominant culture, complaints of this nature tend to be drowned out.

Getting back to the bias mechanisms described in this series, one needs no buy-in at all of memetics to perceive that these are a major engine of Consensus culture. One does need some buy-in of mainstream psychology, including the papers on cognitive bias by Lew and crew, which discipline has over a long time become relatively familiar with these mechanisms. Some folks who distrust psychology altogether, or at least Lewandowsky altogether, may be uncomfortable with this. Myself I think it’s the ultimate irony. Consensus bias preventing the understanding that accepted, indeed championed bias mechanisms, are rampant within the climate Consensus. But this is also a fundamental warning, confirming that even in circumstances where the presence of heavy bias would seem to be almost bizarre, it very obviously can still grip us. More generally no-one is free of bias, though also, being relatively free within one domain appears to provide little or no immunity in other domains.

Given that heavy bias towards the certainty of catastrophe steers policy-makers soaked in Consensus culture as well as the great majority of climate scientists, then very harmful side-effects are occurring. There are far too many to list, yet a common theme of many policies is that the supposed reason for implementation, i.e. a significant temperature reduction, could not realistically be achieved by these policies anyhow. For instance the $1.7 trillion spent on windmills and solar over the last dozen years, for little contribution to energy output or emissions reduction, or indeed the whole bio-fuel debacle. These policies are harming people, and most likely killing people too (via raised food prices, and raised energy costs leading to more excess cold deaths) plus harming the environment too. It needs a transition from understanding rampant bias, to understanding that the biased culture becomes an end in itself and a promoter of itself, to perceive that human or environmental costs are simply not relevant to its growth. The culture has a (non-agential, non-sentient) agenda of its own, in the same way that primitive parasites do, and this agenda serves the culture, not us.

Homework: Lewandowsky and Cook based the methods in their Debunking Handbook on a subset of the principles of cognitive bias as presented in the various Lew and crew papers. While attempting a short generic guide based on foundational principles is ambitious regarding usefulness in the sophisticated cut and thrust of real debate, resulting (imho) in a rather clunky abc, it nevertheless is not without worth. An amusing exercise for readers is to see why the examples regarding climate change are wrong in the guide, and to employ the methodology minus these errors to debunk Consensus myths, a purpose for which I’m sure the guide was certainly not intended 😉 .

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).
S&L2014 = The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition, by Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz, (Lewandowsky not a contributor).

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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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