Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

NOTE: as of 24th April this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry: http://judithcurry.com/2015/04/24/contradiction-on-emotional-bias-in-the-climate-domain/

Section 1: Universal acknowledgement of emotional bias.

The psychological phenomena of emotional bias, a distortion in cognition and decision-making due to emotional factors, has been known of for millennia. I perhaps should say ‘enhanced’ emotional factors, because emotional reaction is a core part of our thinking machinery and hence wholly rational perceptions or decisions would likely be a rarity at best, and possibly non-existent. Yet as emotional factors increase to something that truly touches us, distortion away from what might be termed ‘regular’ (i.e. no strong emotions present) or ‘rational’ or ‘balanced’ thinking, becomes much more significant.

This distortion is so well known that consciously or sub-consciously, arguments often employ an appeal to emotion exactly because this significantly increases the chance of overcoming opposing views. From the link immediately above (warning, wiki; short summaries of this topic are hard to come by) we are told that Aristotle (died 322BC) in his treatise Rhetorica described emotional arousal as critical to persuasion, while Seneca (died AD 65) warned that “Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions.”

Many studies in the modern era back this general understanding, adding more sophistication plus detail of the underlying mechanisms (though to date these are by no means fully understood). Apparently the role of ‘affect’, emotional reaction, underwent somewhat of a de-emphasis within social psychology for a time from the early 1970s, returning some thirty years later but on a wider stage, acknowledged to have other cognitive players with which emotional bias can interact or fuel to varying degrees. According to Daniel Kahneman, from his Nobel Prize in Economics Lecture, December 8 2002: ‘It is worth noting that in the early 1970’s the idea of purely cognitive biases appeared novel and distinctive, because the prevalence of motivated and emotional biases of judgment was taken for granted by the social psychologists of the time. There followed a period of intense emphasis on cognitive processes, in psychology generally and in the field of judgment in particular. It took another thirty years to achieve what now appears to be a more integrated view of the role of affect in intuitive judgment.

So, while the leading-edge understanding of emotional bias mechanisms is dynamic and ongoing, aided considerably by the recent assistance of MRI scans, in its very long wake is a general understanding that all psychologists and sociologists and associated disciplines have to be very familiar with. Along with professional communicators, probably most politicians and I should imagine a great many of the general public too, they will know at the very least about the power of appeal to emotion plus the danger that rationality will be compromised, or even derailed, when such an appeal is powerfully and / or repeatedly enacted. And while emotional bias has beneficial properties (e.g. condensing a large range of options and also promoting group cohesion / consensus), disrupting rationality can work out very badly indeed. For examples at various scales emotional bias can strongly contribute to: skewed jury / legal decisions and extremist politics, bad business practice and financial meltdowns, cults and the spread of misinformation, and yes the social hi-jacking of science too, for instance the Eugenics saga in the first half of the 20th century.

Hence there are increasing efforts to limit emotional bias effects in society. The business community have joined that campaign in recent times, not just to limit corporate damage from emotively driven negative culture, but also for reasons of direct profitability (See ‘Bottom Line’ at Investopedia).

Of all those masses of professionals who know about the characteristics of emotional bias, a subset are playing an active part in the climate change Consensus. This does not alter their knowledge of the former topic. Indeed a few of this subset are even helping to push forward our understanding of emotive bias mechanisms. For instance Stephan Lewandowsky has a string of papers (with associated authors) about cognitive bias impacts, which include insights on emotional bias. The paper Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing by Lewandowsky et al, posits that emotive content significantly increases the degree to which misinformation both spreads and persists. Resistance to vaccines based on emotive scare stories is an example Lewandowsky highlights. A similar point is made in Theoretical and empirical evidence for the impact of inductive biases on cultural evolution by Griffiths et al (one of the other authors is Lewandowsky). This paper supports the evidence that cultural concepts with an emotional component are easier to memorize, which in turn appears to result in them being retained for longer plus better transmitted to others in society, than is the case for similar concepts minus the emotional component. I.e. an emotive load provides arbitrary bias favoring the concept.

Lewandowsky is an ardent advocate for the certainty of dangerous man-made climate change, and at least some of the associated authors (e.g. Cook and Ecker) have comparable sentiments. So emotional bias is most certainly understood and accepted by the strongest end of the spectrum of CAGW support. Similarly the role of emotional bias, at least in broad-brush terms, is just as much a part of the mind-set of all the psychologists, sociologists, professional communicators, etc. who work in or actively support the climate Consensus, as it is for those belonging to these same professions who don’t happen to work within the climate Consensus. I.e. this knowledge is simply part of their job; they must all grasp both the power and danger of emotional bias independently of their climate domain credentials. Hence the understanding of emotional bias is absolutely not something that the climate Consensus supporters could abandon when inconvenient, nor something that could possibly be framed as some kind of climate skeptic invention.

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2 Responses to Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

  1. Michael 2 says:

    Such research into this realm as exists seems to treat all people as more or less the same; that a sufficiently well crafted message will work on everyone, or at least a substantial majority. I suggest the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator as a challenge to that thinking (it expands on Kiersey-Bates; but the same kind of thing) and both seem somewhat related to Jungian psychology.

    The point is that some people, rather a lot, not only are relatively unaffected by emotional messaging but sense that they are being manipulated and will erect mental guards against that sort of thing. The emotions are still there, but are counterbalanced by recognition of ulterior motives. Having scientists hand-write bleeding heart letters essentially destroys their credibility with rational persons while not gaining all that much with the already-convinced Consensus.

    I once considered a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Two things persuaded me against it; the first was discovering just how political it is and the second is I recognized my own emotional involvement with wildlife.

    Consider the typical starving child photograph. It is always a brown child, distended belly, and looking down on the child. I find such things annoying. It seems always the same; where is the imagination? Where is the photo of an Irish girl at a farmer’s market looking longingly at something to eat? She isn’t starving; she’s merely hungry because her parents are temporarily out of work. That kind of a thing isn’t hopeless and I’m far more likely to help where my help will do some good.

    But if you are just playing the numbers, emotions are a good pitch. Essentially everything PETA does is emotional; and to good effect, my mother intended to give PETA her entire inheritance except, being vulnerable to everyones’ emotional pitches, she spent it, lost it, gave it away before PETA got very much of it.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Thanks for dropping by again 🙂

    Agree there are various protections against emotional bias. One is ‘innate skepticism’, a kind of in-built BS detector that seems to be triggered by the style of the narrative being pushed. In his decent work before jumping off the deep end in climate and conspiracy theory, Lewandosky called this ‘the key to accuracy’; it resists misinformation and emotional bias. Other defenses are counter-narratives, or at least a cultural alliance with a counter narrative. And of course just plain old logic and / or scientific method, but these ones not too hard to circumvent where there is deep uncertainty and emotive memes prosper.

    Sadly though, all defenses are eroded by constant repetition of powerful emotive messages, which in the case of CAGW have been output for years, essentially based on the misinformation of the certainty of catastrophe. But it’s also true that if emotive narratives hit reality in a head-on clash, reality will of course still win, albeit there may be tremendous damage by then.

    And I think many of the emotive letters do undermine the authority of the scientists and science generally; they cite as their cause of emotion disaster scenarios that are way out of touch even with climate orthodoxy (e.g. the IPCC AR5 technical papers).

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