Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Section 3: Emotional message campaigns have considerably impacted scientists.

Social narratives, whether benign overall or otherwise, can cascade through society as emotional and other biases gain leverage each time topics are interpreted at functional boundaries. E.g. for CAGW, inappropriate extrapolation and amplification of worry as information passes from core climate scientists to other environmental scientists, from both of these groups to PR people and politicians, thence to policy makers and economists, and from all of the above groups to NGOs and the mass media, etc. So the level of emotional bias in all functional domains will matter, yet it is scientists who are meant to have better defenses; whose methodology is theoretically geared to remaining unemotional. So looking at emotional impact in climate and environmental scientists should be a worst case indicator. If emotionally crafted climate communication campaigns have created major affect in these guys, it is likely rampant elsewhere.

This series of letters from climate and environmental scientists, shows an astonishing level of personal revelation regarding thoughts about climate change. While 35 (at the time of writing) is not a huge sample, it seems to confirm a systemic emotional state within the mainstream scientific community, which according to the universally accepted knowledge from Section 1 cannot do other than create bias. Indeed the level of emotion does appear to trump reason; as far as I can tell many of the fears expressed have lost touch even with the orthodox view of science as presented by the IPPC in the AR5 technical papers. Neither is there any attempt to hide or moderate high emotions, quite the contrary, which implies both a powerful belief in the certainty of serious adverse impacts upon the world (many such are specified), plus a surprisingly strong confidence that this ‘truth’ must be self-evident, and thus all but a handful of ‘deniers’ will applaud an audacious emotive stance.

In a further series of personal messages, from Australian environmental scientists at Scared Scientists, the emotive outpouring shifts from a mixed bag of exasperation, worry, despair, anger and hope, to a much more focused pitch at fear, as one can gather from the website name. Each of eight messages (one from each scientist) is headlined in capitals ‘FEAR: XYZ’, where XYZ is the particular fear each scientist says is their own particular biggy. Summing the two series (three scientists appear in both and only their data from the first series is used), and also adding in professor Camille Parmesan who is mentioned in articles relating to the above letters and is ‘professionally depressed’ because of climate change, we get the table below that includes 41 scientists. This depicts percentages of expression for various emotive categories, accompanied by columns F and G that show whether any future danger / suffering / impacts etc. were expressed with respect to children, or not with respect to children. Bear in mind that some scientists have expressed themselves in more than one emotive category, and a few across several:

Emotional Bias Table

The raw data for these results is in Appendix 1. The figures seem astoundingly high to me. While work-related frustration is hardly unique to climate / environmental scientists, I strongly suspect this type is rather worse than that caused by a bad boss. And eliminating multiple entries, the number of scientists showing in columns B to E is a huge 61%, with 44% across the more serious categories C to E, i.e. fear, despair and anger. Plus I’d say that those ‘worry and hope’ hot-buttons mentioned in Section 2 are most certainly being pushed in many of these scientists. The boundaries are loose and worry blurs into anxiety; B & C cover 49%. Those who study the psychology of religions might recognize this profile, excepting for the low score on guilt; but then again these are the ‘priests’ and not the ‘laity’, so maybe this is an expectation. And clearly, a constant hitting upon the ultimate emotional concern button by climate messaging, via the ‘threat to children’ meme, has found its mark too. Quite a few scientists from column F specifically cited not just children generally, but their own children. Overall, are these scientists going to be rational when working on, say, attribution studies? Or climate sensitivity?

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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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