Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Further to the above, Speaking from the heart features 20 personal video clips from 19 scientists working in climate and related disciplines. This series is more measured and constrained than the above letters. The participants focus mostly upon their interpretation of coming physical changes, yet largely still in the sense of ‘catastrophe is coming’ (indeed some stray into talk of political instability, migration, conflict and crises, while a few of the emotive words from the above table also get a mention or two). And as the promoting article itself emphasizes: ‘A common theme in the videos is the scientists’ concern for the future of their children.’ The somewhat more measured stance cannot disguise that this series is a straight emotive pitch, which whatever the original intent, ends up employing scientific authority to make folks afraid, and most specifically afraid for their own children. While the fears of the scientists themselves appear genuine, when they amplify emotional bias plus lend it yet more authority, what hope for rationality? Some of these contributors are young; were their original fears seeded by the emotive bias of older scientists? Or the professional communicators those scientists effectively enabled? How can they possibly be objective in their work while so short-circuited at a fundamental cognitive level? In the case of three scientists, they cite direct experience of extreme weather as a major motivator, one saying “this makes climate change personal”. But did prior biases about attribution seeded by the media (and so ultimately by other scientists yet again), prime them for this state?

The above letters and videos may represent a biased sample, because it’s possible that the most emotive individuals are choosing to make a contribution. However, impacts are reported right across the climate and ecological science domains, so the above data could in fact be the tip of an iceberg. In the article a climate of despair from the Syndey Morning Herald, we learn that climate depression (aka “ecoanxiety” or “doomer depression” or “apocalypse fatigue”) is not uncommon, and also on the rise. Psychologist Susie Burke is quoted in the article: ‘We can be very sure that many people in the field of climate change are distressed – highly distressed – and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing.

The article highlights the case of one sufferer, biologist and ecologist Nicole Thornton, who slid towards some kind of breakdown after the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. Fortunately Thornton sought help and is much improved, now using her experience to help others: ‘Thornton, 41, is currently on a break – of sorts. She is part of a fellowship program with the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, with 49 other aspiring change agents. She is using her time in that program to create an online health and wellbeing hub, catered to cases like her own. “Peers have talked to me about burnout, anxiety, panic attacks, complete disengagement, and frustration leading to despair and, when you think about it, this stuff is always around you in the environmental field. It’s notorious. They get so involved, and they’re so passionate and they don’t take breaks.

According to this article and others there appears to be a lot of professionals actually needing help. So it seems that long-term communication campaigns targeting our emotions have indeed had a major impact upon climate and other environmental science professionals. Enough to make many ill. In over-selling the certainty of apocalypse and engaging deep emotion to do so, the Consensus has spawned bewilderment and despair within its own ranks, as they see that the world is not reacting appropriately to the imminent disaster that is ‘certain’ to occur in emotionally biased minds. Scientists appear to be no more immune to such influence than anyone else. Referring to loss and damage in the environment due to Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD), and specifically in her case coral-reef damage, the above mentioned professor Parmesan apparently doesn’t know a single scientist who isn’t emotionally impacted. From Mourning Our Planet: Climate Scientists Share Their Grieving Process: ‘Take Professor Camille Parmesan, a climate researcher who says that ACD is the driving cause of her depression. “I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan said in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2012 report.’ Yet assuming dominant ACD causation is both an effect of emotional impact (i.e. an act of bias with respect to attribution that obscures other causes, of which some are also anthropogenic like habitat encroachment / fragmentation, agricultural runoff and hunting etc. that can be much more usefully addressed), plus an amplifying feedback that will cause more bias in others.

Once again all the sources in this section are solidly Consensus orientated; the emotional impact is self-described. Given this case for scientists, i.e. those who ought to be most tooled-up for resisting emotional appeals, bias is likely endemic in other functional areas of society, such as politicians and policy makers. Indeed urgent emotional appeals regarding climate change are common from the former, including prime-ministers and presidents on downwards. Such appeals are often not backed up even by the orthodox IPCC technical position. Those who are emotionally convinced, will tend to deploy emotive arguments.

It is worth mentioning that some climate skeptic messaging has emotive content too (e.g. that which leans towards ‘scam’, ‘hoax’, or ‘left-wing conspiracy’ causation). Yet overall this is massively outgunned by the emotive CAGW storylines pouring out of mainstream sources, and especially the stronger fear memes such as (I paraphrase): “we’re all gonna fry”, “your coastal cities are gonna drown”, “only N days to save the planet”, “your grandkids are gonna die”, and “extreme weather is our fault”. Plus of course the attempted suppression of argument by deployment of the ‘denier’ term, which diverts huge and negative emotive power from a completely different narrative domain (Holocaust denial) and injects this into the climate arena. Overall skeptics tend to major on complex scientific issues and on not acting precipitously, which combination doesn’t make for a strong emotive pitch. And they have a comparatively small voice too; in a communication battle, volume matters.

Next page for more…

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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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