Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain

Section 4: Conclusion.

Despite the universally accepted principle of emotional bias outlined in Section 1, the climate Consensus has deployed long-term emotionally crafted communication campaigns as described in Section 2, and is also calling for, and likely executing, research to optimize these campaigns still more. This seems to me a staggering contradiction. The result is not only an emotional impact on much of (western) society, in which our politicians and policy makers etc. are all embedded, but as Section 3 shows, on environmental and climate scientists too. This can only result in enormous levels of bias at all stages of society’s climate related endeavors, from research and understanding to communication to action, and indeed everything else in-between.

The accepted principle that emotive messaging causes bias does not, as far as I can see, appear to have caused any alarm bells to ring in the minds of Consensus-aligned professionals regarding their long-term emotive messaging campaigns aimed at increasing the support for policy. And yet the climate Consensus cannot set aside the universally accepted dangers of emotional bias. Of all the disciplines involved, it is the psychologists who should have warned us; yet they are all too busy emotively channeling a socially enforced consensus, and attempting to change behavior.


† While I’ve only done cursory Internet searches and haven’t plunged into the Press Archives, powerful climate-related messaging reaching the public in the twentieth century (from 1988) seems to be far less than the flood arising from about 12 to 15 years ago. And even where attributions are scarily extrapolated in the public domain, there is typically more hedging than in later years, leading to a curious duality. Plus there appears to be more space for alternate views and uncertainty. Nevertheless a tangle of overconfident attribution, fear, worry and some hope was getting out via high profile speeches and through particular segments of the media. See examples: 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999. Given the much more modest mainstream media presence on the Internet in the nineties, it is likely that emotional messaging viewed only through this window is under-represented (not to mention many links have simply disappeared since then). In the same era scientific papers claiming significant negative effects from climate change seem to be plentiful, some with emotional content, plus various government / UN agency documents likewise. Hence I assume emotional bias will be much more domain bounded within the 20th century, although not necessarily less for folks within the relevant academic / environmental / governmental / NGO circles, who sometimes will carry close friends and family with them.

It is also the case that emergent social narratives typically sweep up older memes and retransmit them in altered forms, and this can increase emotive content and add new adherents via the wider scope, for instance CAGW incorporates in some form: Malthusianism, anti-technology, the apocalyptic, ‘the past is better’, ‘we are special’, ‘our times are special’, some of which are millennia old at least and probably far older. But it can be difficult to discern when a particular meme migrated its way into a narrative umbrella from its more difficult life outside, or from its last beneficial host.

Caveat and Plug:

The knowledge that undesirably high levels of emotional bias about climate change exist not only in scientists but also in much of society too, tells us nothing whatever about what is happening in the physical climate, and whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. However coupled with the lessons of history, this knowledge does tells us that major social edifices fuelled by emotion will tend to dominate, and very likely prevent us from properly progressing our knowledge of the climate, perhaps for a very long time.

While emotional bias is a very important mechanism via which social narratives like CAGW can gain dominance, the bigger picture in which this mechanism operates can be seen much more clearly through the lens of cultural evolution. Also in my opinion, the stronger Darwinian end of that lens; in particular memetics. Due 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. However for those who are not afraid for their souls, see the (long!) essay here, published about 18 months back at Climate Etc and WUWT. This is a hypothesis and by no means fact, but the memetic explanation for CAGW 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 emotional bias as described in this post) and the differential selection of successful narratives (which are not agential and not sentient). This doesn’t mean for instance that 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 a 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 misconceptions 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.

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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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