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New paper on agnotology and scientific consensus

Posted on 19 June 2013 by John Cook

Agnotology is the study of ignorance and how it's produced. For example, examining how misinformation can generate misconceptions about climate change. An interesting (and influential, at least in my case) paper on this topic is Agnotology as a teaching tool: Learning climate science by studying misinformation by Daniel Bedford, a professor at Weber State University, Utah. Bedford suggests how how examining and refuting misinformation is actually a powerful way to teach climate science, sharpen critical thinking skills and raise awareness of the scientific method. He then illustrates this with case studies applied in his own college classroom. This paper opened my eyes to the educational opportunities in addressing misinformation - an approach I adopted in the chapters "Understanding Climate Change Denial" and "Rebuttals to Climate Myths" in the textbook Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.

Recently, David Legates, Willie Soon and William Briggs published a paper in the journal Science & Education, Learning and Teaching Climate Science: The Perils of Consensus Knowledge Using Agnotology. The paper comments extensively on Bedford's agnotology paper. Unfortunately, it comprehensively misrepresents Bedford's arguments. Consequently, Daniel Bedford and I have co-authored a response to Legates' paper that was just published in Science & Education: Agnotology, Scientific Consensus, and the Teaching and Learning of Climate Change: A Response to Legates, Soon and Briggs. For those without library access, our paper is unfortunately behind a pay-wall. However, the full pre-press version of our paper is available here.

In our response, we examine the scientific consensus on climate change and briefly look at the results from our recent Consensus Project paper. We explore the consensus gap - the large discrepancy between public perception of consensus and the 97% reality. We also clarify that while there is a scientific consensus on the basic fact of human-caused global warming, this doesn't mean there is overwhelming agreement of every aspect of climate science. Legates misrepresents this point by misquoting Bedford's paper. We examine one of the reasons for the consensus gap - two decades of a persistent misinformation campaign focused on casting doubt about the consensus.

Next, we get to the real meat of agnotology-based learning - exploring the educational opportunities in addressing misinformation in the classroom. Correcting misperceptions are an important part of education - it's not all about downloading new information into students' brains. Over two decades of research have found that refutational style lectures are one of the most effective ways of correcting misperceptions.

To long-time SkS and Debunking Handbook readers, I know what you're thinking - what about the familiarity backfire effect? By directly addressing myths in the classroom, don't you risk making students more familiar with the myths? Educators and communicators need to walk a fine line - we don't want to make the myth too prominent when we debunk it but if we don't mention the myth at all, it isn't "activated" in the learner's mind and conceptual change won't occur. Consequently, the most effective way to reduce a misconception is to "co-activate" the fact and the myth at the same time in a single debunking.

Lastly, we discuss the importance of scientific consensus. Let me excerpt from our paper:

We do not advocate ‘‘simply bowing to authority by proclaiming consensus science’’ (Legates et al. 2013, p. 7, emphasis in original), and this position was not taken by Bedford (2010). However, nor do we agree that a scientific consensus is a meaningless concept. Our view is that the processes of peer review and postpublication critique ultimately move human understanding of the universe closer to reality. This movement is not always incremental or linear (see Kuhn 1962); it is, however, mostly (though not always, as discussed above) based on scrutiny of the empirical evidence. Thus, before a research result is published, it must, at least in theory, undergo some measure of scrutiny. Once published, the broader scientific community can scrutinize the work further, and provide critiques and attempts at replication of the results. Thus, while it would be unwise to place too much confidence in any single research result, multiple independently-derived results all pointing towards the same finding provide a much higher degree of confidence that the finding is correct. This is the case with climate change, where a consilience of evidence has been observed that humans are causing global warming (Oreskes 2007).

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. This is a very fresh (1995) neologism, according to wikipedia.

    I would constrain the definition of this term, John, to scrictly "culturally induced ignorance due to promotion of the knowledge of a subject that leaves one more uncertain than before", i.e. the practice the contrarian special interest groups like FF, tobacco industries, etc. are dissiminating.

    IMO, this is quite different from the pure ignorance, which is like a blank canvas: a blissfuly ignorant state of mind because the knowledge is unavailable or not needed by someone. E.g. I'm ignorant of Wenkel engine invention because no one told be about it.

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  2. John,

    Your paper documents a great many problems with Legates et al.  Is there any chance the editors of the journal will retract the original paper or make a comment on it?

    Hopefully many of the people who were mislead by the original paper will read your rebuttal.

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    [John Cook] In the spirit of agnotology-based learning, I would suggest rather than try to get the Legates et al. paper retracted, there is more instruction in addressing it's misrepresentations as a teachable moment.

  3. Geez, John.  Whatever you propose, the bought and paid for opinion-makers just seem to want to immediately provide you with more evidence to support the proposal (see the Lewandowsky feedback cycle).  Legates et al. is an excellent example for a critical thinking exercise . . . which means the journal editor(s), in publishing Legates et al., are either "blissfully ignorant" of the rhetorical game or are brilliant in allowing the willful ignorance of that paper to be published.

    Strawmen: do we burn them or learn from them?

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  4. Terrifically important  - and a great way to teach climate science, sociology, public opinion, advertising and military psyops.

    One classic manipulation tactic described in Wikipedia is the Spiral of Silence - a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann.

    "Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation. The assessment of ones social environment may not always be correct with reality"

    This tactic can also apply to any advertiser supported mass media - where isolation and monetary inattention is a form of punishment for failing to suppress messages.    A simple content analysis of US news media stories of climate or global warming stories might support this notion.   Especially when we notice that carbon fuel industries are such heavy advertisers.  Compare US media to BBC or other media that are disentangled from carbon fuel financial influence.  

    We might frame our problem as an ethical one.   Deliberate deception is a poison that extracts huge costs.   Instead  "equity should precede ambition"

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  5. Michael Sweet @2: when a comment on a paper has been published, it is extremely uncommon that the original paper is retracted. For that you'd have to show scientific misconduct or potential direct harm from letting the paper stand. In this type of papers the first is not so easy to show, Legates et al could just argue that this is the way they read the original paper and this is their (scientific) opinion. The second essentially only applies to the biomedical field.

    All we can do is refer to the comment, and laugh at those who cite Legates et al but not the comment.

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  6. It is worth noting that Legates was involved in the publication of the first and most infamous Soon & Baliunas paper, the one that led to the resignation in protest of 5 members of the editorial board. De Freitas was instrumental in the publication of that piece of junk and has become an expert at circumventing the intent of peer-review while wiggling through the process. The wiki is a good place to start:

    It cites Tom Wigley:

    ""I have had papers that I refereed (and soundly rejected), under De Freitas’s editorship, appear later in the journal -- without me seeing any response from the authors. As I have said before to others, his strategy is first to use mainly referees that are in the anti-greenhouse community, and second, if a paper is rejected, to ignore that review and seek another more ‘sympathic’ reviewer. In the second case he can then (with enough reviews) claim that the honest review was an outlier."

    This is taking the bullshit wars to an extent that the tobacco industry could only dream of.


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  7. It's reassuring to see some evidence that one approach I've used in teaching students about evolution (I used Futuyma's Science on Trial for about a decade) can be effective. It did seem to work, but that was  based solely on my impression of how well students did at explaining key concepts and points... 

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  8. Agnophilia: 1. The love or promotion of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.

    Agnophile: 1. A person who consciously indulges in agnophilia.

    Agnomaniac: 1. A person who indulges in agnophilia to insane, irrational or inordinate extents.

    Some new fancy names for the extreme forms of denialism and deniers.

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  9. So then someone who loves agnophilia would be an agnophiliac, which actually sounds like a disease :-).

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  10. As someone whose level of ignorance is absolute in virtually every aspect of human knowledge, it would be utterly hypocritical of me to even consider castigating people for their ignorance of climate change science.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I do have some sympathy for those who, through paistaking hard work, have become expert in a subject and, as a consequence, find themselves unable to refrain from a modicum of arrogance when speaking to us lesser mortals.

    What does mark this "debate" apart is the astonishing arrogance with which some people unwittingly demonstrate their abject ignorance of the subject matter. The adamantine self-confidence which accompanies utter twaddle has to be seen to be believed. I live in a village on Dartmoor (SW England) wherein the two best selling newspapers are The Telegraph and The Mail, so readers of SkS can probably well imagine the level of self-opinioned garbage that is spoken about Climate Change in these parts.

    I have been trying for some time - funny, my wife just chuckled as she walked past the screen - to ascertain if there is a word in the English language to describe this weird amalgam of arrogance and ignorance.

    Perhaps the above post might show the way with a suitable neologism.

    "Arragnophobia"  Noun: the abnormal fear of being revealed to know much less than one pretands to know. (Although it does sound as though one is somewhat scared of spiders.)

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  11. "Bedford suggests how how examining and refuting misinformation is actually a powerful way to teach climate science, sharpen critical thinking skills and raise awareness of the scientific method."

    Is this a good time to mention again?

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  12. billthefrog:

    I have been trying for some time - funny, my wife just chuckled as she walked past the screen - to ascertain if there is a word in the English language to describe this weird amalgam of arrogance and ignorance.

    How about "arrognoramus" 8^D?

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  13. Bedford suggests how how examining and refuting misinformation is actually a powerful way to teach climate science, sharpen critical thinking skills and raise awareness of the scientific method.

    My own empirical (read: anecdotal) experience has been exactly this. When I began looking into Creationists' arguments about the validity of this-or-that facet of science which presented a challenged to (or appeared to support!) their beliefs, I had to then read what the scientists themselves were saying about these things. Looking into those "debates" (to use a generous term) gave me a much, much deeper understanding of evolution, biology, science generally, AND the philosophy of science than all of my formal schooling put together.

    A lot of that knowledge carried over to serve me well when evaluating the "two sides" of the climate issue. Even if my knowledge of science hadn't been so greatly expanded through the experience, the similarities between so-called "skeptics of AGW" and anti-evolutionists was overwhelming. They displayed the same failures of critical thinking, the same tendency to misinterpret or misrepresent, and the same inability to back down despite overwhelming facts and evidence to the contrary. All they had to rely on was a wall of anti-knowledge: talking points that were asserted as facts but really had no factual basis. These filled up the spaces in their mental stockpile where real knowledge could have fit and influenced their worldview, and they're wedged in so tightly that they keep contrary facts out in the cold. For example, the Young Earth Creationists are absolutely sure that the Grand Canyon was both laid down and then carved out by the waters of Noah's flood. The climate denialists convince themselves that it's impossible to know what's going on with the climate system if that would mean acknowledging the full extent of anthropogenic warming. This anti-knowledge insulates them from the uncomfortable truths; hence the science must be unsettled and uncertain enough to allow for non-artificial factors, if they even admit that there's any climatary pattern to explain at all.

    Quote-mining, selective citations, misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, appeals to crackpot 'experts,' and nice-sounding but utterly baseless assertions all contribute to the wall of anti-knowledge by providing factual-seeming nuggets that can be used like facts to construct an argument or defend a viewpoint. They're fact substitutes.  Creationists and climate denialist gurus both have huge stockpiles of them from which the average mook could pick and choose to support whichever version of wrongheadedness they favored, which were then regurgitated into public discourse at every level (except the rarified atmospheres of the scientific literature, where the primary audience knows better). At least there is a silver lining to this proliferation of misinformation; resources like SkepticalScience come along and put the myths to rest in plain terms and with scientific references that leave the reader more educated and informed than they were going in. It's a good way to pluck the offending nugget out of someone's gullet before they spew it all over new venues. But that necessary service may not be enough to convince the public not to swallow those anti-knowledge nuggets in the first place.

    Creationistm's biggest recent campaign, the Intelligent Design movement, was dealt a lethal blow in Kitzmiller v. Dover not only by the plaintif's scientific superiority and plainspoken rebuttals but also by the defense's own testimony which showed how terribly anti-science and religiously motivated their actions were. It has not been able to recover its pre-Dover glamor in the popular mind since that stunning court case. I can only hope something similar happens to take all the wind out of climate denialists' sails, and soon (assuming the necessary event isn't some kind of natural disaster). The more deeply entrenched these anti-knowledge campaigns become in the populace, the more we'll all suffer going forward and the less we'll be able to leave behind for the generations that follow.

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  14. Like WheelsOC @13, I learnt what I know of biology by first watching, and then participating in the creation/evolution "debate".  From that experience, I have a healthy respect for the teaching power of agnotology, but a clear grasp of its limitations as well.  Knowledge gained by refutation of particular arguments will be shaped by the arguments actually made.  Thus somebody who learns biology through the creation evolution debate will learn a great deal about peppered moths and bombadier beetles, but very little most other insects.  They will gain an indepth knowledge of population genetics, but only a cursory knowledge of ecology.  And so on.

    The consequence is a group of people very adept at refuting creationists arguments that have been made, but potentially vulnerable to new arguments that exploit the limit of their knowledge.

    For that reason, while I can see a usefull role for agnotology as a supplemental part of a course on climate change, I would not want to see it as the lions share.  Rather, having taught the subject either systematically (also), or historically, I would finish with a section discussing denier arguments as a means of teaching students to review and apply the knowledge they had previously gained.

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  15. WheelsOC

    I just read Kitzmiller v. Dover. Awesome!

    It's not surprising that Climate Agnomaniacs don't go near a courtroom very often. While the Law is very different from Science, in both disciplines you learn a lot about logic and how to make (or fail to make) a case.

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  16. @12 Mal,


    I shall, of course, now claim to have thought that one up myself.

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