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What do gorilla suits and blowfish fallacies have to do with climate change?

Posted on 10 February 2017 by John Cook

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A famous psychology experiment instructed participants to watch a short video, counting the number of times players in white shirts passed the ball. If you haven’t seen it before, I encourage you to give the following short video your full attention and follow the instructions:


At the end, participants discovered the point of the video when asked if they had observed the gorilla walking through the players. Half the participants didn’t notice the gorilla at all. The lesson? When we laser-focus on specific details (like players in white shirts), we can miss the gorilla in the room.

What does this have to do with climate change? I’m a cognitive psychologist interested in better understanding and countering the techniques used to distort the science of climate change. I’ve found that understanding why some people reject climate science offers insight into how they deny science. By better understanding the techniques employed, you can counter misinformation more effectively.

Every movement that has rejected a scientific consensus, whether it be on evolution, climate change or the link between smoking and cancer, exhibits the same five characteristics of science denial (concisely summarized by the acronym FLICC). These are fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking and conspiracy theories. When someone wants to cast doubt on a scientific finding, FLICC is an integral part of the misinformation toolbox.

The five characteristics of science denial. Skeptical Science, CC BY-ND

Logical fallacies are a broad umbrella, including a number of other misleading techniques. For example, red herring is a term that likely originated from the technique of using strong-smelling fish to throw dogs off a scent. Similarly, irrelevant information or arguments can be used to distract people from important information.

The blowfish fallacy. Skeptical Science, CC BY-ND

There is a special class of red herring – a specific technique of denial often employed to distract people from important scientific findings. To maintain the fish metaphor, I characterize this as the blowfish fallacy.

This is the technique of laser-focusing on an inconsequential methodological aspect of scientific research, blowing it out of proportion in order to distract from the bigger picture. If you persuade people to focus hard enough on specific details, they can miss the gorilla in the room.

The 97% scientific consensus on climate change

One example of the blowfish strategy is the attempt to distract from the scientific consensus on climate change. Study after study, using a wide range of independent methods, has found overwhelming agreement among climate scientists that human beings are causing global warming.

I was the coauthor of one of these studies. We read through 21 years of climate papers, identifying which papers endorsed or rejected human-caused global warming. Among the papers stating a position, 97 percent agreed that humans are causing global warming. Our research has been relentlessly attacked by conservative think tanks, politicians and newspapers. Typically, criticisms of our study focus on tiny methodological details or false assumptions that have little to no bearing on our final result.

Most criticisms fail to acknowledge that our study has been replicated by multiple independent studies. Every criticism of our study has avoided the fact that, even within our own study, we independently replicated the 97 percent consensus result. In addition to categorizing papers ourselves, we also invited the scientists who wrote the climate papers to categorize whether their paper stated a position on human-caused global warming. Among papers self-rated as stating a position, 97 percent endorsed the consensus.

Replicating the global temperature record

A number of different scientific teams have constructed global temperature records. They are all remarkably consistent with each other, confirming that we are in a period of long-term warming and experiencing record warm temperatures in the last few years. The fact that these basic findings have been replicated by so many different groups of scientists from around the world shows that our understanding of the increase in global temperature is solid.

One way to distract from the strong understanding of how our climate is changing is to resort to the so-called blowfish fallacy. Recently, U.K. journalist David Rose claimed that methodological flaws by NOAA scientists cast doubt on the global temperature record. Rose neglected to acknowledge that the data he was attacking had been independently replicated by a number of other scientific teams.

Rose’s misinformation was promptly and comprehensively debunked. Within days, the so-called “whistle blower” who was the source of the article distanced himself from Rose’s characterizations. Contrary to Rose’s breathless conclusions, data scientist John Bates said there was “…no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious.”

Rose’s out-of-proportion response was best summed up by science writer Scott Johnson:

“…it’s not much more substantial than claiming the Apollo 11 astronauts failed to file some paperwork and pretending this casts doubt on the veracity of the Moon landing.”

The climate change gorilla

The case for climate change is a loud, unmissable gorilla. Our acceptance that global warming is happening is based on tens of thousands of lines of evidence: not just thermometer readings but melting ice sheets, migrating species, retreating glaciers and rising sea levels, to name just a few.

Similarly, our scientific understanding that human beings are causing modern global warming is based on many independent human fingerprints, observed by satellites, surface measurements of infrared heat and, in fact, the shifting structure of our atmosphere.

To avoid seeing the climate gorilla requires conspiracy theories and distracting techniques such as the blowfish fallacy. Often these arguments are accompanied with the false narrative that our scientific understanding of climate change is like a house of cards – remove one card and the whole edifice topples down.

Science is more like a jigsaw puzzle, with each line of evidence building a more complete picture. Removing one piece doesn’t change the overall picture. In the case of humanity’s role in causing climate change, we have many pieces and the picture is clear.

John Cook, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. "Every movement that has rejected a scientific consensus, exhibits the same five characteristics of science denial (concisely summarized by the acronym FLICC). These are fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking and conspiracy theories."

    Well said. Just add on fake news or maybe alternative truths, the latest development in anti science rhetoric.

    People appear to get very wound up and angry and dismissive of some new theories, due to vested interests, fear, and / or political leanings, and they will be happy to accept any logical fallacy. It's very hard undoing this, but people do eventually realise the denialist arguments are nonsense, and illogical tricks, but it takes time.

    There is however plenty people can do to point out these fallacies and tactics to people they know. I have done this when I can.

    However I notice that are so called media make almost no attempt to point out these logical fallacies and tactics. You might be tempted to suspect the media would rather keep the so called "debate" going, to create a controversy to get readers.

    A picture paints a thousand words. I would have thought that one look at the latest temperature graphs would get the message across that climate change is a problem. For some reason some people just don't get it, but I guess this is a perfect example of missing the gorilla in the room by being distracted by all the "noise". 

    I notice our media have put the latest temperature data on the backpages, in tiny little articles. I don't know about America.

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  2. Best bet if you want to convince the public at this point is to make very detailed evidence and explanations for how it works available online.  Not the little cartoons on youtube but info on how the heating works, show some calculations at different wavelengths of light, why you know that wavelength is heating and this one isn't heating, etc, etc.

    This one isn't bad - could be one in a long series:

    Many think it's a conspiracy to get tax money, get control over FFs, get control over people,  etc.  Al being a politician, pushing it, did not make it more believeable.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] If you are looking for equations, go to The Science of Doom website. 

    Sloganeering snipped.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can and will be rescinded if the posting individual continues to treat adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

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  3. Coal Miner @2,

    "Best bet if you want to convince the public at this point  is to make very detailed evidence and explanations for how it works (CO2 absorption of heat) available online."

    For those that are interested or have sufficient maths such details on the greenhouse effect are obviously easily googled. 

    And a detailed explanation of the greenhouse effect or physics of CO2  is not the best way to convince the public. Virtually nobody is going to do this  sort of reading, as they don't have the time, and also won't understand what they are reading. They don't have a physics degree, or a few spare years to get one.

    I have already explained this to you, so in my view you are just deliberately spreading a "red herring" argument, ( as discussed above).

    Popular books on climate change teach the simple basics of the greenhouse effect and are already available and are quick to read. It's hard enough getting people to read even those.

    Some people do think climate change is all a conspiracy. The same people probably think 911 was a conspiracy. They will also think laboratory experiments and equations on CO2 are a conspiracy or fake data.

    One way way to prove it's not a conspiracy or agenda, is for people to read more about logical fallacies as discussed in the article, and why conspiracy theories are dumb. There are plenty of easy to read books on this, that are very entertaining as well.

    Another way is for a few more politicians to start showing some courage and leadership, by speaking out about the climate problem. But right now they get campaign donations from the fossil fuel lobby, so we have a classic "catch 22" situation. 

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  4. CM... That TED video is very good. It's probably more complex than most people can grasp, though.

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  5. When I described the blowfish fallacy to my wife, she immediately saw the parallel with Hillary's e-mails.  In hindsight it's obvious.

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  6. Digby Scorgie @5, yes the emails were a giant blowfish, permeating the campaign and media and distracting from everything really important. The woman was a bit slack with her computer systems, but it was never the big issue it was claimed to be. Obamas birth certificate was also a blowfish. 

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  7. 5, 6 -

    They both did it to themselves.  That's politics I guess - if you provide ammo, your enemies will use it on you.  Doubt we'll ever know the truth about either issue.  It's hard to tell who is telling the truth today.

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  8. Coal Miner @7, Hilary Clinton did invite the email problem on herself. I think she was rather brave and took a risk standing for president with that problem around her neck. I do wonder if it was wise.

    However that doesn't alter the fact it was blown out of proportion.

    I havent't seem any evidence of any real problem with obamas birth certificate. I don't care where he was born, provided his adult life was in America. Your laws seem a bit overly restrictive. Europe isn't nearly as restrictive.

    It's easy to tell who is blatantly lying. Trump lies almost when ever he opens his mouth. It's been proven so many times now beyond any doubt. Hilary Clinton wasn't too great either.

    Other American presidents seemed to have a great deal more integrity, or at least were a bit more careful what they said!

    But fake news and alternative truth isn't good, whatever the complex causes of this growing phenomenon. It will cause confusion and bad policy decisions. Garbage in, garbage out.

    it's far better to trust mainstream science. It's not always perfect, but it's a thousand times preferable to gut instincts, emotive beliefs, or pseudo science.

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  9. nigelj @8, Politifact Donald Trump/Hilary Cinton/Bernie Sanders Scorecards:

    True: 4%/25%/13%

    Mostly True: 12%/26%/38%

    Half True: 14%/24%/22%

    Mostly False: 19%/14%/17%

    False: 33%/10%/11%

    Pants on Fire: 17%/2%/0%

    Bernie Sanders had a reputation for honesty, but Hilary Clinton was in fact more honest on average than he.  She did, however, make a very few real whoppers.  The fact is that Hillary was not particularly dishonest for a politician.  Her reputation in that regard was scrupulously built up by Republican propoganda.  

    Trump, of course, is in a league of his own.  So much so that I, at least, was surprised to find that 4% of this statements are true.

    Here are John Kasich's (similar to Hillary's) and Ted Cruz's records as well, to complete the list of those who made it late into the primaries. 

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  10. I note Wikipedia has banned the use of Daily Mail references as 'unreliable'. No doubt David Rose's contributions in the Mail influenced this decision!

    This is particularily amusing as the UK Prime Minister has just appointed the Mail's Political Editor as her spokesperson! You couldn't make it up.....

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link activated.

  11. Tom Curtis @9, I posted a detailed response, but it either disappeared into cyberspace, or was possibly deleted as getting too off topic.

    I do need to clarify I had already read that study, and accept that study entirely, and wasn't suggesting some false equivalence between Trump and Clinton.

    Getting back to the article, it's a good list of the standard tricks. I do feel alternative truths is the new climate scepticism, and the latest rhetorical trick.

    I think we go through cycles regarding how we trust the "authorities" or the "elite". In the 1950's authoritarianism was dominant, and trust appeared quite high, then the counter culture questioned the conventional wisdom in the 1960's, as is well documented. I think we switched back to trust in the elites in the 1980's, and now may be going through a period of distrust. Brexit and Trump are clear evidence of falling trust in the conventional wisdom and elites (in my opinion mostly unjustified, but not entirely unjustified).

    There thus appears to be a cyclical nature to this trust thing. It's easy to see it going much further back through history as well.

    This distrust can also have positive and negative virtues, depending on whether it examines things rationally or not. Its like healthy scepticism, versus scepticism that is irrational, and uncritical of itself. The outcome at this point is distrust of elites, and dissemination of alternative truths. I think this cycle will end, and the sooner the better.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The most recent set of Coal Miner's posts were deleted because they were off-topic, policitical, sloganeering.  The responses by you and Tom Curtis were also deleted because they were also off-topic. Let's keep the discussion focused on what is presented in the OP. 

  12. The following would be a characteristic of climate science denial, but does not seem to be in your generally excellent list. Unless it's a missrepresenation of a sort. Claims that "CO2 is great because we want a warmer world, or it makes plants grow".

    It's turning the argument right around. I have seen similar claims were made for Tobacco early on. It is Orwellian.

    Perhaps we could call it the Chameleon (those lizards that change colour)?

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