A vivid demonstration of knee-jerk science rejection

This week, I decided to test the hypothesis that the rejection of climate science is an instinctive, knee-jerk reaction. It was inspired in part by recent events. Just before Arctic sea ice fell to record low levels, Steven Mosher predicted five ways that people would avoid the inevitable implications of the precipitous drop in Arctic sea ice. Anthony Watts promptly fulfilled all five predictions. In another ironic twist, the reaction to recent research linking climate denial to conspiracy ideation has been a gush of conspiracy theories.

So I wrote an article for The Conversation listing the various methods employed to reject climate science where I discussed the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias and how it leads to these specific methods. In the conclusion, I predicted that the tell-tale signs of confirmation bias would appear in the comment threads:

Look for cherry picking, conspiracy theories, comments magnifying the significance of dissenters (or non-experts) and logical fallacies such as non sequiturs.

Now you might think, with prior warning, that those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change would seek to make a liar out of me and thwart my predictions. However, my expectation was they wouldn't be able to help themselves. Ideologically driven science rejection is a knee-jerk, instinctive reaction. How did my prediction pan out? Let's go through the list:

Cherry Picking

I first explained how we identify cherry picking, providing the example of global cooling (with a link to Dana's celebrated Escalator):

The most common manifestation of confirmation bias is cherry picking, where one carefully selects a small piece of data that paints a friendly picture and overlooks any inconvenient evidence. How do we spot cherry picking? It’s important to remember that there is no “their evidence” versus “our evidence”. There is only the full body of evidence. If someone arrives at a conclusion from carefully selected evidence that contradicts the conclusion drawn from the full body of evidence, that’s cherry picking.

Cherry pickers ignore the fact that our planet is currently building up heat at the stunning rate of around 3 Hiroshima bombs per second. Instead, they focus on short periods of the surface temperature record. This record bounces up and down from year to year as the ocean exchanges heat with the atmosphere, meaning that it’s possible to find any short period during a long-term warming trend where temperatures fall briefly. Meanwhile the planet continues to build up heat – around 250 Hiroshima bombs worth since you started reading this article.

Almost immediately, examples of cherry picking began to appear. Amazingly, the same cherry picking example I highlighted in my article appeared frequently (familiarity backfire effect?):

"The atmosphere seems not to have warmed for 15 years... The ocean temperature seems also to have stabilised "

"Its is interesting given that planet has been cooling since 2001, yet a rise in CO2."

"...global temps have not not risen significantly for some years now."

Conspiracy theories

When you disagree with a consensus of scientists based upon a preponderance of evidence, the inevitable destination is conspiracy theory. I discussed different types of conspiracy theories, from one-world goverment plans to scientists who are in it for the money:

So how can ignoring the 97% be justified? Two words: conspiracy theory. There are a range of conspiracy theories out there, from sinister attempts to control the planet with a one world government to claims that virtually every climate scientist on the planet is falsifying their data for financial reasons, a form of global groupthink.

True to form, these exact conspiracy theories were proposed, as well as a number of others:

"On the alleged nuttiness of 'conspiracy theorists', you are on even shakier ground, as Australia's eminence grise of Climate Action Now! advocacy IS a one-world government plotter. His name is Bob Brown."

"Alarmism is great, if you are on the payroll, eh?"

"...peer review is somewhat overrated. All you need is a editor who is an AGW symphatiser and you can get almost anything published."

" There are prominent scientists who are outraged at those scientists manipulating the data and creating the hockey stick."

Magnifying dissenters and non-experts

Another sign of confirmation bias is magnifying the importance of fake experts or the small minority of dissenters whom you agree with:

Confirmation bias also influences which sources of information we put our trust in. People tend to attribute greater expertise to people who share their values and beliefs. We’re drawn to those who tell us what we want to hear. So what happens when 97 out of 100 of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming? Those who reject the scientific consensus lavish their attention on the 3% minority, magnifying their significance and turning a blind eye to the 97% of scientific experts.

Consequently we saw appeals to those handful of dissenting climate scientists and  scientists with no actual published climate research:

"Moreover, the following IPCC recognised panel scientists, all oppose the mainstream accuracy of the IPCC climate projections, namely Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus of the School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study; Fellow of the Royal Society, Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Nils-Axel Mörner, retired head of the Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics department at Stockholm University, former Chairman of the INQUA Commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution (1999–2003), and author of books supporting the validity of dowsing, Garth Paltridge, retired Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research and retired Director of the Institute of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre, Visiting Fellow ANU, Philip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, Hendrik Tennekes, retired Director of Research, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, among others."

"I think the views of Ian Plimer, John Christie and Richard Linzden should be validated by those who believe in true scientific study."

"Freeman Dyson arguably the world's greatest living scientist"

Logical Fallacies

I discussed logical fallacies, concentrating on the non sequitur fallacy, where the conclusion is not supported by the premise. I used two examples of this fallacy: past climate change and Arctic sea ice:

A common logical fallacy employed by climate contrarians is the “non sequitur”, Latin for “it does not follow”. This applies to arguments where the stated conclusion is not supported by its premise.

The most cited example is “climate has changed naturally in the past therefore current warming must be natural”.

A recent variant argues, in response to this year’s record low in Arctic sea ice, that ice has been low in the past. This is logically equivalent to investigating a corpse with a gunshot wound and ruling out murder because people have died from natural causes before.

What followed were non sequiturs on these very two topics:

"Decreasing Arctic pack ice might indeed be a symptom of AGW, but if this event has regularly occurred in the last 2000 years then until we are certain that we understand what was driving the previous cyclical disappearance of pack ice, how can we rule out that the same factors are not driving it now?"

"In fact the planet has been warming since the mini ice age, and there were no SUVs back then!"

Why bother doing this? Not for fun (that was just a bonus). To effectively reduce the influence of misinformation, you need to provide an alternate explanation. Explaining why and how people reject the science can be an important part of this alternative narrative. To achieve this, we need to understand both the techniques of denial and the psychology of confirmation bias that drives the denial.

Posted by John Cook on Saturday, 8 September, 2012

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