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The science for climate change only feeds the denial: how do you beat that?

Posted on 27 January 2016 by John Cook

The ConversationAs the scientific consensus for climate change has strengthened over the past decade, the arguments against the science of climate change have been on the increase.

That’s the surprise finding of a study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change last month, which analysed and identified the key themes in more than 16,000 publications about climate change by conservative organisations.

Conservative think-tanks are organisations that oppose policies, such as regulation of pollution by the fossil fuel industry (some have also opposed regulation of the tobacco industry in the past and, in fact, some continue to do so today).

One study found that from 1972 to 2005, over 92% of climate contrarian books originated from conservative think-tanks. They are often ground zero for misinformation casting doubt on climate science, with their messages spread by contrarian blogs, conservative media and politicians opposing climate policy.

Examining the articles

Computer science offers tools in analysing the publications of conservative think-tanks over time. UK scientists Constantine Boussalis and Travis Coan compiled the largest database to date of conservative articles, a collection of over 16,000 webpages, reports, media releases, interviews and speeches from 1998 to 2013.

In order to analyse so many documents, Boussalis and Coan employed machine learning algorithms that automatically detected clusters of words. They identified 47 key topics, ranging from arguments against climate science to policy-related topics, such as emissions reductions and international agreements.

To see how the think-tanks' focus evolved over time, the authors divided the topics into two categories: arguments against the science of climate change, and arguments against climate policies.

Common wisdom is that as evidence for human-caused global warming accumulates, and the scientific consensus strengthens (as seen in my own research as well as in research citations), the public debate should shift from questioning the science to exploring possible policy options.

Instead, this is what they observed:

Relative topic proportion from conservative think-tanks over time. Boussalis & Coan

In 2009, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the emphasis was indeed shifting from science to policy. But the authors were surprised to find that the relative prevalence of science denial has been on the increase since around 2009.

Conservative think-tanks aren’t shifting from questioning the science to a more appropriate policy debate. On the contrary, they continue to cast doubt on climate science with a determined persistence.

How is climate science denial able to persist in the face of accumulating evidence and strengthening consensus? I explored this question in a psychological study published (full paper available here) in Topics in Cognitive Science earlier this month.

I presented information about the 97% scientific consensus on human-caused global warming to a representative sample of Americans. Overall, acceptance of climate change increased in response. But for a small proportion of participants, acceptance of climate change actually went down.

This group were those with the strongest support for free, unregulated markets. In other words, strong political conservatives. The study also found that conservatives were more likely to have a lower-than-average trust in climate scientists.

The conspiracy theorists

When this small group of strong free-market supporters were told about the 97% consensus, their trust in scientists fell even lower. My research indicated that this response was driven by an expectation that climate scientists would falsify evidence to support human-caused global warming – a thought pattern characteristic of conspiratorial thinking.

This result is consistent with other research linking climate science denial with conspiratorial thinking. This has been found in surveys as well as research that observed that the number one contrarian response to climate change is conspiracy theories.

Most common responses to climate change by climate contrarians. Smith & Leiserowitz, 2012

Conspiratorial thinking is problematic because it is immune to new evidence. Any evidence against the conspiracy is viewed as part of the conspiracy. As a consequence, climate science denial, and the generation of misinformation that comes with it, is not disappearing any time soon.

This matters because several new studies have confirmed what many of us already suspected – misinformation is effective. Just a handful of cherry-picked statistics can reduce people’s acceptance of climate change.

Of more concern to science communicators is the recent finding that misinformation can cancel out the positive effect of accurate information.

How to get the right message out

There’s a great deal of research into how to communicate science more effectively and science communication should be evidence-based. But scientists and science communicators cannot afford to ignore the potential of misinformation to undermine good science communication.

One way to reduce the influence of misinformation is inoculation: we can stop the spread of science denial by exposing people to a weak form of science denial.

Denial101x video lecture on inoculation theory

The findings of psychology underscore the importance of this new study into the production of misinformation by conservative think-tanks. To paraphrase the authors, the era of science denial is not over. Climate science communicators would be prudent not to start waving a “mission accomplished” banner just yet.

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

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. An aspect of this issue that would be more difficult to investigate is the actual level of awareness and understanding of the issue by the deniers. A denier can be expected to declare they do not understand the issue. They can even come up with a multitude of cherry-picked bits of 'confusion regarding the issue' from their perspective.

    I am personally convinced that the leaders of the denial industry actually have a very thorough understanding of the topic. And they abuse that understanding to create claims with just enough selective facts presented to appeal to others who are inclined to not want to accept climate science.

    And powerful motivations for people to resist accepting the developing better understanding of climate science are:

    • They understand that the required action is a reduction of 'standard of living' for many of the people at the top of the current 'standard of living pyramid'. The required changes include reduced energy use and more expensive energy. A few among the most fortunate have chosen to significantly reduce the impacts of their lives, but many people at the top have not.
    • The most powerful deniers are wealthy people who fully understand that admitting to the climate scinece is also admitting that the Free-Market has been proven to fail to advance humanity (failed to rapidly develop truly sustainable improvements for all of humanity) in response to the developing better understanding of what is going on.

    Their fighting against climate science may actually become the global motivation to significantly overhaul the global socio-economic game to end the competitive advantage that can currently be gotten by a person who is willing to try to get away with behaving less acceptably (including selectively drumming up unsustainable popular support for their understood to be unacceptable pursuits ... because popular support is only needed at election time in enough electoral regions to get out the 'desired voters' to win the election of just enough of their desired leaders.

    My hope is that these people are so focused on maximizing their personal benefit in the short-term any way they can get away with that they believe they can delay the inevitable end of the game they love getting away with unacceptable behaviour in just long enough for their personal interests.

    That would mean that eventually there will be a rapid end of their ability to succeed. Unfortunately, history is full of cases where massive damage was done before humanity mobilized to protect itself from the understood to be unsustainable damaging activity being gotten away with.

    There is definitely a lot a stake. That means that the fighting is very unlikely to end just because of more understandable information being developed and presented.

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  2. Thanks John for this excellent article, and for SkepticalScience. I've long lost count of how many times I've posted your myth page links into emails and discussion threads.

    With experience in environmental communications, I have a strong interest in the issues around communication and science denial. I'm
    also editor of the new RealKM Magazine, which assists the adoption of evidence-based approaches in the field of knowledge management
    through articles discussing recent knowledge management research and also research in related disciplines such as communications,
    marketing, psychology, biology, sociology, and management.

    Further to the findings in your article, from looking at a number of papers, the complexity of climate science and policy is a significant factor in climate science denial. I explore this complexity and potential ways forward in the article The Paris Agreement: knowledge management and climate science denial.

    The possible solutions I proposed are based on the considerable success I've had in unpacking such complexity in other areas of environmental management, as I discuss in the article Case Study: How to overcome resistance and denial when engaging stakeholders. I'd like to further explore how the approaches I discuss in that article could be applied to climate science communication. (As an aside, the communication approach I describe in that article was learnt as part of psychology studies at UQ).

    Another factor is the extent to which climate science and policy have become intertwined, as Andrew Campbell discusses in this article.

    I'm very interested in your thoughts on the perspectives raised in the articles I have linked.

    Many thanks,

    Bruce Boyes.

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  3. The graphic of proportions Science vs Policy is mind-boggling. It is exactly the opposite of what one expect i.e. that contrarians would be so beaten over the head by the scientific facts they would concede that line of defence and retreat to defend specific policies.

    But it also makes sense, too. It is hard to defend policies when the science is against you. So they have to buttress their "front-line". Once it is breached, they have lost the game.

    Also, it is surprisingly easy for people whose mentality is anti- or un- scientific to reject science as a procedure for deciding the truth, and view it as some ideological struggle where victory goes, not to the weight of evidence, but to the side with the superior rhetorical and propaganda resources.

    But the decline of denial policy arguments is striking, too. Joe Romm pointed out that renewable energy came well out the last US budget, even with a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress..

    The Surprising Winner Of Congress’ Budget Deal


    And there does seem to be a swing towards environmentally friendly policies in most country, marked by the Paris Agreement. It is politically harder to advance anti-environmentalism as a policy, and what is possible is obscured in many western countries between what is good for the country, and what is good for political donors.

    Maybe the chart means that while denial is more shrill and strident against climate science, it is all the time being hollowed-out and impotent at preventing climate-friendly policies? It is a win, sort of.

    That would be an optimistic view, and I would not want to be over-optimistic. I always saw this as a war of attrition, anyway, with no single glorious win, but a sequence of small victories, interspersed with setbacks.

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  4. It strikes me that these core deniers are a species of fanatic. And as I have read elsewhere, one does not attempt to reason with fanatics — it is an exercise in futility.

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  5. Upton Sinclair - "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

    Folks like Morano and Michaels, paid lobbyists, and the think tanks funded to support their like, have no incentive to do anything but deny, no matter the evidence.

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  6. To change a mindset you need to understand it before you try. If those with the ardent denier mindset have considerable political power then the problem is acerbated.

    The ardent climate change denier mindset that is being encountered today is similar in nature to the mindset of the ardent believers in the righteousness of slavery before its abolition. Slavery was accepted, even justified, by many people who thought of themselves as highly moral. Coincidently, their beliefs were also to their advantage. It took many many years to overcome the prejudice that underpinned the institution of slavery. In Britain slavery was finally outlawed though Parliament. In the US, it took a Civil War. In France and in much of Europe, it took the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars to do so. Even so, in Belgium, King Leopold was still exploiting slavery in 1900. Today,  around the world, remnants of slavery still exists, but at least it is illegal. So it took a long long time to overcome the prevailing mindset towards slavery which was the centre of the economy. It also took the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution.

    The other aspect to overcoming ardent climate change denial is how do you make a scientific argument that is effective and will change minds. It is much the same as was encountered before Evolution became accepted scientific theory. As the evidence accumlated, due to Darwin's diligence in making the argument and the leading of the debate by his scientific supporters, Evolution became accepted very quickly within the scientific community. The fundamental tenets of climate science have also been accepted by the majority of scientists. However, Evolution is still challenged by many outside the scientific community due to their fundamental non-scientific beliefs. Today, climate science is being challenged by people whose fundamental non-scientific beliefs and economic advantage will be compromised by it.

    The only thing that can be done is marginalise ardent climate change deniers and minimise their impact. It is more important to change the minds of the genuinely sceptical, not to expect an epiphany in ardent deniers.

    Unfortunately, unless the world's wealthiest 62 individuals change their minds becaused they control more of the world's wealth than the poorest 50%, it is unlikely that anything effective combating climate change will happen in the time needed. It certainly won't happen because of what the world's poorest 50% think. Perhaps, concentrating on the economic case and arguing how the wealthiest 62 may lose their money if they don't act on climate change might be a more effective approach.

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  7. I was a bit slow to realize that I've seen this before.  Last year I read an article in a local magazine describing an interesting psychological phenomenon.  A test group of people with strong religious convictions were confronted with "apparent" evidence that conflicted with their beliefs.  The result was that they clung ever more tightly to these beliefs.  This is exactly the same phenomenon we see with the above-mentioned climate-change deniers.

    I've thought about this a lot and I've come to the conclusion that there are three types of denier: (1) psychopath, (2) fanatic and (3) sucker.

    The psychopath knows global warming is a threat but wants to maintain his wealth and power for as long as possible — and to hell with future generations.

    The fanatic has a worldview that has no place for global warming — he believes that action against climate change would threaten his way of life and threaten his worldview.

    The sucker is the fool with no understanding of science, who has fallen victim to the massive anti-climate-science campaign waged by the psychopaths.

    Since we can do nothing about (1) and (2), we should bend all efforts to enlightening (3).

    One method I tried with an acquaintance who mentioned a particular climate myth was to tell him that he'd been caught for a sucker by a bunch of snake-oil salesmen — with equal emphasis on the "snake" and the "oil" — and I described the anti-climate-science campaign.  He has been silent on the subject ever since.  I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad sign.

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  8. There is fanaticism for the cause on both sides of the aisle.  I have seen that Upton Sinclair quote, used by KR above, to describe Hansen, Mann, and others over on Climate Etc.   If you read the comment threads on Climate Etc  you will find them eerily similar to the ones on this site, only it is the warmunistas they would like to "marginalize". Gridlock remains.

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  9. jipspagoda:

    The blog wars over climate science have minimal impact on the real world especially outside of Western democracies.

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  10. jipspagoda

    The gridlock might remain, but we are comparing people who view the real world through the lens of science with people who believe in fairy tales.  The latter are welcome to call the former fanatics, but the real world is the ultimate arbiter.

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  11. Given that the authors employed "machine learning algorithms that automatically detected clusters of words", it's not immediately obvious how they determined the subects articles to be in the denial of climate science. Words themselves such as "climate" "temperatures", "CO2" do not imply the denial. We should be looking for frases such as "hide the decline" or "it's the sun" (insert the title of any climate myth here) to find the hints of science denial.

    I wonder if such frases were indeed found by the authors. If the "clusters od words" they were looking for were just unrelated, then they possibly jumped to premature conclusions. I want to see the evidence their conclusions were justified (e.g. sample analysis showing strong correlation between the use of certain words and science denial).

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  12. Chriskoz,

    Did you read the referenced paper to see what they found?

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  13. Hi,
    Since I followed your course “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial” I am a fan of

    On Feb 15th another edx course is starting that may be relevant to this subject: “Framing: Creating powerful political messages”.

    From the introduction: “No doubt that your persuasiveness relies on your arguments. But your ability to influence and convince critically depends on the way you frame your message.”

    May be worth checking out ? Enrollment is free.

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  14. I am a physical scientist with decades of experience in weighing up evidence and arguents. I believe that irreversible, rapid climate change and ocean acidification and warming is under way, primarily because industrial technical systems have emitted greenhouse gases. It is interesting to read here about assessments of what denialists are doing.

     However, the arguments being put forward in a number of forums about measures that should be adapted to reduce the rate of emissions convey a misleading impression. The most a practical global reduction of the rate of emissions can do is slow down what is happening. A rational approach would focus on policies and practical measures to adapt to the unintended consequences, such as sea level rise. The Netherlands, New York and London are examples of where responsible adaption measures are under way. On the other hand, there are many examples of where societies are adopting such measures as solar panels and wind farms that may be financially sound but can not contribute significantly to the holistic predicament.  

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