Shrinking the Sceptics

My last post here discussed the belief held by Met Office senior scientist, Vicky Pope, that climate change is a matter of ‘evidence, not belief’. It turned out that, in spite of evidence, one of the most vilified climate change sceptics and the public at large had a more sophisticated understanding of the debate about climate change than Pope herself.

Adam Corner, a psychologist at Cardiff University, with a particular interest in ‘the psychology of communicating climate change’ has responded to Pope’s evidence-vs-belief claim in the Guardian, to conclude,

Do you “believe” in climate change might not be the scientifically rational question to ask, but it is the most essential one to address if we are to understand – and ultimately get beyond – climate change scepticism.

Corner’s article is nearly good. There is, for instance, some consideration to the fact that ‘belief’ in climate change can be the result of social factors:

In a paper just published in the journal Climatic Change, my colleagues and I at Cardiff University asked what would happen when two groups of people – one group sceptical about climate change, the other group not – read the very same information about climate change in the form of newspaper editorials constructed especially for the experiment. We found that these two groups of people evaluated the same information in a very different way, attributing opposing judgments of persuasiveness and reliability to the editorials.

In social psychology, this phenomenon – “biased assimilation” – is well known, and no one is immune from it, so both sceptics and non-sceptics rated the editorials in line with their existing beliefs. The critical difference, of course, is that those who were not climate sceptics had the weight of empirical evidence on their side.

But whatever the weight of ’empirical evidence’, evidence, as pointed out in the previous post, does not speak for itself. Corner is as unable to answer — or even understand — James Delingpole’s questions about climate change as told by Andrew Montford (from the Bishop Hill blog):

In his Radio 5 interview, James Delingpole correctly framed the argument over AGW as being over (a) how large the effect is (b) how much warming there will be and (c) how much of a problem it is.

Many sceptics take the view that ‘climate change is happening’, but that i) the sensitivity of climate to CO2 has been overstated; ii) the sensitivity of society to climate change has been overstated; and iii) a great deal of nonsense is spoken about climate change.

In other words, the evidence for climate change may or may not be ‘overwhelming’, as some claim. What is definitely overwhelming is the sheer volume of completely misconceived ideas about climate change.

It is these nuances which escape the attention of people attached to climate change. There is a real tendency to reduce the debate into binary opposites: ‘climate change is happening’ versus ‘climate change is not happening’, excluding everything in the middle. Furthermore, there is the routine confusing of the science and politics of the climate change debate. Evidence that ‘climate change is happening’ may well be ‘overwhelming’, but advocates of ‘action’ to stop it are reluctant to reflect on the fact that this desire is a political, or ‘ideological’ ambition. There is a belief that you can simply read imperatives from ‘the evidence’, and to organise society accordingly, as if instructed by mother nature herself. And worse still, there is reluctance on behalf of many engaged in the debate to recognise that this very technocratic, naturalistic and bureaucratic way of looking at the world reflects very much a broader tendency in contemporary politics. To point any of these problems out is to ‘deny the science’. ‘Science’, then, is a gun to the head.

It is especially interesting that Corner recognises a social component to the formation of beliefs about the world, but then fails to reflect on his own:

What this experiment illustrates, though, is that “belief” in climate change is very much what matters. Without belief in climate change, scientific evidence simply bounces off. And it is social views and cultural beliefs that predict climate change denial, not people’s level of knowledge about climate science.

In fact, recent work by Dan Kahan and his colleagues has found that the more scientifically literate people are, the more their ideological filters kick in when reading information about climate change. It might seem counterintuitive, but the more confidence people have in their ability to grasp the science, the more able they are to slot it into their existing worldview.

So does that mean that climate change communicators should give up? Absolutely not – but we should not be looking to science to provide us with the answer to a problem that is social in nature. The challenge is to find a way of explaining why climate change matters using language and ideas that don’t alienate people. Simply repeating the scientific case for climate change is – unfortunately – not going to cut it.

One problem with this should be immediately apparent. You can have a completely insane view of climate change, but Corner’s approach to understanding it won’t detect it as a problem which needs to be addressed, because his preoccupation is with the idea that ‘climate change matters’. So it doesn’t matter what you think about climate change — that sea levels will rise 5 kilometres next year, or that the polar bears will migrate southwards and eat children — as long as you believe that ‘it matters’.

Let’s be clear then, the only reason why it matters that people do believe that ‘it matters’ is because Corner wants people to obey environmental imperatives — the ones he believes emerge directly from ‘the science’. And this leads him to make a special category for people with ideas about the world that differ from his own:

In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles – about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society – to be fought all over again.

If it is true that the climate debate is a proxy for all these ‘ancient battles’, it is true for the ‘warmists’ as it is for the ‘sceptics’. But what Corner seems to completely omit is the extent to which he himself is vulnerable to the ‘ideology’ of these battles.

Of course the climate debate takes on this political form. But this is no surprise. If one believes that humans are dependent on natural processes that exist in homoeostasis, then it would seem that one must be committed to the idea that the first job of politics is to ensure the survival of those processes. If, however, one believes that humans and nature are more robust and self-dependent, then one might take a more circumspect view of climate change. An application of this principle can be seen in the treatment of the climate issue by many so-called ‘development agencies’. The planet has experienced about 0.7 degrees C of climate change over the course of the century, and this, it is claimed, accounts for the worsening condition of many millions of people. The facts on the ground, however, are that the conditions for many more millions of people have improved. Similarly, as is discussed in the previous post, increasing temperatures have led to speculation that they will produce water shortages, which will in turn lead to conflict over control of those resources. Gone is the idea that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ — that the means to produce potable water can be found with just a little bit of organisation and effort. The possibility is completely removed from the discussion. Necessity becomes the mother of political authority: “we must act to prevent climate change in order to prevent war”. ‘Science’ is the gun to your head.

So corner is wrong to suggest that ‘one side’ has the monopoly on evidence. How we understand the problem of climate change — the extent to which ‘it matters’ — is something which is much more predicated on our ‘ideology’ than he admits. In most cases, I believe that ‘action to prevent climate change’ is ill-conceived and dangerous. Does ‘ideology’ play a role in that belief? of course. Does that mean that I believe that climate change is not happening and is not a problem? Not in the slightest. My belief is that the problems do not legitimise the solutions: powerful and unaccountable political institutions, with control over material production and material, and by extension, political, liberties. And I believe that the desire for such institutions precedes the evidence that they are necessary, and informs its interpretation. We all see the issue of climate change through such perspectives. No person is immune to it.

Corner continues:

It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about – competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.

Contested visions of the future should be matters for political debate, not psychologists. Where else have we seen psychologists searching for the pathologies which give rise to dissent?

When psychologists are recruited into political debates, we can be sure that we are being denied the opportunity to participate in the debate. It is a sure sign that our thoughts are seen as an impediment to somebody else’s political project. That’s not to say that there is something wrong with political projects in general, but that there is something very wrong indeed with attempting to persuade you through any other means than by treating you as a rational agent, capable of making decisions. Such treatment turns individuals into mere instruments. Psychologising dissent — rather than engaging in debate — belittles autonomy. It says that you don’t know what your best interests are, and that either way, what you think is not important. It is the most vile expression of contempt for humanity that is possible within a (nominative) democracy, and is an impulse that is most corrosive to it.

Science *is* Believing

Bishop Hill has an interesting comparison of two perspectives on the climate debate.

In his Radio 5 interview, James Delingpole correctly framed the argument over AGW as being over (a) how large the effect is (b) how much warming there will be and (c) how much of a problem it is.

Vicky Pope at the Met Office has taken a different approach in an article in the Guardian today.

Indeed she has. Whatever you want to say about Delingpole’s style and politics, his three questions about climate change are faultless. And as this blog has attempted to say (perhaps more verbosely), is that the third question – how much of a problem [climate change] is – is one which is not a question for science alone. How much of a problem we believe climate change is depends on how much we believe we are dependent on natural processes.

Here, for instance, is an instance of unmitigated bullshit being spoken about climate change, reproduced entirely uncritically in the Guardian:

Water wars could be a real prospect in coming years as states struggle with the effects of climate change, growing demand for water and declining resources, the secretary of state for energy and climate change warned on Thursday.

Ed Davey told a conference of high-ranking politicians and diplomats from around the world that although water had not been a direct cause of wars in the past, growing pressure on the resource if climate change is allowed to take hold, together with the pressure on food and other resources, could lead to new sources of conflict and the worsening of existing conflicts.

There is so much that anyone, left or right, could say about Ed Davey’s specious claim. There is no shortage of water in the world. End of. There may be local shortages of water. So the first question relates to whether climate change is a global problem, or are the consequences (i.e. problems) of climate change regional? Obviously, they are regional. If problems ever do materialise as a putative consequence of climate change, they will be different in any given place. Second, If the means exist to move water from A to B, then the problem is not one of ‘how to deal with climate change’, but merely ‘how do we organise getting water from A to B’. If the means don’t exist, then the problem is not climate change; the problem is ‘why does this economy not have enough capital to invest in vital infrastructure’. There is enough water in the world, and there is surely plenty of capital, and plenty of opportunity to make more. Climate change is not the problem in any sensible reading of Ed Davey’s speculation. The Minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change sees — or rather, imagines — problems in the world to each be problems of climate change. Of course he does. But water shortage is a problem for people with or without climate change, and it is a problem which has very little to do with the climate.

But back to the two ways of seeing the debate…

Vicky Pope at the Met Office is another person who sees the world only through the prism of climate change

Given the overwhelming evidence for man-made climate change, it could be argued that it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it time after time. In fact, it’s essential we move on and focus on the future, because climate change will pose challenges for humanity.

Pope’s words are printed in the Guardian, in an article called ‘Do you believe in climate change?’, which carries the tag-line, ‘That’s not a question you should be asking – it’s a matter of empirical evidence, not belief’.

It is testament to the utter mediocrity of today’s most influential scientists that they believe (yes, ‘believe’) that ’empirical evidence’ speaks for itself. It. Simply. Does. Not.

‘Evidence’, just like facts and numbers, needs interpretation. ‘Evidence’ means nothing without a hypothesis or theory that it pertains to. And indeed, you have to have some kind of theory to go out and hunt for evidence for it, to process the evidence, and to present it in favour of the argument. It does not knock on your door, gift-wrapped, or screaming ‘I AM EVIDENCE’. Global warming is simply not a theory that someone could have developed merely by looking out of their window, nor even noticing changes in a particular climate. It’s not like gravity: a phenomenon which any individual can experience, and which calls for an explaination. Global warming and climate change are beyond our senses as individuals.

All the evidence in the world that ‘man made climate change is happening’ does not make an argument that ‘climate change will pose challenges for humanity’. Granted — and it has never been ‘denied’ here on this blog — climate change may well lead to problems. But — and it is a massive ‘but’ — those problems are problems if and only if there are no means to overcome them. Climate change is not a problem in and of itself.

For instance, the water shortages described by Ed Davey could be easily answered by desalination plants and other water recovery and distribution infrastructure. The problem comes where such solutions cannot be found, due to lack of capital, which is a problem, whether or not the climate changes. The ‘challenge’ facing ‘humanity’ then, does not come from without — the climate — but is the same problem that has always ‘faced humanity’: how to get better at building things and economies.

The question about what kind of a problem we think climate change is, then, depends on two kinds of things. First, contrary to Pope’s claims, it depends much less on material science than it depends on circumstances that are better understood through the social sciences. I.e. it is not the magnitude of the climatic phenomena which is important, but a society’s readiness to deal with it. Second, the way one attempts to understand the problem depends very much on political outlook: for want of a better term, ‘ideology’. Davey and Pope have a tendency to emphasise the importance of the ‘environment’ in understanding ‘challenges’, or ‘problems’. And they also have a tendency to emphasise the need for institutions to deal with these problems.

Pope believes (yes, ‘believes’) that all you need to do is take a measurement of the atmosphere’s temperature, observe that has warmed, and… that’s it… case closed. And she says that ‘it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it’. But she has not answered Delingpole’s questions. She believes (yes, ‘believes’) that sceptics argue only that ‘climate change is not happening’. Delingpole, who is famous for being outspoken on the subject, and who is the object of many cartoonish depictions of ‘denial’, has a far more nuanced argument than the climate change expert, Pope, gives him credit for. Vicky Pope, then, simply does not understand the debate she is attempting to engage with.

It is interesting then, to see Pope emphasise that this is about ’empirical evidence, not belief’.

… The scientific evidence that humanity is having an effect on the climate is overwhelming and increasing every year. Yet public perception of this is confused. A Cardiff/Ipsos Mori study on public perceptions of climate change, published in 2010, identifies a number of possible contributory factors: the move from being a science issue to a political issue may have introduced more distrust; “cognitive dissonance” – where people modify their beliefs about uncomfortable truths – may be a factor; people may have become bored of constantly hearing about climate change; or external factors such as the financial crisis may have played a role. There is also increased activity among sceptical groups to obscure the scientific evidence in order to influence public opinion.

Let’s imagine that it really is true that ‘scientific evidence that humanity is having an effect on the climate is overwhelming and increasing every year’. Does the statement tell us anything? No. It could well be that the scientific evidence is increasingly convincing; but at the same time the same evidence could reflect an impact that is less than previously thought. Delingpole’s third question is ‘how much of a problem it is’. Pope cannot say that the better evidence points to a bigger problem.

And indeed, we know from things like ‘Himalagate’ and ‘Africagate’ that the problem of climate change has been over-emphasised. I recently tried to explain to someone of a green persuasion that the extent of ice loss in the Himalayas had been vastly over-stated. He accused me of cherry-picking, and said that the remaining evidence of climate change was ‘overwhelming’. Maybe so, but what my counterpart had forgotten is that many impact assessments and political arguments in favour of policies to mitigate climate change had supposed that the Himalayan Glaciers supply a billion people with fresh water, which they would soon be deprived of. Climate change was now one billion people less of a problem than it had been.

So the public’s perception of climate change was not quite as confused as Pope believed. In fact, it was fairly accurate, if Delingpole’s third question is an important one. She blames ‘cognitive dissonance’, the politicisation of climate science, boredom, the financial crisis, and sceptics distorting ‘the science’ for the change in public attitudes. But she doesn’t seem to take responsibility for politicising her own ‘science’. She suggests that the ‘media’ are responsible:

Around three years ago I raised the issue of the way that science can be misused. In some cases scare stories in the media were over-hyping climate change and I think we are paying the price for this now with a reaction the other way. I was concerned then that science is not always presented objectively by the media and interested parties (even sometimes scientists themselves) in important areas, like climate change. What I don’t think any of us appreciated at the time was the depth of disconnect between the scientific process and the public.

Pope doesn’t take responsibility for having herself been either involved in over-stating climate change or failing to confront naked alarmism. But it is surely her own ignorance of Delingpole’s third question that epitomises the disconnect between science and the public. In her rhetoric, ‘climate change is happening’ is treated as a simply binary matter of true or false. Nobody — apart from senior scientists and environmental activists, it seems — believes that the problem of climate change is so straightforward. Even when she’s trying to set the record straight, to distance herself from alarmism, to call for a sober reflection on the evidence, Pope simply reproduces the same problem as all that hysteria and climate alarmism: she fails to assert that there are degrees to the problem, fails to see nuance to the debate, and fails to provide the debate with perspective.

Delingpole’s outspoken style raises the passions on both sides of the debate, but he sheds more light on it than a senior scientist at the UK Meteorological Office.

No wonder then, that the public no longer find climate change science quite so convincing. The phenomenon of disengagement is not caused by sceptical commentators such as Delingpole ‘distorting’ the debate… unless, that is, pointing out that climate change and its consequences are matters of degree and interpretation is ‘distortion’. The phenomenon of disengagement is owed to the sheer mediocrity of the climate change establishment — for want of a better collective term for Pope and her colleagues. It’s not even worth calling her analysis intellectually dishonest: I don’t think it is dishonest; it is simply daft.

So who is she pointing her ‘cognitive dissonance’ finger at?

Pope moves on to struggle with the concept of ‘belief’:

Which brings me on to the question, should you believe in climate change? The first point to make is that it’s not something you should believe or not believe in – this is a matter of science and therefore of evidence – and there’s lots of it out there. On an issue this important, I think people should look at that evidence and make their own mind up. We are often very influenced by our own personal experience. After a couple of cold winters in the UK, the common question was “has climate change stopped?” despite that fact that many other regions of the world were experiencing record warm temperatures. And 2010 was one of the warmest years on record. For real evidence of climate change, we have to look at the bigger picture.

Pope wants us to look at the evidence — for us to make the evidence part of our ‘own personal experience’. Then we will be persuaded. But how is this different from ‘believing’?

It isn’t. A belief is simply an idea about the world. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is about something that exists or doesn’t exist; they are both beliefs. Moreover, I can no more experience ‘global warming’ than I can experience unicorns. Looking at the evidence for climate change does not make it any more real than looking at pictures of unicorns. I need to trust the evidence — be it temperature records or drawings of mythological creatures — and I need to trust the individuals who produced it before I can say that I believe it accurately supports the idea, theory, or hypothesis about the world. I completely trust Vicky Pope to tell me that the world has warmed about 0.7 degrees C over the last 100 years. I trust the data, the individuals who compiled it, and the processes that were used to analyse it. But I think she completely overstates the significance of the data.

The significance of the warming is predicated on another idea about the world — our vulnerability to change. This was the subject of a post here about ‘belief’ and climate change, two years ago (when this blog was co-authored, hence the uses of ‘we’ and ‘our’):

The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency. If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.

“Climate change is happening” means different things to different people. Ask what it means, and get as many different replies back as people you asked. It is not, by itself a statement with any scientific meaning, but one which clearly carries many political consequences. It allows people to express certain ideas about the world – anything between generalised grumble about things, to a design for the entire world’s organisation – in one neat little declaration. And interestingly, it seems to bring together the establishment and radical subversives (they like to think) in one, hollow, hollow slogan.

For all her years of scientific study, it seems that Pope has failed to examine her own preconceptions about our relationship with the climate. This leads her to somewhat arrogantly ignore what sceptics argue, claiming that it is simply a ‘distortion’ of the science. But surely this self-reflection is the first job of any scientist? Surely the point of science is to rule out such subjectivity? The job of science is to unpack all of those presuppositions, prejudices, preconceptions.

So Pope is wrong in two important respects. First, she is talking about beliefs. Second, the beliefs do not pertain to any empirical observation. And indeed, when we try to make sense of what she says, by unpacking it, and then seeing if the implications are supported by empirical observation, we find very good evidence that she is — and many others are — wrong about the likely impact of climate change. In other words, she overstates the sensitivity of both the natural world, and human society to changes in climate. This leads her to a terrible conclusion:

Given the overwhelming evidence for man-made climate change, it could be argued that it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it time after time. In fact, it’s essential we move on and focus on the future, because climate change will pose challenges for humanity.

Climate change does not create new ‘challenges for humanity’. Nothing produced by climate change science tells us that we face any challenge whatsoever. The idea that climate change presents humanity with challenges comes completely, totally, 100% from climate change ‘ideology’. It rests on ideas about how humans relate to the natural world. And it is in that messy, incoherent and weird space that ideas such as Ed Davey’s notion that ‘Water wars could be a real prospect in coming years as states struggle with the effects of climate change’ are formed. Such idle speculation begets yet more idle speculation, and policy-makers and scientists — who we imagine should be immune to it — become wrapped in their own fantasies. Pope finishes:

The more appropriate questions for today are how will our climate change and how can we prepare for those changes? That’s why it’s important that climate scientists continue their work, and continue sharing their evidence and research so people can stay up to date – and make up their own minds.

We can say now, stuff the science. Before any more ‘science’ is done, scientists like Pope need to reflect on the presuppositions they have already brought to the science. When Pope can answer Delingpole’s questions without claiming that he and other sceptics ‘distort’ science; when she and her colleagues stop blaming a stupid public and ‘cognitive dissonance’; when she and her colleagues develop a little bit more modesty and self-reflection about their political ambitions; only then will there be any point doing any more science. Until then, Pope might just as well be looking for unicorns, and be claiming that these mythical creatures represent ‘challenges for humanity’.

The Science is Not Available at the Moment, Please Leave a Message

A Guardian editorial speaks ‘In Praise of Plunge‘…

The arts have a patchy record on the subject of climate change. Greenland at the National Theatre was a play about environmental disaster that was little short of a disaster itself. The temptation is often strong to be preachy. Which is why Michael Pinsky’s Plunge is so interesting. Without any accompanying signage, fluorescent blue rings have appeared on three of London’s most prominent columns – in the City, in Covent Garden and just off the Mall. They could be mistaken for those ultraviolet fly zappers popular in kebab shops. But this clever installation marks sea level some thousand years hence. The science is not available to make accurate forecasts on this timeframe, so Pinsky’s premise that the sea will rise 28 metres is an imaginative one. But imagining a world where St Paul’s Cathedral, the Donmar Warehouse and the Athenaeum are all under water powerfully makes the climate change point.

‘Plunge’ is apparently some of that ‘art’ stuff, on the theme of global warming.

Apparently the blue ring ‘marks sea level some thousand years hence’. But as Geoff observes in the comments, the Grauniad has to admit that ‘The science is not available to make accurate forecasts on this timeframe, so Pinsky’s premise that the sea will rise 28 metres is an imaginative one.’

No it isn’t, ‘imaginative’! It’s simply obvious. And is it any more ‘artistic’ than a tidal gauge? It’s just a blue ring of light, stuck on a column. It’s the kind of idea you might have picking your nose, when not really watching a TV programme — or something else as banal as the ‘art’ itself. Art imitates life, after all.

This is more of that Guardian making stuff up again, isn’t it… ‘Fake, but accurate’ on their view. But simply absurd to everybody else.

Speaking of trends… January was another poor showing for the journal of doom

The Guardian
Headline circulation: 229,753
Month-on-month change: -0.15%
Year-on-year change: -17.74%

The Guardian lost 17.74% of its circulation over the year to January – nearly one in five readers of its print edition (who are spared most of its ecobabble). That’s the trend they should worry about.

I hope the Plunge continues.