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.
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.