One of the least-explored but most revealing things about the climate change debate (such as it is) is the intersection of climate science and psychology. I have yet to see anything from psychologists that sheds any light on the debate more than it merely exacerbates its problems. And I have yet to encounter a psychologist who seems able to take criticism, and who is not, let us say ‘attached’ to a particular outcome of that debate. In the Guardian yesterday, Oliver Burkeman writes,
At yesterday’s summit in Bavaria, the G7 leading industrial nations agreed to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. It’s easy to be cynical about these things, but these official goals really matter. And one big reason is this: in the absence of intergovernmental action, we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.
My problem with the G7’s new goal is the same as it is with any supranational organisation’s pronouncement: where is your mandate? Briefly, it seems to me that climate change allows the construction of political institutions and the accretion of power above democratic oversight. To some, that looks like a conspiracy theory. But there’s nothing secret about it: it is all done in plain sight. There is no secret about the intention to build supranational organisations to tackle seemingly “global problems” that would be intractable under normal politics, by which I mean sovereign national democratic governments. And it is no secret that these organisations make more of the issue of climate change than either the man-in-the-street or the governments themselves make. A simple thought experiment suffices: would the UN or the EU, or for that matter, organisations like The World Economic Forum, World Bank and NGOs be any smaller, were climate change never to have presented itself? I think not. And yet this process of institution-building goes on, largely unchallenged, or even unquestioned. I find that odd.
In fact, if a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change. We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.
All of these premises strike me as problematic, if not flat-out wrong. Are they a damning indictment of human’s faculties? Or are they a justification for psychologists seeking a slice of political action? All political ideas — ideas about how society ought to be organised, if it is to be organised at all — begin with a conception of humans, whether that be an explicit or implicit declaration. Burkeman’s claim is the one that we are familiar with: individuals are not competent to make decisions about their own future when faced with a problem such as climate change:
And should it dawn on us that our behaviours don’t match our beliefs – that we’re not doing our bit to save the planet, even though we think we should – we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change) than the behaviour (flying less, having fewer children).
This principle gives the title to Burkeman’s article: “We’re all climate change deniers at heart“. Accordingly, he proposes a system of mechanisms which produce “climate change denial”, which he takes from George Marshall and Daniel Kahneman
In one strikingly depressing scene in his recent book Don’t Even Think About It, climate change activist George Marshall interviews the Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the leading scholar of cognitive biases, and tries to nudge him into saying that understanding our brains’ limitations will, at the very least, make it easier to overcome them. “I’m not very optimistic about that,” Kahneman replies, despondently sipping tomato soup. “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.” The pessimism of experts provides yet another reason to pay attention to something else, anything else, instead of climate change: why choose to spend your days feeling relentlessly depressed?
Such is the climate psychologist’s burden…
Even once you grasp that people in general are terrible at responding to a threat such as climate change, though, there’s another hurdle: it remains much harder to accept how far you’re prone to such psychological pitfalls yourself. (This bias against perceiving your own bias has its own label: the bias blind spot.) It’s easy enough for any of us who aren’t climate-change deniers to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of them: they’re mired in denial and defence mechanisms, busily constructing online communities of like-minded people to help shield themselves from guilt, from accepting the need for personal sacrifices, or from contemplating their mortality. It’s much more difficult to accept that, in a subtler sense, you might be a climate change denier yourself. But the drive to eliminate cognitive dissonance – to rid yourself of the discomfort that comes from holding contradictory beliefs, or failing to act in accordance with your beliefs – is an awesomely powerful thing.
Personally I lean more towards Kahneman’s pessimism. Yet the same self-questioning stance surely demands that I acknowledge even pessimism has its selfish payoffs: if there’s nothing to be done, I might as well not bother trying to do anything. Despair can be a kind of denialism, too.
Of course, this blog is about building an online community of like-minded people, to help shield us from guilt, and from the need to accept my own personal sacrifice, and to defer my inevitable mortality… So I would say this… But what I think is interesting is just how terribly limited Burkeman’s injunction is. He seems to want his fellow climate concerned to reflect on themselves to the extent to which it would reveal that they are some kind of climate change deniers (though he believes that this is ultimately doomed to fail, along with the human race, in Thermageddon). But he doesn’t seem willing to reflect on the opposite: the extent to which he needs climate change to make his opening statement, praising the G7 for their statement on abolishing the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century… “these official goals really matter… we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.”
Why aren’t we free to interrogate official thinking? Why is psychology limited to interrogating the individual mind, to establish its limits, and not official thinking? I am amazed that psychologists have not been more forthcoming in this respect, to criticise the climate psychologists, if not the alarmists. After all, it is not as if there is no precedent for asking questions about the authority of the psychological sciences, as this short film about David Rosenhan’s famous experiment shows:
The problem of being sane in insane places, then, is that you cannot speak about the use of psychiatric labels where they are not appropriate. Accordingly, we cannot speak about the problems of climate science, or climate policy, or environmentalism without betraying our psychological inclinations such as ‘cognitive dissonance’, to avoid facing sacrifice or mortality. And it’s not until we accept the authority of official pronouncements on our condition that we are to be released from the climate mental ward, into the limited freedom outside it, which has been designed according to the exact same specification and principles as the hospital.
But unpacking the problem reveals much more about the psychological sciences — to the extent that they are attached to the climate issue — than it reveals about the psychology of individual ‘deniers’. The psychologist is not a climate scientist. As such, he can only measure the sanity of his patient against his own understanding of climate science (or policy).
In other words, psychology has to borrow its authority from climate science. And it is not until it has borrowed this authority from climate science that it can identify problems lumped under the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, to give it not just political significance, but global political significance.
So why isn’t psychology — as a science — able to produce it’s own authority, per the Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba, ‘on the word of no one’? If mathematical proof depended on axioms supplied by cellular biology, we would wonder about mathematics. But very few questions seem to be asked when psychologists pronounce on the limitations of individual’s psychology, based on their own understanding of climate science: the ‘facts’ it supplies to them, such that they can detect ‘cognitive dissonance’.
One answer is Rosenhan’s experiment. Of course, that experiment was about psychiatry, rather than psychology as such. But the experiment is pertinent. The ambition of understanding the human mind and its shortcomings is not matched by the results produced by this branch of psychology. Nobody needed science to tell us that to err is human, nor that answering questions of perspective are confounded by perspective itself.
Call me a psychology sceptic, then, before you call me a climate change sceptic. New sciences make big claims about how understanding the object of their studies will transform the world. But these big claims invariably seem to be invested in by politics than by those of us who labour in our misapprehensions of the world, and our cognitive dissonance. Be they sociologists, eugenicists, Malthusians, cyberticians, memeticians or technocrats, the positivists’ dream is our recurring nightmare. Sciences are invented and reinvented, to reorganise political priorities, away from our befuddled minds.
It would be harder to say all this if the promise made by the G7 was not to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels by 2100, but to instead focus attempts to make such a thing possible. This was the point discussed in the previous post — the UK’s self-appointed climate aristocrats who want $150 billion to make wind and solar power economically competitive with coal. Yet even with that impulse, there is a problem. They presuppose the feasibility of the objective, and rule out the alternatives, be they low carbon or not, such as nuclear fission and fusion, distorting the research agenda, and depriving other experimental pathways of budgets. They ‘pick winners’, in other words, while enriching those techniques whose advocates have made the biggest claims. It is as if all we need to do to work out what the price of one form of energy will be in the future is find the relationship between R&D expenditure and the price signal, and extrapolate it into the future… And voila!…
So what happens if we are allowed to interrogate the psychology of the climate artistocrats and climate shrinks? The big claims that were made by psychologists in the twentieth century caused it to fall out of favour, and to lose its authority — in contrast to big, sexy science like high energy physics, which still promises to discover the ‘god particle’, no less. Meanwhile, researchers were increasingly made to prove their relevance to society — ‘impact’ — rather than to investigate the material world merely as an end in itself. I believe that the result is an ugly, self-serving compact between scientific institutions and politics. The antipathy towards humans, and the low estimation of their faculties expressed by those who embrace this nexus of psychological and climate science is the even uglier chimera of this union. It seems that weak science can multiply itself, and to amplify its message by teaming up with another weak science in the service of a political agenda.
After I tweeted about Burkeman’s post yesterday, some wag tweeted back,
Yeah. Shame your grandchildren won’t get to vote on your stupidity – I know how they’d vote..
The implication is, of course, that it is my (non-existent) children’s (non-existent) children who will suffer the consequences of my stupidy — climate change. Yet I am confident that future generations should be able to vote, as much as they should be able judge my words for themselves, not to have some climate academic limit their vote, and to rule out their judgement as cognitive dissonance.
The point of climate change psychology — much more than climate science — is to protect the political establishment from such judgement in the present. It is a form of consensus enforcement, and debate policing.
It is through debate that the shortcomings of individuals can be overcome, and some kind of synthesis produced out of profound disagreements achieved. So we don’t need some psychological toolkit to examine our own psychologies. And we do not need climate psychologists to point these shortcomings out. This is the dynamic that makes science possible, after all. But climate change psychology aims to rule out inconvenient perspectives, to exclude them from debate, such that only officially-sanctioned opinion is allowed to have any consequence.
The interesting phenomena in the climate debate is not ‘cognitive dissonance’, but the emergence of academic disciplines like climate change psychology. Rather than people checking themselves for latent climate change denialism, it is these werido academics, their claims and their institutions which need to be interrogated. They take themselves as planet-savers at face value, of course, but why should we?
“we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change)”
Why does this person assume we all had some belief to begin with that climate change was a serious problem? Why does this person assume that this “belief” should be what he thinks it should be (or as you alluded to what “mainstream” climate science thinks it should be)?
Why does this person ultimately think that not following the “belief” of mainstream climate science (actually we could add in non-science sources like the MSM, politicians, environment activists, etc.) is the result of either being lazy or not caring about our grandchildren or being stupid?
Is it beyond the comprehension of this expert(?!) that some have looked at both sides and don’t see the urgency? That we can formulate our own belief?
I agree. I certainly don’t think Lewandowsky is a planet saver.
If the problem was greater, with greater and more certain consequences, I think consensus action would be more certain.
For example, if 97% of solar scientists said the sun was going to go super nova within 100 years (or turn into a red giant – same outcome for Earth – we would all fry) – I think consensus action would be more certain. I am not sure what we would do – but I bet we would do something (dig in, send people into space, maybe even try to move the planet – who knows).
The cost benefit would favor action – after all, no action, no humans.
By contrast, with global warming – no action – the sea level might be 8 inches higher in 100 years (same as last century). Or maybe 16 inches. On the other hand crops will grow better (they already grow 55% better than they did in 1750).
Another example – 97% of astronomers report that an armada of alien spacecraft are going to arrive at Earth in 100 years. This is a tougher example than the sun exploding – which has dire certain consequences.
I can easily see a debate about the intentions of the aliens – are they hostile or not?
Maybe they are coming to trade and not conquer?
There is a lot of uncertainty.
Still – probably not a bad idea to move some people off the planet just in case. Maybe there would be a consensus to take some sort of action. I think Earth would take some sort of action.
The problem with global warming (to me anyway) is that the globe has been warming for the last 20,000 years.
The sea level has risen 120 meters during the last 20,000 years – which is sure evidence for a warming globe.
So how much would the globe have warmed since 1850, all on its own, even if humans had disappeared in 1850?
Guess what – nobody knows.
The uncertainty is massive with global warming.
How much would it have warmed anyway? How much of the warming is caused by humans and how much by nature? Nobody knows. How much of the warming is caused by CO2 and how much by land changes (parking lots, blacktop, cutting down trees, air conditioning, cities, etc. Hard to estimate this also.
The cost benefit is very difficult – both because of lack of knowledge on the cost side but also on the benefit side. It is also very difficult to do a cost benefit with no plan to evaluate. And let us not forget – there is no plan. Nobody has come forward and proposed a plan.
All we have are platitudes and wishes.
I wish (some say) we could keep the temperature from rising more than 2C from pre-industrial times.
Now some even wish we could keep the temperature from rising more than 1.5C from pre-industrial times.
But – not a word on how to accomplish this wish.
What if we spent 5 trillion dollars and the globe only warmed .1C less during the next 100 years?
That would be a waste of money – which in turn represents a loss of life (because money is fungible).
Well – I have a plan.
Lets replace all carbon energy production (lets start with the USA) over the next 50 years with nuclear. Lets lower the regulatory hurdles and deploy passive cooled latest generation nuclear power and also recycling nuclear power plants, store the waste regionally or even at the plant itself, and try to generate 75% of all our power with nuclear (up from 20%) within 50 years.
That is the economic lifetime of a power plant anyway – so we would have to spend a bunch of money over the next 50 years replacing all our power plants anyway – why not just commit to replacing them with nuclear?
We can continue to invest in solar and wind – but nuclear is cheaper than renewable and doesn’t generate CO2 emissions.
I am pretty sure that if set out to build hundreds of nuclear power plants – the cost per plant will come down and they will actually become much more economic than the two we are building right now.
Seems like a win win to me.
Being lectured about my supposed bias by someone with his own obvious bias is rather unpalatable. That he should he rely so heavily on Kahneman’s research into bias and our inability to see it in ourselves and not even think to raise the question with himself speaks volumes.
I think an excellent avenue for psychological research would be to investigate why otherwise intelligent academics who have a first hand experience with the inadequacy of peer review as a quality control process should blindly accept the grand proclamations of “truth” by other academics.
Another great article Ben. I don’t say it often enough because your pieces send me off thinking and I forget to come back and comment. The brain shrink interest in AGW has been an annoying new tool for those wanting to bludgeon through action on CO2. Their views are coloured by their ignorance (often deliberate) of the issues.
One person’s denial is another’s risk assessment with a different result. Burkeman is right, scratch almost any warmist and you hit a ‘Denier’ just underneath, but they’re not in denial about CO2 any more than we are, they just place a different weight on the two variables of cost and CAGW. The cost isn’t just money, it’s a restriction on freedom, happyness, health and opportunity. Not to be dismissed lightly or fitted into some kind of aberration.
ATTP becomes amusingly defensive when asked why warmists don’t act unilaterally. After all, in theory since about half of western populations ‘believe’, the cost to warmists would only be double what they deride us for rejecting. I’ve probed, but have never got an answer on how much warmists are prepared to sacrifice to their god of AGW. They seem ok with unilateral action so long as it’s at a national basis but a similar population divided amongst multiple countries is insufficient. Curious.
Warmists also don’t seem to understand escalating burdens of proof. ATTP has dismissed this concept. The science isn’t changed by the cost of acting, it is either true or false in his mind. But that pretends the science is right or wrong, where in fact it’s maybe. How can you be in denial of something that isn’t proven? If we’d asked the scientists back in 1998 to predict temperatures in 2015, I’m sure that 97% would have been 95% sure that they’d be significantly higher. Would suggesting such an unlikely phenomena that they wouldn’t rise significantly have been denial or reality?
Had there been no cost to cutting CO2 then, while sceptics might have had no real interest in the science, good or bad, that doesn’t mean we would have necessarily given it a pass. The tidal wave of dodgy science in the news these days has generated a certain amount of cynicism. I doubt climate science would have escaped that. However contrary to psychologists’ preconceptions, scepticism isn’t proportional to ignorance of the science. Had it been so then there would have been justification to assume that we were in denial but in reality we look at the same evidence and come to a different conclusion. No denial necessary.
These people just know, you know. None of this uncertainty or Projections A, B and C malarkey. They just know it will be bad.
It’s as if the awesome “Shame your grandchildren…” etc., guy on Twitter had just returned through an actual time-warp from the Great Oxfordshire Deluge of AD 2043, having overheard the Pile grandchildren wailing (after their toys and household pets were swept away in the flood) “None of this would have happened if Grandpa hadn’t kept stupidly blogging about climate change all those years ago – we’d have definitely voted Green in 2015!”
There was one commenter on Andy Revkin’s blog once who wrote something about going to a store in AD 2050 to find the shelves empty, due to climate change. I briefly felt like asking him which particular store this would be, so that I could avoid going there and shop for groceries somewhere else that day. Unfortunately I didn’t, so it remains a mystery.
Clinical psychologist Kathy McMahon (specialist in Peak Oil, climate change and planetary collapse) is sure (well, was sure back in 2007 anyway) that bananas will soon be a thing of the past:
On reading this, some time ago, I came up with a plan to email Kathy a picture of bananas in a Northern hemisphere supermarket on the same day every year, just to cheer her up, but wisely thought better of it as such things could probably be construed as harassment. Actually, that might be the answer, when it comes to psychologists and climate disaster – we should let them alone to deal with their deeply important planetary issues, as long as they leave us alone to enjoy our bananas and get on with our Panglossian, superficially optimistic little lives. Possibly a vain hope, but – deal?
Time to recycle an old joke:
“Neurotics build castles in the air.
Psychotics live in them.
Psychiatrists charge the rent.”
The fact the emerged discipline of climate change psychology is almost the only thing that *develops* in climate science should be a clue how moribund it is ;)
I mean with Karl et al it clearly seems to need the supporting associated baggage of a closely social science “seepage” paper saying all its previous rival papers were written by deluded people.
When before in science history has this been seen?
I can’t think of anything without going Godwin.
This is not a good sign IMHO.
This is the indicator of weakness of the current climate – “Why don’t they all do what I want! Let’s me pathologise the ways” – breast beating.
I always say to anyone – pissed off by reading social science – that they should look at Kahneman first before dismissing the whole of social science.
His work IMO has the most convincing social science results you will see anywhere because it seems so clearly he (and Tversky) started from only a genuine inquisitive wonder about how humans decide things.
I would suggest to anyone who thinks that maybe Lewandowsky and Cook et al have any skill in psychology that they should maybe read Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast And Slow” as a primer.
In there you see the work of a person who never wanted to fool himself about human understanding, but only wanted to be surprised, as Kahneman clearly is. You’ll never look back.
Kahneman is elegiac in TFAS about his long dead co-author Amos Tversky.
I’m beginng to develop a theory now that every attempt at social science that you have read in the last 3 years – and from now on – will try and trace it’s authority from an idea of Kahneman’s (or Philip Tetlock? ;))
Anyway, there’s observational and prescriptive.
But if you want quick summary of how social science can be spun round from an observation to a prescrptive tool see:
Oh BTW this article might be worth looking at.
In which Kahneman warns of the risks of taking the priming effect for granted and degrading the credibility of social science.
Note the below quoted Norbert Schwarz is a Lewandowsky associate and Skeptical science reference :
Recognise that rhetoric?
Drowned out by a few?
Seems to me some have a dependency on priming that doesn’t want to be taken away. ;)
This stuff operates in the same world of homeopathy charlatans willfuly depending on effects that they exploit rather than explain e.g.; where Ben Goldacre informs us of actual physical medical studies that show test subjects can be fed emetics and be told by their doctors that they calm stomachs and find that this *actually* does calm their stomachs because of the placebo effect!
This lives in the same world where social scientist charlatans like Schwartz, Cook and Lewandowsky desperately support priming.
TLITB: The fact the emerged discipline of climate change psychology is almost the only thing that *develops* in climate science should be a clue how moribund it is
I have a pet theory that the worst ideas in social science get recycled at the weaker end of biological sciences, from where they give new authority to the social scientists which produced them. Malthus being the obvious example. Not as much as inter-disciplinary as inter-lack-of-discipline. ‘Discipline’ being the point here: there seems to be none of it as it applies to the development of these new grand, encompassing narratives, in spite of the social sciences seemingly being where we would expect such scepticism to thrive, but which is lost in that description-prescription problem you observe. Under the rubric of ‘relevance’, the promise of changing the world is more interesting than the virtue of merely observing it. ‘The point is to change it’, of course. But it’s almost as if the point is to change it for the sake of changing it. This speaks, I think to nervousness about the science itself — and the scientist’s existential angst, having only produced prosaic insight at best, and which is more often than not banal. It’s interesting to read Lewandowsky’s papers, for instance. His confidence about how terrible climate sceptics’ brains are belies the statistical results he finds, which he admits to in his papers. They are weak, and he has to construct elaborate round-the-houses methods to justify reporting such weak effects as significant.
I am not sure about the comparison with homoeopathy. I think the over-emphasis on the matter revealed the nasty side of that kind of scepticsm. I have zero time for alternative medicines. But I wasn’t forced to have any time for it — so what if someone wants to waste their time and money on quackery? Meanwhile, the entire phenomenon of such nonsense and the rise of bogus nutritionists seems to me to owe much less to the prevalence of bad science as such as it did with the needless expertisation of such simple things as choosing what and how much to eat/drink/smoke, and so on. Surrendering to experts created such a passivity that is more likely to foster uncritical minds… It’s not the quacks that the Bad Science warriors should have been going after, it was the pedallers of seemingly good advice: “how to tie your shoelaces and wash behind your ears”, and of course the monitors: “have you eaten your five-a-day today”.
Exactly, this is a time when social sciences could be useful in clinically observing the issues but mostly instead (with a few honourable exceptions like Warren Pearce’s recent study) seems to be about policing “correct” thought and terminology.
I agree, I’m currently reading Goldacre’s book so I think I’ve been primed to introduce snark about homoeopaths, it’ll wear off soon :)
To gloss over the long sordid history of apocalyptic clap trap and popular delusions, while at the same time claim to be an informed academic makes for entertaining reading. Thanks for finding the gems of ignorance these posers leave on the trail.
As to the “little sacrifice” fallacy. Civil societies are built on things like long term bonds financed by tax payers and typically voted for by those whose taxes are to be used to pay for the bonds. A bond is literally a long term sacrifice to accomplish a larger good. There are hundreds of billions in those bonds outstanding worldwide and the vast majority are paid as agreed by those indentured by the bond.
People resist the demands of the climate obsessed because they are nonsense, and transparently so.
Unilateral action would defeat the point of being a believalist (= a climate propagandist like ATTP).
Remember, they don’t get out of bed every day to fight climate change, but to fight climate change denial.
What could they possibly gain from a voluntary (believer-only) drive to stop CAGW?
Only two things could happen, both of them strongly abhorrent to a believalist:
1. The world will find out CAGW was just a false alarm (or folie à plusieur [sp?]) and their unilateral sacrifices will have been utterly pointless. Worst part: we deniers (who didn’t sacrifice anything) will be in a position to make fun of everyone who was gullible enough to make those sacrifices (and suffer disadvantage as a result). In other words, such an outcome would reward denial and punish belief, which is to say it would reward badness and punish goodness. Manifestly perverse and unjust.
2. The Science™ will be vindicated, the climate will hit the fan, and humanity will only scrape by thanks to the heroic sacrifices made by 50% of the population. But the other 50% (we deniers) will ‘freeload’ on the planet’s salvation, or get a ‘free ride’ or whatever you prefer to call it. Again, good will be punished and evil will prosper.
Far preferable (in their imagination) to spend another 26 years in a deadlock, yelling about it, which is the part they enjoy anyway, until it’s too late to stop The Science™ coming true, and when it does come true and the world starts burning, they get to say they told us so. Then they get to convene a Climate Nuremberg to make sure deniers pay for their crimes by being the first to burn. Manifestly just and infinitely satisfying.
Unless they can compel us ALL to tithe to propitiate the carbon deities, they’d rather nobody sacrificed to Them, even at the planetary risk of incurring Their full wrath.