Sunday, November 21, 2010

Disturbing climate change headlines

Yesterday Tom Yulsman at CEJournal came across a story in Fog City Journal that led to a brief post, on which I commented there.

The topic is the fraught question of what's the best way for scientists to respond to global warming Know-Nothingism. My first comment was followed by a response from Tom, and I've responded with a longer note that seems worth sharing here. It turns out that there is a great deal that needs to be said.

What follows is my second response, more or less verbatim.

Tom, I've read the Revkin article and the Feinberg/Willer paper. [See the press release for quick summary.] Thanks for the references. However, I don't find them very persuasive. Apologies in advance for the length of this note.

The Feinberg/Willer paper is based on the social psychology circle of ideas known as "Just World Theory" (JWT). Curiously, the book of the "founder" of JWT, Melvin Lerner, is entitled The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Unfortunately, I don't have ready access to that volume, but I note that there is no question mark in the title, so I don't know whether Lerner himself actually regarded the underlying "just world" belief as a delusion.

Although the underlying belief that JWT deals with seems philosophically controversial (at best), JWT itself simply asserts that "many people" have this belief, and that certain consequences follow. One thing that concerns me is whether substantial evidence has been developed that quantifies how many people hold the underlying belief in the world's justness. At most it seems like just one dimension in a multidimensional space of belief systems.

It's clear enough that many people have religious beliefs that are incompatible with the idea that a "just" deity would allow the kind of climate developments that science predicts, and so such people deny the science. But that's a pretty broad feature of religion in general – it denies many kinds of science that clash with religion. So what's science supposed to do – give up and say, "Oops. we aren't really predicting what the evidence strongly indicates"?

The Feinberg/Willer paper argues that certain sorts of positive messages increase subjects' acceptance of the ideas (1) that the scientific evidence for global warming is good and (2) that science can find solutions to the problem. In other words, these messages are pro-science in a feel-good, non-threatening way. So of course it's not too surprising that the subjects who heard these messages exhibited greater acceptance of scientific conclusions. This is basic marketing theory.

One problem is that the part of the message that says science can find a "solution" to the problem is likely to be false. It's probable that there is no largely scientific solution. Mitigation of climate change is probably much more of an economic and political issue, because significant behavioral change and economic adjustment are likely to be necessary. Of course, this assertion is also open to debate.

I think that the best science has actually discovered a lot that suggests the threat of climate change is even more dire than some cautious observers assume. There is, for example, this: summary of ten rather disturbing types of climate threat reported in the past year.

You [Tom] wrote, "30 years of unrelenting fear appeals on climate change have gotten us, well, where? I would argue pretty much nowhere. If ever there was a prima facie case that fear appeals on climate change don’t work, this is it."

I'm afraid that by the very same sort of argument, 30 years of attempts to patiently and rationally educate the public on the science of climate change have also failed.

The real problem is that what's actually true is that different approaches work best with different types of people, depending on their undelying personality types and value systems. For example see Skeptics discount science by casting doubts on scientist expertise or the paper it discusses – Cultural cognition of scientific consensus.

One of the individuals that Revkin quotes in his article, Dan Kahan at Yale [and a founder of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project], states the problem quite well:
I think it [Feinberg/Willer] is good research, and maybe captures something that is going on in the real world debate. But it doesn’t capture what’s most important: the source of individual differences. People disagree about climate change; it is one of a cluster of science & policy issues that polarize citizens along cultural/political lines. "Just world" theory posits a general psychological mechanism that affects everyone. Necessarily, then, it can’t explain why one and the same set of informational influences (e.g., stories reporting "scientific consensus" on climate change) provoke different reactions in identifiable subcommunities. The theory that we need is one that identifies what the identifying characteristics of these communities are and how they are implicated in cognition of risk. No theory that focuses of [sic] generic or population-wide aspects of the psychology of risk perception (so-called "main effects") can do that.

In other words, a lot more needs to be done to steer public attitudes in the right direction. It is not a matter of simply finding the most comforting feel-good way to "frame" the issue, if that just entails obscuring the hard scientific facts. That is a vain hope.

I don't have a solution of the problem, but I think a solution should include a careful evidence-based appraisal of the kinds of messages that work best with different groups, combined with a plan for how to deliver the messages through different channels appropriate for different groups.

It's a lot like any other tough political campaign. Sometimes "negative" campaigning works very well, sometimes it doesn't.

I can see what's going on here. There are obviously efforts being made by a broad range of social scientists, communication experts, and journalists to shape an effective messaging strategy. For example: This is probably good. What is not clear is whether the people most involved will be able to identify a near-optimal strategy.

Just to name names, Matthew Nisbet [also here, here] (whom Revkin also quotes) is one with whom I find a lot to disagree – such as the whole "post-partisan" shtick. The elephant in the room is that most opponents of the necessity of acting on climate change – to say nothing of those who deny it even exists and/or is anthropogenic – have no intentions of operating in a reasonable and responsible "post-partisan" fashion.

There really is a war going on here. Climate scientists who don't face up to this reality are going to get the crap beat out of them. Just ask Phil Jones or Michael Mann [more here], for example. Much like Lt. Colonel George Custer at the Little Big Horn.

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Blogger Charles Daney said...

Here's some additional information on that controversial social science study I wrote about. Pretty much supports my conclusion... here

11/22/2010 02:04:00 PM  

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