What’s going on in the minds of social scientists?

A provocatively titled press release from the University of Waterloo, What’s going on inside the minds of climate change skeptics? has led to some discussion on twitter, so I am setting up a blog post to allow more detailed discussion (and returning the compliment).

The article is based on a paper The Conceptual Structure of Social Disputes which looks at four disputed areas, one of which is climate change. The paper produces “cognitive-affective maps” (CAMs) that are diagrams linking together positive (green), negative (red), ambivalent (purple) and neutral (yellow) thought processes. Here is the CAM for climate skeptics:

The obvious question is where does all this come from? Is there any data or evidence behind it? Does it really tell us anything about the thinking of climate skeptics, or is it telling us more about the thinking of social scientists? Apparently it comes from the PhD thesis of Manjana Milkoreit, but this has 469 pages so I haven’t quite finished reading it yet. One flaw, pointed out by Ronan Connolly, is that the paper twice describes the liberal person in favour of climate action as ‘well-informed’, with the implication that skeptics are not. In fact, Dan Kahan’s work has shown (see last graph here) that skeptics are just as knowledgeable about climate science. The failure of the paper to cite Kahan is quite remarkable given the close relevance of his work. Another criticism made is that it presents the issue as two distinct groups, without acknowledging the reality of a continuous spectrum of views. The paper simply declares that to a climate skeptic, “anthropogenic climate change is not real”. This unhelpful attitude contributes to polarisation and antagonism. The authors then declare that “Figures 8 and 9 show that the conflict over climate-change policy is rooted in profound ideological differences”, when in fact these figures only show the prejudiced opinions of the authors. The chart presents the trendy view that skepticism is all about politics and policy; it is stated that blogs were one of the inputs used to determine this, but Amelia Sharman has shown that skeptical blogs are very much focussed on the science.

Another recent example of this sort of thing is poster 2 at the ecolabs blog, which was presented at a recent climate communication conference and supposedly plots the position and influence of various people in the climate debate. Reading the small print on the poster, the whole thing is “speculative and subjective”. The poster is quite informative, not of the state of the climate debate, but of the prejudiced groupthink that permeates much of the social science field. In the mind of Dr Boehner who produced the poster, climate contrarianism is all about the Koch brothers, Exxon, Fox and Murdoch. Sceptical bloggers such as Anthony Watts (who sometimes gets 1/4 million page views per day), Steve McIntyre, Bishop Hill and Jo Nova simply do not exist – Barry and I have asked her if she is aware of their existence. However, this poster of “prominent actors participating in climate communication” includes at least three who are no longer alive. This remarkable shoddy work reflects badly on Roger Pielke Jr’s group at the University of Colorado.

Of course, there is some good objective social science research being done in this field (Kahan, Sharman, Pearce, Grundmann…) but unfortunately the legacy of some awful earlier stuff lives on.

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11 thoughts on “What’s going on in the minds of social scientists?

  1. I always enjoy seeing analyses that tell us of the strong influence of “The George Marshall Institute”. It’s true they are an “institute” which was established by an old dead dude. But anyone who thinks they are effective or influential has rocks in their head.

  2. Lucia, I think the emphasis on the Marshall Institute in that poster may be the influence of Myanna Lahsen, who is/was at the same Colorado Institute as Boehner. Lahsen wrote a nasty paper attacking the “physicist trio” of Seitz, Jastrow and Nierenberg who form a little triangle on the poster. Those are the three “actors participating” who are now dead that I was referring to. As you say, they have no influence at all.

  3. “The paper simply declares that to a climate skeptic, “anthropogenic climate change is not real”. ”

    – I’m just absolutely sick to death of this. As you say, much of this work actually gives us information about the authors, not climate sceptics. Anyone who has actually done something as breathtakingly rational as had an extended dialogue with a number of climate sceptics would never say the above without heavy qualification.

    “The poster is quite informative, not of the state of the climate debate, but of the prejudiced groupthink that permeates much of the social science field. ”

    – And its this kind of thing that makes me want to break something in frustration. Whilst full on activism masquerading as “science” is apparently absolutely fine (and gets you a PhD) if you’re on the alarmist side, gods forbid that you work in the academy and are a climate sceptic. I know, I’ve been keeping my head down for years now and its why I post under a nome de guerre the majority of the time. It’s also why, post PhD I’ll very likely be quitting academia in disgust.

  4. Hi Paul,

    I suppose you are aware of the long-lasting conflict between Nierenberg’s son Nicolas and one Naomi Oreskes’ misrepresentations about his father. In an update last year Nieremberg jr. writes:

    “Just to fill in this conversation we did publish a paper in HSNS subsequently. The BBC issued a correction as did the Times.

    Unfortunately this had little effect on Dr. Oreskes or others who now simply cite the same material from her book rather than the peer reviewed publication. They never cite our paper as another viewpoint, and therefore in my opinion the idea of correcting the historical record in this manner in the social sciences doesn’t work.

    In any actual science field this couldn’t happen.”

    http://nierenbergobservations.blogspot.no/2008/09/oreskes-blows-gasket.html

  5. Thanks for the findings.
    ***
    I will point to this:
    > The failure of the paper to cite Kahan is quite remarkable given the close relevance of his work.
    And I will point to the next sentence:
    > Another criticism made is that it presents the issue as two distinct groups, without acknowledging the reality of a continuous spectrum of views.
    That would be all, but perhaps I ought to ask: when will you submit to second criticism to Dan?

  6. Ms Milkoreit seemed quite keen on discussion at first then backed off rather suddenly, unless she continued to defend her paper elsewhere. Coming across real sceptics in the ‘world’ I guess is akin to coming across the gritty reality of the real climate, where s**t happens, but not at all like the type of s**t which climate models say should be happening. Where politics and moral judgement and quaint social science theory are forced to scurry away, run and hide and attempt to regroup as the harsh light of scientific advancement beats down from a knowledge sky increasingly devoid of those dark, threatening clouds of enforced ignorance. They’ll keep it up of course, ever more audacious, ever more spiteful, ever more hallucinatory, but the CAGW house of cards will fall, eventually, probably preceded by a Sudden Stratospheric Warning, then, poof! it will be gone and we’ll be living in the Post Climate Apocalyptic Era.

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