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.