Fooling themselves

Adam Corner’s Talking Climate blog provides another example of the activist wing within social sciences fooling themselves.

Victoria Wibeck believes that there is a “persistent and problematic paradox”. Despite the overwhelming evidence for climate change and the high levels of concern people express, we still are not taking action on climate change. We are concerned about climate change, but not engaged. Previously I called this The Norgaard Delusion, after Kari Norgaard’s puzzlement over the fact that people said, when asked, that they were concerned about climate change, but didn’t talk about it all the time and continued their normal lives. The blog post goes on to consider “How can cli­mate change be made to feel mean­ingful in people’s everyday lives and how can they be encour­aged towards col­lective, affirm­ative action?”

Wibeck’s post provides a good example of confirmation bias – she selects survey results that tell the story she wants to tell, and ignores things that don’t. She cites a Special Eurobarometer survey that was all about climate change, to support her belief that climate change is a high priority (circular reasoning). If she had looked at the Standard Eurobarometer 80 survey she might have seen this:

And it’s a similar story in the US.

She also quotes from the “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey, picking out the third bullet point but ignoring the first one that says “There has been an increase in the proportion of Americans who believe global warming is not happening (23%, up 7 percentage points since April 2013)”.

There is no paradox. Wibeck and others in the groupthink-circle are fooling themselves. Time for another Feynman quote:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.

5 thoughts on “Fooling themselves

  1. Corner also ignores the Bradley Effect, which he surely knows about, being a social scientist and all.

    Just because people say they are concerned about climate change doesn’t mean they are. At best they might be concerned that someone else do something about it. At worst they are lying to look good in the eyes of the interviewer.

    It’d be pretty easy to “prove” that there are no paedophiles by interviewing 10,000 people and asking them “are you a paedophile?”.

    This is elementary stuff.

    The question is actually, are the likes of Corner so stupid that do they not understand this, or are they deliberately not mentioning the problems with these surveys? Neither makes them look very good.

  2. Thanks Mooloo, that’s right, if you thrust a microphone in someone’s face and ask “are you concerned about climate change?” most people will say yes, because they know that is the acceptable PC answer. As you say, this is obvious elementary stuff, though I didn’t know there was a term for this effect. Looking at the small print in the EU poll she cites, it says “All interviews were conducted face-to-face in people’s homes”, so this may well be what is going on here (but so was the one I show here, so that doesn’t explain the difference).

    It’s not Corner though, it’s a guest post by Victoria Wibeck.

  3. Wibeck demonstrates a depressing naivety about opinion surveys. It’s one thing to ask people what flavour ice cream they prefer, or who they’re going to vote for, and quite another to probe them on the pressing questions facing the world. The only conclusion you can draw from this kind of study is that most people don’t read the leader pages of the Times or the Guardian.
    There’s a guy (a physicist) who’s been modelling opinion change mathematically for a while now, exploring what happens when differing proportions of people with a fixed opinion confront others with malleable or no opinions. The resulting movements of opinion are often surprising and counter-intuitive, and he’s had some success apparently predicting e.g. the rise of the National Front in France. His name is Serge Galam, and many of his papers are in English, but they get too mathematical for me. It would be good to have the opinion of a mathematician on his methods.

  4. Thanks Geoff, I think you may have mentioned Serge Galam before. There is a bizarre review paper by Galam, where Galam surveys 71 papers by Galam, without citing anyone else. I guess we are talking about the models in section VI of that paper. I had a look at one of the papers, where he looks at changes in opinion driven by the idea that people go with the majority in their local group, then form new groups, and so on (a kind of Kahanesque model). He then looks at what happens if you add in contrarians who go against the group. From a maths point of view it is not too heavy. As with all this type of modelling, it’s quite fun but the results depend on the assumptions you build into the model, which are always oversimplified and unrealistic. In his case, the unrealistic assumption is that you adjust your opinion according to that within your group, then next year you do the same after being put into a new and randomly assigned group of people. Every Jan 1 you select a new group of friends at random from the phone book!

    I will try to look into this a bit more and do a blog post on it sometime.

  5. “…Galam surveys 71 papers by Galam, without citing anyone else..”
    That does sound very French.
    Here’s a list of Galam’s English language papers from a German site
    I first came across his ideas in an article at WattsUpWithThat by two blokes from an American Business School who were evidently Galamists. Since I can’t remember their names, I’ve no way of tracing the article. The gist as far as I remember was that 10% of a population who are committed to an idea are sufficient to win over a majority, in the absence of a committed counter-idea. This, I’d suggest, is the situation of Warmism in Britain, at least as long as Bob Ward succeeds in keeping Lord Lawson off the airwaves.
    As counter-intuitive ideas go, I find this one quite convincing. 10% is roughly the vote the Greens get on a good day, and about the proportion of the population who will tick “the environment” or “the climate” as the biggest problems facing humanity. It’s on this basis that sociologists invented the “New Ecological Paradigm”, and managed to get 70-80% of the population to agree to a number of meaningless sentiments such as that “We live on a fragile planet”. I’ve had a look at this quaint corner of social science at
    The idea of 10% cut off point is a bit of a relief to us lefties who are continually disappointed that leftwing parties never manage to rise above 2-5% in elections, despite the fact that many far left policies (on Iraq, on hanging bankers from lamp posts) are supported by a huge majority of the population. Yes, people want to see the Speaker of the House of Commons swinging for his expenses frauds, no, they don’t want George Galloway to do the deed.

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