Monthly Archives: February 2015

Paper on climate scepticism published

A little over a year ago I noticed a call from the journal Environmental Communication for a special issue of articles on “Climate change communication and the internet”.  For some time I had been thinking vaguely about writing something about the interesting Reader Background thread at Jeff Condon’s Air Vent blog, so I wrote a paper on this and sent it to the journal.

The paper was handled very well by the journal.  It was reviewed ‘double-blind’, i.e. both the author and reviewers were anonymous. This isn’t usually done in my field but apparently it’s quite common in social science.  The reviewers were clearly experts in the field; they read the paper very carefully and made a lot of comments, criticisms and constructive suggestions for improvement. I revised the paper and then there was another round of quite detailed comments, but after that the paper was accepted.

The published paper is here, paywalled because I did not pay Taylor & Francis the Open Access fee.  However, apparently I can give 50 people access to the paper – let me know if you’d like this (in the olden days, you used to get a bundle of 50 paper reprints to mail out).  Alternatively there is a draft preprint version of the paper, before the review comments, with a few very minor changes. It contains a bit more discussion and opinion, fewer up-to-date references, and more mistakes, than the final version.

Below is a brief summary of the main points of the paper.

Why are people sceptical about climate change?

Surveys show that a significant minority of the population are sceptical about climate change and that there has been a modest increase in scepticism over the last few years. Some research has considered why this may be, but surveys do not usually ask people exactly what it is that makes them sceptical. There is some useful information on this question in comments on climate sceptic blogs, but this has not been studied in the literature. However, it should be kept in mind that these views expressed in blog comments are probably not representative of the general public.

In April 2010, Jeff Condon launched a “Reader Background” post, proposing “a discussion of our various backgrounds and how we came to be interested in climate science”. I count that there are 154 people on that thread who express some degree of scepticism about climate change. 17 of these explicitly call themselves lukewarmers, and at least 8 others express lukewarm opinions, so about 1/6 can be regarded as lukewarmers – though this is probably an underestimate. At the other end of the spectrum, about 1 in 10 are what might be called “hardcore sceptics”, using language like “scam” in relation to climate change.  Over 1/4 of the responders say they have a PhD, and a further 1/3 have some form of degree.  More than 1/4 say they switched from being concerned about climate change to being sceptical.

Reasons given for scepticism include

  • Hype and alarmism, either in the media or from climate scientists. 32 people give this as a reason.
  • Memories of previous scares, such as the 1970s ice age scare, mentioned by 15.
  • Politics – some say  the climate story seems politically motivated, others say  it does not fit with their own views, which often lean more towards libertarianism than conservatism.
  • Climategate is mentioned by 30 people, but only seems to have been a major influencing factor for 13. The survey was only 5 months after climategate, so most had probably already formed their view.
  • Poor science is mentioned by about 60, with the hockeystick most common issue.
  • Blogs – Climate Audit is most cited (57 times), followed by RealClimate (42 times) with many negative comments about their attitude and apparent failure to answer questions satisfactorily.
  • Other minor factors include books, newspapers and films.

Two other blogs have carried out similar exercises, see Judith Curry’s Denizens thread (Nov 2010) and My personal path to Catastrophic AGW skepticism at WUWT (July 2013). These show a similar picture – though there is some overlap in the contributors.

Another dumb climate psychology paper

A paper Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities was published yesterday in Nature Climate Change. The six authors, Bliuc et al, come from Social Science and Psychology departments in Australia. There is also an associated News & Views article by Tom Postmes, Psychology: Climate change and group dynamics.

The paper is truly awful, in so many ways, and effectively illustrates the blinkered thinking that is endemic in the field, nicely summarised by Andy West in his recent post at Climate etc. The following paragraphs raise some of the problems with the paper.

It starts badly, with unquestioning assertion of the Cook et al 97% consensus paper. As usual this is stated in an unclear way, “97% agree that climate change is caused by humans” (what, some of it? Most of it? All of it?), a feature that Ben Pile refers to as consensus without an object.

Then the paper simply declares that
“The public is divided between climate change ‘believers’ (whose views align with those of the scientific community) and ‘sceptics’ (whose views are in disagreement with those of the scientific community)”
It’s as simple as that. It’s us v them. The goodies and the baddies. Although there is a brief mention later on of multiple shades of opinion, this is dismissed with the statement “we argue that there is value in seeing climate change believers and sceptics as conflicting opinion-based groups.” Yet the paper and the News & Views piece talk about overcoming divisions, and conflict reduction – reducing a division that they themselves have artificially created. This is the same criticism I raised regarding Homer-Dixon et al (I have just noticed that the journal has now published my comment on that paper).
This isn’t just stupid – it’s really damaging.

The main “finding” of the paper is, as suggested in the title, that it’s all to do with social group identity. They say “we argue that people come to see climate change beliefs and scepticism not just as an opinion on an issue, but as an aspect of self that defines who they are, what they stand for, and who they stand with (and against)” and “the results support the contention that cultural polarization and political mobilization are at the core of the climate change divide.” This is the main idea of Dan Kahan’s work, even down to the exact wording used, “who they are”. But, amazingly, none of Kahan’s papers are cited (again, this was one of my criticisms of Homer-Dixon et al). As previously mentioned, I think there’s an element of truth in this argument, but it’s usually overstated.

As usual with such papers, although the text is nonsense, there are some interesting points in the data obtained. One of the issues they asked ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ about is their “anger at the opposing group”. The numbers came out (on some scale) at 2.84 for sceptics, but 4.10 for believers. We’ve seen recently several examples of the obscene vitriol directed towards even those who are moderately sceptical about climate change.
But the way this data is reported by Bliuc et al is astounding: “We note, in particular, that part of the sceptic group consciousness is anger at climate change believers”. The smaller number (sceptic anger at believers) is highlighted, while the considerably larger number (believer anger towards sceptics) is ignored.

Another common theme in these papers is that the main aim is how to change the minds of the sceptics: “strategies for building support for mitigation policies should go beyond attempts to improve the public’s understanding of science, to include approaches that transform intergroup relations”. This seems particularly devious: “efforts to undermine group efficacy, for example, by convincing sceptics that their actions are unlikely to prevent action on climate change, represent a more plausible path.” They are recommending that people should try to undermine sceptical groups – presumably they would condone the hounding of Lennart Bengtsson when he dared to join the GWPF.

The paper has a fair amount of jargon-speak. I liked this sentence: “Given that there are different causal orders proposed by existing models we conceptualize the antecedents of action as an integrated cluster of variables that represent a distinct group consciousness for believers and for sceptics, each of which predicts commitment to action to support the cause they each support.” I have no idea what it means – perhaps “we drew some pictures”.

In summary, we have a biased paper promoting political activism, exacerbating division and with a main conclusion that has already been stated many times in the literature. How did this rubbish get published? Oh, it’s in Nature.

There are articles about the paper at The Register, at The Conversation and at WUWT.