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.


17 thoughts on “Another dumb climate psychology paper

  1. “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.”

    Ah, the leap from the analysis implied by the title:
    Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities

    into activism and persuasion, the ‘anything goes’ mentality.

  2. I had a look at the comments under the Conversation article (now closed). Most of them are nonsense but there’s a very good one by a retired scientist Tom Biegler, starting with
    “Don’t you just love the arrogance of the social scientists who venture into this fraught field? All they are really saying is that the folk who disagree with them are pitifully misguided and all that’s needed is an academic analysis of how to reverse those naughty opinions….”
    He goes on to discuss how some of the scientists and their sidekicks unwisely resorted to exaggeration to get the message across, and ends up discussing the wishful thinking of renewables and the problem of gullibility. Please read it.

  3. I find these studies a fine illustration that huge amounts of money are wasted on research. There are clearly a lot of people employed who couldn’t find their own backside with both hands.

    The strong message is that climate scepticism is political. They tend not to consider the option that political view point and climate scepticism are not master and slave but linked to a third issue – personality. ie your politics are a reflection of how you see the world, not the explanation of why you see the world the way you do. I suspect that this is easier to understand in the UK where we don’t have such polarised politics and we have a tendency to be rude about all politicians, not just those on the other side of the fence.

    They conclude accurately that reiterating the science won’t help but erroneously decide that talking about shared issues might work instead. To which I’d ask ‘what shared issues?’ They give the example clean air but don’t define it further. It demonstrates their naivety or ignorance that they can’t see that something as simple as clean air is actually very complicated. First tell us what ‘clean’ means. Mankind has been demonstrating since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that although it’s nice to have clean air (by anyone’s definition), it is not that essential. They could offer up thousands of issues like that to sceptics and be floored on every one of them. I can’t decide if it’s the weakness of the field of psychology or the quality of the researchers that they never try it. At the very least it ought to tell them that sceptics do have justifications for their opinions.

    Of course they assume that most of the sceptic public aren’t as clued up as us and while that may be true, it doesn’t mean they’re ignorant of every argument. What they have sussed out is the the authorities have almost no arguments except ‘the scientists say’ and while that gets you some support, it won’t write a blank cheque for action on CO2.

    To use a modern parlance these people want to hack climate scepticism. They want to sneak in and change our opinions without us noticing. My response – a sigh and an eye roll… As for the idea they can make us go away by saying we won’t affect policy. Heh, heh, heh, nice try.

  4. Yes Paul, Tom Biegler’s comment is excellent. He touches on the idea we have mentioned before that –

    “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

    ― Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself

    Where research is needed by Psychologists, is why such a lot of people believe in CAGW despite the massive amount of empirical data that suggest that scepticism is a very valid position.

    Man-Made Global Warming is a religion and there must be masses of published research on why someone would believe something that there is no evidence for.

  5. Thanks for the mention Paul, and your comment to the Homer-Dixon paper is excellent by the way. These papers are all utterly riven with bias, which stems from assuming that climate orthodoxy is an absolute truth, so pretty much has to work backwards from there to end up getting the psychological case wholly upside-down. I took a very detailed look at one myself a while back, this one also underwrites activism, see here:

    Retired Dave: yes there is masses and masses of research built up over decades on this topic, ironically most of it comes from the disciplines of cultural evolution, and *psychology*! And the entity that enforces a consensus upon the unknowable (or in retrospect sometimes the outright wrong), is simply ‘a culture’. All these psychologists will be familiar with standard mainstream literature which describes the many cultural effects that perfectly match the behavior of the CAGW Consensus. But because they are *part* of it themselves, they can’t see out. They think that CAGW is flat fact, settled science; hence in their eyes it can’t be a culture, and so they don’t apply their normal mainstream theories to it.

    Though there are several systems, I like memetics best for seeing what’s behind runaway cultural effects, although this is another big controversy as many social scientists resist tooth and nail any possibility of determinism coming into their domain. If you’re interested, there’s a long post and massively long essay describing CAGW in memetic terms here:

  6. 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

    Sure. I stand firmly for resistance to needless panic.

    Presumably, then, they stand for acceptance of needless panic.

  7. I’ve just noticed that in their Conversation article, Bliuc and McGarty say
    “Another path that could lead to increased consensus is to harness intergroup communication that promotes conflict reduction by maintaining dialogue between the sides in conflict, along with being open to engagement and collaboration.”
    They are aware of this blog post, so I look forward to them maintaining dialogue and showing that they are open to engagement.

  8. Andy, though I did mention it at the time, your article at Judith Curry was excellent.

    I am opposed to Dan Kahan’s culture mongering on certain grounds. I briefly wrote about them here:

    Homer-Dixon is a veteran in climate psychology. When I started examining climate in detail, about 4 years ago, I read a large number of climate psychology papers. The literature is largely homogenous and so are the perspectives. Scepticism is usually referred to in relation to standard, non-online, elite actors. Post-Climategate, there was a brief lull with a change in the themes but with the present papers, it seems the psychologists have lapsed back to their old, comfortable habits – of talking down to sceptics.

  9. Hi Shub, thanks for the vote 🙂

    I think you’re spot on that the literature is homogenous and climate orthodox biased.

    Regarding Kahan and your link, I think he’s right that prejudice and emotive bias and such *can* override reason. If these are powered by a coherent culture the effect will also be systemic and potentially very major. The irony is, this is exactly what CAGW is doing! While there is some bias in skepticism too, it is neither systemic or organized as a set of co-developed orthodox narratives, and does not rest upon major emotive drivers (the planet is doomed, our grand-kids are doomed etc).

    And I agree with you that given time humans are perfectly capable of overcoming even powerful drives of this sort. But the answer is *not* still more emotively crafted communication, especially regarding topics that are (should be!) rooted in science. The answer is to drain emotion out of it, get back to a relatively objective view and to logic. Treat people as individuals who can make their own judgements *if* they have access to some actual facts, and don’t attempt to bulldoze them ‘for their own good’ somewhere that a few folks have arbitrarily decided is best. This is like handing the keys to emotive culture and begging it to put the metal to the floor.

    Dan popped into my site and posed the question of what’s going on with his Kentucky farmer template. I think this template is falsely framed, but anyhow I’ve left him an answer you might find interesting.

  10. andywest2012 February 5th 2015 at 9:09am

    Correction: “But the answer…” above should really be “And indeed the answer…”, i.e. I’m agreeing that we don’t need more emotive communication.

  11. Andy, it’s good to see Dan Kahan joining in the discussion. Unlike some people, he’s prepared to join in the discussion with people who don’t agree with him – a ‘good cop’ as you put it. I will resist the temptation to join in, since I’ve already had various discussions with him about whether or not there is any contradiction in peoples’ behaviours.

    On the Pakistani Dr / Kentucky farmer post there are some good comments by NiV. One interesting thing is that the authors of the Rejesus et al JAEE paper about farmers’ opinions don’t seem to think there is any contradiction when they summarise their results in the conclusions section.

    IMHO, you have to be very careful before declaring “these people are irrational nutters”. Look at the first question on the Rejesus et al survey:
    I believe climate change has been scientifically proven.
    What does that mean? I would have great difficulty interpreting and answering that question. Then look at the last lot of questions:
    Lastly, producers were asked about their perceptions on how farmers in their region might respond…
    Woo, spot the difference – what I believe, then what people in my area might do.

  12. Good catch Paul regarding ‘what people in my area might do’. But the real difficulty about the Kentucky Farmer template is that, per your mention above and also my reply to Kahan, even completely at face value the JAEE paper doesn’t in the slightest degree support this template personality!

  13. Paul, did you hear? This dumb paper, which couldn’t possibly have been any dumber, just got dumber. An obscure and, frankly, superfluous human being called Paul Thacker, whose accomplishments, as such, extent to the political and not far beyond, was absurdly invited to do a guest post at SciAm:

    In it, he takes the above paper and makes it marginally more incoherent by substituting random words into it.

    What he considers himself to have ‘proven’ by means of this private logomantic rite is left as an exercise to any psychiatrist who still hasn’t cancelled his or her SciAm subscription.

  14. Thanks Brad. Yes, at the very bottom of the heap, below the political activist wing of climate science, and below the political activist wing of social science, there are the journalists. Such as journalist Paul Thacker, who misleadingly portrays himself as a kind of Harvard professor, and simply declares “the science is clear”.

    Joining him in the gutter is Justin Gillis, of the New York Times, who has a recent dumb and dumber article all about what to call people, promoting that dumb petition by dumbskull Mark Boslough calling for a switch from “sceptic” to the D word. There’s a nice response from Roy Spencer, What to call a NYT reporter of climate science?

  15. Gillis is a gutter journalist now?!

    Why am I always the last to hear? I obviously have to ask: how in the God did a sewer mutant with deformities that bad ever land a coveted promotion to the gutter beat? And whose genius idea was it to let the.. organism… in question borrow a ladder??

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