An Open letter to John Sutter

Sent to him, 9th July.

Dear John,

I was interested to read your article,
“We can’t ignore climate change skeptics — even if we really, really want to”
on your CNN blog.

It was encouraging to read your remarks
“My hunch — and my hope — is that by talking with skeptics, and by honestly listening to their life stories and points of view, there will be something to learn about how we can move on as a country together”
“My goal, instead, is to understand where they’re coming from — to lend an open, honest ear, to hear their stories”,
since it is quite rare for journalists to express such views.

I have attached my paper, “Why are people skeptical about climate change? Some insights from blog comments”, recently published in the journal Environmental Communication, which discusses exactly the issue you raise, of where climate sceptics come from and what their stories are.

The paper is based on a 2010 blog comment thread, “Reader Background” at The Air Vent blog where over 150 climate skeptics discuss their background and the reasons behind their skepticism.  A more recent thread of a similar type, can be found at Judith Curry’s blog, Climate etc, under the link Denizens II.
I recommend reading the comments on these threads. Of course, these represent the small minority of climate skeptics who actively comment on blogs.  You will note that many of the people commenting there have a strong scientific background.  There is a wide range of views, from ‘lukewarmer’ to more strongly sceptical positions – this indicates that statements such as “xx% of the population are climate skeptics” are misleading and unnecessarily polarising. There is also a very wide range of reasons for becoming skeptical. Some recall previous scares that failed to materialize, such as the 1970s ice age scare (yes, it did happen, despite the attempts of some to write it out of history) when we were told by scientists that we were getting more droughts or storms as a result of cooling of the climate.
Perhaps the most relevant driver for climate skepticism from your perspective as a journalist is the ‘alarmism’ and ‘hype’ associated with the climate change story. As one commenter puts it,
“Then Gore came along with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ that set off my BS alarm”.
I wonder if you are aware of the extent to which journalists such as yourself, churning out the climate scare on an almost daily basis, are responsible for generating skepticism?

A less encouraging aspect of your article is your quotation of Oreskes and Lewandowsky. These people have no interest in forming a genuine understanding of climate skepticism. Their aim is to smear and abuse climate skeptics, by labelling them as “merchants of doubt” or “conspiracy theorists” or “deniers”.
If you wanted to find out why people don’t believe in God, would you consult the Pope?
Again, these aggressive attacks backfire, by creating sympathy for climate skeptics. I see that your twitter account says you are “Rooting for the world’s underdogs” – in which case logically you ought to be supporting climate skeptics.

If you have any questions or wish to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me by email or via the blog.


20 July: After 11 tweet-less days, Sutter said:
“PS: I’m back from Climate Skeptic Land (Oklahoma). Several people told me they don’t believe in climate change BECUASE @algore does…”
(and then apologised for his spelling).

4 Aug: Thanks to Clivere in the comments for pointing to Sutter’s article Woodward County, Oklahoma: Where no one believes in climate change? It’s quite a long article, but he doesn’t seem to have made an effort to understand climate sceptics, beyond getting a few soundbites like “I think all this global warming crap is overblown”. [For some reason he’s now changed the title to “Woodward County, Oklahoma: Why do so many here doubt climate change?”, a question he fails to answer]


Circling the Square

Circling the square

I’ve been attending a two-day meeting at Nottingham, Circling the Square, organised by Reiner Grundmann and colleagues from the Institute for Science and Society at Nottingham. This follows a successful similar meeting last year. The conference has its own blog, where video, audio and text from the meeting are gradually being uploaded.

The themes of the meeting were science and its links with policy, with the public and with the media. Many aspects of science were discussed, including for example drugs policy, where ex-Government Advisor David Nutt gave a keynote talk that contained some interesting points but rather over-stated his case with some dubious claims. But I will concentrate here on the climate-related aspects of the meeting. Whereas some social science conferences on these topics are little more than echo chambers for activists, this is certainly not the case with this meeting, which included a broad range of views.

Mike Hulme – “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”

Mike Hulme (UEA) is the author of (amongst many other publications) an interesting book Why we disagree about climate change.

On Tuesday morning, he gave an hour-long keynote talk on “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”, discussing issues around the consensus debate on climate change. He asked whether consensus messaging is normal or useful in science, and whether figures such as 97% actually mean anything. He noted that the ‘high degree of consensus’ was used in the first IPCC assessment (1990), arising from group deliberations, and that more recently this had been picked up by what he called the ‘consensus entrepreneurs’ and ‘consensus defenders’.

He discussed possible motivations for the consensus, including shoring up authority, providing a foundation for policy, and closing down dissent, before describing the so-called linear model, or “the plan” (Sarewitz), or “gateway belief”, which states that establishing a scientific consensus with the public will lead to public support and policy action. He mentioned a recent paper by Van der Linden et al that claimed to find evidence to support this. But bizarrely, their own data in fact does not support the hypothesis at all – their measure of support for action only rose marginally from 75.2 to 76.9, as noted by Dan Kahan, who had previously pointed out that a decade or so of consensus messaging has had no impact.

He also quoted from a paper “Should we aim for consensus?” by Beatty and Moore (2010): “Requirement of unanimity is pernicious” and “the authority of a scientific body is not undermined by questioning, but depends on it”. A key point he made was that consensus is insufficient – far more important than the numerical value of any consensus is the character and integrity of the scientists.

Here is his conclusions slide (HT Mike Schafer)

The ensuing Q&A session discussed whether consensus messengers were mainly from other fields, whether climate scientists had overstated the case, and whether consensus messaging could fail because of the romantic appeal of the underdog.

“Science advice” panel

The remaining sessions were in the form of ‘panels’ where a group of three or four people give very short introductory talks around a theme, followed by a substantial discussion session involving audience and panel members.

The first panel session was on “Science advice” and opened with some words of wisdom from Miles Parker, who had worked at DEFRA. He said that scientific advisors needed to ‘understand their interlocutors’, something that scientists were not really trained to do. ‘If you want to advise, first listen’. Perhaps David Nutt could have benefited from this.
Also on this panel was climate scientist Hans von Storch. He emphasized that scientists have their own values and preferences, and tend to think of their own fields as being particularly significant, and that scientists should be more aware of their own cultural background and ways of thinking. His text has been posted on the conference website.

“Science, uncertainty and science advocacy” panel

On Monday afternoon, Judith Curry was on a panel on the topic of “Science, uncertainty and science advocacy”. Her introductory statement can be seen at her blog. She defined advocacy as “forceful persuasion”, making an analogy with lawyers. She said she was concerned that too many scientists, and too many professional societies, were indulging in advocacy. She also complained that she herself had been (falsely in her view) accused of advocacy. She felt that many climate scientists have done a poor job of assessing uncertainty, and understated it. She pointed out that there is really no code of conduct for scientists communicating with the public, and this had resulted in irresponsible behaviour by some.

On the same panel, Conrad Brunk made some similar points: science is increasingly being used for advocacy, and there is a tendency to downplay uncertainty. Scientists talk to the public in a different way from how they talk to each other, and this can make them vulnerable to criticism.

Daniel Sarewitz made some interesting points about uncertainty. He said that uncertainty is easy to define if you have a large sample of data points, but this is not the case for ‘wicked problems’ such as GM and climate. For example, he said that statements such as “there’s a 10% chance of 6C of warming this century” really have no meaning. He suggested that in such cases we should not use the word “uncertainty”, but should talk about “disagreement” instead.

“Science and the media” panel

This was followed by a panel session on “Science and the media” including Leo Hickman, formerly of the Guardian, now at Carbon Brief, who discussed the role of the advocating journalist, saying that this was valid as long as it was transparent. He also addressed the issue of poorly worded press releases (this was also discussed last year, particularly by David Colquhoun). He proposed that it was important for the scientists themselves to take control over press releases and sign them off personally, rather than relying on University press offices.

Mike Schäfer (Zurich) also spoke about the problems with press releases – according to one investigation, 40% of university press releases contain exaggeration. He also raised concern about possible increasing segmentation, with people selecting their own preferred media source now that so many different sources are available.

“Science and the civil society” panel

On Tuesday after Mike Hulme’s talk there was a session on “Science and civil society” that included Ben Pile. He described a ‘bubble’ of interactions between governments, academia, NGOs and business, from which he said the public was excluded. He criticised NGOs, saying that they were sometimes incorrectly seen as representing the public, and that this amounted to a ‘democratic deficit’. He showed data indicating decreasing hunger and mortality, together with increasing food production and GDP in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and said that statistics showed that climate was well down on the list of risk factors for developing countries – thus challenging the “climate change predominantly affects the poor” narrative.

In the ensuing discussion, Peter Webster mentioned the substantial drop in deaths from storms, which can be attributed to greatly improved weather forecasts. Ben’s controversial remarks about NGOs went unchallenged until, near the end of the discussion, panel member Maurice Frankel (famous for his role in the FoI campaign) said that he didn’t see a problem with NGOs, as they countered the view of the industry lobby.

It was interesting and encouraging to see Ben Pile and co-panellist Stevianna de Saille chatting amicably afterwards, despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views on environmental activism and green NGOs.

Thanks to Reiner Grundmann and colleagues for organising a very interesting meeting (and apologies to all those panellists I haven’t mentioned).

Angry intolerance backfires

Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt made some very stupid remarks about women in science. He says they were intended as a joke, but they certainly weren’t taken that way. According to his wife, he was told to resign immediately or be fired. He was also forced to resign from other posts. Despite this, he continued to be vilified by the Angry Intolerant Left (AIL), with remarks like

This is a moment to savour.

Sympathy for The Devil? My thoughts on the #TimHunt “witch hunt”.

while others completely misrepresented what had happened:

If someone’s going around screaming “I’M A WITCH” and turning people into toads, politely asking him to stop is not a “witch hunt”.

Some people, notably Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, said there had been an over-reaction. They were in turn attacked, and their statements misrepresented, by the AIL:

Here is my response to @thetimes, and less predictable apologists for sexism. @RichardDawkins and @ProfBrianCox

In the last few days, sympathy for Hunt seems to have increased. Eight Nobel prizewinners spoke out. The Boston globe wrote an article The right to be stupid, and the Guardian/Observer wrote about the support Hunt received from female scientists, saying that support for him has ‘mushroomed’. These pieces in two left-leaning newspapers, who would normally be expected to follow the PC line,  show how badly the behaviour of the AIL has backfired. An editorial in The Week goes further:
“Look at the savagery with which poor Tim Hunt was hounded for his silly comments about women…A key aspect of tolerance is to make allowances for people’s stupidity, for their gaffes, for their psychological hangups. They deserve a fair measure of ridicule, but we seem much happier turning fools into enemies, demanding their excommunication and savouring their despair.”

The General Election

In a previous post I discussed the possible reasons for the surprise Conservative victory and the failure of the pollsters to predict it.
An interesting article by Diana Beech in the Times Higher suggests that the AIL may have played a role here. An academic at Cambridge, she describes how she approached the election as a floating voter without strong political views, but was put off by the attitude of her (mainly academic) friends and colleagues:
“instead of managing to persuade me to put a cross in the box for the Left, the relentless, self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed only drove me away from even considering joining their cause.”
“Of course, I want to see fairness, equality and justice prevail in any policies governing my country. But I didn’t appreciate seeing, time and time again, posts from my peers packed full of expletives implying that I was bigoted for even doubting the Labour or the Green economic approach.”

She voted Conservative. Another backfire for the angry intolerant left.

The Climate Debate

There is an analogy in the case of public opinion over climate change. Some people seem to be puzzled that public concern over climate change, and support for climate policy, are not as high as they would like. Well, I’ve written a paper about this. One factor may be the tendency for some at the extreme left of the climate spectrum to denounce anyone who doesn’t share their views as a “climate denier”, or as “oil shills” or paid by the Koch brothers. While some sceptics and lukewarmers get quite cross about this, I don’t, firstly because resorting to such childish name-calling shows that they have no valid arguments, and secondly because this intolerant aggressive behaviour is likely to backfire. A recent paper, The ironic impact of activists, indicates that some social scientists are becoming aware of this point.

Making things up about Jeb Bush

I’m no fan of the Bush family. I couldn’t believe it when those dumb Americans voted for W, then did it again 4 years later. Now apparently his brother Jeb is going to stand for President. Those Yanks must be so glad they got rid of hereditary monarchy.

But to climate activists, it seems that Jeb Bush is so evil that misrepresenting what he said is perfectly acceptable, and normal standards of integrity don’t apply.

Here’s what Bush said, according to Reuters

“Look, first of all, the climate is changing. I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.”

“It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t even have a conversation about it. The climate is changing, and we need to adapt to that reality.”

Now here’s how the climate propaganda brigade reported what he said. First up, Mat Hope, Associate Editor at NatureClimate with a focus on social sciences.

A double misrepresentation – Bush didn’t refer to scientists, nor did he he say talking about climate science was arrogant. When challenged on this, Hope claimed that it was “fair paraphrasing” and that his tweet was an “analysis” of what Bush had said.

Not quite as bad, climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said

Here he’s making an unjustified presumption – there’s no evidence he was talking about climate scientists. In fact “The science is settled” tends to be a claim made by journalists and politicians, not scientists. Since Bush is a politician, he’s probably talking about Obama.

Then there was the ubiquitous Bob Ward,

Quite was is meant to be “denial” in Bush’s statement isn’t clear.

Finally, HuffPost writer Kate Sheppard says

Bizarrely, she quotes Bush in her article, so anyone reading it can see that her tweet and the headline of her HuffPo article are, in the words of one of the climategate emails, “not especially honest”.

Tangentially related to this, and following up from the previous post on why the election opinion polls were wrong, there’s an interesting article in the Times Higher by an academic, Diana Beech, who confesses to the sin of voting Conservative. She says she was a floating voter but was driven to the right by the “self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed”. She goes on to say “The belligerence of the Left’s intelligentsia in the social media sphere – at least in my circles – left no room for the balanced, honest debate which could have ultimately brought undecided voters into the fold.”

Climate communication experts could perhaps benefit from reading this and giving some thought to how this might work in the case of public opinion on climate change, where the belligerence and intolerance of the activist left is just as bad, if not worse. It’s unlikely that Hope, Oppenheimer, Ward and Sheppard will take any notice.

Another triumph of expert predictions

One theme of this blog has been the failure of the predictions made by expert climate scientists, together with the failure to acknowledge or investigate this failure.

Last night we had another very interesting example of expert predictions failing. With all the results now in, we know that the Conservatives have 331 seats, and Labour 232.

How does this compare with the various predictions made just before the vote?

Con Lab Con – Lab
Final Result 331 232 99
YouGov (Peter Kellner) 284 263 21
Bookies (oddschecker) 287 267 20
Nate Silver (538) 278 267 11
Guardian 273 273 0
British Election Study 274 278 – 4

I’ve listed here some of the predictions made yesterday, in decreasing order of accuracy (Con-Lab difference). The “Bookies” row comes from Oddschecker, which lists odds provided by 20 or so bookies in a neat Table form (currently showing, for example, the options for next Labour Leader). You’ll have to take my word for it that I copied down their most likely outcome correctly. Nate Silver’s prediction is still on-line; he is sometimes regarded as a guru of great wisdom, despite having got the 2010 UK election spectacularly wrong (he predicted about 100 Lib Dem seats). The final projection from the Guardian was a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives. The British Election Study is a group of, um, expert UK academics. Their final forecast is here.

The first thing to note of course is that everyone got it badly wrong, greatly underestimating the Conservative support. Reasons for this include
(a) the “Closet Conservative” factor – there is a tendency for people not to own up to supporting the Conservative party, and
(b) incorrect sampling by the pollsters – perhaps quiet conservatives stay at home, don’t answer the phone much and aren’t as eager as some others to express their opinions.
However, I thought that the pollsters were well aware of these factors, particularly since the 1992 election when something very similar happened, and compensated for it.

But what I found most interesting is that of all the predictions, the worst was that given by the team of expert university academics. Roger Pielke wrote a post about their predictions back in March, when their average prediction was similar to that in the table above, suggesting a small lead for Labour. There was a consensus – in fact not a 97% consensus, but a 100% consensus – among the experts that the Conservatives would get less than 300 seats. But the consensus was wrong.
Why does a team of experts perform worse than the bookies, who presumably base their odds mainly on the money placed, i.e. on public opinion?! One possible explanation for this apparent contradiction is suggested by the work of Jose Duarte and others, on the effects of the well-known left-wing bias in academia; it may be that inadvertently the researchers are building in their own political bias into the assumptions they make in their model, and this is influencing their results.

Other possible explanations for the surprise election results and the apparent failure of the expert predictions are as follows:

  • This is just a short-term fluctuation – a hiatus, or pause, in the Labour vote – that the models cannot be expected to predict correctly. The experts have much more confidence in their projection for the 2100 election. (HT David)
  • The raw data from the election results is not reliable, and needs to be adjusted by the experts. After suitable UHI and homogeneity adjustments have been applied, the results are in line with the expert predictions, and Ed Miliband is declared the new Prime Minister.
  • More funding and bigger computers are urgently needed, so that we can get more accurate predictions.
  • The missing Labour voters are hiding at the bottom of the oceans.

Finally, Feynman’s rule applies again:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Updates and links:

Roger Pielke has published his evaluation of the predictions: “… mass carnage for the forecasters”. He notes a really interesting point, that asking people who they think will win in the constituency is more effective than asking them who they will vote for.
He also has an article in the Guardian.

The BBC has a post-mortem How did pollsters get it so wrong? which asks many questions but offers few answers beyond mentioning the “shy conservative” effect.

One Survation poll was very accurate – but was not published because it was so out of line with all the others!

Both the Tories and Labour had their own internal polls in the final week suggesting that the seat split would be about 300 – 250 (The Times, 9 May). But they kept this to themselves, either doubting it or in Labour’s case so as not to discourage the faithful.

Paddy Ashdown argues that the inaccurate opinion polls were a factor in the Lib Dem collapse – if the polls had shown the true Tory lead, the SNP fear factor would have been diminished and the value of the Lib Dems as a moderating influence would have been enhanced.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan says the answer to why the polls got it wrong is given in this quote from Edmund Burke, a more poetic version of my answer (b).

Frank Furedi in Spiked goes for answer (a): “Is it not worrying that in a free society ordinary citizens feel uncomfortable with publicly expressing their true opinions?”

Josh has produced a cartoon

Josh also links to a Dan Hodges piece from April 30th predicting a Tory lead of 6-7 points – spot on (Andrew Lawrence got it right too – see also Ian Woolley’s comment below).


Newsnight on 11 May looked into why the polls did badly. Survation thought there was simply a late swing. Labour’s internal poll had shown they were behind for months – more details here and here. The “shy conservative” and “poor sampling” factors were also mentioned.

Lord Ashcroft says he did not make a prediction, but then contradicts himself by saying he got it right regarding Scotland and UKIP. Acknowledging the underestimate of the Con vote, he suggests late swing, Tory micro-targetting of key seats, and Shy Tory as factors. (In my marginal constituency there was no effective Tory micro-targetting).

In The Conversation there’s a jaw-dropping apologia for the failure of the pollsters by two academics who seem to be in denial. They come up with a confidence intervals excuse that doesn’t survive the simplest scrutiny – see my comment there. There’s a climate analogy here again – the group defends itself and refuses to acknowledge its errors.

538 are much more honest, admitting straight away that they got it wrong. They say they adjusted for the “stick with what we know” factor, but nowhere near enough. A second article says it’s all down to getting the vote share wrong, but doesn’t say why they got that wrong.

Matt Singh has a post-mortem saying that factors may be electoral flux (meaning things were very different this time because of UKIP and the SNP), shy voters, and overestimated turnout. He also wrote a very detailed blog post on the shy Tory effect the day before the election, ending with a spot-on prediction of a Con lead of 6 points (HT botzarelli in comments).

In the Mail, an Ipsos Mori pollster claims that the problem with the polls was mainly that the Labour supporters just didn’t bother to vote. I don’t find that explanation at all convincing.

David Spiegelhalter says he got it wrong and acknowledges Matt Singh’s success. He praises the exit poll, discusses some suggestions for improvement but sits on the fence regarding what actually went wrong.

The Guardian says that more accurate results are obtained if you ask people other questions about their values first, rather than just leaping in with “who are you going to vote for”. This sounds odd to me – like steering. It also repeats the claim that the Tory internal polls had told them they’d win comfortably.

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.