Posts Tagged ‘anti-science’

Climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey

June 26, 2010

It has long puzzled me why so many people don’t accept the science. There is a tremendous difference in opinion about climate change amongst the lay public as compared to in the scientific community. I’m hardly alone in pondering the question of why (see e.g. this insightful post). It’s clearly an important issue if we are to increase the public’s understanding of climate change. Of course it is only to be expected that some people are skeptical: Naturally there is a spectrum of opinions. But that does not explain why that spectrum is so dramatically different between different groups of people (the lay public and the professional scientists in this case). To name a few plausible reasons:

  • Ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science: Mitigation of climate change is seen as threatening by many libertarians, because they associate mitigation with government intervention, which they oppose.
  • Psychology can also be very powerful: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans on the internet and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). The mitigation challenge is very great indeed, which means that it is psychologically favorable to downplay the problem (so as not to get depressed or feeling guilty about everything you do and don’t do). Recently I hear more often that people side with skeptics because they are ‘nicer’. A little odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not).
  • Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: Some well educated people from other disciplines view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision.
  • And of course some are just confused. With not a little help from the media, who, in an effort to provide ‘balance’, bias the coverage towards the “skeptical” compared to the mainstream view.
  • Then there are organized efforts at muddying the waters, which bear a resemblance to tactics used by e.g. the tobacco lobby. It is based on manufacturing doubt amongst the public regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. This mainly applies to certain thinktanks and a few handfuls of individuals, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the media and public perception of the issues. The ‘tactics’ used are in more widespread use, whether consciously or not.

“Old skepticism”

This last category, organized denial and anti-science, could perhaps be seen as the “old skepticism”. It has its roots in history, notably the tobacco wars. It then spilled over to denying environmental issues, such as problems associated with DDT, asbestos, CFC’s, and now CO2. Fred Singer is one of the godfathers of this movement. Recognizing this historical context is important in understanding the nature and tactics of the resistance against science. But it also bears a risk.

Too often, anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus is called an oil shill, or compared with the tobacco apologists. In most cases, these comparisons are totally off base (at least on the individual level) and counterproductive. Even though it is an important context, overusing this categorization for individuals can easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Not everyone who is skeptical of AGW is in the pay of big oil or is consciously mimicking the tobacco strategies. If someone says that I’ve overused it in the past as well: Guilty as charged.

“New skepticism”

In the previous post I discussed a potential new form of skepticism, which according to some resemble “citizen scientists”. They are usually well educated and skilled people, who investigate specific issues of climate science (hockeysticks, anyone?) in more detail, and find them wanting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s getting problematic if they conflate these details with what is known about the bigger picture, or if they started out with a deep suspicion that the science as a whole is faulty (e.g. for reasons such as stated above).

The more contempt they show for science, the more they argue the big picture of what’s known, the more they rage against emission reductions and talk about ‘world communist governments’ and other paranoid ideas like that, the less serious I take their criticism. Because to me, these are not characteristics of sincere skepticism; to the contrary.

Organized defamation and anti-science

February 26, 2010

John Mashey explains how organized defamation of science has been structured and funded. Good (and long) reading, though bad for your blood pressure. Some excerpts:

Anti-science manufactures public ignorance or doubt regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. Many anti-science PR tactics were created for the tobacco companies in1954, and employed since for other areas, sometimes by the same people.

Science. Real science starts with research, followed by peer-reviewed publication in credible places, and most crucially via repeated evaluation by field researchers. Like the Great Wall built over time, brick by brick, it does not fall down because one brick jiggles. Science accumulates over time, with large collections of research, rarely dependent on any one paper.

Pseudoscience. When ideas are repeatedly examined, often explicitly refuted, but originators persist in the face of a strong imbalance of evidence, at some point it becomes pseudoscience, an attempt to convince scientists to adopt an idea for which the balance of evidence is strongly adverse.

Science-noise. In communicating new results to the public, the end-to-end process easily over-interprets results, loses caveats, or creates outright errors, as often happens in space-constrained newspaper headlines. Signal is often obscured by noise, purposeful or accidental, which can either increase or lessen the perceived importance of some scientific result.

Anti-science. The deliberate production of ignorance and doubt (…) employed especially when research results threaten strong economic or ideological interests. It is rarely intended to convince field professionals, but to confuse the public and especially decision-makers in government and business. Many modern anti-science tactics were invented by Hill & Knowlton in 1954 for tobacco companies and used thereafter, often by the same people and organizations, especially in fighting environmental regulations. However, the rise of the Internet has offered new opportunities for anti-science amplification. Anti-science sometimes employs its own science-noise and even pseudoscience. Suppose someone writes a peer-reviewed paper showing some well-caveated, modest effect, but then drastically and repeatedly over-interprets it for non-field audiences via OpEds, lectures, blogs, websites, claiming it has demolished decades of careful research. That is usually deliberate anti-science, not just science-noise. Organized anti-science seeks to bypass science.

Classic Science Bypass Methods. A few prestigious physicists have long campaigned to nullify the results of climate research, especially policies deriving from it, or more generally to obscure any science that might lead to government environmental regulation of almost any sort. They have been joined by many others. This has been done, not by publishing peer-reviewed research, but via PR techniques for creating doubt in the general population. The general approach was created by Hill and Knowlton in 1954 for the tobacco companies to fend off unwanted regulation, in the booklet “A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy”:

This approach was classic science bypass – get quotes from authoritative-sounding sources, distribute to a large public audience, to create doubt and delay. This approach has long been employed since to fight most environmental regulation, whether warranted or not. The themes were:

  • The evidence is still inconclusive. [This can be repeated ad nauseam, as absolute proof is unattainable – BV]
  • Something other than smoking may be responsible.
  • Statistical evidence can‘t be trusted.
  • It‘s all a scare campaign.
  • The issue is too complicated, even for scientists.
  • Nit-picking at irrelevant details. [McIntyre, anyone? – BV]
  • More research is necessary.

The similarities with the tactics used by climate “skeptics” is obvious.

See also:

Book “Climate cover up” detailing the trail and tactics of the climate disinformation campaign

Book “Doubt is their product” about the successful tobacco strategies being copied in the climate debate.

Michael Tobis on how science should and should not be used in society

Spencer Weart provides historical context to the manipulation of public opinion.

Great talk by Naomi Oreskes on the American denial of global warming on youtube.

Why denial of a difficult problem is psychologically favored

Chris Mooney on pseudo-skeptical tactics being used

Jules investigating similarities in the climate change and tobacco strategies.

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