Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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.


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