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Aug112013

What "climate skeptics" have in common with "believers": a stubborn attraction to evidence-free, just-so stories about the formation of public risk perceptions

My aim in studying the science of science communication is to advance practical understanding of how to promote constructive public engagement with the best available evidence—not to promote public acceptance of particular conclusions about what that evidence signifies or public support for any particular set of public policies.

When I address the sources of persistent public conflict over climate change, though, it seems pretty clear to me that those with a practical interest in using the best evidence on science communication are themselves predominantly focused on dispelling what they see as a failure on the part of the public to credit valid evidence on the extent, sources, and deleterious consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

I certainly have no problem with that! On the contrary, I'm eager to help them, both because I believe their efforts will promote more enlightened policymaking on climate change and because I believe their self-conscious use of evidence-based methods of science communication will itself enlarge knowledge on how to promote constructive public engagement with decision-relevant science generally. 

Indeed, I am generally willing and eager to counsel policy advocates no matter what their aim so long as they are seeking to achieve it by enhancing reasoned public engagement with valid scientific evidence (and am decidedly uninterested, and adamantly unwilling, to help anyone who wants to achieve a policy outcome, no matter how much I support the same, by means that involve misrepresenting evidence, manipulating the public, or otherwise bypassing ordinary citizens' use of their own reasoning powers to make up their own minds).

One thing that puzzles me, though, is why those who are skeptical about climate change don’t seem nearly as interested in practical science communication of this sort.

Actually, it’s clear enough that climate skeptics are interested in the sort of work that I and other researchers engaged in the empirical study of science communication do. I often observe them reflecting thoughtfully about that work, and I even engage them from time to time in interesting, informative discussion of these studies.

But I don’t see skeptics grappling in the earnest—even obsessive, anxious—way that climate-change policy advocates are with the task of how to promote better public understanding.

That seems weird to me. 

After all, there is a symmetry in the position of “believers” and “skeptics” in this regard. 

They disagree about what conclusion the best scientific evidence on climate change supports, obviously. But they both have to confront that approximately 50% of the U.S. public disagrees with their position on that.

The U.S. public has been and remains deeply divided on whether climate change is occurring, why, and what the impact of this will be (over this entire period, there’s also been a recurring, cyclical interest in proclaiming, on the basis of utterly inconclusive tib bits of information, that public conflict is dissipating and being superseded by an emerging popular demand for “decisive action” in response to the climate crisis; I’m not sure what explains this strange dynamic).

The obvious consequence of such confusion is divisive, disheartening conflict, and a disturbingly high likelihood that popularly accountable policymaking institutions will as a result fail to adopt policies consistent with the best available scientific evidence.

Don’t skeptics want to do something about this?

A great many of them honestly believe that the best available evidence supports their views (I really don’t doubt this is so). So why aren’t they holding conferences dedicated to making sense of the best available evidence on public science communication and how to use that evidence to guide the public toward a state of shared understanding more consistent with it?

I often ask skeptics who comment on blog posts here this question, and feel like I am yet to get a satisfying answer.

But maybe my mystification reflects biased sampling on my part.

Maybe, despite my desire to engage constructively with anyone whose own practical aims involve promoting constructive public engagement with scientific evidence, I am still being exposed to an unrepresentative segment of the population who fit that description, one over-representing climate-change believers.

I happened across something that made me think that might be so.

It consists of a blog post from a skeptic who is trying to explain to others who share the same orientation why it is that such a large fraction of the U.S. population believes that climate change resulting from fossil fuel consumption poses serious risks to human wellbeing.

As earnest and reflective as the account was, this climate skeptic’s account deployed exactly the same facile set of just-so tropes—constructed from the same evidence-free style of selective synthesizing of decision-science mechanisms—that continue to dominate, and distort, the thinking of climate change believers when they are addressing the “science communication problem.”

Consider:

Why do people believe that global warming has already created bigger storms? Because when "experts" repeatedly tell us that global warming will wreck the Earth, we start to fit each bad storm into the disaster narrative that's already in our heads.

Also, attention-seeking media wail about increased property damage from hurricanes. . . .

Also, thanks to modern media and camera phones, we hear more about storms, and see the damage. People think Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 people, was the deadliest storm ever. But the 1900 Galveston hurricane killed 10,000 people. We just didn't have so much media then.

Here they are, all the usual “culprits”: a “boundedly rational” public, whose reliance on heuristic forms of information-processing are being exploited by strategic misinformers, systematically biased by “unbalanced” media coverage and amplified by social media.

Every single element of this account—while plausible on its own—is in fact contrary to the best available evidence on public risk perception and the dynamics of science communication. 

  • Blaming the media is also pretty weak. The claim that "unbalanced" media coverage causes public controversy on climate change science is incompatible with cross-cultural evidence, which shows that US coverage is no different from coverage in other nations in which the public isn't polarized (e.g., Sweden). Indeed, the "media misinformation" claim has causation upside down, as  Kevin Arceneaux’s recent post helps to show. The media covers competing claims about the evidence because climate change is entangled in culturally antagonistic meanings, which in turn create persistent public demand for information on the nature of the conflict and for evidence that the readers who hold the relevant cultural identities can use to satisfy their interest in persisting in beliefs consistent with their identities. 
  • The “internet echo chamber” hypothesis is similarly devoid of evidence. There are plenty of evidence-based sources that address and dispel the general claim that the internet reinforces partisan exposure to and processing of evidence (sources that apparently can’t penetrate the internet echo chamber, which continues to propagate the echo-chamber claim despite the absence of evidence).

But here's one really simple way to tell that the blog writer's explanation of why people are overestimating the risks of climate change is patent B.S.: it is constructed out of exactly the same mechanisms that so many theorists on the other side of the debate imaginatively combine to explain why people are underestimating exactly the same risks. 

This is the tell-tale signature of a just-so story: it can explain anything one sees and its opposite equally well!

So what to say?

Well, it turns out that despite their disagreement about what the best scientific evidence on climate change signifies--about what the facts are, and about what policy responses are appropriately responsive to them—advocates in the “believer” and “skeptic” camps have some important common science communication interests.

They both have an interest in understanding it and using it, as I indicated at the outset.

But beyond that, they both have a stake in freeing themselves from the temptation to be regaled by story tellers, who, despite the abundance of evidence that now exists, remain committed to perpetually recycling empirically discredited just-so stories rather than making use of and extending the best available evidence on what the science communication problem consists in and how to fix it.

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Reader Comments (117)

So why aren’t they holding conferences dedicated to making sense of the best available evidence on public science communication and how to use that evidence to guide the public toward a state of shared understanding more consistent with it?

Not to disagree with the main theme of the post, but does this not fit your criteria?:

http://climateconferences.heartland.org/

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"One thing that puzzles me, though, is why those who are skeptical about climate change don’t seem nearly as interested in practical science communication of this sort."

Because to a large extent we don't see it as an advertising campaign and are not trying to persuade people.

What we're saying is that this is our opinion, these are our arguments as to why we think catastrophic climate change predictions are wrong, that the proposed mitigation policies are misguided, that climate science is of poor quality, and that it's our world too and we ought to be allowed to express our views and have a say in the decision.

When sceptics talk, it's not about what the audience believes - it's about what sceptics believe, and what's true. If you find the arguments convincing and become a sceptic, that's great! But it's not the primary aim. The aim is to have explained our views, and for people to have thought about them.

Also, there is the fact that a lot of sceptics are highly cynical about the weight public opinion has in this decision, and do not share the advocates' belief that if all the public were more enthusiastic that the desired political changes would be implemented. Believers seem to have got hold of this strange idea that it is public scepticism about climate change that is holding the politicians back, when the politicians made their reasons very clear in things like the Byrd-Hagel resolution, and which the subsequent international climate negotiations have confirmed. Sceptics are naturally pleased if a lot of the public turn out to be sceptical, but we don't think it will make much difference.

Part of the reason as well may be the belief that scepticism is a PR campaign run by a conspiracy of oil companies and therefore their response is thought of as some sort of counter-campaign. Sceptics on the other hand don't like PR campaigns, they find it one of the most irritating features of the whole thing, so it generally never occurs to them to try to run one.

However, there are a few organised sceptic groups that do think in terms of persuasion and political influence - the think-tanks such as Heartland are examples. This has of course led to the a belief that these are somehow at the heart of scepticism in some sort of leadership role, which if scepticism was indeed a PR campaign would make sense. But in fact, the blogs are the heart of the movement, each working independently for their own reasons, and the think-tanks are very much followers. They sometimes make themselves useful, but they're not really what it's all about.

However, if you wanted to find sceptics interested in science communication techniques, the think-tanks would be your best bet.

Personally, I'm mainly interested in trying to understand why people believe as they do, and how people can look at the same evidence and come to such different conclusions.

The 'just so' stories I think are just the way people naturally come up with plausible-sounding explanations and get attached to them. There's a common belief that rational people ought to come to the same conclusions from the same evidence, so bounded-rationality and limited-information are obvious explanations. Abandoning them means abandoning the assumption that there's only one possible rational conclusion, which leads on to further cognitive dissonance on a range of other beliefs. I don't think people really follow this 'adverse consequences' argument as such, but it's why the system 1 processing reacts against it, and finds it so difficult to believe.

But I think the main reason so many people follow the bounded-rationality and limited-information theses is that word of the counter-evidence against them hasn't got around. That is, of course, itself a limited-information thesis I've just come up with, but what can I do? I'm only human, after all. :-)

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Because to a large extent we don't see it as an advertising campaign and are not trying to persuade people.

The royal we, huh?

Good lord, NiV - you may actually believe that, but I really, really have a hard time believing that you believe it.

Sceptics on the other hand don't like PR campaigns, they find it one of the most irritating features of the whole thing, so it generally never occurs to them to try to run one.

http://www.csmonitor.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/content/2012/0507-heartland-institute-unabomber/12481481-1-eng-US/0507-heartland-institute-unabomber_full_600.jpg

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Yes, Joshua. And if you'll recall, a lot of sceptics found Heartland's advert very irritating.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Here's what Watts - certainly one of the most prominent "skeptics" - had to say about the Heartland billboard:

“That said, I’ll be blunt, I think Heartland’s billboard campaign is a huge misstep, and does nothing but piss people off and divide the debate further. IMHO it isn’t going to win any converts, and had they asked me I would have told them that it is a bad idea that will backfire on them.”

Looks to me like he was very concerned about the PR impact of the billboard And look at the comments in the thread to see whether or not the blog-participating "skeptics" felt differently. (In all fairness, some do object to the PR aspect on principle, but it is a notable minority who express such a view. Seems to me that most of the objections are because the "skeptical" blog commenters feel the billboard was bad from a PR perspective).


The Heartland Institute billboard, while maybe the most stupid such PR initiative on the part of "skeptics," is certainly not the only such initiative:

http://www.cfact.org/2013/07/30/cfacts-new-billboard-exposes-global-warming-in-their-own-words/
http://www.cleantechblog.com/2006/05/carbon-dioxide-they-call-it-pollution.html

The CEI, The Manhattan Institute, The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The AEI all spend money on PR efforts. Where do you see "skeptics" being critical of those initiatives? Those foundations are inextricably linked to prominent "skeptics" such as Morano or Bastardi.

You try to draw some clear line of distinction between think tanks and "skeptics." What sort of objective criteria do you use to do so? Consider, for example, that think tanks sponsor blogs:

http://www.globalwarming.org/

"Skeptics" often say that "skeptics" aren't monolithic - and indeed they are right. But that is why you can't legitimately turn around and try to generalize about "skeptics" in the way that you do. Indeed, <Strong>you may not be concerned about PR - but there is overwhelming that "skeptics" are far from monolithic in that regard, that many absolutely are trying to "convince" people, and that it certainly occurs to many to run PR initiatives.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Watts' reaction to Delingpole's "invoking Goodwin's law."

My issue with James Delingpole simply had to do with handing our opponents another tool to beat us up rhetorically with. When they want to use a broad brush to paint all climate skeptics as nutters, the last thing you want to do is indulge their fantasy by invoking Godwin’s Law, giving them rhetorical ammo that they’ll re-purpose and fire back at us. One thing I’ve learned is that climate extremists have no shame, they’ll take any issue and throw it back at us with wildly inflated claims, just look at Dr. Mann’s tweet above to see this in action....I simply think we shouldn’t hand our opponents new weapons (such as Godwin’s Law eruptions) that they will inevitably use against us; it just isn’t a good strategy. For those in the blogospheric trenches who will now be forced to defend Mr. Delingpole against hyperinflated claims of “calling for my murder” like Dr. Mann has made, I think Delingpole should offer a simple mea culpa to them for the extra difficulties they will now face in the battle.

Here's how he responded to Monckton's Nazi references:

Alarmists in Australia are doing enough damage to themselves with over the top rhetoric. We don’t need to weaken our position on our interpretations of the data uncertainty and the science problems by committing rhetorical suicide.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing Watts for criticizing the over-the-top rhetoric. Credit where credit is due. But let's not play games as to whether part of his criticism is based on PR and convincing people.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Looks to me like he was very concerned about the PR impact of the billboard And look at the comments in the thread to see whether or not the blog-participating "skeptics" felt differently."

That's interesting! Because this is yet another example of two people looking at the same thing and reaching different conclusions.

I say sceptics find PR campaigns irritating and unconvincing, you exhibit an example of a PR campaign that sceptics found irritating and unconvincing, and you conclude from that that the sceptic was irritated that the PR campaign didn't work as a PR campaign. Whereas I read it as irritation that the PR campaign served only to annoy people and polarise the debate, and that using PR and transparent attempts to persuade weakened the sceptic position which is instead about interpretations of data and scientific argument. The comment on it also being unconvincing I read as hypothetical advice offered to someone who had that aim.

Is it just a matter of English comprehension (bounded rationality) or does the meaning actually depend on one's cultural context (cultural cognition)?

Who is better able to tell what sceptics actually intended by what they say - sceptics, or their opponents? What seems the most likely to you?

---

Sceptics like me generally don't mind the efforts of think tanks to persuade people - except when they do something stupid like this - but it's not something we would particularly promote, either. They have a right to their own point of view, and their own approach to the debate, same as everyone else. But they're a side-show, not the main attraction.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Who is better able to tell what sceptics actually intended by what they say - sceptics, or their opponents? What seems the most likely to you?

I think that neither "opponents" nor "skeptics" are inherently better able to tell what a given combatant actually intended by what they said. Both groups of observers would have biasing influences. No doubt, you and I could find similar instances where we interpret what a "realist" has said differently - perhaps something like this:

The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guid[e] what’s included and what is left out.

The speaker has the leg up on what they intended, and everyone else is speculating at best. Would you say that a "realist" is inherently better at interpreting what Al Gore means when he says something tha
"Sceptics like me generally don't mind the efforts of think tanks to persuade people - except when they do something stupid like this - but it's not something we would particularly promote, either.

That's what I'm lobbying for here, NiV (what I emphasized) - an attention to uncertainty and nuance. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of that statement given the qualification. What I have a problem with is when you make broadly categorical statements - either when speaking for "skeptics" as a group (in what usually seems to me to be a angelic soft focus) or characterizing "realists" as a group (in what usually seems to me to be accompanied by menacing theme music).

....you exhibit an example of a PR campaign that sceptics found irritating and unconvincing,...

In contrast to myriad other PR campaigns that don't generate the same kind of irritation and rhetorical criticisms about poor rhetoric. So do you not think, that at least for many, it was the nature of that specific campaign, and not the fact of being a campaign, that was the operative variable?

"Whereas I read it as irritation that the PR campaign served only to annoy people and polarise the debate,"

Actually, that isn't a difference. I read it that way too. Because annoying people and polarizing the debate is bad PR and an ineffective way to convince people.

and that using PR and transparent attempts to persuade weakened the sceptic position which is instead about interpretations of data and scientific argument.

Well - that certainly is what Watts said. I might have something to quibble about there - but it still doesn't stand in contrast to my point. His concern was that weakening the "skeptic" position would make it less convincing and less effective from a PR standpoint.

Again - credit where credit is due for acknowledging that playing the man and not the ball is bad rhetoric. Of course, he frequently doesn't practice what he preaches there, but that fact doesn't lessen the truth that he is correct in that regard. But none of that takes away from his concern about the PR impact because bad PR is ineffective in convincing people.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I seem to view this discussion from an entirely different frame. My frame has two parts--biology and politics.
In the biology frame, a person develops a set of beliefs starting in early childhood. These beliefs get reinforced or not as one grows up. We can associate with each belief a neural number. This number is the number of neural connections that would have to be altered to stably change the belief. Old beliefs, beliefs that have been revisited many times, and beliefs that reinforce each other would have neural numbers in the hundreds of millions. A brand new belief would have a neural number of a few thousand. The cost of changing a belief, in this frame, is proportional to the neural number. One would expect a person to change a belief to a more 'rational' one if the neural number (the cost of the change) was not higher than the person was willing to pay. The cost is not a constant across different people. I like learning new languages and find the cost to be low. Many others will not pay the cost.
Now, if we say that for each person there is a cost of changing a belief, the object of many political parties and other advocacy groups is to find those beliefs that are associated with a high cost of changing. In political speak, this is called finding issues that have 'traction.' Once such an issue is found, the high traction (high polarization) issues can be used to extract contributions from a group of people.
Adding facts to polarizing issues, even adding them very well, would not be expected to reduce the polarization because these issues, ones with traction, were found originally by looking for issues least susceptible to being changed by new facts.
If this analysis is right, the polarizing issues are pseudo-random and the way to get people to change their views is not to give them more facts but to lower their internal cost of changing.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Joshua & @NiV:

I'm eager to be educated; it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that my impressions of how "skeptics" view & are trying to engage the "science communication problem" (which is genuinely the same for them as it is for "believers") have been distorted by selective exposure.

I don't think it is plausible to believe "skeptics don't care" about influence public views or about guiding or improving democratic responsiveness to the best available evidence -- something @NiV could be seen as suggesting in his 1st answer. They have a stake in sensible polieis; they are obviously striking a large involved stance in public deliberations; and as subsquent references to Cato, Heritage, AEI et al. help to show, the cultural/political groups that tend to be "skpeptical" about climate are represented by a policy-analysis, -advocacy apparatus that is vitally involved in shaping and guiding public deliberations on all sorts of issues, including climate!

What I want to know is: (a) how do skeptics view the science communication problem and (b) how do they think it makes sense to fix it?

The post I cited is evidence -- but granted, an isolated piece plucked out in a haphazrd way -- that suggests that skeptics are just as innocent of what the evidence is, and of the importance of even looking at evidence, on science communication as many highly visible, highly financed climate-change believer advocates' are.

E.g., Gore's group (Climate REality) continues to engage in a style of culturally assaultive advocacy aggressively at odds with such evidence, much of which was in fact generated by observation of the self-defeating effects of excactly that style of advoacy over the last decade.

The Heartland "PR" efforts are the mirror image of that form of culturally assaultive advoacy. If the goal of those enagaging in it is to promote public engagement with science, then the architects of those "messaging campaigns" are genuine idiots. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I had been assuming that wasn't their goal; that in fact, they wanted to inflame and polarize, mabye for the sake of raising funds for their organization.

Do other skeptic groups "get it"? Get that promoting constructive public engagement involves figuring out how to divorce sound evidence from antagonistic cultural meanings? If not, why not? If so, what are they doing?

August 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Eric - interesting concept, but are you assuming that each neural connection is of equal "size" or "value?" It seems to me that the measure of connections needs to be more than just a count..

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@joshua
good insight. an actual metric is not just a count and includes size/value. Your insight was hidden in the words 'connections' and 'proportional' in an attempt to keep the story simple. Another piece that I did not mention was how to normalize 'connections' to fit appropriate boundary conditions.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Dan -

I think that what you see is what you get. The Heartland conference is how many "skeptics" have conceptualized the most effective form of communication. And I think it is flawed just as much as is similar appeals to antagonistic narratives from "realists" or Fox News or MSNBC. IMO, some people can't get out from behind their own sense of victimization long enough to really look clear-eyed at what are or aren't effective communicative techniques.

I once had a blog argument with a few "realists" at Keith Kloor's about whether analogizing "skeptical" scientists to dentists is effective rhetoric. They were absolutely convinced that it is. I see that as no different than what I typically see someplace like WUWT, where "realists" are regularly analogized to eugenicists or called "statists" or described as promoting tyranny.

From what I've seen, to at least a large degree, neither groups "get it" - and again, I think the reason that they don't is that in order to do so they'd have to let go their sense of being victims (fused with a belief that the other group is morally inferior).

How anyone can read the "skeptical" blogs that NiV speaks of, and believe that the currency of communication is not culturally assaultive advocacy, is beyond me. Same goes for "realists" blogs.

It's a mess - and it certainly isn't a mess that is even remotely unique to the climate wars.

August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Would it be posdible to attempt to view the world outside of an USA context.
Heartand are really irrelevant in the UK. And do is Al Gore

And if course. How has Dan been influenced by his cuturall context, or is he somehow uniquely immune

And what sceptic groups. I know of nobody in a group. Heartland is minor. So is the gwpf. Very independent individuals running simple blogs

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Dan, you seem to have fallen victim to the myth widely propagated by professional climate activists and left-wing academic sociologists:
" So why aren’t they holding conferences "
" Do other skeptic groups "get it"? "
The myth is of course that there is a well organised and lavishly funded network of sceptics.
As Barry has told you, this is not true. Sceptics are people who think for themselves rather than following the herd, and have a tendency to disagree with each other, which is one of the reasons why groups don't exist.

We don't organise conferences because (a) we don't have an organised group (b) we don't have any money.

The most important sceptics are individuals running their own blogs, like Steve McIntyre, Anthony Watts and Andrew Montford. They all have their own interests, which may or may not include science communication.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

Go read the comments of those individual "skeptics" at blogs like those run by McIntyre, Montford, and Watts. You will see that as individuals, many, many "skeptics" (including blog administrators such as Watts and Montford even if with McIntyre it may be debatable) engage in the discussion through culturally assaultive advocacy. Do you think that is there concept of effective communication, or are you of the belief that they engage in those activities without caring about convincing anyone?

Sceptics are people who think for themselves rather than following the herd, and have a tendency to disagree with each other, which is one of the reasons why groups don't exist.

We don't organise conferences because (a) we don't have an organised group (b) we don't have any money.

Yet more royal we.?

It is fascinating to me how "skeptics" so regularly explain how "skeptics" aren't monolithic even as they describe "skeptics" monolithically.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Please note that the Heartland Conference is so "minor" from the "skeptical" perspective that WUWT had a live stream:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/05/22/live-stream-from-heartland-conference/

Because Watts, as a very independent individual running a simple blog, doesn't care about influencing people?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Paul:

I think there's a difference between what you have in mind & what I'm asking about.

You are adverting, I think, to the view that there is an organized effort to propogate public misunderstanding of, and thus doubt about, climate science.

I do think there are groups that work strategically to manipulate public understandings in a manner that disrespects ordinary citizen's ability and right to reason for itself -- on both sides of the climate debate.

But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I am assuming (a) that there are among individuals and organizations who subscribe to a skeptical orientation a good many who harbor a good-faith, public-spirited motivation to contribute to informed public opinion and policies consistent with the best understanding of the data--just as there is such a motivation on the "believer" side; (b) that these groups of citizens communicate with one another and engage in some amount of organized activity to try to achieve that end--just as ones on the "believer" side do; and (c) that they form and act on the basis of theories, of a more or less systematically developed nature, about how members of the public form their perceptions of the best available evidence.

I'd be shocked to learn that (a) is false. Indeed, I think anyone who tells me that is is ignoring groups like Cato, AEI, Heritage, etc., which have a long history of public-spirited advocacy of the sort I talk about and which are interested ni climate change among other issues.

The other issues, in the case of Cato, include resisting an obscene indulgence of irrational thinking about the risks associated with terrorism and the contribution that mindless forms of interference with liberty and even worse-than-mindless use of costly, self-defeating, and lethal violence make to mitigating that threat. Cato deserves a Nobel peace prize more than Obama.

Frankly, it's an insult to the republican virtue of groups like these to say they just "don't care" about informing public opinion in a democracy--particularly when they rightly perceive in general (regardless of whether they are right to see it in the case of climate change in particular) that unconsidered responses to risk can impose huge costs on human wellbeing. If an interest in promoting constructive public engagement with the best evidence on climate -- and minimizing the existing degree of conflict & confusion on that -- were missing on the "skeptical' side of the climate change debate, that would suggest that "skepticism" is associated with an unfortunate and unadmirable self-absorption and disengagement from politics. That would seem to be much more of a caricature or "myth" than anything I am assuming.

On (b) & (c), I'd like to know the details. What sorts of communications & efforts are there to sort things out? What are the prevaling theories of how public opinion works?

My casual sense, as reflected in the post, is that those efforts are plagued by the same sort of attraction to facile story-telling and failure to use evidence-based methods as plague the "believer" side.

Do you agree the post I quoted from reflects those defects? And are silly ruminations like this not rife among those who engage in reflective analysis and commentary-writing on the skeptic side?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@ Barry:

Sure tell me about non-US.

And again, my perspective might (certainly does, actually) reflect biased exposure to information, but what I see of the nature of scienc ecommunicatin in UK & Australia & Europe too suggests that things are not different in any material respect from US: in those countries too, there is polarization; in those countries too, lack of evidence-based thinking about communication abounds.

Straighten me out, pls!

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

What are the prevaling theories of how public opinion works?

Here are some of the prevailing "theories" that I have seen - assuming that actions reflect a theoretical conceptualization:

(1) The media are biased on the topic of global warming, and are deliberately trying to influence the opinions of the public and/or profit from being sensationalistic Thus, they hype and exaggerate (but only in one direction). It seems that this opinion is founded on a "theory" (not in a formal sense), that public opinion is largely determined by the media. Evidence that this "theory" is operational can be seen by the significant number of posts and comments in the "skept-o-sphere" where "skeptics" focus on media coverage of climate change, and make it quite clear that they think that media coverage significantly affects public opinion. Accordingly, the way to influence public opinion is by messaging through the media - and specifically, sending culturally assaultive messages. I think a good example is that Wall Street Journal editorial signed by leading "skeptical" scientists, where they analogized "realists" to eugenicists.

(2) Along similar lines relating to the impact of media, the public will "lose trust" in science, and climate science in particular, if/because some of the more drastic projections/predictions of "realists" will not/have not materialize[d]. The "theory" of many "skeptics," apparently, is that this has happened already to a significant extent (as reflected when "skeptics" link that Rasmussen poll of public opinion about whether scientists falsify evidence - a simple Google search will see just how often "skeptics" refer to that poll).

(3) That portraying "skeptics" in soft focus and in angelic light, and "realists" with dark and menacing theme music, will sway public opinion. This plays out in post after post and comment after comment in blog after blog in the blogosphere. It seems rather obvious (to me, at least) that a commonly held "theory" among many "skeptics" is that culturally assaultive advocacy is effective for influencing public opinion.

(4) I'd say that it seems that "skeptics" are basically in agreement with "realists" about the importance of convincing the public about the prevalence of views among "experts" w/r/t climate change (the "deficit theory") - as some "skeptics" spend a great deal of energy discussing and, at least it seems to me, trying to convince others, what that prevalence is, precisely. Why else would they spend so much time focused on that topic? I mean sure - we could say that their main focus is establishing the "truth" about the matter - but we could say the same about "realists," and the question remains as to why either of them care - if it isn't because their "theory" w/r/t public opinion incorporates the belief that public opinion is swayed on the basis of a perception about the prevalence of view among experts.

I think I'm in enough trouble now, so I'll stop there.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Sorry - on item one, the WSJ op-ed analogized "realists" to Lysenkoism, not eugencists (Lindzen analogized environmentalists to eugenicists in an unconnected article).

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Don’t skeptics want to do something about this?

Who says they don't?
So why aren’t they holding conferences dedicated to making sense of the best available evidence on public science communication and how to use that evidence to guide the public toward a state of shared understanding more consistent with it?

Because they don't have access to funding?

I think you are overlooking the obvious asymmetry here. Skepticism is not a funded position. FWIW: It rarely is in any field. One isn't going to be able to get a government grant to support a conference whose purpose is to "Learn or discuss how to better communication the notion that the mainstream scientific view on X is incorrect". This is true no matter what X is.

So no, we aren't going to see conferences on how to better communicate the skeptic view.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

@Lucia:

Oh c'mon. Cato, AEI, Heritage, et al? No funds?

There are -- thank goodness! -- many groups that are funded to engage in advocacy against unconsdiered responeses to risk, ones that would needlessly constrain productive, welfare-enhancing forms of market activity.

Is the demand for regulation of carbon emissions that sort of unconsdiered response? One can argue about that.

But there are many groups that think so. They have it as part of their agenda to resist what they regard as pointeless, welfare-enervating forms of regulation & are clearly putting things like push for carbon tax (in US & other countries) & Obama Administration's EPA regulations & the like in that category. They know that the prospects those sorts of initiatives will take hold depends, in democratic states, on public opinion.

Let's talk about why they believe that so many members of the public disagree w/ their understanding and how they are trying to promote what they -- these groups -- believe is a better understanding!

I'm not at this point referrig to you alone @Lucia, but there is a kind of affected posturing of innocence here -- "who us? we don't have any impact! we aren't doing anything!" -- that is, I think, bound up w/ debates about whether skeptics are "misinforming" people.

I'm not talking about misninformation; indeed, the post identifeis "misnformation" as an unhelpful explanation for public conflict over climate change, whether the "misinformation" claim is being made by "believers" or skeptics!

So @everyone: put the debate-tactic posturing aside & talk about something real, something everyone of good will has a stake in: how to promote a more informed citizenry.

Just tell me what this problem looks like from the skeptics' perspective so that I can learn something about & from them.

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan,
Unfortunately your a) b) c) got a bit mangled in your comment. FYI I don't know what AEI or Heritage are. I have vaguely heard of Cato, I think through climate activists attacking them. These groups have zero influence here in the UK. Sceptics do not engage in much organised activity.

I agree with you to some extent - most climate sceptics do not seem particularly interested in the public communication of science aspect, and this is an interesting point. Why?
* NiV has partly explained this - many climate sceptics are not aiming to persuade the public of their view. McIntyre has explicitly stated this a few times - he is not trying to persuade the public of anything (most of his blog posts are incomprehensible unless you've been following him for months!).
* Another factor may be that many sceptics have a strong science background, so are able to understand the science themselves without the intermediary of a science communicator.
* I just thought of another reason: many climate sceptics started becoming sceptical precisely because of the exaggerated propaganda of the climate activists (what some people would call 'science communication'), and therefore are aware of the counter-productive nature of such efforts and less likely to engage in it themselves.

I have never heard of John Stossel. I do think it is unwise for a sceptic to write about why people believe, just as I think it's unwise for believers to write about why people are sceptical.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Matthews

...most climate sceptics do not seem particularly interested in the public communication of science aspect, ...


As a "skeptic," do you have any validated evidence to support that statement? Any at all outside of anecdotal observations upon which you formulate your belief, observations that are obviously vulnerable to observer-biases?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

The answer to Dan's question is simple.

On both sides of the debate, there are natural communicators -- Anthony Watts, Jim Hansen -- who don't need coaching in how to tell a story.

Only one side of the debate has so much resources that it can afford to study why the other side does not believe a word of what they're saying.

If you don't believe me, Dan, then do submit a proposal to the NSF with the intention to study why so few Democrats buy the Heartland propaganda.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

@Paul

I am not really a skeptic. I am a scientist and study the data.
I don't care about making a big public forum.
I got more interested in climate change when spokespeople of the 'believers' moved the public dialog from science to ideology. Once the dialog devolved into endless ad hominem attacks and no listening to the science, I went back to doing science and skipped the public dialog.
I would love to see the results of an NSF study on why the 'believers' hear the word Heritage and stop listening. There would seem to be a lot of cultural cognition going on.
For me, I will be much happier when the discussion gets back to real data and its strengths and weaknesses and how to make public policy consistent with the facts and consistent with how to interact with people to make policy with long term consequences politically viable now and without the standard unintended consequences.
Just my ha'penny.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Richard Tol:

some reasons to doubt this simple answer:

A. It's not plausible to think that the ability of scientists to communicate w/ lay audiences has any impact on public opinion. Less than 1% of the public will ever hear a word a cliamte scientists says. 100% will hear plenty about what climate scintists believe -- but from people who aren't scientits (mainly from peers).

B. If scientists' abilities to communiate were important, that wouldn't explain why differences in public opinion correlate w/ cultural worldviews. If how good scientists were at communicating w/ the public mattered, the differences in public opinion should reflect the relative proficiency & exposure of the "words" of the scientists to which different members of the public are explosed. Good luck connecting the latter to the former -- or doing it in a way that doesn't show that in fact it's ideological predispositions that are doing all the work & the correlation between "hearing" a particular scientist & beliveing a particular thing completely spurious.

C. The NSF isn't the only source of funding for studying how the public forms perceptions of risk. There are plenty of private foundations, many of which support research motivated by promoting policies that are consistent with free markets etc. & that generally view regulation of carbon emissions as a bad response to climate change.

D. STudies funded by the NSF are not only about why people don't belive climate scientists (I want to say none is about that but I can't be sure; such a proposal would strike any informed scholar of risk perception as exceedingly narrow & likely based on mistaken premises about the mechanisms of science communication). There are many many many NSF-funded studies about how the public makes sense of decision-relevant science, including climate science. But those studies examine mechanisms as relevant to those who think one segment of the public is too readily accepting mistaken "believer" claims as to those who think the other segment of the public is too readily accepting mistaken "skeptic" claims.

I've applied for and received NSF-funding to do research on mechanisms of that sort, and the studies my research group has done on perceptions of scintific consensus & the polarizing effect of science literacy etc are like that. They all show that dynamics that generate mistaken inferences and undertstandings are symmetric across ideology & across particular positions.

So skeptics who want to improve public comprehension of valid science: help yourself to my & others NSF-funded research (all yours for the taking, free of charge)! For sure you can get the answer to your question-- why do Democrats reject Heartland evidence -- from those studies very easily.

Indeed, I'm very proud to say that plenty of skeptics have thoughtfully & reflectively engaged our studies as sources of insight into the dynamics that generate polarization (recgonizing them as evidence, for one thing, that skepticism can't be attributed to low science comprehension, forms of bias correlated w/ ideology etc. etc).

Proud b/c I am not a skeptic. Accordingly, if those who disagree w/ me about climate or other controversies I am studying can learn something from m work, then I treat that as a sign that I am avoiding the very disturbing temptation to find only (or report only) results that promote one's own policy preferences (in fact, I'm studying something -- how to promote public comprehension of decision-relevant science -- that is logically unrelated to what to do as a policy mattter).

Of coruse, many skeptics have engaged our stuidies unreflectively, thoughtlessly, mistakenly, in a manner that itself reflects unconscious tendencies to fit evidence to ideologically congenial beliefs etc. -- as have have many believers. My research group could double its output on the study of how ideoloigial predispositions result in biased understandings of empirical evidene by studying how that phenomenon affects the reading of our own studies!


Oh-- & I almost forgot: the "believer" groups that are getting the lion's share of funding to promote public comprehension of what climate scientits say (not from NSF; they don't support advocacy-- foundations do) are the ones I'm saying aggressively ignore evidence on the science of science communication. That's the phenomenon I'm positing, in the post, is symmetric on both sides. And all I'm asking is for skeptics to tell me whether I'm right -- to tell me what sorts of theories inform the public-spirired forms of outreach & public communication efforts on their side. I wasn't positing skeptics don't try to understand public risk perceptions or improve public understanding; I was assuming they do -- also assuming my familiarity with their thinking & efforts is incomplete

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan, here you have a good selection of sceptics/lukewarmers telling you what they think and feel and you and Joshua don’t believe them. Each has expressed themselves very differently but said similar things. Their consistency is from honesty. Perhaps it is not sceptics who have a communication problem but you that have a comprehension problem? Deliberate or just a natural talent?

It appears that to you, communication is a science. To the rest of us mortals it’s a skill we learn with varying ability as a human being. We use it to express how we feel. We, like many before us, use anecdotes in our attempts to explain our position. It seems to work quite well. Because we are not working to a formula, it seems as if our efforts are reasonably received by the public. Despite your disbelief we have little financial support for our position so progress is slow. Drip, drip, drip. However we are many and we are genuinely motivated so we wear away the fake rocks that climate BS has built up before we started raining on their silly edifice. Perhaps when the mountain has been worn down, there will be a hard core that we can all agree on?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

@TinyCO2:

Thanks.

I mean to be disagreeing only with commentators who are offering answers that implausibly deny the premise that skeptics care about improving public comprehesion & engageement with the best available science. I disagree with all kinds of thigns that people say that I think are not plausible, on both sides of all kinds of debates; it would be specious inference to infer that that means I have a comprehension problem (you seem be assuming that "b/c lots of people say something, it must be right!" Need I remark on the irony? Nah.).

You have offered a responsive asnwer, one that I do find plausible:


to you, communication is a science. To the rest of us mortals it’s a skill we learn with varying ability as a human being. We use it to express how we feel. We, like many before us, use anecdotes in our attempts to explain our position. It seems to work quite well. Because we are not working to a formula, it seems as if our efforts are reasonably received by the public. Despite your disbelief we have little financial support for our position so progress is slow. Drip, drip, drip. However we are many and we are genuinely motivated so we wear away the fake rocks that climate BS has built up before we started raining on their silly edifice.

Yup. You got it.

Too bad for you -- & for everyone else who doesn't want to view science communciation as an evidence-based enterprise. You'll get about as far as people have in understanding other empirical matters that way -- which is to say, nowhere. (Got any measurements of how "well" you are doing -- or is that too scientific for you? Just go w/ you your gut, & all that.)

The whole premise of the post was that "skeptics" are averse to evidence-based methods of science communciation just like many "believers" are. That they are unscientific about how people figure out what's known to science.

I asked whether I'm right about that.

You are saying I am! Okay. I comprhend you. I don't "disbelieve" you but if other skeptics tell me not all skeptics share your proudly evidence-free, go-with-gut approach to trying to figure out what works in communicating science, I'll aggregate all the views & comments that as a reasoning person I see as plausible & form an opinion on what's going on.

Many thanks for this answer. Truly!

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Shoot! I probably didn't submit my previous comment!!

Oh c'mon. Cato, AEI, Heritage, et al? No funds?

Compared to whome? I'm talking about the base of government funding. For example http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/about/sponsors is sponsored by NSF and NOAA among others. This sort of base funding assists in scheduling of conferences. Moreover, availability of research grants permits people to attend conferences and pay fees. Such funding is not widely available from think tanks.

I'm not at this point referring to you alone @Lucia, but there is a kind of affected posturing of innocence here -- "who us? we don't have any impact! we aren't doing anything!" -- that is, I think, bound up w/ debates about whether skeptics are "misinforming" people.

I'm not only not affecting innocence. I'm not even claiming it. (Beyond that, I'm not sure the group you call skeptics even includes me. But if you want to know why I don't organize such a conference, I can give you tons of reasons starting with "I am not a gazillionaire.")

As for your seeming to suggest I am saying that skeptics don't have any impact: I do think skeptics have impact and they are doing "something".

But you are asking why they don't do a specific thing which seems to be to organize conferences or studies on how to communicate climate science in order to get people to understand that AGW is untrue. Lack of base funding from government agencies for scholarly research into how to communicate finding contrary to those endorsed by the mainstream is one of the reasons.

Do you think the yale climate communication forum would get support for a conference whose stated was "to better communicate notions that are <I>contrary to the mainstream scientific understanding on climate science"? I don't think so. At best: your funded research fits into conferences that are touted as helping those who believe AGW (or CAGW) 'better communicate'. (Which generally means 'convince those who disagree'.) So even though your research doesn't so much focus on trying to take sides on CAGW, you will tend to see conference sessions, and promotion focus on "How do we better communicate AGW so as to convince people it is true?, rather than seeing the contrary.

Anyway: I think lack of base funding from government agencies is an asymmetry and can explain different behaviors.

(I also think you need to attend a Heartland conference to see the full spectrum of communication methods. Really... you do.

Oh.. on this

E.g., Gore's group (Climate REality) continues to engage in a style of culturally assaultive advocacy aggressively

It occurs to me that Gore may <I>think he's adopting part of your advice! With the recent CRinChi thing (meeting in Chicago for 'training'), he has tried to get together a broad range of different people to send out there with 'personal messages' to bring home the message to people who are 'like them'. I suspect he may think that will somehow get the 'right' type of people out there managing to create a group that includes school teachers, hair dressers, ministers and so on. I suspect that his method of recruiting people guarantees that the range of people he gets will not advance his goals. Certainly the tweets emanating from the meeting look likely to polarize. But we'll see!

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

@Lucia:

Climate reality is following my advice? My advice is to follow evidence, not just collect a ton of money & use it organize a bunch of people all over the country to start yelling in other people's faces. It's to engage in systematic reflection on evidence of how to engage in communciation of science.
\
That evidence shows that the style of advocacy Climate Reality is engaging it does nothing except amplify the partisan assocaition that now exists on positons on climate change. If there was a genuine commitment to paying attention to evidence, climate advocates wouldn't do this.

On organizing: I said I suspected I was *wrong* to believe that there wasn't attention to science communication on skeptic side. Then I pointed out some evidence that in fact there is attention -- of a form that reflects innocence of the very idea that there is evidence on public confusion over climate science, much less a commitment to using that evidence to dispel confusion.

If there's not attention skeptic side to dealing w/ evidence on science communication in an organized, systematic way, that's interesting & as I said in the post "weird." But the reason that that woudl be so couldn't be (a) skpetics don't care what the public believes or what policies get enactged in democracy or (b) they are broke.

It could well be (c) they are suffering from the same mistaken view that @tinyCO2, who has so much in common w/ so many who disagree w/ him on cliimate!, expresses: that scienc eocmmunciation doesn't admit of or require disciplined enagement with empirical evidence. "Just comes naturally!"

Is that how you feel, btw? If not, then don't you agree skeptics shoudl be engaged in evidence-based styles of outreach & communication? that this is something that enlightened ones of their number should try to facilitate?

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"The whole premise of the post was that "skeptics" are averse to evidence-based methods of science communciation just like many "believers" are."

Not completely true. Paul Matthews listed some points as to why this is not so. The "skeptics" have greater technical, scientific training though people arrive at climate scepticism based on non-formal methods of evidence sifting and evaluation. As such when they interact, these people are not primarily 'communicating',...the conversation simply rolls on. Communication is a consequence.

More specifically, it *is* a form of communication (that people use): you say what's on your mind and leave it at that.

There have been organized efforts at communication as well: Martin Durkin's The Great Global Warming Swindle is a good example. The Heartland billboard is another example.

The skepticism of folks at the Heartland Institute or the CEI is arrived at, via a different route, and the direction in which they take their efforts is different as well. The points of contention or skepticism however may match with the "non-communicating skeptics" you refer to. The major purpose of climate alarmism, for instance, is to pass laws, policies and rules that bind human industry and destroy/cripple it. It would be a shame if there were no countervailing forces at the political lobby end of the climate debate spectrum. The CEI and some other groups occupy this area.

I think you are asking a very good question here. It is good to wonder: "Why don't the skeptics want to communicate anything?"

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShub

Dan, here you have a good selection of sceptics/lukewarmers telling you what they think and feel and you and Joshua don’t believe them.

You misunderstand me. It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving what Paul or NiV or Shub or Barry say about themselves. It is about disagreeing with their characterizations of "skeptics" as a group - and asking them for some evidence on which they base those characterizations.

Here - again, let's look at what Shub says.

The "skeptics" have greater technical, scientific training...

Actually, the group of people that comprises "skeptics" is very varied. It includes some people who have technical and scientific training, and there is some evidence that "skeptics" as a group may have very marginally greater technical and scientific training than "realists" as a group - but that difference is indeed marginal, and certainly the descriptors of having technical and scientific training does not apply to the vast, vast majority of "skeptics."

And then, later in his post, Shub says,

The skepticism of folks at the Heartland Institute or the CEI is arrived at, via a different route, and the direction in which they take their efforts is different as well.

The designator of "skeptic" is selectively applied so as to confirm bias. In the first instance, "skeptics" meant those not like the folks at HI. In second instance, the term "skeptic" is applied to the folks at HI.

We see this all up and down this thread in response to Dan's post:

The combination of arguments I often see is quite interesting:
(1) on the one hand, "skeptics" often argue that "skeptics" are not monolithic,
(2) "skeptics" often make broad characterizations of "skeptics" without validated evidence,
(3) "skeptics" often seem to think that a tiny % (those heavily represented on "skeptical" blogs) are representative of the larger group, and
(4) at the same time, "skeptics" sometimes ignore obvious characterizations that are particularly true of "skeptics" that engage in blogs, (i.e., that they often employ culturally assaultive rhetoric, that they often express concern about the PR aspects of the debate) as they characterize "skeptics" as a group.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Shub:

I think part of the reason the discusison isn't generating more engagement -- & is getting stuck on me disputeing the premise 'skpetics don't want to communicate' or 'are too p0or' etc. -- is that the term "skeptic" is being used by me to refer generically to those on one side of the debate about what to do about climate change. I am using it to refer to anyone who believes that it would be a mistake to adopt aggresssive carbon limits & other policies aimed at counteracting warming associated w/ human CO2; they beleive that the case is not made that those policies are necessary or constructive. That includes many manty mnay many many public interst organizations & advocacy groups, think tanks etc. It's not plausible to say they don't have money & don't try to shape publci debate -- often by trying to make information that they find creidible *knwn* to the public.

But those answering me seem to have a narrower view of "skepticfs" as some smaller group of individuals for whom 'skepitic' is a kind of identity involving intense commitment to certain views about the deficienices of 'climate science' & the bad motivations etc of climate advocates. Memers of this group know what they know b/c they are very smart & independent etc; they don't need to be communicated to -- they can see the facts for themselves. Also, one might infer from the comments, they have a personality type or view of politics that disposes them not to want to promote understanding by others who are confused, and just not to care if democratic societies adopt enlghented polcies.

I don't know; maybe that's true of them, but it sounds like such an unappealing picture, I'm discinlined to believe it describes anyone.

But if describes some group of "skpetkics," let's agree to leave them out. After all, we are always told "skeptics aren't monolithic"!

Let's focus instead on the public-spirited democratic citizen "skeptics" who *are* very interested in promoting informed public policy delbierations & policymaing & *are* spending lots of $ on advoacy & outreach. What's *their* view of why the public is dvided on climate & what to do about that. What to do about it in order to increaswe the likelihood of sensible, welfare enhancnig, freedom-respecting policies? There *are* lots of policies that are being adopted, after all, that they don't like, in the US & elsewhere, based on belief that climate change poses a threat.

If Heartland is the best they have got, then they really really really really need help. Help getting their communciation more connected w/ evidence; and help making sure that their cause doesn't suffer serious damage at the hands of people who either are very stupid or who have intersts opposed to theirs.


Heartland's "communication" is the mirror-image of the the style of culturally assaultive advoacy that too many climate believers keep making the mistake of using. It hardens people's positions; it does't open minds. That's so obvious, in fact, that it is hard to believe those who resort to that style of advocacy actually want to do promote constructive public engagement as opposed to have a huge cultural conflagration. I'm sure that's not true for all of them, of coures, but it does seem to be part of the difficulty here -- that there are in fact some illiberal cultural zealots on both sides.

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"If there's not attention skeptic side to dealing w/ evidence on science communication in an organized, systematic way, that's interesting & as I said in the post "weird.""

I have often read at "skeptic" blogs the opinion that "realists" mistakenly believe that the problem is one of science communication whereas the real problem is that "realist" scientists are communicating obviously flawed science, and that is why large %'s of the public remain unconcerned about climate change.

At any rate - I don't think it is "weird," as my impression is that "skeptics," on the whole, are very confident in the belief that they already know the best way to communicate the science - it is the way that they are currently communicating. They see no need to study how to communicate the science because they are convinced that: (1) they are communicating successfully and (2) any potential lack of receptivity to their messaging is not because of their communicative flaws but because of the way that the system is rigged against them (e.g., they don't have funding, they aren't formed into coherent groups, the "MSM" is biased against them an hypes the "realist" message, those who study the science of communication are biased against them, etc.). So - even if their methods aren't necessarily achieving the desired results, there isn't anything they could do about it anyway other than what they're already doing because of the "asymmetry" in power.

But again, I go back to what I often read on "skeptical" blogs, where I see, very, very often, essentially proclamations of victory: claims that the last nail had been driven into the coffin of AGW, or the final stake driven through the heart.

But why do they see that happening? Not because of how they have or haven't communicated, but because of the failings of "realists."

Here's a good example:

http://thepointman.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/the-difficult-kind/
If "skeptics" think that there is an asymmetry in power, then they don't think that they have the power to be more successful by changing their communicative strategy. So it stands to reason that they wouldn't be interested in evaluating the evidence of how to communicate more effectively. But that is a very different thing than saying that they don't care about being more influential. Many "skeptics" think that "realist" policies will cause economic hardship, are a cover for "statist" or "tyrannical" policies, etc. If you look around the "skept-o-sphere" you will see such arguments on a regular basis. It is quite amusing to read these comments in this thread that to be logically consistent would mean that "skeptics" don't care about effectively influencing public opinion so as to help avoid economic hardship or tyranny.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I'm thinking about how the two sides line up on the group-grid scales, and what impact that would predict for their behavior in these sorts of matters. As I remember it, statistically, climate change skeptics congregate in the hierarchical-individualist quadrant of the schema and climate change believers in the egalitarian-communitarian quadrant. What I hear in the posts trying to differentiate skeptics from believers (above) are variations on the theme: that is something those "groupish" communitarians do, not something us rugged individualists do.

An interesting comparison might be to look at issues where egalitarians-individualists and hierarchical-communitarians are at odds and see if there is any similarities or alignments. In that case, do the egalitarians concern themselves more with the science of science communication and the hierarchical-communitarians avoid? Then it might actually be a matter of hierarchy v. egalitarianism, masquerading as individualism v. communitarianism. Or, it might actually be an measurable difference is approaches via individualism v. egalitarianism. But it seems to me entirely pertinent.

Isabel

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

Since The Heartland Institute's conferences and billboard figure pretty large in the comments, and since by some accounts we do more to promote skepticism toward man-made climate change than any other organization, maybe someone from Heartland, maybe its president, should weigh in. That would be me.

We are very interested in "practical science communication" and are always looking for better ways to share our views in the climate change debate. To my knowledge we've never turned down offers of assistance. We obviously aren’t marketing experts, but we read widely, tap the expertise of board members and donors, learn from our peers and our own experience, and have a time-tested marketing system that we run every event and publication through.

When we started addressing global warming in earnest in 2003, we did what any think tank would do: we produced a policy study on the cost of reducing CO2 emissions. It was carefully researched and, I still think, well done, but it was ignored. When people are racing for the exits they don't want to sit around and debate how much it might cost to extinguish the fire. In any case, the era when a policy study on any topic could actually change public opinion or public policy was probably already over by then.

The lack of impact of that policy study prompted me to lift the hood (the bonnet, for UK readers) and look at the science behind the global warming scare... and, frankly, I found it to be a pastiche of data and speculation assembled to support an agenda. It was even the same people and groups we had seen in other debates trying to scare people about "population bombs" and pesticides and "running out of oil."

We decided to implement an educational campaign around the simple idea that “global warming is not a crisis.” We assembled a team of scientists to write comprehensive and authoritative critiques of the IPCC reports. We hosted eight International Conferences on Climate Change (ICCC) to create the personal relationships necessary to build a social movement. We supported allies on four continents with publications and sometimes funding. We created a speakers bureau, Web sites, two weekly e-newsletters, published a monthly newspaper on environment and climate issues (sent to every national and state elected official in the U.S.), and much more.

Opinion polls, focus groups, media reports, and feedback from allies and foes all indicate this effort changed public opinion and public policy. No doubt we could have been more efficient and more effective with the resources we had, but looking back I think most of what we did was cost-effective.

Debate became more polarized and more coarse as time passed. The mainstream media has given up any pretense to objectivity and even boycotted our 2011 climate conference, even though it was held across the street from the Chicago Tribune tower in downtown Chicago and attracted a record 800 people from nearly 20 countries.

In 2012 we ran the billboard that generated so much controversy. I could discuss the circumstances that prompted us to run it and the consequences of that decision, as we see it, but I doubt this is the proper forum for all that.

I hope this answers some of the implicit questions raised above. I'm too busy running a think tank to spend much time on blogs like this -- how do you folks do it?

Joseph Bast
President
The Heartland Institute

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Bast

So there we have it - straight from the horses mouth.

It isn't that the HI didn't evaluate communicative strategies. It is that they thought they had determined the best communicative strategies. And to the extent that their strategies weren't effective, the problem really lies with the
"MSM."

And discussing why their strategy might have been suboptimal, isn't appropriate for a forum where we're discussing whether and why "skeptics" communication strategies might be suboptimal?

Couldn't have said it better myself, Joseph.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Whoa ..

Wouldn't it be cool if Gore now posted something too explaining the thinking behind Climate Reality's "Turn up the heat"? initiative?! ("If only life were like this...")

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan

Climate reality is following my advice?

Never underestimate people's ability to mis-understand or pick the bits they like. I think they *might* be accepting the message that the messenger matters and trying to find messengers from all walks of life. I don't see evidence of any other bits! (If it turns out they are doing this, feel free to despair!)

If there's not attention skeptic side to dealing w/ evidence on science communication in an organized, systematic way, that's interesting & as I said in the post "weird."

I agree they aren't dealing with this evidence in an organized way. But as far as I can see, most of what gets collectively called 'skepticism' (in climate) is disorganized. So I don't find it weird that this particular things is disorganized.

Is that how you feel, btw? If not, then don't you agree skeptics shoudl be engaged in evidence-based styles of outreach & communication? that this is something that enlightened ones of their number should try to facilitate?

I think tinyCO2's (c) could be right. But mostly I think that to make the notion of 'skeptics' facilitating things, you need to specify some sort of organization. You might also need to create a firm definition of 'skeptic'.

If you were to name an organization like Heartland: Well, I think they aren't all that big. They put on conferences-- and at best invite people who've already spoken or done things. But they don't really fund much research in anything. Not funding research on X when you don't fund research on anything is not a mystery.

I don't know about CATO-- do they fund original research in climate science. Or just assemble literature searches-- which is different? Give a few people official titles to make the sound more impressive when they are invited by news agencies or congress?

But mostly, I have no idea why those agencies that lean skeptic don't fund original research in general and don't fund original research into communication.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlucia

" In that case, do the egalitarians concern themselves more with the science of science communication and the hierarchical-communitarians avoid? "

Isabel - where does do HI, Cato, the Marshall Institute, CEI, the Heritage Foundation, AEI, the Manhattan Institute, (not to mention ALEC, the Tea Party, and the Republican Party) fall on your grid?


Why would science communication (and in particular, that related to climate change) put all those people in a different place on the grid than their approach to communication on myriad other issues where they would mostly align with "skeptics?" I'm sure that we could agree that on myriad other issues, those groups absolutely study the science of communication and do not fit the descriptions we are reading in this thread of how "skeptics" feel about communication. Why would "skeptics" be significantly different than their grid-mates w/r/t communication? Or even more so, different form them w/r/t communication only when it comes to climate change?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua

If there is a difference in preferred communication strategies, which I am just wondering about, I'm specifically suggesting that it would be observable on other polarizing issues in each of the quadrants. I don't have any theories about where any of those groups fall within the group-grid schema.

What I read NiV as essentially arguing above that skeptics aren't "groupish" like those egalitarian-communitarians and aren't trying to persuade anyone of anything: that is a time-waster "they" engage in, not "us." Regardless of whether or not that is true, it could be evidence of a cultural commitment that could influence preferred communication methods, those considered "pure" or somehow more acceptable. And what sorts of efforts are made on behalf of a committed position.

For instance, it's hard to be considered a cool indie band if you get played on Top 40 radio. Similarly, there may be communication methods that are the only cool way to be a skeptic and other avenues that will be seen as evidence of being a sell out (and destructive of identity as a skeptic). I don't know. I was just wondering. Out loud.

Isabel

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

@Isabel,
Please keep wondering. I am listening.
Cheers,

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

CAGW is like no other problem. It has spawned supporters and opponents that are unlike other combatants. It encompasses thousands of different issues and on any one subject people might find themselves with and then against the same people.

There are disinterested members of the public who vote consensus but act sceptic. There are those who mutter ‘it’s all a con’ but are relatively green in they lifestyle. There are political types who feel it doesn’t fit their view of personal freedom. There are those who don’t know what it is all about but hope it will go away. The vast majority of those people are not listening to anyone, let alone you. They’re not substantially cutting CO2 either. Finally, there are groups of engaged and interested sceptics. They are mostly concerned with the flaws in the science and the stupidity of the solutions. They are the ones responding to you.

Is everyone a sceptic? Do we have to be scientific and give each group a name so we know which group we’re talking about? What about those who belong to more than one group?

Who speaks for all these people? Who organises them? Who funds them? The answers vary depending on which group you are referring to. There certainly isn’t a head to this hydra. So if you ask if we don’t care about communicating more effectively to whom are you referring? The majority are saying ‘no’ to CAGW in their silent but very effective way. They merely have to carry on emitting CO2. Some will say ‘no’ by voting out those forcing them to cut CO2. Some are starting to ask questions because the costs are beginning to bite. Like a glacier it’s slow to start but almost impossible to stop.

And then there’s us. The silly group who bother to debate the issues. Many of us don’t rule out CAGW, we just want to point out how unconvincing many of the arguments are. Why doesn’t anyone believe us? After all, the public are clearly unconvinced. Do I need to provide scientific evidence of that or can I just go all anecdotal and point out CO2 is still rising?

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Isabel - nice post. Thanks.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan, first, thanks for a thoughtful essay.

In the comments you say:


What I want to know is: (a) how do skeptics view the science communication problem and (b) how do they think it makes sense to fix it?

What you are calling the "science communication problem" is defined in your linked document as:

The “science communication problem” (as I use this phrase) refers to the failure of valid, compelling, widely available science to quiet public controversy over risk and other policy relevant facts to which it directly speaks.

Regarding climate, the problem is not communication, but science and honesty. The science has been anything but "valid, compelling, [and] widely available" as you put it. It has been hidden, obscured, and kept even from Freedom of Information requests. Phil Jones flat out lied to my face, Dan ... is that a "scientific communications problem"?

The scientific claims have been vastly overblown. Many of the "scientific studies" of the climate have turned out to be simplistic, incorrect, or "models all the way down". Hardly a week goes by without some new joke paper being quickly eviscerated shortly after publication. See Steig, Nature, and the Antarctic for one of dozens and dozens of examples.

And a quarter century on from Hansen's duplicitous 1988 testimony where he secretly turned off the air conditioning to exaggerate the threat, the predictions of doom and disaster have simply not come true. We didn't have 50 million climate refugees by 2010. Coral atolls are not disappearing. Sea level rise isn't accelerating. Extreme weather is not increasing.

Finally, the leading lights of the climate science world were condemned by their own words in the Climategate emails of being liars, cheats, and thieves who destroyed evidence against them. They convicted themselves of a variety of episodes of scientific malfeasance, they destroyed evidence sought under a Freedom of Information Act, and criminal charges against them were only ruled out because the statute of limitations had expired.

In short, Dan ... the leading lights of the climate science world lied to us, and lied to us big time. They packed the peer-reviews, and hid their data, and fudged the figures, and then lied again and destroyed the evidence when they were caught ...

And you think this is a "communication problem"?? Really? You think that climate scientists lying to the public, and the public subsequently not trusting them, can be resolved by improving "scientific communication"? A recent poll found that about 60% of the American public believes that climate scientists sometimes fake it ... bad news, my friend, better scientific communication doesn't help when people think the communicators are faking it.

I had actually (and naively) hoped that Climategate would allow a cleansing of the Augean Climate Stables, that it could be a turning point in the debate ... but far from suffering even the slightest approbation for their actions, they didn't even bother to apologize.

You seem puzzled by "the failure of valid, compelling, widely available science to quiet public controversy" ...

The obvious answer is, far too often it has not been valid science, and it's not compelling at all. Far too often, it has been hidden and distorted and lied about And more to the point, it is being pushed, and pushed maniacally hard, despite repeated failed doomcasting, by people who we know for a fact have lied to us and cheated us repeatedly, and who didn't even apologize when they were caught red-handed, but to the contrary were lauded by their "peers". In addition to the Climategate crowd, see the criminal acts (wire fraud) of Peter Gleick as one of the many other examples of Noble Cause Corruption.

If you think that problem is solvable by improving scientific communication ... then you don't understand the problem.

w.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWillis Eschenbach

Mr. Bast, I support your call for a more civil discourse.

My word, I certainly hope nobody in this comment thread is impertinent enough to suggest that comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber was anything other than a good-faith public education initiative.

How far standards have fallen, when people respond coarsely to such well-intentioned slander!

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Stenhouse

Dan, in your initial post you mention "best available evidence" no less than six times. And you may also have reiterated the phrase in some of your comments.

Perhaps you have identified your criteria for determining what constitutes "best available evidence" elsewhere; but for the benefit of those of us who might have missed it, perhaps you would be kind enough to articulate your criteria and/or source(s) for us.

It is a rather nebulous phrase; however, I suppose it works as a very confident, if not all encompassing, modifier. But as far as I can see, your post doesn't tell us specifically what "evidence" you are referring to (whether "best available" or not!)

Is "best available evidence" a new, improved "reframing" of the so-called "consensus" (that is not really holding up too well, these days)? Is it simply a way of sweeping aside the validity of any acknowledgement/discussion of the uncertainties? Or is it something completely different?!

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHilary Ostrov

Dan: Thanks for so gently correcting my ignorance about your work.

I continue to think that part of the answer lies in scale. The pro-climate-policy side is so much better funded that they can afford to hire people who specialize in these sort of questions.

In the US at least, a change in policy requires a large majority. Defending the status quo (i.e., no climate policy) is therefore much easier than changing it.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

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