Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community

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The title of this post is also the title of a new peer reviewed paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Orskes, James Risbey, Ben Newell and Michael Smithson, published in Global Environmental Change. The article is Open Access, available here. Stephan Lewandosky has a blog post on it, in which he notes,

… we examine the effect of contrarian talking points that arise out of uncertainty on the scientific community itself. We show that although scientists are trained in dealing with uncertainty, there are several psychological and cognitive reasons why scientists may nevertheless be susceptible to uncertainty-based argumentation, even when scientists recognize those arguments as false and are actively rebutting them….

We highlight three well-known psychological mechanisms that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse and thinking: ‘stereotype threat’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and the ‘third-person effect’.

Stereotype threat refers to the emotional and behavioural responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong. Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. There are now several studies that highlight this tendency by scientists to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as ‘alarmist.’

Pluralistic ignorance describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized. Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

Finally, research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the third-person effect. However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think. This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.

I have little to add beyond Stephan’s overview (Sou has this, go check it out), and you can read the paper itself. I do think these questions are part of an even larger issue, of the influence of systematic well funded constant denialism on both the science and the implementation of science as public policy. Imagine if all the effort spent addressing contrarian claims was spent on doing more science or the translation of science into policy? One could argue that questioning the science strengthens it, and in many cases that may be true. But the denialism about climate science does not play that role. Contrarian arguments are not valid questions about the science, but rather, little more than self indulgent contrived nefarious sophistic yammering. That is not helpful; It does not strengthen the science. Rather, denialism has served to slow down the implementation of sensible energy policies, and has probably slowed down our collective effort to the extent that were the denialism ignored, or didn’t exist to begin with, we would be decades ahead of where we are now in addressing the existential issue of our time.

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8 thoughts on “Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community

  1. I sent the whole swatting article to my Kindle reader for reading later.

    Given the observed fact that the tobacco industry engaged in the same behavior, perhaps resulting in many hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, I wonder if physicians and other health care professionals at the time also had their opinions swayed along the three points this study presents.

  2. A point I’ve tried to make many times, and it is often met with hostility.

    Who is controlling or “framing” the discussion, and perhaps even influencing how resources are directed? Probably the professional sales/propaganda people for the denialists, not scientists.

    Perhaps the climate scientific community needs to play less defense and look to how it can engage the public. Too bad there isn’t a vast conspiracy out there.

  3. Essentially: a sort of Battered Scientist Syndrome.

    “…self indulgent contrived nefarious sophistic yammering…”
    I’d go further and add in the dynamics of bullying. So if there’s no mechanism for mediation, what’s left is fighting back…


  4. A sane, healthy society would protect its scientists; there would be a federally funded program to provide legal defense against abusive and frivolous law suits. I would suggest this to a legislator, but I don’t know any.

  5. “Too bad there isn’t a vast conspiracy out there.”

    We could start one. There is already a secret, sinister cabal of scientists living in and around Los Alamos who are studying…. but no, I won’t say. Never mind.

  6. “Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.”

    So much for The Heartland Institute. What possible chilling effect on discourse could misrepresentation of criticism of past and present global systems models , or calls for the criminalization of disbelief in the agenda of The Nation Institute possibly have?

    I must ask Ham Fish what he thinks.

  7. There is no doubt that denialism is well funded. The funding is supplied by those who stand to lose most by accepting the change in climate.
    The failure of science to apply its benifits globally is just as serious. Two thirds of the world’s population have no access to safe affordable surgery.
    Two wrongs don’t make a right but in highlighting one we must not brush another under the carpet.

  8. I think that climate change is something that should be taken more serious of. Making people aware of climate change can produce number of changes. We should work together to solve this issue, through different methods.

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