There is one question that no one who denies manmade climate change wants to answer: what would it take to persuade you? In most cases the answer seems to be nothing. No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a giant conspiracy codded up by boffins and governments to tax and control us.
That’s UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot. I don’t agree with everything he says — and I don’t think the primary goal should be to persuade the unpersuadable.
But I am trying to bring you a variety of views on this central problem of climate science messaging, and this is a pretty good piece, which I excerpt below:
The attack on climate scientists is now widening to an all-out war on science. Writing recently for the Telegraph, the columnist Gerald Warner dismissed scientists as “white-coated prima donnas and narcissists “¦ pointy-heads in lab coats [who] have reassumed the role of mad cranks “¦ The public is no longer in awe of scientists. Like squabbling evangelical churches in the 19th century, they can form as many schismatic sects as they like, nobody is listening to them any more.”
Views like this can be explained partly as the revenge of the humanities students. There is scarcely an editor or executive in any major media company – and precious few journalists – with a science degree, yet everyone knows that the anoraks are taking over the world. But the problem is compounded by complexity. Arthur C Clarke remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He might have added that any sufficiently advanced expertise is indistinguishable from gobbledegook. Scientific specialisation is now so extreme that even people studying neighbouring subjects within the same discipline can no longer understand each other. The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing, to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.
Yes, this conundrum lies at the heart of much of the messaging problem.
Distrust has been multiplied by the publishers of scientific journals, whose monopolistic practices make the supermarkets look like angels, and which are long overdue for a referral to the Competition Commission. They pay nothing for most of the material they publish, yet, unless you are attached to an academic institute, they’ll charge you £20 or more for access to a single article. In some cases they charge libraries tens of thousands for an annual subscription. If scientists want people at least to try to understand their work, they should raise a full-scale revolt against the journals that publish them. It is no longer acceptable for the guardians of knowledge to behave like 19th-century gamekeepers, chasing the proles out of the grand estates.
But there’s a deeper suspicion here as well. Popular mythology – from Faust through Frankenstein to Dr No – casts scientists as sinister schemers, harnessing the dark arts to further their diabolical powers. Sometimes this isn’t far from the truth. Some use their genius to weaponise anthrax for the US and Russian governments. Some isolate terminator genes for biotech companies, to prevent farmers from saving their own seed. Some lend their names to articles ghostwritten by pharmaceutical companies, which mislead doctors about the drugs they sell. Until there is a global code of practice or a Hippocratic oath binding scientists to do no harm, the reputation of science will be dragged through the dirt by researchers who devise new means of hurting us.
Yesterday in the Guardian Peter Preston called for a prophet to lead us out of the wilderness. “We need one passionate, persuasive scientist who can connect and convince “¦ We need to be taught to believe by a true believer.” Would it work? No. Look at the hatred and derision the passionate and persuasive Al Gore attracts. The problem is not only that most climate scientists can speak no recognisable human language, but also the expectation that people are amenable to persuasion.
Well, actually people are amenable to persuasion. But there’s no possibility of a “prophet” because one of the major strategies of the anti-science ideologues is to attack the credibility of anyone who is any good at articulating the science: Hansen, Santer, Mann, Schneider, and on and on.
In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Fundamentally, people negatives are weak (“Don’t think of an elephant”), so one has to be very careful in messaging not to repeat the misinformation or at least to replace it with something more memorable.
There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January. It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”. Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for instance, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire”. Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted”.
These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.” The conservatives in the Iraq experiment might have reacted against something they associated with the Duelfer report, rather than the information it contained.
That’s why it will be impossible to move conservatives until conservative political and intellectual leaders and conservative media outlets stop repeating disinformation endlessly.
That said, I don’t think one should spend a lot of time trying to persuade the unpersuadable — I certainly try to minimize the amount of time I waste on that here.
Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life’s work.
The highlighted statement is a commonly held view but has no basis in fact. Ironically, much of the environmental and progressive political community started downplaying any talk of global warming just as the disinformers ramped it up.
People want to know the essential facts, but the main intermediary in disseminating information to public, the media, simply isn’t distinguishing between what’s essential and what’s nonessential, what’s information and what disinformation.