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Monbiot: There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway.

By Joe Romm  

"Monbiot: There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway."

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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 new study by the Met Office, which paints an even grimmer picture than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will do nothing to change this view.

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.

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21 Responses to Monbiot: There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway.

  1. Michael T says:

    “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”

    Off Topic:
    Speaking of Hansen, he gave a lecture at UNC-Chapel Hill last month and I thought I should post it for anyone who is interested in hearing and seeing the presentation. Just scroll down and click on “powerpoint presentation” and “full audio recording”
    http://college.unc.edu/features/February2010/article.2010-02-04.7872593393

  2. Lore says:

    Speaking of George Monbiot, here is a farily recent YouTube series of 3-videos of the debate between Monbiot and Ian Plimer, the notorious scientist/author. Monbiot did well here and literally beats Pilmer like a rented mule. He glares into the camera as if he had laser vision while Pilmer fumbles and looks from side to side like a punch drunk fighter going down for the last count. If you only have time to view one of these, check out video segment #2, I’ve never seen anyone dodge and run out the clock in a debate like Pilmer. This man Pilmer, comes across as a first class buffoon. There are some lessons here to learn with this debate. One is to get a fair moderator. Thanks to Coby Beck for pointing this one out to me.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBQCsMJm3Zg&feature=related

  3. max says:

    My knowledge of Monbiot’s writing leads me to believe that he suffers from some of the same failings he diagnoses in others. He is clearly on the right side of the science with regard to climate change but his writing about agricultural biotechnology is extremely biased and not based on an impartial understanding of the science. An expert in one facet of science can be just as blind as anyone in a field of science about which they know little.

  4. paulm says:

    We are in trouble. Do we have the manpower to supply the technology engineering required to keep us at ’2C’ (ie 3.4C)?
    Are we are leaving the adaptation planing too late?

    Its looking like the Chinese system is really the ultimate way to manage large complex global societies.

    UK must transform to meet future energy needs, warn top engineers
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/18/uk-transform-energy

    The UK’s most eminent engineers have warned that the biggest set of investments and social changes ever seen in peacetime are needed to meet the country’s energy needs in the coming decades, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

    “We are nowhere near having a plan,” said Prof Sue Ion, who led the report. “These are massive projects. It requires a huge exercise all through government, and needs to come from the very top and go down through all departments such as transport and local government.”

  5. The delusional lunacy of climate denial is not confined to individuals. The classic work is “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles McKay, first published in 1841.

    The essentials of climate science and the earth as greenhouse is a fairly easy concept to grasp. The details and depth are a complex as you want. But some people are angry and crazy and will oppose anything. It is just too bad that the stakes for this one issue are so high.

  6. Florifulgurator says:

    The sciences, …, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — H.P. Lovecraft

  7. kenshin says:

    to me, it’s much simpler. right now, i’d say that HCR, immigration reform and climate all have the same enemy, and that is this poor economy. the link to job creation and TRUE energy independence should be made much much stronger. give people what they want, b/c it is what they want.

    who here would deny someone health care coverage? is this the american spirit? only those who are already worried about losing their own–in this economy it’s everyone. that has been the strategy from opposition from the start, to make people feel like they shouldn’t be paying for someone else’s health care, or that they would lose their own coverage (and that’s money too, years of premiums lost). it’s why opposition keeps saying HCR will add to the deficit when it’s a lie–all u need to do is make people feel squeezed, they don’t need bother with the actual numbers.

    same w/immigration. us vs. them. those people are taking our jobs, our money and sending to other countries, etc etc…bad economic times turns otherwise good neighbors into racists, hate mongers, apathetic or even greedy misers. turn these crooks into criminals and call them illegal. as opposed to taxpayers and brothers and sisters in the working class, which most undocumented people are.

    so, they are pushing hard on this energy tax thing. ads are alllll over the metro stations, on radio here in DC all day. to fight climate change will cost u, hurt u when we are already hurting. when they aren’t doing that, they talk out the other side of their mouth, and greenwash their own dirty industry. the new “coal it keeps the lights on” as opposed to “coal it’s blowing up your mountains and poisoning the unborn child”.

    someone needs to simply stop their crap and turn it back around. stop talking about a “postage stamp a day” and start saying, u want energy independance? yes, it will cost u. but it is what u asked for. u know if we stopped importing cheap goods from china today, it would make everything go up in price, so making energy come from home, will cost u too. but it is worth it, and it is our choice. our choice is the electric car powered by wind and solar, or blood oil. then, get specific. our choice is wind and solar, cuz otherwise we are blowing up our own mountains for coal vs. blowing up other countries for oil.

    lastly, bring in solidarity within our own country. where is our solidarity in this country? it is the UNITED states of america, right? the cities have benefited from cheap coal from WV for all these years, on the backs of our miners. do the people of Appalachia not deserve mitigation as we move into a wind and solar powered energy future? do we not stand in solidarity with our neighbors in WV? we do not need to guilt trip hard, just remind ourselves that UNITY and SOLIDARITY is what made our country strong, and we are still strong. in the hardest of times, we are still strong.

    none of this needs to bring up climate change. not that we should stop talking about it, but to get the first step, it needn’t be this hard to take back the momentum, by taking back our souls. their brains won’t work if their hearts are closed. and their hearts will remain apathetic so long as people are feeling the bad times…but we can’t wait. the more we remember what justice and fairness looks like, what true independence feels like, the easier it will be to make people see beyond their own pockets and have confidence in what we are asking for–environmental justice.

  8. fj2 says:

    Don’t really agree at all; too cynical; almost a polemic; and deliberative social science would tone down the analysis considerably to ring a bit more true.

    Human civilization is on hyper drive and as noted “the problem is compounded by complexity,” not only resulting in the rapid devastation of the environment, but perhaps an ongoing churning of “human nature.”

    In one sense intelligence is evolution on steroids seriously caffeinated, ultimately amazing, relentlessly plastic.

  9. jean says:

    in any sane world al gore would be a political figure of great stature. a statesman. he’s a joke to a lot of people. he was against the Iraq War from the beginning. he won a nobel prize for his global warming movie. this man should be treated like a saint.

    instead the media breathlessly reports the lies liz cheney/dick cheney/karl rove continually feed us and mocks al gore!

  10. Heraclitus says:

    The Royal Society of Engineers call for the ‘biggest set of investments and social changes ever seen in peacetime’, but is it time to start framing our situation in terms of World War 3?

    We are entering the early stages of a long and drawn out war, but we still have a choice of enemy. At the moment we are fighting our historical actions and the present situation we find ourselves in. Leave it much longer and the world will dissolve into chaos as resources dwindle and the war will become brutal, international and ubiquitous.

  11. substanti8 says:

    I think max is wrong (comment #3). A common link between AGW and GMOs is the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. We are mucking up a biosphere that we barely understand (yet that is necessary to sustain our lives).

    So there is nothing inconsistent about Monbiot’s opposition to genetically engineered crops. We are running global and uncontrolled experiments – with enormous risk – when we dump either CO2 or transgenic organisms into the biosphere.

  12. Charles says:

    Telepgraph journalist Gerald Warner writes that scientists are: “white-coated prima donnas and narcissists.” Oh, the irony!

    I want to follow up from Richard Pauli’s posting about people being too angry and crazy. And prima donnas and narcissists. This is the shadow side of postmodernism, which I occasionally see in first year students: “No one tells me what to think!” Put another way, it’s: “I’m privileged and special enough that I can think what I want; authority be damned!”

    (The cure is often “vitamins”: specifically in those cases, vitamins C, D, and F.)

  13. substanti8 says:

    Vitamin F … I love it, Charles!

    Adding to your comment, I think the capitalist economic system nurtures narcissism by rewarding hyper-individualism and material insatiability. I think the top marketing demographic is 18-25 (going on 16).

    The essential problem with explaining science to such people is that we are asking them to be far more mature than the social system that rewards immaturity. This is especially true with regard to present actions that impact unborn generations.

  14. Andy says:

    Mr. Monbiot went on and on spouting utter rubish to the BBC two days ago regarding Tiger conservation. He is a know it all who knows a lot less than he thinks he does. Is he a reporter or a columnist in a reporter’s clothing? I don’t care if he’s on “my side”. He often spouts nonsense and is in major need of some humility.

    Mr. Monbiot: if you’re reading please pick up E.O. Wilson’s book on biodiversity before stating to the public that life other than human is important for nothing other than as a fashion statement.

  15. Leif says:

    The dawn of WW III? Absolutely. To quote Einstein:

    “I do not know the weapons of WW III but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

    I, for one, hope that WW III will be fought with reason, rational thought and scientific understanding and humanity will be victorious.

    As an additional reward, perhaps we can skip WW IV all together.

  16. Edward says:

    Reference: “Fighting Identity” by Michael Vlahos, page 80: “Those who critically examine sacred narrative are of course always heretics”.
    But what Vlahos means by “sacred” isn’t what most of us think of when we use that word. To Vlahos, “The Market” and “The Iraq War” are sacred narratives. To Vlahos, YOU are trying to CHANGE THE IDENTITY of the American people. That is tantamount to a religious conversion.
    Now how else would a preacher of the old religion of “Fossil fuels are good $$$$$” see us besides as all those bad things?
    I am only the messenger. It is Vlahos’s opinion, not mine. I hope I have understood him correctly so far. I am on page 114. Vlahos is difficult reading.

    From me: Anger should be expected; but anger may be the first stage of learning. Luckily, we have the First Amendment.

  17. substanti8 says:

    It seems that AGW deniers are getting increasingly angry.  People are facing the loss of a lifestyle based on energy from fossil fuels.  According to the original Kübler-Ross grief cycle, anger is the second stage after denial:

    The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle

    Edward, thanks for the recommendation to read Michael Vlahos.  It looks like me has some interesting ideas:

    American Power and the Fall of Modernity (Part I)
    American Power and the Fall of Modernity (Part III)

    Meanwhile, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech against government restriction.  So I’m not sure what you meant in your last sentence.

  18. PeterW says:

    Max says: “but his writing about agricultural biotechnology is extremely biased and not based on an impartial understanding of the science.”

    I don’t want to stray off topic but this statement is ridiculous. Max agricultural biotechnology is not independent, it is run by multinationals like Monsanto, Syngenta, etc. To equate this to climate science, this would be like Exxon, Chevron, the Saudis, and Coal companies controlling climate research departments around the world. Funny how the Ag biotech industry uses the same PR firms and Think Tanks as the climate deniers.

  19. fj2 says:

    15. Leif, “I, for one, hope that WW III will be fought with reason, rational thought and scientific understanding and humanity will be victorious.”

    And, WW IV will be fought with sonnets!

  20. While it may not be worth “a lot of time trying to persuade the unpersuadable,” an understanding of types of worldviews helps to clarify who might be persuadable and how.

    Dan Kahan’s piece in Nature (linked to by Monbiot) reflects a cultural theory of worldviews.

    I posted an overview of the topic in “Climate, Worldviews and Cultural Theory.”

  21. climateprogressive says:

    Re: Andy says:
    March 19, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    “Mr. Monbiot: if you’re reading please pick up E.O. Wilson’s book on biodiversity before stating to the public that life other than human is important for nothing other than as a fashion statement.”

    Not sure what you’re getting at here. In among that unimportant “life other than human”, do you include things like the potato, rice, wheat?

    You really will have to be more specific!