The Ideological Armour Of ‘Climate Sceptics’By Collin Maessen on comment
Trying to engage ‘climate sceptics’, or so-called sceptics as I prefer to call them, in a fact based discussion is often quite frustrating. Not because you might not convince them to your own position, but because simple basic facts are dismissed. This prevents you from having a factual discussion on how we might want to react towards the changes we are causing in our planet’s climate.
A good example of this was my recent interaction with Bob Tisdale about his interpretation on a passage from a KNMI document:
We believe that limiting the scope of the IPCC to human-induced climate change is undesirable, especially because natural climate change is a crucial part of the total understanding of the climate system, including human-induced climate change.
Tisdale interpreted this as meaning that the KNMI is saying that the IPCC is focussing too much on the human cause of global warming. Meaning they aren’t paying (enough) attention to natural causes and natural variability. But that isn’t what the KNMI wants to convey with this passage.
I already had contacted the KNMI asking them to provide some context about what they meant with this passage. Simply because the IPCC does spend a lot of attention on natural variability and natural causes for climate change; something that anyone who has read their reports should know. If the IPCC didn’t do this it wouldn’t be possible to determine our contribution to climate change. The answer I received from the KNMI confirmed this. What they were saying with this passage is that the IPCC should change the text of its mandate so that it would reflect what the IPCC already is doing in their reports.
Yet when I showed this clarification from the KNMI to Tisdale he dismissed it, refused to verify if it was legit, and he asked me if I could correct my blog post as I hadn’t provided anything that showed he had misrepresented the KNMI. He even went as far as saying that “I will ask that you end this discussion. You are wasting your time and mine.” With his last response to me being “I’m tired of having you repeat the same tired message. If you repeat it again, your comment will be deleted.”
Suffice to say I wasn’t exactly pleased with his response. It’s also a good example that shows that the public debate about global warming and climate change isn’t being held on a scientific or factual basis. Participants come to this debate already being influenced by their political positions:
The above video goes into great detail on how our ability to use maths can shape our understanding of a subject. But the most important part of the video is where they talk about gun policies and crime statistics. When for example those in favour for more gun control were presented with fictitious gun policy results that showed that these policies don’t work they scored worse than when presented with the same data framed in a different context (such as how effective a skin cream was). The same result was found when those opposing gun control were presented with fictitious data that showed that gun control reduced crime (using the same numbers, just different framing).
This is what I call ideological armour: if evidence contradicts what you believe there’s a good chance that you will reject it outright.
Evidence doesn’t come into the picture in these cases. The more something contradicts your position the less likely it is that you will accept it and act in a way that takes into account the provided evidence. This can get so extreme that you’re not even able to understand what you’re presented with and how it contradicts your position.
All this isn’t only applicable to ‘climate sceptics’ (who often seem to reject evidence because of a free market ideology or a limited government position). It’s also very obvious when you talk to young earth creationists. Or if you try to engage those that are against GMOs and see them as dangerous. It doesn’t matter what the particular position is that you’re invested in, evidence that undermines your position will have a very hard time penetrating that mental armour.
However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t properly explain scientific findings or debunk popular misconceptions. You shouldn’t be dissuaded because it rarely convinces those that believe those misconceptions, create them, or propagate them. It’s not for them that you do this as they aren’t the intended audience for such materials.
You do it for those that are trying to honestly inform themselves so that they can make decisions that are based on reality. It’s for them that I write on these subjects and it’s for them that I make an effort to be as patient and polite as possible. As being confrontational is not productive in helping people understand scientific subjects, it’s actually counter productive and you might end up pushing them towards an incorrect position.
That’s why websites like Skeptical Science, Real Climate or the legions of other websites like mine that analyse claims on validity are so important. We provide information and context that is needed so that discussions can be held about the facts. Not solely on the basis of a preferred ideological position or policy.
But this raises another problem. The so-called sceptics often manage to make a lot of noise and because of that manage to get attention in the media. With all the consequences this entails because now you’re misinforming the public. The raise in preventable diseases caused by all the misinformation that’s being spread by the anti-vaccination proponents is a perfect example of this.
A large part of the issue is the false balance media often provide. Media outlets often ‘balance’ one view with an opposing one so that they don’t seem to be biased one way or the other. But in the case of scientific subjects there often isn’t another equally valid position. Putting a doctor next to an anti-vaccination proponent isn’t being balanced, that’s undermining legitimate science and misinforming the public.
And yes some do this intentional. But a contributing factor to this is media outlets and journalists often not having the necessary time and expertise to cover a subject well. This is of course no excuse for doing that, but in our fast paced world filled with sound bites there’s not a lot of incentive for media outlets to do this properly. The incentive is on providing the most interesting news and be the first to report on it. Accuracy and restraint are one of the first casualties in such an environment.
What I just mentioned are some of the things climate science deniers exploit to get their message to the public. Dealing with this is not easy, but I think the following response from the Los Angeles Times towards letters sent by climate science deniers is a step in the right direction:
As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they “deny” it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom.
Before going into some detail about why these letters don’t make it into our pages, I’ll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking. I’m no expert when it comes to our planet’s complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts — in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.
And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.
Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.
I think this is the correct response towards anything that isn’t factually correct. Of course you have to be careful with how you apply this, but relying on experts to help you is what you should do. Where necessary you of course run a correction or allow someone to respond if they had a point to begin with.
This isn’t about silencing opposing views or not allowing discussions. It’s about allowing views that are based on facts and allowing factual discussions. These are basic journalistic standards for accuracy that we should demand from our media outlets. Demanding accuracy and holding media outlets accountable for not properly doing their research is something we should do. Without accurate information we undermine the very democratic processes we rely on.
Of course climate science deniers will not like this as this will eventually cut off their access to large media outlets. I have no doubt that they will use this to feed into some of the narratives they have on ‘suppressing legitimate opposing views’. And there’s probably a good chance that in the short term we might see some fallout from implementing this. But in the end it will shift discussions towards facts and merits so that we can make an informed decision about the policy options for dealing with global warming.
Demanding accuracy from our media isn’t the solutions to all the issues we face with misinformation. But at least it’s a start for keeping the public informed and a good tool for keeping our politicians honest.
It also isn’t the one thing that will destroy the ideological armour of climate science deniers; although it is an important one. If you starve someone with ideological armour from affirming non-factual information cracks will form in their ideological armour. Those cracks will eventually cause this mental armour to fail. It’s a slow process, but it happens.
But most importantly it will prevent others from creating their own ideological armour. Preventing that is one of the most important things that we can do.
The position of the LA Times letters editor is good, but it is not necessarily the position of the LA Times. Regarding false balance in coverage of the recent IPCC WG1 report: “Half of those quoted in The Wall Street Journal were doubters, about 29 percent in Los Angeles Times, about 17 percent in The Washington Post and about 12 percent in Bloomberg News.” http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/10/10/study-media-sowed-doubt-in-coverage-of-un-clima/196387
I know, that’s why I referred to it as “letters sent by climate science deniers” and linked to the article for more context. It is a first good step for that particular part of the LA Times. Now if just the rest of the paper would follow the letters editor then we would have a paper that’s making a big step to improve on its journalistic standards on science reporting.
It’s why I think the signature campaign from Forecast the Facts is so important (added it to my blog post):
Rejecting letters that do not contain any factual basis is a start that can pave the way for more. Granted it’s not perfect but it will help with preventing misinformation from spreading.
Please show the question you asked the KNMI and the answer you received.
Your whole premise is that your interpretation of this para is right and Tisdale’s wrong. Yet you show us nothing factual to back it up. You say you showed it to Tisdale. Show it to us.
There’s a reason why I used links in this blog post, they provide further clarifying material.
For example when I say “A good example of this was my recent interaction with Bob Tisdale about his interpretation on a passage from a KNMI document” I linked to my blog post ‘An Open Letter To Bob Tisdale‘ that contains the quote.
When I said “I already had contacted the KNMI asking them to provide some context about what they meant with this passage” I linked to the original blog post ‘Dutch Meteorological Institute KNMI Critical Of IPCC?‘ which I wrote when I first encountered a similar misrepresentation. It chronicles how I got the response and who wrote it.
Also when I said “Suffice to say I wasn’t exactly pleased with his response.” I again linked to a blog post that contained this quote. Plus my take on how Tisdale handled my criticism.
If you read any of those pages you will find the quote and how I got it (they all link to my original blog post on this subject). But to be very clear, this is the quote I referenced (translated from Dutch):
Also if you click on the KNMI tag that’s at the end of this blog post you will see every blog post I wrote about the KNMI or where I mention them. This includes the original blog post and any further clarifying materials.
The reason I didn’t directly put the quote in this blog post is because it was an example that I partially explain and linked to the full context. As it was just an example and not the main focus of this blog post it would distract from the main subject and make it unnecessary long.
Now I don’t mind people asking me for sources; but I do mind how you did it. You came to me assuming I didn’t have what I directly linked to (that’s a form of confirmation bias, something I talk about in this blog post). What you should have done is ask something along the lines of “Could you give me the quote you’re referring to? I can’t find it.”
Like I said in this blog post tone matters and how you approach someone you disagree with matters even more.
“Your whole premise is that your interpretation of this para is right and Tisdale’s wrong.”
“Your whole premise is…” Wrong. It is just a convenient recent example used to illustrate a point with links to the full details provided.
“…your [a Real Sceptic’s] interpretation of this para is right and Tisdale’s wrong.” Wrong again. Interpretations might be relevant to Egyptian hieroglyphics engraved on a stone thousands of years ago, but when the authors of recently published statements are available, then it is reasonable to ask authors what they intended their statements to mean, if there is some ambiguity. The conflict pointed out in the blog post is between the authorial intended meaning and Tisdale’s interpretation. The important point developed in the example is that Tisdale is apparently not at all interested in the intended meaning.
I’ve just read an article which confirms your own idea of ideological armour. The article explains some recent research which has shown that “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.” They call it the backfire effect. – http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_backfire_effect.php
I’ve also started deleting comments on my blog that try to raise doubts about climate change. Mostly it’s because I just don’t have the energy or the capability to deal with them and the arguments I found myself involved in were quite exhausting.
Interesting article with some further reading to it attached. Think you gave me some extra reading for this weekend. 😉
About comment removals I have this particular passage in my Terms and Conditions:
And this in it:
This states that basically anything that isn’t factually correct can be removed. But it’s something I rarely do.
I only remove something when it really crosses a civility line or is an accusation of for example fraud that is just not true. The rest I mostly allowed as long as it is civil. I try to find a balance between allowing discourse, preventing false accusations from being spread, and providing further corrections/explanations in my comment sections.
Simple misconceptions exist with the amount of misinformation that is out there. And as long as someone is willing to engage in a honest way and correct their position when needed I allow such exchanges.
It’s not perfect, but I presume good faith from people that engage in my comment sections until shown otherwise. Although one comment can be enough.