How our susceptibility to bias makes a big problem out of climate change skepticism
It’s been a discouraging year for proponents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, a.k.a. human-caused global warming. Since the media sensation of the release of the “Climategate“ emails just over a year ago, science has been put on the defensive in the public sphere. Even while the scientific consensus itself has not changed, the issue has become more politicized than ever before, and skepticism is rapidly mainstreaming: half of the 100 new Republican members of the US Congress deny the existence of climate change, and 83 percent of them oppose enacting legislation to address it. (The Republican-led session of Congress has yet to even begin, but things are already not looking promising.) This could not come at a worse time: last year’s climate conference at Copenhagen was widely considered a disaster, and the current one in Cancún is labouring under the weight of the resultant pessimism.
Those advocates of climate change who haven’t been throwing up their hands in despair have instead been coming up with new outreach efforts intended to educate the public. A group of climate scientists hoping to provide the media with a source of accurate information on demand has just launched its “Climate Science Rapid Response Team”; the Guardian’s website is beginning to assemble an “Ultimate Climate Change FAQ” to authoritatively answer reader questions on the subject. Other scientists run blogs aplenty devoted entirely to attempting to dispel this and similar controversies (like those over evolution, the origin of AIDS, alternative medicines, etc.). So how can all this resistance to the scientific consensus persist? With so much information on hand, shouldn’t we expect everyone to be persuaded by now?
To make an educated guess at the answers requires us to understand why people are skeptical about climate change in the first place. Volumes have been written on the denial of scientific findings, and many popular hypotheses about its causes focus on what the blog Denialism calls “the psychology of crankery” — a search for individual factors, like an inherently suspicious personality, that can explain why one person rejects the mainstream scientific consensus while another does not. That search may yield interesting results, but a very plausible (and perhaps less belittling) explanation is already available to us: most skeptics simply don’t believe that there is a scientific consensus on climate change, or if they do, they are convinced that the consensus was arrived at through politics or even conspiracy and so has little to do with the facts of the matter. Confirmation bias, a simple and universal effect long recognized in psychology, can help account for this stark difference in beliefs.
When we run into information that conflicts with our pre-existing beliefs, we tend to doubt or downplay it: we try to figure out what’s wrong with the information, or discredit its source, or ignore it. At the same time, we’re attracted to information that confirms our beliefs: we pay attention to it and readily incorporate it into our worldview, without feeling as much of an urge to examine it critically. In effect, we largely filter out that which would cause us to experience cognitive dissonance and instead keep that which confirms what we already think. This saves on cognitive effort — we consider our theories more likely to be true than false, so we naturally accord a lower probability to claims that contradict those theories — but ultimately results in us processing our experience in a heavily biased way. And if we begin with different theories from others around us, and we and they are constantly sifting all the information we run into for only the theory-confirming evidence, our beliefs and attitudes are bound to move further and further apart from theirs, in the phenomenon known as attitude polarization.
The ubiquity of confirmation bias, and our general unconsciousness of it, make it too easy for the dialogue among any group of like-minded individuals to become an echo chamber of dogma and half-truths. For one example: In October, Scientific American hosted an online poll asking for readers’ opinions on climate change. When a couple of popular climate skeptic blogs posted links to it, the answers swayed heavily toward the negative. Before long, a member of a libertarian think tank had included the results of the poll prominently in his testimony before the US Congress’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, and an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal lambasting “California’s Green Jobs Lobby” reported that Scientific American had “recently discovered to its horror that some 80% of its subscribers, mostly American scientists, reject man-made global warming catastrophe fears.” How many Republican congresspersons or Journal readers reacted by fact-checking this blatant disinformation?
The left is not innocent of this kind of bias. Sarah Palin recently provided the media with irresistible fodder by mistakenly telling an interviewer that “We’ve got to stand with our North Korean allies.” Context from moments beforehand makes it clear that Palin knows which of North and South Korea is an ally of the US — but the people who already think she lacks such basic knowledge are the least likely to have checked and found that out. By the accumulation of all these negative impressions of our political foes, we slowly make them into stupid, incompetent, evil caricatures; we find it preposterous that anyone could trust them, and so we naturally conclude that their supporters’ motives are suspect or their minds are weak.
Political polarization, and the mutual demonization that it fosters, are nothing new. As one enlightening Washington Post column points out, with examples both recent and old, “The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora.” But our removal from the big news issues we read and hear about, and our power to select the streams of information we take in, have never been greater. Media outlets are increasingly labelled “left wing” and “right wing,” and chosen or dismissed on those grounds by their respective partisans (in 2002, as many self-identified Republicans watched CNN as Fox News; in 2010, 40 percent of them watch Fox, compared to twelve percent for CNN and six percent for MSNBC). The ever-increasing shift toward consuming news online has surely helped in this fragmentation: the range and variety of the prejudices that we can reinforce via the web is broader than any previous generation ever enjoyed. The more we consume separate streams of information, abandoning a shared public sphere in favour of associating with people who agree with us, the less we even inhabit the same world of facts as the other side; the social fragmentation that results from people who disagree being unable even to sensibly communicate with one another is terrifying. With mounting accusations of US-style partisanship being imported into Canadian politics, and the proposed right-leaning news station SUN TV (a.k.a., to many, “Fox News North”) now greenlit for Canadian airwaves, there seems to be little chance of us escaping a similar polarization.
In scientific matters as huge and abstract as that of climate change, we are all in a predicament like that of the archetypal blind men touching the elephant — except our contact with the elephant of scientific results is still more indirect, mediated by the intervening layers of press releases, news reports, and commentators reacting to those news reports. Each layer of removal introduces new room for slant and bias: thus a recent Berkeley psychology study finding that “belief in a just world influences people’s understanding of climate change… Given a [message about climate change with a] hopeful conclusion, skepticism plummeted among those with a high belief in a just world. Given the hopeless conclusion, skepticism shot up by a similar amount” becomes the catchier “Dire messages about global warming can backfire” in the university’s press release — and, finally, “climate change experts” determining that “their ‘scare the hell out of us’ screed was so awful… that it actually undermined their mission,” in the words of a smirking Fox News personality.
Because the layperson is so far removed from what scientists actually do, discover, and believe, his or her understanding of the actual state of current research is unavoidably incomplete. We can’t help but make appeals to authority when we justify our beliefs about scientific matters. This is why creationists, for example, are so devoted to spreading the canard that Darwinian evolution is a “theory in crisis” from which “many academics” dissent. The campaigners for climate change skepticism invoke many of the same arguments: either pockets of dissent are stressed, or the whole scientific establishment is dismissed as corrupt. The campaign against evolutionary theory, however, is driven largely by religious ideology and has looked largely like a fringe phenomenon, at least outside of America’s Bible Belt. The theory of climate change, on the other hand, is up against massive, vested economic and political interests that have fought tooth and nail to publicly discredit the science. They’ve done a great job of emphasizing a host of unsavoury associations related to preachy environmentalism, authoritarian regulation, and apocalyptic doomsaying. Last year’s massively sensationalized “Climategate” fiasco caused a crack in the appearance of climate science’s legitimacy that was quickly hammered into a chasm by those looking for cause for doubt; it’s all been downhill from there.
So, what can be done? All the blogs, rebuttals, and rapid response teams in the world will not persuade any skeptics if those skeptics never read them — and, being human, they shouldn’t be expected to go out of their way to do so. But we are not yet so profoundly polarized that nobody has anything new to say to anyone, and so, a few practical suggestions follow:
On an individual level, the failure to counteract our own biases will only keep contributing to this polarization. We need to take a cautious attitude toward those of our own beliefs that we take for granted, and to critically examine all claims made by politicians and the media as well as we can. Not only is this kind of vigilance needed for civil society to remain civil, but it is a minimal requirement for any person who is concerned about basing his or her beliefs in facts, rather than in the reverberations of some self-congratulating political echo chamber.
On the broader level, we need to pay attention to findings like those of the Berkeley study mentioned above, and package messages about climate change in ways that won’t turn people off. Reports on climate science need to be consistent and persuasive without ringing as shrill and alarmist — that caricature has sunken in firmly, whether we like it or not.
Most of all, we need to appeal to those values that everyone still shares. Business interests and conservative politicians are currently hammering on the notion that environmental regulation is tyrannical and job-killing. Those who think so, and doubt the science already, may scoff at yet-more-fearful talk of imperiled polar bears or slightly warmer winters — but pragmatic arguments based on the benefits of energy independence, the health risks and natural losses posed by out-of-control pollution, and the economic benefits of keeping competitive on an increasingly “green” international market may stand a much better chance of getting through. Continuing to conjure up the stale horror of melting glaciers, however legitimate, or deriding the irrational paranoia of “deniers”: perhaps not so much.