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Blinded to Science

How our susceptibility to bias makes a big problem out of climate change skepticism

How our susceptibility to bias makes a big problem out of climate change skepticism

Blind men and an elephantHanabusa Itchō, via Wikimedia CommonsBlind monks examining an elephant (1888)

What on EarthIt’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.

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  • Cade Foster

    This article is bloated (off-topic ?) and misleading.

    Many people do not have a background grounded in science
    and so are unable to realize the presence of scientific fraud.

    Climate-Gate did not put science on the defensive.
    Climate-Gate put the respective scientific-fraudsters on the defensive.

    Science is not a social discipline where the latter may rely on consensus.
    Science is a technical discipline that relies on experimental facts,
    arrived at through truth and transparency.

    For years, there has existed IPCC-related research that has not
    pushed the transparency (and truth ?) issue.

    Psychologists should remember the critical importance of these
    truth/transparency pre-requisites.

    Why wasn’t the ClimateGate scandal subjected to a judicial inquiry like
    Al Gore’s movie (“An Inconvenient Truth”) was in the UK ?
    If it were, then like the judicial proceedings for the Al Gore movie,
    the relevant witnesses would have been allowed to testify
    (unlike the non-judicial inquiry that “whitewashed” the climate-gate scandal)
    and people would have been able to find out the truth on the status
    of the IPCC-related “fraudulent” climate science research (like people found out
    about the truth of Gore’s one-sided, erroneous, propaganda film).

    Skepticism is good since it allows science to progress
    along a more higher-quality path to further knowledge.
    Skepticism demands that opposing research parties make their
    techniques and methodologies transparent so that all parties can
    independently verify the current state of science and this leads to
    progression of knowledge through expected reduction of skepticism.

    The IPCC has a history of not following this trend.
    Unless a person has a grounding in science and also takes the time
    to peruse the scientific literature, this would not be obvious.

    To regard scientific skepticism as a “no no” or “bad” thing shows
    the lack of scientific grounding for the background of the
    respective person.

    Climate-change reports exist that support the “alarmist” view
    but still have disclaimers that indicate no responsibility for the
    accuracy of the data within the report due to the acknowledgement
    that the computer models, used to model the climate phenomena,
    use assumptions due to our lack of knowledge of aspects of
    climate science.

    A good way for the non-scientific public to educate themselves
    is to read the material at the NIPCC’s site
    where all sides of the climate change theme are visited.

    I have graduated with a PhD in an applied-science/engineering
    discipline and if my doctoral work exhibited those
    fraudulent characteristics implied by the climate-gate emails then I would
    have been, rightly so. kicked out of the university.

    In conclusion,
    the “alarmists” try to appear so sure of themselves as if they are implying
    that “one and one is two”.
    However the “alarmists” may be taking advantage of the general lack
    of scientific background amongst citizens and really implying “one and one is three”,
    knowing that the people will not recognize this fallacy.


  • Neil Craig

    The claims to “scientific consensus” on warming are & always have benn, wholly dishonest.

    Or perhaps the author can prove otherwise?

    I have asked journalists, politicians & alarmist lobbyists now totalling in the tens of thousands worldwide to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming. None of them have yet been able to do so. I extend this same invitation yet again.

    There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. If there were anything approaching a consensus it with over 31,000 scientists having signed the Oregon petition saying it is bunk, it would be easy to find a similar number of independent scientists saying it was true, let alone 2. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer.

    Because, to quote Mencken “the practical purpose of politics is to keep the polulace frightened & anxious to be led to safety by threatening them with an endless series of hobgoblins – all of them imaginary.”

    • KC B

      I would suggest starting with Susan Joy Hassol, an independent scholar who worked on the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA).

      As with any major scientific enterprise (be it deep sea or deep space exploration, the human health impacts of major pollutants, innovations in medicine, etc.), climate change research requires government funding.

      Some hobgoblins are imaginary and some ain’t. It takes hard work and funding, and yes, much of it from taxpayers, to sort them out.

      I suppose Mr. Craig has long-ago chosen to trust the scam-artists.

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  • Neil Craig

    Well KC since she is the closest you can name to an independent scientist I Foogled ger. She is the boss of “Climate Communication” which is a body existing to “communicate” catastrophoc warming alarmism to us.

    Goofle does not mention any actual scientific papers as opposed to PR releases, she has done – perhaps you could help.

    Perhaps you could also provide information about their sourves of funding since CC have unfortunately neglected to do so :-)

    That this is the best & only example you can come up with tends to prove what I said.

  • Tyler


    In order to disprove that there is consensus please link us with refereed literature showing that anthropogenic climate change does not exist.

    And no, saying that that literature doesn’t exist because of a global academic conspiracy does not count as a valid excuse.


    • klem

      here’s one:

      “Climate Change Reconsidered: The 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). The new report, some 880 pages in length, is the most comprehensive critique of the IPCC’s positions ever published. It lists 35 contributors and reviewers from 14 countries.”

      Go here to read:


  • Rob

    Kudos to the commenters who, without a trace of irony, exhibit precisely the “Confirmation Bias” described by the article.

    @cade, given your PhD in science, you’d surely appreciate that countering one lobby’s claims with those of another don’t really constitute the stuff of scientific debate. You argue high-mindedly that science is all about the facts, but then you use ad hominem “Climategate” criticism to discredit a scientific hypothesis (emails don’t constitute data).

    I thought this article was a balanced attempt to return the debate to a more reasonable space by someone with a clear opinion on the matter. But the commenters here have demonstrated, albeit unwittingly, how unlikely this is to occur.

  • Keith Cleveland

    “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” – attributed to Honest Abe Lincoln.
    We’ve been had. Hoodwinked. Duped. Conned. Fooled. The wool over my eyes is starting to itch. The ONLY way we can reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the potential devastating effects of global warming and climate change is by leaving fossil fuels right where we found them: buried underground or deep in our oceans.
    Harnessing wind energy could help us achieve that goal, but ONLY if the energy produced is somehow stored so it can be used when needed; such as in a battery bank. That is not happening.
    Without storing the energy produced by wind we are actually making matters worse. We are actually INCREASING our dependency on fossil fuels. That sounds pretty stupid when you first hear it, but when you look at how the electricity grid works it becomes crystal clear. Wind turbines need to be paired with fossil turbines to make it work. Supply has to match demand or the grid collapses. Only fossil fits the bill. The more wind turbines that get erected the more fossil generation we need. The hope is that “one day” we’ll solve the storage issue. Problem is, if we don’t, we’re stuck with fossil generation because of wind energy. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
    This is wrong.
    Check this out:
    Robert F Kennedy Jr. – Solar Thermal and Utility Scale Wind are Gas Plants
    Keith Cleveland
    Ripley, ON

    • klem

      Finally someone is speaking up about this. Power can’t be stored, so when you turn on a light bulb, the power being burned is being manufactured at precisely that moment. Wind turbines are the same, they produce power when the wind is high but if the wind falls to nothing over a few minutes it would result in power outages, so more fossil fuel plants must be built to offset this. It’s about time the greens understood this.

  • Anonymous

    Someone said that human beings cannot make any harm to the Planet because we are too small. From my point of view, this is not true because even if we are small, we are so many.

  • jeff borsato

    What is missing here is a more nuanced examination of “climate skeptics”.

    I suspect most people are skeptical of the “imminent doom” portrayal of many climate change figures who feel that without a shocking and damming conclusion to our current activity on this planet people wont care.

    The sound science behind AGW warnings become less credible when affixed to “cities underwater in 2020″ nonsense that keeps being repeated save the dates moved slightly ahead year after year.

    Skeptic is too general a term, within the AGW community there are all sorts of discussion and debate, the fundamental belief that humans can and have impacted climate may be their common ground, but what to do about it, if it is universally a bad thing and how much change is the result of humans is the core of the debate. That doesn’t make one a skeptic of science itself because of the multi-faceted nature of the debate.

  • Grant

    While I appreciate the post, it would probably help if the publication you’re associated with didn’t participate in the green washing of one of the most polluting industrial projects in the world:

  • Cheryl

    Environmental degradation itself is a symptom of economic depravation. Our global economic systems are growth dependent yet we live on a finite planet. If the subsidies going towards all forms of production were instead spent on conservation we’d only need a fraction of the power we now produce. The only purpose industrial wind turbines serve is so people can feel good about the energy they waste and end up wasting even more. Energy efficiency is not the same as conservation. Instead, in our current economic climate, it makes more sense to continue to waste energy and come up with new ways of generating and wasting it (growth). Energy conservation is bad for the economy (zero or negative growth). At some point growth dependency on a finite planet will no longer work. We might be there already.

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  • anon

    The theory of evolution has actually changed dramatically in the last few decades. Natural selection turned out to be grossly insufficient and is being replaced with more advanced genetic evolution that contradicts many key points of Darwinism. The irony of it all is that while evolution is completely real, Ben Stein’s critique of natural selection is also totally true.

  • Neil Craig

    So nobody on the alarmist side still feels able to even pretend to being able to name a sigle member of this alleged consensus who exists as an indeopendent scientist. Case proven.

    Now lets prove if there are, or aren’t, any remotely honest alarmists whatsoever willin g to admit the alleged consensus is a fraud.

    Experiment worldwide so far suggests there are none.

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