The discussion between two psychologists, reproduced in Ian’s article Lew and George in Bristol, reveals environmentalism at its most deranged. It’s worth examining in detail, I think, in order to try and understand what we’re up against.
First of all, who they are:
Stephan Lewandowsky has a perfectly normal day job as professor of cognitive psychology. He has received a gold medal from the Royal Society for outstanding achievement and a five figure sum to attract him to Britain. He spends most of his free time lying about people who don’t agree with him and publishing his lies in ever more obscure peer-reviewed on-line publications. He also believes in numerology.
George Marshall also claims to be a psychologist, though I’m not sure on what basis. He certainly practises professionally, since he’s paid (by the Universities of Cardiff, Exeter, Edinburgh, Greenpeace, the WWF, the United Nations, and the British government, among others) to tell other people that they’re wrong and he’s right.
George has a blog called “Climate Denial.” In his most recent post (six months ago)
he states his intention of “actively engaging with conservatives”. Two commenters (Paul Matthews and Barry Woods) politely pointed out that using the D-word about people you want to engage actively with is a bad start.
George replies: “I … recognise that this has become a divisive term and may be considered unsuitable for people who are, for whatever reasons, unconvinced about the issue. And then again, it takes a very long time to set up a blog and I’m rather loathe to do it again”.
Go on George, do it again. Do it with other people. It’s more fun that way.
In the Bristol University magazine article George starts with the interesting admission that attitudes to climate change are socially and psychologically conditioned. He says: “When people do pay attention to climate change, generally two things have happened: the issue has taken a form that speaks to their values, and it comes with a social signal from a peer group.” The first part is a tortuous tautology (“My values are what I believe in; I believe in climate change because it speaks to my values”). The second part is an adequate statement of the sociological truism that we tend to believe the things the people around us believe.
You can see why George (one of the “very few” who respond to climate change “in proportion to its potential dangers” – George’s words) considers it imperative to engage with the other 99% of the human race. The article in which he announced his engagement was titled “Part 1” and was published six months ago. We await Part 2 with impatience.
Stephan agrees with George and adds: “People’s attitudes are fragmented and context-specific: they will contradict themselves in different settings. We call that ‘knowledge partitioning’ …There’s an opportunity there to determine which context is most effective for eliciting an engaged response.”
In the course of four sentences the professor of cognitive psychology has smoothly elided “attitudes”, “knowledge”, and “responses”. It’s all the same kind of stuff, you see, like atoms and molecules and electrons, or conservatism, conspiracy ideation and denial of science. That’s what you learn from being a cognitive psychologist.
George then makes the interesting observation that: “Climate change has, quite dangerously I think, been shaped by its origins in earth science, which has a very data-driven culture.”
It’s obviously absurd to claim that changes in the earth’s climate have their origins in science. He doesn’t mean “climate change,” of course, but something like “the way climate science is conducted,” or “the way climate change is perceived”. And the handy term “data-driven culture” can be applied, not only to earth science, but to a very large section of modern society. Many of us, including George and Stephan and most of their fans and me and most of the readers of this blog, I dare say, spend much of our lives shovelling data around. We’ve closed most of the coal mines, and taken up data mining instead. It’s what we do best.
As an example of what I mean, consider Stephan’s next comment, which contains the only attempt at a factual statement about climate science in the whole article. He says:
“My research has shown that if people are told an outcome is uncertain, they find that less threatening than if an outcome is guaranteed but its timing is uncertain. For example, if you say sea levels may rise between ten and 90 cm, people say: ‘with a bit of luck it’ll just be ten centimetres’. But it’s just as true to say sea levels are almost guaranteed to rise by 50cm, the question is whether that’s by 2040 or 2060.”
Fifty centimetres of “almost guaranteed” sea level rise in the next 25 to 45 years eh? Let’s give the old mental arithmetic a whirl.
That’s 11-20 mm rise per year, or roughly 4-7 times faster than the current sea level rise (which has remained roughly unchanged for the past century or so) of 3mm per year. For Stephan to be right, sea level rise has to start increasing 400% right now (or more gradually, but at an even more fantastic rate later on). This is clearly physically impossible. No climate scientist on earth would defend such a prediction. When it comes to discussing climate change, Stephan is out with the fairies.
Let’s get back to psychology. George asks about the relation between “conservative, hierarchical views” and attitudes to climate change. Stephan says: “Well, we do know that people’s world views are a prime driver of their attitudes.”
Having equated attitudes to knowledge, he now states that they are driven by “world views” whatever they may be. Stephan’s attitude to the relationship between the key concepts of cognitive psychology is that of a Scrabble player: (“Does it fit? Will I get a triple word score?”)
He continues: “People who are politically conservative and endorse free markets are very likely to reject the findings from climate science. The strength of that relationship never ceases to amaze me.” Then, after a brief intervention from George, Stephan adds: “I don’t agree. Outside English-speaking countries, climate change isn’t challenging to conservatives.”
Note that Stephan is saying he doesn’t agree with himself. The strength of the relationship between conservatism and the rejection of climate science that never ceases to amaze him is restricted to English-speaking countries. And of course, as always, when he says “climate change” he doesn’t mean “climate change,” but rather something like “acquiescence in the consensus belief in climate change.” Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, according to George, Stephan and the rest of the 1%, so when he says: “Outside English-speaking countries, climate change isn’t challenging to conservatives,” he means: “Outside English-speaking countries, climate change is challenging to conservatives.” And vice versa.
Stephan is on a roll here, (a typical Lew roll) and continues: “We also know that people who think we can’t solve the problem are likely to deny the problem, because they think it’s unsolvable. I think that’s where the conversation should be: how the problem can be solved…”
So some (or is it all?) of the people who deny climate change are doing so because they can’t see how to solve it, just as some (or all) of the people who deny that you can square the circle or make a perpetual motion machine are only doing so because they personally can’t figure out how to do it. Which just goes to show that…
I’d better stop. My head hurts.
Should I leave the last word with George? “With climate change, we have a very weak narrative, with multiple voices.”
Or with Stephan? “We’re talking about a problem bigger than anything humanity has ever seen – something so big that it’s ridiculous to think we can condense it into one thing. We’ve got to have multiple voices, even if it’s a cacophony at times.”
I don’t know. You decide.
GIFs by Brad Keyes