Silly sociology (part 1)

A common theme at my old blog was the biased and shoddy work done by social scientists and psychologists relating to public opinion on climate change (examples here, here and here).  In the last few weeks some more classics of this genre have been published.

Examining the Effectiveness of Climate Change Frames in the Face of a Climate Change Denial Counter-Frame

This is the title of a paper by sociologist Aaron McCright and others from Michigan State University. It’s getting a fair amount of attention in the media, with Reuters reporting the headline  “Climate-change naysayers better at war of words” and a similar story at VoA.

The university press release, Climate Change Foes Winning Public Opinion War, is a masterpiece of muddledom and self-contradiction. What does ‘climate-change foes’ mean? If climate change is bad, surely we all ought to be foes of it? In fact, they mean sceptics, or in their childish language, ‘climate deniers’.  Secondly, the press release claims that the paper is by environmental scientists – but it isn’t, it’s by four sociologists.  Environmental scientists do useful stuff like this. McCright and his team would be better described as political activists. I asked them why they are misrepresenting their academic credentials, but got no reply.  Perhaps they are aware of the low regard in which the social sciences are held, so prefer to pretend to be something else. Finally, the original version of the press release (see this article at WUWT, where the paper gets the ridicule it deserves in the comments) directly contradicted itself by saying that  “Climate-change foes … are successfully changing people’s minds” and then “It’s extremely difficult to change people’s minds on climate change”.  After I pointed this out, they changed the wording of that last quote in the press release.

Notice also the confrontational, divisive, aggressive language used in the press release. “War”. “Foes”. “Deniers”. It’s almost as if these university academics are deliberately trying to create conflict, division and polarisation. Is that a responsible way for professional academic researchers to behave? More on that story later – they are not alone.

Turning to the actual paper, it doesn’t start well: the very first sentence of the abstract contains an elementary grammatical error.   Apparently none of the authors of the paper, nor any of those involved in the rigorous review process the paper underwent, spotted “Prior research … do not account for…”.  The paper is packed full of social science jargon – for example the word “frame” or “framing” (which means, I think, the way in which information is presented)  occurs an amazing 179 times, while the “d” word occurs 66 times.  The authors make little attempt to hide their left wing activist agenda, with 12 references to “The capitalist system”. They make much of their belief that people are sceptical about climate change because they like capitalism, which they describe with the pretentious jargon “The Anti-Reflexivity Thesis”. But not once does it occur to these blinkered, biased people that this might work the other way too – anti-capitalists obsess about and hype up climate change because they see it as a way of promoting their agenda. There is a blatant admission that their aim is to manipulate public opinion:  “Our results, which are presented in Table SM2, indicate that these general ACC views are relatively resistant to manipulation with a single-dose message”.

However, as is often the case with such papers, if you cut through all the garbage, the results are quite interesting and ironic, which is why the paper has been discussed by Jo Nova and Michael Bastach as well as WUWT.  What they did was show people (recruited via the “Mechanical Turk“) one of ten fake newspaper articles. Five had a call to climate action, including the suggestion that it might improve the economy, security or health… and the other five had the same article but with additional material saying that others disagree. It is an illustration of the extremism of McCright and colleagues that they describe saying that ‘others disagree’ as a ‘denial counter-frame’. Here is one of the fake newspaper articles. Participants read one of these and then answered some questions about climate change.

The results are explained in an opaque manner using linear regression, which can give misleading results (I do wish social scientists would just plot the data) but the bottom line is that the ‘denial counter-frame’ significantly reduced belief in anthropogenic climate change (ACC) and support for action on climate change:


They say that this effect is strongest for ‘conservatives’ but also apparent for ‘moderates’. In the conclusions section they say that “We found that exposure to an ACC denial counter-frame significantly reduced respondents’ belief in the reality of ACC, belief about the veracity of climate science, awareness of the consequences of ACC, and support for aggressively attempting to reduce our nation’s GHG emissions in the near future. These robust effects speak to the power of ACC denial activism on Americans’ ACC views.”

The authors try to give the impression that this is a new result, but it’s not – at least two previous papers have found the same effect. Corner, Whitmarsh and Xenias (2012), cited by McCright et al. but not really discussed, did almost exactly the same thing, showing people two fake newspaper editorials, one climate-concerned and one sceptical.  They found that the effect of this was to make the participants slightly more sceptical, regardless of how sceptical they were initially (this paper was discussed by Geoff and others some time ago here and here).  Another illustration of the effect is Beware of climate change skeptic films  by Tobias Greitemeyer, a paper which caused some amusement in the blogsphere. Anthony Watts’s blog post title Skeptic movies meet their goal whereas alarmist ones do not summarises the findings clearly. McCright et al. don’t cite Greitemeyer, even though it is directly relevant to their own results – either they are less familiar with the literature of their own field than I am, or they thought that his paper was just too embarrassing to refer to.

Anyway, this is cause for some Christmas cheer for climate scepticism – it seems that what we say has an influence on public opinion, if only we can get the message out, while what the other side says has much less effect. Why might that be? Give your answers below.


  1. It is known as “Post-Normal” science.

    Here’s Mike Hulme** on the subject:

    The danger of a “normal” reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow…exchanges often reduce to ones about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences.

    ‘self-evidently’ dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth-seeking…scientists – and politicians – must trade truth for influence. What matters about climate change is not whether we can predict the future with some desired level of certainty and accuracy.

    Climate change is telling the story of an idea and how that idea is changing the way in which our societies think, feel, interpret and act. And therefore climate change is extending itself well beyond simply the description of change in physical properties in our world…

    The largest academic conference that has yet been devoted to the subject of climate change finished yesterday [March 12, 2009] in Copenhagen…I attended the Conference, chaired a session…[The] statement drafted by the conference’s Scientific Writing Team…contained…a set of messages drafted largely before the conference started by the organizing committee…interpreting it for a political audience…And the conference chair herself, Professor Katherine Richardson, has described the messages as politically-motivated. All well and good.

    The danger of a “normal” reading of science is that it assumes science can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow…exchanges often reduce to ones about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences.

    …‘self-evidently’ dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth-seeking…scientists – and politicians – must trade truth for influence. What matters about climate change is not whether we can predict the future with some desired level of certainty and accuracy.

    Climate change is telling the story of an idea and how that idea is changing the way in which our societies think, feel, interpret and act. And therefore climate change is extending itself well beyond simply the description of change in physical properties in our world…

    The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved…It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change – the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and materials flows that climate change reveals – to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.

    There is something about this idea that makes it very powerful for lots of different interest groups to latch on to, whether for political reasons, for commercial interests, social interests in the case of NGOs, and a whole lot of new social movements looking for counter culture trends.

    Climate change has moved from being a predominantly physical phenomenon to being a social one…It is circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy, and with mobilising force in business, law, academia, development, welfare, religion, ethics, art and celebrity.

    Climate change also teaches us to rethink what we really want for ourselves…mythical ways of thinking about climate change reflect back to us truths about the human condition

    The idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our collective and personal identifies and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us…Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs.

    …climate change has become an idea that now travels well beyond its origins in the natural sciences…climate change takes on new meanings and serves new purposes…climate change has become “the mother of all issues”, the key narrative within which all environmental politics – from global to local – is now framed…Rather than asking “how do we solve climate change?” we need to turn the question around and ask: “how does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations…?”

    We need to reveal the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us…we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit…As a resource of the imagination, the idea of climate change can be deployed around our geographical, social and virtual worlds in creative ways…it can inspire new artistic creations in visual, written and dramatised media. The idea of climate change can provoke new ethical and theological thinking about our relationship with the future….We will continue to create and tell new stories about climate change and mobilise these stories in support of our projects. Whereas a modernist reading of climate may once have regarded it as merely a physical condition for human action, we must now come to terms with climate change operating simultaneously as an overlying, but more fluid, imaginative condition of human existence.


    Here is the original article from which the above excerpts are taken, in the Guardian, unsurprisingly.


  2. Going through the doorway marked ‘the biased and shoddy work done by social scientists and psychologists relating to public opinion on climate change’ once led me to examples of psychologists jumping with disturbingly uncritical enthusiasm on to the ‘Scare ‘Em Witless about CO2’ bandwagon. The vacuous windbag Lewandowsky is perhaps the most notorious, but on the educational front in Australia (the topic of a recent post here on Climate Scepticism), there is another activist from what might be called the polyanna school of psychology, one Susie Burke. You can listen to her chirpy tips to sugar-coat the climate nightmare stuff being pushed at children and other vulnerable groups:, or read about guidance for that sort of thing from the Australian Psychology Society

    Not a hint of doubt in their minds. And to show their abysmal intellectual level, note their suggestions:

    Books, news media, film and the Internet are good places for getting information about the problems. Some popular sources include The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, A Big Fix by Ian Lowe, Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and websites from environmental groups.

    They have also discovered another market for their collaborations with crisis-mongers: the crisis-mongers themselves, or their ‘useful’ supporting agitators. A report on this is in the Sydney Morning Herald. Extract:

    “We can be very sure that many people in the field of climate change are distressed – highly distressed – and it can have a significant psychosocial impact on their wellbeing,” Burke said. “If you’re feeling stress, anger, guilt, anxiousness or hopelessness, it has effects on your life. Depression becomes a real risk.”

    Burke points out that disengagement – “switching off from the cause and becoming passive” – is an additional and bona fide concern for leaders within the green community, such is the crippling power of the threat perceived by people like Thornton, and the slow rate of change they observe.

    “Think of the overwhelming evidence they have. And then imagine the retraction or repeal of important legislation, or the watering down of bills. Or the green light that was just given to the Carmichael open cut mine in Queensland – granted by the environment minister,” Burke says. “There is also some ‘vicarious distress’ that comes with knowing what is happening to people here and around the world as a result of climate change. It can have an effect on your well being.”

    Never fear, Susie is here! She knows how to bring the chirp back to jaded campaigners, for she has released tip sheets ‘to help people face the reality of climate change without a sense of dread – a kind of step-by-step guide for managing feelings and changing behaviour.’ None of the tips suggest double-checking on the evidence for our impact on the climate system being grounds for screaming ‘crisis!, crisis!’. That would be letting real science get in the way of a rewarding excursion into the limelight – for some at least.


  3. Its tough to get people believing CAGW claims when Mother Nature herself disagrees. Even sociologists eventually figure that out.


  4. On the WUWT post you’ve linked to Ric Werme asked What’s a frame?
    While the word is simple enough the use of it suggested there was more going on, so I searched for an explanation. Thus, my response to Ric:

    Academic jargon is designed to make simple things sound complex.

    I add a quote now:
    Framing theory and the concept of framing bias suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences the choices people make. This idea is important because it is contrary to the central concept of of rational choice theory.


  5. John Hultquist, the Harvard Law course on negotiation spends weeks on the subtlies of two techniques, framing and anchoring. A relevant example of the former is ‘anthropogenic climate change’, a framing which excludes natural variability. The IPCC charter is so framed. A relevant example of the latter is ‘the science is settled’, which ‘anchors’ further discussion in a safe harbor sheltered from scientific uncertainty, contradictory evidence, and failed projections.
    This is why pungent fact based sound bites that reframe and reanchor discussion are so important.


  6. Psychology and Climate Sci-Activists
    Projection is the first thing to expect – where they throw bucketloads of accusations around about Climate skeptics, when actually they do those things themselves not the climate skeptics.
    Sander van der Linden on climate change communication
    I just listened to BBC “All in the Mind” with Claudia Hammond and I know Alex Cull has a transcript out, so I’m trying to track down any discussions about it. Nothing found so I’ll add some comments here after lunch.
    Linden is head of the SED Lab .. Social and Environmental Decision-Making Lab

    The presenter Claudia Hammond has a little form for making Climage Change awareness items
    In 2009/2010 When BBC WS was doing it’s big push for Copenhagen she made 10 whole shows about converting people to the Psychology of Climate Change.
    Not much since
    but in 2013 she had an item “complex psychology of wind farm opposition”
    which said after extensive research it was declared \\”Not In My Back Yarders” can have valid and varied reasons for being turbine-rejectors.”//
    duh ! No wonder Alex described the item as “surreal” Jun 12, 2013


  7. Holiday reading for you, I did find a discussion of Sander van der Linden on the NPR page I guess he’s on tour pushing his Climate Psychology research/propaganda.
    There’s background briefly he’s in with Lewandowsky.
    On a random hunch I though I’d check if “Sander van der Linden” works with Lewandowsky
    Yes of course. I see he wrote 2 articles in Sc-Am with Lew this year (one Black Chimney stacked & calling skeptics deceivers ! irony
    Seems both pull stunts for their cause… Barry Woods, Mike Hulme, Jose Duarte would be familiar with Linden.
    Barry mentioned something real interesting that the defintion of consensus is deliberately vague to try to catch as higher fig as possible “We’re basically going with Ari’s p0rno approach”
    I’m still deconstructing what Linden said on Radio 4


  8. Darn I just scanned that NPR article about Linden’s paper ..and where i expected to find discussion in the comments, few mention it. It’s just full of alarmists slinging out their same old insults and conspiracy theories about “deniers”. And then deniers waste time in pointing out science arguments.


  9. OK This Sander von der Linden, BBC Radio 4 item
    Seems to me that Der Linden is coming up with an alarmist justification for deceiving about CC
    * He’s 100% certain about CC, believe peoples measures today could avert catastrophe in deep future.
    * You deceive about extreme weather to worry people
    * You deceive about the harm of particulates, to make it look like today’s energy conservation, saves lives tomorrow. (My full deconstruction)

    One check to see he might not have a grip on reality is he asserts “psychology has really played a very small role in informing policy-making on this issue.” …Deceiver ! 97%, 97% is all we hear.
    (not a surprise that he turns out to be close to Lewandowsky)

    (I note that although the presenter did that climate psychology series in 2009 she didn’t hype, but played a straight bat. I would guess it’s was the producers idea to interview Der Linden. However why use the reinforcing word “reality of” ? You don’t say “the reality of mad cow disease” etc.)


  10. Aaron McCright cites a lot of authorities for his analysis of climate denial, including seven papers by McCright and Dunlap and two by Dunlap and McCright. Dunlap is of course the inventor of the New Ecological Paradigm, a battery of questions used to determine where the population stands on safeguarding the planet, and which is derived from a seventies book by Pirages and Ehrlich which praised Mao’s Cultural Revolution and recommended replacing democracy with a committee of experts who would issue five-yearly reports on how the world should be run (IPCC anyone?).
    The standard scientific work on Denialism is of course “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee
    and their primary source on denialism is a blog by the Hofnagle brothers, one of whom is a lawyer and the other I think a surgeon.

    It’s important to get this information out I think, so that people will start treating the statements of scientists with the same scepticism as they use when confronted with other well informed, well-intentioned people – Jehovah’s Witnesses for example.


  11. Geoff, yes, the circular self-referential reasoning is amusing.
    Dunlap was McCright’s PhD supervisor (The topic being “Public Support for Progressive Social Movements”) and the cloning process seems to have been successful.

    My favourite sociology paper of all time is “Leading Voices in the Denier Choir” by Elsasser and Dunlap. Its main theme is that deniers live in an echo chamber. Evidence for this echo chamber is provided by the “growing body of literature”. To support their contention that deniers operate in an echo chamber, Elsasser and Dunlap cite Dunlap & McCright 2010, 2011, Oreskes & Conway 2010, Greenpeace 2010, McCright & Dunlap 2000, 2003, Mooney 2005, McCright & Dunlap 2010…
    You couldn’t make it up.

    There is an interesting piece on “Herd mentality” at Quillette, the online magazine that recently published a Lewandowsky-debunking.

    You discussed Dunlap’s NEP at your blog last year.

    Stew, thanks for the info on Sander van der Linden, which I might use in part 2, or part 73.


  12. @GeoffC Funny you mentioned “Jehovah’s Witnesses”
    A few days I saw a mention of ‘Climate alarmist Scientist scientologists doing presentations to other scientologists’
    I thought that was ironic : a cultish belief being preached to a cult.
    (sorry I’ve got no link to hand)


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