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.