We hope you enjoyed our early coverage of Lewandowsky, Mann et al.’s latest exertion, Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism.
In the end, though, you’re a normal person, so you simply don’t have the psychoclimatological competence it takes to sound the abysmal brilliance of a Lewandowsky/Mann collab for yourself.
You’ll just have to take our word on it. Hey, we’re
climate bloggers science communicators.
Anyway, it’s a stool of a paper.
Nonetheless, in the spirit of pretending climate psyence is a spectator sport the whole family can grasp, we asked environment correspondent Kay Fabe to give us her gloss on the paper’s main insights. Kay’s notes, below, won’t magically give you the pseudoscientific literacy you need to form a valid opinion of your own—that would take many, many years of postgraduate multidisciplinary study and publishing!—but hopefully you’ll be left with the illusion of comprehension. And that’s what matters, right?
Be warned though: Kay “accepts” “the” “science,” so her interpretations are occasionally moronic. —eds.
“A Very Interesting Paper”
by Kay Fabe
The authors begin by rigorously defining their terms, like denial, which is impossible to define rigorously. For instance,
A second common feature of denial, which differentiates it further from skepticism and legitimate debate, involves personal and professional attacks on scientists both in public and behind the scenes.
These attacks often go unreported—either because the victims blame themselves, or have little faith in the justice system’s ability to prosecute the offenders.
One of the authors, Michael Mann, is the survivor of what he thinks was a professional attack in 2014. They never signed up for this!
Recent evidence has revealed that up to US$1billion flows into foundations and think tanks in the U.S. every year that are dedicated to political lobbying for various issues.
That’s an appalling factoid, if true. Only in America would people be allowed to lobby for various issues (let alone to the tune of some unspecified value less than or equal to a billion dollars). Various issues are unacceptable. I’m against various issues.
But the worst part is:
One of the principal objectives of this network is to support a climate “counter movement”
What is its motive, you speculate? Well, speculate no more—the authors have done it for us:
that seeks to reframe public discourse surrounding climate change from one of overwhelming scientific consensus to one of doubt, debate, and uncertainty.
The bastards. Things like doubt, debate and uncertainty have no place in a scientific debate.
OK, maybe debate. And doubt.
And uncertainty, obviously. But with those exceptions, “public discourse around climate change” should be about one thing and one thing only: the overwhelming consensus.
Yeah, yeah, I know—strictly speaking—that’s got nothing to do with science and majority opinion doesn’t prove shit, etc., etc., etc. (You can spare us the lecture, Brad. You’re no Michael Crichton.)
We all took Scientific Epistemology 101, OK? Well, one of our cousins did.
That may all be technically true.
But still. Y’know?
The point is, what we really need is a lobby for the opposite—some kind of counter-counter-climate movement (or ‘climate movement,’ if you will).
It wouldn’t have to cost five times as much as the Manhattan Project or anything, just a couple hundred thousand bucks a year to pay for a professional-looking website, maintenance etc. Then America would be a real democracy. Then the facts would finally have a fighting chance, leaving denial with nowhere to hide. Then the present paper would be completely unnecessary; a waste of taxpayers’ money, if you like. An exercise in résumé-bloating academic wankery, even.
To illustrate, more than 90% of recent books that dismiss environmental problems have been linked to conservative think tanks (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008), and such books typically never undergo peer review (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013).
Well fuck me. Who would’ve guessed the pop-science books churned out by lobbying groups don’t “typically undergo” the same prepublication process as, say, a manuscript submitted to Nature or The Lancet? I just assumed all printed material had to be subject to veto by three anonymous scientific domain experts, didn’t you?
Thank you, Dunlap & Jacques . Thank you for revealing the truth. You’re the real heroes of this story, every bit as much as Lewandowsky, Mann, Friedman and Brown.
At first glance, it might appear paradoxical that an industry would sponsor laws ostensibly designed to ensure transparency of research.
Yes, that is bizarre. Since when did industry benefit from science?
What, then, could their motive possibly have been?
However, access to raw data is necessary for the reanalyses of epidemiological data by entities sympathetic to corporate interests.
Ah, so that’s their game.
I knew it was something sinister. Replication, needless to say, is completely anti-scientific.
Please note, though, that the authors are talking here about medical science, a controversial and relatively immature field. It’s not really analogous to climate science, where access to raw data is totally unnecessary (and a sure sign of a vexatious FOI request), because you can always trust the adjustments.
In the case of tobacco, those analyses have repeatedly downplayed the link between smoking and lung cancer
The authors can say this because, as scientists in unrelated fields, they know what the correct answer should be.
The fact that the contrarian talking points that emanate from this network have little or no scientific validity was recently confirmed by a blind expert test:
I would have thought that was a truism, but OK. Go on. What happened?
Lewandowsky, Ballard, Oberauer, and Benestad (2016) translated climatological data and their associated contrarian talking points into an economic context and presented them to expert economists for adjudication.
The next part just describes how the denier talking points collapsed in an inevitable heap when put to science’s ultimate test: a survey of economists.
Unsurprisingly, a key feature of denial is the refusal to accept the verdict of the economics, business and finance communities. Popular myths include “economists don’t understand science” and “economics is not a science.” These have been rebutted so many times, at so many different URLs, that their continued usage can only be a sign of bad faith.
Similarly, data published by two of the present authors (M.M. and S.L.) have been subject to reanalyses on internet blogs.
No scientist should have to put up with that. What, I wonder, was the motive behind these ‘illegitimate insertions’ (h/t Steve Lewandowsky) into the scientific process?
to attenuate challenging implications of the research—namely, that the warming from greenhouse gas emissions is historically unprecedented (Mann, Bradley, & Hughes, 1998)
The authors are too chivalrous to name names, but here’s a one-sentence primer for anyone who hasn’t been following the climate wars:
The above is an allusion to the so-called McIntyre Scandal, where Wegman’s grad student plagiarised Wiki, thus reaffirming the Hockey Stick.
and that some of those who oppose this scientific fact tend to engage in conspiratorial [sic*] discourse.
Thanks to Professor Lewandowsky we now have a huge body of scholarship on the deranged reasoning styles of “skeptics,” some of which hasn’t been retracted yet.
In Steve’s groundbreaking studies, conspiracism has been found to be even more endemic in the science-denialist population than among science believers, and that’s saying a lot! Any more prevalent and the result might almost have risen to the level of statistical significance.
So it’s little wonder that certain unspecified parties weren’t too thrilled with Lewandowsky’s findings… and have been secretly plotting to discredit him (and his wife and young children) ever since.
Next we read the moving account of one author’s struggle to overcome mental illness and correct an error in the scientific literature.
Once a dialog with the external expert had been established, and once N.J.L.B. had convinced his interlocutors of his sincerity (and got over the worst of his own impostor syndrome), a fruitful scientific collaboration ensued…
[I]n the end, the system worked as it should: everyone remained calm and polite, the various publishing and appeals processes were tested and observed to work, the scientific record was corrected, the field of positive psychology took stock…
That’s how real scientists behave when an outsider humbly suggests they may have made a mistake. And if—say—climate science is ever found to have got some detail wrong, then you can bet leading researchers like Michael Mann will respond in exactly the same “calm and polite” way.
Why? Because climatology is a normal, robust, non-pathological science—certainly compared to “the field of positive psychology”!
Next, a somewhat less edifying anecdote:
[T]here can be a fine line, on the first reading of an initial, unsolicited contact from a lay person, between the dedicated amateur investigator who might be on to something, and the time-wasting, deluded crank. The first author of this article once engaged in good-faith correspondence with a person who turned out to be not a person but a “sock puppet”…
Fear not, readers. Prof Lewandowsky wasn’t fooled for long!
With his decades of graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral training in psychology he was—in time—able to tell the difference between a person and an item of footwear. And so, another denialist plot was foiled only weeks after it was hatched.
Another useful piece of advice is to avoid questioning peoples’ motives
Instead you should simply guess people’s motives, obviating any need to ask questions. For examples of this in practice, see this paper (passim), starting from the first sentence of the abstract.
Two of us (H.F. and N.J.L.B.) are not convinced beyond doubt that highly complex climate models are as yet sufficiently validated to be used as the basis of major public policy decisions that might have effects for many decades;
That’s not skepticism, that’s denial.
the other two authors (S.L. and M.M.) acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in climate projections but note that contrary to popular intuition, any uncertainty provides even greater impetus for climate mitigation
What’s unintuitive about that? Isn’t it obvious that the more unrealistic, invalid and inaccurate the models, the more seriously we should take what they’re telling us? (I.e., urgent political action is needed to mitigate the Earth’s climate?)
But then, I’ve been at uni a looong time. Perhaps logic doesn’t come quite so naturally to the less-educated? Let us know in comments.
Lewandowsky and Mann exhibit almost superhuman honor in their dealings, and puttings-up, with their denier colleagues:
Notwithstanding those disagreements, the present authors found common ground for this article. We also did not use freedom-of-information (FOI) requests for each other’s private correspondence, nor would we ever resort to such means to resolve scientific disagreements…
Hear hear. Private documents are just that—private—and should only be obtained by email fraud or “phishing.” Requesting them by legal means is despicable.
Next the authors touch on some of the ad-hominem abuse their findings have been subjected to online. (An abuser will often strike from the safety of the blogosphere, knowing scientists aren’t allowed to stand up for themselves for fear of legitimizing the offending website.)
The argument typically ran thus: If psychologists can be as badly wrong as Brown et al. showed, and if psychologists are scientists, then how much confidence can we have in the pronouncements of other scientists?
[My emphasis.] This, obviously, is the Fallacy of Philip II. But the Spartan ephors sure put the Macedonians in their place with that famous Laconic retort Αἴκα! (“If.”), didn’t they?
Jane Q. Public believes to have discovered an error in Dr. A’s work, or she has an alternative account of a previously published finding, or an original idea suitable for publication. The research area is highly contested.
Highly contested? This scenario doesn’t remotely resemble the settled science that is climatology, and it’s unclear why they even included this example. Skip this section.
One of those rules is that scientific arguments are conducted in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. If you are unwilling to do so, these guidelines are of little value.
In other words, there’s a time and a place for scientific bitch-fighting, and that is the peer-reviewed prestige glossies.
No matter how offensive and fallacious the “questions” of those who question his work, you don’t see Professor Lewandowsky ranting against them on YouTube or starting an anti-denier hateblog to take potshots at them with academic impunity, do you?
No. Why not? Because no matter how great the provocation, at the end of the day he’s a scientist, not some sort of fakademic demagogue.
Most researchers […] have developed an ability to detect the difference between an approach based on a genuine desire to understand their field, and one that ultimately is just intended to discredit some piece of research or extract information that can be turned against a particular scientist.
The really, really top scientists have also developed an ability to move small objects with their minds, and can tell when and how someone is going to die just by touching them on the arm.
But why did evolution equip them with this sixth sense for what science calls “bad faith”?
The answer is obvious. Self-preservation. Science simply can’t afford to have research debunked as invalid—it only progresses by proving, not disproving (or “improving,” as the pedants like to spin it). And individual scientists can’t risk the devastating effects of being betrayed by the very information they’re sworn to protect. Not for nothing is information often called “the enemy of scientists.”
The fact that a researcher performs consulting work for a pharmaceutical manufacturer must not be hidden or ignored when evaluating her article describing the favorable trial outcome for a new drug from that company; however, corporate funding does not prevent a drug from being an improvement over its predecessors.
And by analogy, this is why fossil-fuel-funded science would never be dismissed as less credible than any other research.
4. Accept that everyone makes mistakes
This advice isn’t really applicable to climate science, in which (for example) Michael Mann never uses Tiljander varves upside-down, and never has.
Many people become interested in a scientific topic because they are concerned about its political implications.
The upshot is that most fields of science are what we call ‘self-selecting.’
The exception, once again, is climate science, which takes in graduates of all political persuasions and any and all pet hypotheses on one and only one condition: that they have the extremely high marks it takes to join the ranks of ‘the world’s top scientists.’
Be patient… As a rule, science moves slowly. It can be hard for outsiders to reconcile themselves to the apparently glacial pace of the publication process.
So true. Just because a scientist takes seven years to tell you the algorithm he used to derive a high-impact, world-changing graph, that doesn’t give you the right to start a blog complaining about it. Methodological cunctation is not only salonfähig but de rigueur. Deal.
1. Build rapport
One way of building rapport is to use words like denialist and crank to describe people who don’t know as much as you about the natural world.
But no matter what you say about them, you should avoid speaking to them. To quote what may be Professor Lewandowsky’s best-known dictum (and there are no shortage of dicta to choose from):
Engagement, in my view, is not a solution but just an enormous waste of time.
And yet, try as you might to avoid it, at some point in your scientific career you’ll find yourself in the same room as someone who disagrees with you on an esoteric technical matter, like the expected climate response to a doubling of CO2 concentrations or whatever. Try to resist the natural urge to become violent or abusive. Instead count to ten, then politely ask them why they hate all of Western science (plus large chunks of radiative physics). Building rapport is as simple as that!
Although engagement is just “an enormous waste of time,” it’s also “a core element of science,” as the authors explain next:
Because engagement with critics is a core element of science, researchers may feel obliged to respond even to trolls.
Top academics have told us they now waste hours a day answering questions from leprechauns, gnomes, faeries and even dwarves. A popular misconception is that science has ruled out the existence of trolls and their supernatural cousins. But contrary to myth, mythical creatures are real—every bit as real as climate change deniers, if not more so.
Scientists should also generally not be concerned about the motives of the requestor as simple disagreement must not preclude access to data.
Well put. In science, you’re not allowed to say “Why should I make the data available to you when all you want to do is find something wrong with it?”
Uh, that’s kinda the point: to find something wrong with it!
(But not in a nit-picky, contrarian, pedantic way—see above.)
Science is a bit like mathematics: you have to show your working. If you only disclosed it to critics who promised to agree with you you’d be fired immediately, deluged with hate mail and contemplate suicide. Only the thought of watching your 5-year-old granddaughter grow up, get married and be burned to death by global warming would help you to cling to life.
And rightly so.
*Lewandowsky obviously means ‘conspiracist discourse,’ and we can safely blame an overzealous and undereducated subeditor for this unfortunate typo.
‘Conspiratorial discourse,’ needless to say, would mean plotting, something Prof. Lewandowsky is hardly likely to accuse his mysterious pursuers of doing against him!
That would require him to be a bit of a paranoid nutcase—which stretches all credulity. The man is a psychologist, for heaven’s sake.