A certain Pope once said that “the proper study of mankind is man.” When I first heard this, in my late teens, it made more sense to me than all the other Papal bull combined into a malodorous pyramid. Now I knew what I had to enrol in at university: the science of the human mind. Psychology (said my brain, to nobody in particular): that’s where the truth lies.
I was wrong, of course. Abstractions don’t lie; psychologists do.
Live and learn!
Anyway, this post is about a puff-piece on Lewandowsky I was depressed to find in the pages of Nature. Would it kill the editors of that once-august, now-December journal to pretend they were still the custodians of a serious glossy? When I came across this article I could have sworn I was reading People, FHM or Nature Climate Change. (See the whole fripperous homage—fromage—to the unflushable Lew below.)
To the credit, however, of whoever wrote the following ode to a used-snake-oil salesman, it isn’t credited to anyone. And so—like the olde-schoole climatologist who refuses to get with the Anthopocene Zeitgeist—I’ll just have to blame Nature. As a token of my indifference to that faceless corporation’s IP “rights,” I now reproduce the entire thing without so much as a link.
‘The Man Who Lied So That Others Might Live’
CLIMATE MISINFORMATION IS EVERYWHERE these days. I’m in the Monica D. Kopacz Atmospheric Sciences Auditorium at Bristol University, England, listening raptly to the expert who’s finally doing something about it.
Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky—Bristol’s Professor of Cognition, Cognitive Science and the Cognitive Sciences—believes in fighting lies with lies; or more precisely, learning about deception by doing.
Right now Lewandowsky is lecturing on Urban Myths.
“Do we have any Trekkies in the audience?” he asks. “Who remembers Spock saying that immortal catchphrase, ‘Beam me up, Scotty?’ Show of hands.
“Congratulations. If your hand is up, you’ve got what we call false memory syndrome. It never happened. Not in the official [Star Trek] canon.
“OK, who remembers where they were in 2001, when that first plane immolated itself upside the World Trade Center, live on international TV? Guess what: no you don’t. You can all put your hands down. Never televised.
“Last question: Joseph Goebbels once said that if you repeated a lie often enough, then… what would happen? Wait, don’t tell me: that the lie would somehow, magically gain popular credence. Right?
“Transparently fake quote! Goebbels may have been a Nazi—in fact, he probably was—but he wasn’t crazy.
“Yet as absurd as these factoids are, we all believe them, don’t we?
“Why? Because we’re fed them, over and over, and over and over again.”
Lewandowsky should know. Part of his job as a cognitive scientist is to concoct urban myths.
He doesn’t do it for fun (though he admits it’s one of the best parts of his day); the fibs are strictly for science. The Prof uses them to test the limits of what someone could get away with if they weren’t born with that inner Ethics Review Committee that tells you and me that misrepresenting the science is wrong; how many years they could get away with it; and how many people they’d mislead in the process.
“Deceiving subjects [in an experiment] is one thing. But we can only learn so much within the artificial constraints of the scientific method,” he explains in his spacious, brightly-lit office.
“Sometimes you have to take it to the next level, outside the lab, to find out how fake facts behave ‘in the wild.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing for, what, 12 years now.”
Fortunately, Lewandowsky wasn’t alone in his desire to answer these questions. In 2006, when he first asked around in academic circles if anyone would be willing to intentionally act as a source of misinformation, he was overwhelmed by the response.
“We had to turn people away! Since then we’ve built a veritable standing army of scientists, science-policy people and science communicators who volunteer to ‘leak’ fake truths in a variety of fora—from their own lectures in front of a hundred students or so, to media appearances that often reach millions.
“And then basically sit back and see what happens. It’s a bit more complex than that, obviously, but I won’t bore you with the minutiae of our analytic protocols.
“And the people who step forward [to help us] aren’t just PhD students and Associate Lecturers looking to earn career brownie points. Tenured Professors in every imaginable field—climate science, environmental justice, uh, climatology, you name it—are just as eager to be involved.
“I remember telling one of them: look, this is a long-term commitment we’re asking for. Are you sure you can take time out from your IPCC spokesduties to spread counterfactual ideas?
“But they just paused a moment and said: Steve, what you’re doing here, to try and solve the problem [of climate misinformation], it’s so important, I’d be honored to participate. If there’s even a small chance that you could learn something that helps us—one day—to fight the professional deniers and confusers, I’ll make the time.
“I’m just blown away by that kind of generosity. But that’s how strongly the climate community feels about [the misinformation] industry. They hate it.”
So why this experiment, I ask? Haven’t Lewandowsky (and others, to a lesser extent) already done a wealth of important work on these questions?
“Sure, but this is the gold standard for answering real-world, mass-psychology questions.
“It’s what we call an interventional-observational field study. The largest and longest-running trial of its kind, in fact. And it’s still going strong, which is why I obviously can’t tell you who our confederates are, exactly”—he explains—“or what kind of things, exactly, they’ve been less-than-100% accurate about.
“For the sake of [experimental] integrity.”
In fact the general public could be waiting “another decade or so” for the big “reveal” of who’s been kidding us, when, and about what, says Lewandowsky, apologetically.
“It all depends how long we get funded to continue. But the results so far are so exciting that if I had my way, we’d probably never call it a day and debrief the ‘subjects!’” he admits with a laugh. “Meaning the general community, of course.”
I know you can’t comment on a study in the middle of doing it, I say, but if you could, what would you say is your favorite learning that’s emerged so far?
“OK, here’s what’s blown us away. In the early days we stuck to field-testing fairly trivial inaccuracies, like slightly exaggerated rates of SLR or whatever. What we soon noticed, though, was that the more audacious the untruth we told, the more likely it was to be accepted without question.
“Which didn’t compute at all, intuitively. I was sure it was a mistake—I must’ve done the scatter-plot wrong, or fuck–d up my L[atent] F[actor] A[nalysis] again. Something. But as months turned into years, the correlation got clearer and clearer.
“In other words, lie big, not small, if you want to convince the masses. This is a completely novel insight as far as we know.
“It’s also a bit scary, frankly,” he reflects. “If we can make the man on the street believe—for instance—that entire countries in the Pacific have been evacuated to New Zealand [due to rising sea levels], or the climate is changing even faster than projected, or the IPCC refers exclusively to peer-reviewed evidence, then imagine the kind of lies dishonest people could promulgate.
“Or think-tanks. Or corporations. I mean… I shudder to think.”
So do I, I have to admit. But does this mean we need to be even more distrustful of anything an industry-linked, libertarian-leaning or openly-outlier scientist says?
“I’m afraid so,” says Lewandowsky. “And I know it’s not easy. We pride ourselves on being ‘intellectually curious,’ on always listening to quote-unquote ‘both sides.’ We’ve been sort of brainwashed into thinking that this is a Golden Road to the Truth. But what our findings are saying—which of course is something I can’t possibly speak to, because the study is still running—then it’s actually a Golden Road to Being Taken for a Ride. And ditched at the side of the road. And charged for the gas.
“It’s like I taught my kids as soon as they could talk: don’t be too open-minded, or your brain will fall out! I make the same point at my Climate Parenting seminars. When a [climate evidence] denier approaches your child and starts defaming the temperature record or whatever, they’re never to engage—they’re to run straight to Daddy or Mummy, or the nearest legitimate adult.”
Lewandowsky practices what he preaches—religiously. His two daughters are now grown up with kids of their own, but that doesn’t let them off the hook as far as he’s concerned. If a stranger attempts to question the science, they know the drill: disengage immediately and seek out Lewandowsky, whatever country he’s in, day or night.
I don’t mean to sound skeptical but does this actually happen, I ask?
“Absolutely,” he says. “We get two or three visits a year from each [of our daughters], suitcases in tow. Life has become an endless series of airline tickets—but how can you put a price on your kids’ safety?”
“You mentioned the ‘grey literature, into-the-dustbin’ meme earlier, and the ‘sunken Pacific nations’—two myths that have succeeded in infiltrating the consciousness of millions of people. I used to believe them myself,” I blush to admit.
“What other ideas that we all take for granted in the global-warming narrative were just ’made up,’ if I can put it that way, as part of the experiment?”
“Look, I probably shouldn’t have been so specific earlier. Now I’ll have to kill you,” he answers, joking.
“No. But I really can’t go into details, except that all the fake information we use falls squarely into the pro-science category.
“The public can rest assured that the ‘lies’ our [confederates] disseminate are carefully scripted—in consultation with the scientists themselves—so as to support, not contradict or dilute, the message of mainstream [climate] science. We made that very clear years ago, when drafting our ethics approval [sic] for the study.
“It would be criminal—or at best highly immoral—to knowingly damage or undermine the public’s appreciation of the science. So we couldn’t promote a skeptical myth even if we wanted to.
”There are safeguards,” he reiterates.
“Would it be fair to say, then, that the guiding ethic for this kind of research is: over-exaggerate, don’t under-exaggerate, the science?”
“Precisely. And when the stakes are literally existential—when we’ve got the IPCC telling us, with high confidence, that climate denial is a threat to the very planet we live on—then this isn’t just the best policy, it’s the only policy.”
Being told a few white lies every once in a while—lies that have probably enhanced our comprehension of the issues, if anything—seems a pretty small price to pay in the fight against climate denial. Has the public welcomed this bargain, I ask?
“Presumably, yes, so far. With open arms. The systematic barrage of complaints clogging up my Inbox originate, in many cases, from the same active, vicious, Caucasian pensioners who’ve been out to get me ever since I exposed them as conspiracy theorists. It’s not even about the science—it just looks like that on the surface. It’s part of a bigger, unspoken, unwritten agenda.
“Bear in mind that a proportion of those complaints is orchestrated and for all we know there are only a handful of people with multiple electronic ‘personas’ each, who are paid to create disproportionate noise.”
Ever since he became aware, five years ago, that deniers were following him, Lewandowsky hasn’t gone anywhere without a security detail. But does he regard his mysterious stalkers as posing a significant physical threat, I wonder? Is the risk really sufficient to justify all those extra air miles for his bodyguards?
“Of course! Remember, these [skeptic] individuals are likely to score higher than you or me on measures of conspiratorial [sic] ideation—there are studies. And paranoid people are dangerous people.
“Or unpredictable, at least. But if we’ve learnt one thing, just one nugatory, trivial banality, from the last 25 years of climate-change research, it’s that unpredictability is not your friend.”
What one message would he like readers to take away about the [dis]information wars?
“Well, it would be unscientific of me to comment on the implications of an unfinished trial,” says Lewandowsky, chuckling. “But let’s pretend I wasn’t such an ethics Nazi. Then, hypothetically, I might be willing to say, based on our data so far:
“Illegitimate parties could be lying to you right now, as you read this article, and you wouldn’t even know it.” ◼︎
Is it better to live on your feet than to lie on your knees? Er, yeah. I would have thought that was a no-brainer, but apparently people with no brains don’t always share my preference for honesty, dignity etc. The himbo (or herbo) responsible for the above hagiosketch practically prostrates him- (or their-) self in thanks for Lewandowsky’s long career of premeditated mendacity.
Well, I draw the line at being lied to. I don’t take liars and their lying lies lying down.
Anyway, fear not—after a short Lew break, The Dowsky will return in Lie Hard 4: Lie Harder.
Live in London? There’s no shortage of tickets still available for Steve’s must-miss one-man play Lew’s Not to Reason Why, Lew’s But to Lie and Lie.