Driving back from my holidays the other day, I suddenly felt the urge to empty my increasingly dysfunctional bladder. So it came to pass that I found myself stood at a urinal in the Tibshelf northbound services, only to look down and see that I was stood in a pool of someone else’s piss. Yes, it was disgusting. But to someone such as myself, whose mind is unceasingly searching for metaphors, it proved to be gloriously symbolic of man’s1 shared journey through life. Even when we are pointed in the same direction, we are not all equally certain of our aim. And the mess that some of us make of it, can make life decidedly unpleasant for the fellow traveller.
This problem is particularly evident when one reflects upon the accusations of cognitive impairment that are all too often levelled against climate sceptics by the current band of bandwagon-riding bandleaders from the psychology camp. Take, for example, the latest efforts from Professor Shapiro of the Case Western Reserve University. Nobody, outside the group that stands accused by the good professor, seems terribly concerned regarding the double-standards that such pundits appear to be applying. For example, in this instance the accusation was one of dichotomous reasoning, yet the accuser employed more than his fair share, particularly by invoking the precautionary principle.
One would have hoped that the ubiquity of cognitive bias, on both sides of the argument, would be more widely accepted, so sceptics shouldn’t be a particular target. But the sad fact is that just too many sceptics indulge in excessive claims, and it therefore becomes too easy to explain scepticism using psychobabble that serves to condemn doubters of all persuasions. To the alarmist, we all stink, and it is no good pointing out that the aroma emanates from the pool of piss you’re stood in. We are not all right-wing nut jobs, we are not all Big Oil apologists, we are not all convinced of a global conspiracy deviously constructed by the scientific community (whatever that means). But we seem doomed to suffer guilt by association, simply because we share a distrust of the politicisation of climate science and so share ideological urinals.
Sadly, I think the rational sceptic’s position is now nigh on indefensible, largely due the common-held view that, when it comes to the climate change debate, no such sceptics exist. When looking at the comments that are posted in support of the sceptic-bashing articles, one will always see plenty that are zealous in their insistence that climate science scepticism simply has no rational advocacy. For example, when I challenged Professor Shapiro at The Conversation, I became the target of an individual who was quite adamant that I was the first of hundreds of ‘deniers’ he’d encountered over 15 years that could offer a rational argument. Now I know that is not true, because, if nothing else, I know he’s aware of the views expressed on the Climate Scepticism website, and so he will have seen such rationality expressed first hand. One wonders, therefore, where such a jaundiced outlook comes from.
Rather than attempt to defend against those who are firmly focused upon the weakest elements of their opposition (so much so that they simply cannot see any others), I think the best strategy is to go on the offensive. By that, I mean we need to point out the extent to which the cognitive biases that we sceptics stand accused of monopolising in our arguments are, actually, also rife within the arguments offered in support of the claim that AGW is already set ready to end in tears. I do not propose to win the argument that way—the real debate will be settled by science and objective evidence. Nevertheless, a more balanced application of the cognitive sciences would at least dissuade those who would disallow rational sceptics from even taking a place at the debating table. (Spoiler Alert: Before reaching the end of this article you will encounter a shameless plug).
Let us start with the Focusing Effect. This is a cognitive bias that influences how people approach multi-criteria decision-making.2 The temptation is to focus too much upon one aspect of the problem to the detriment of others. The rationality of a chosen course of action can therefore be turned on its head simply by changing focus. In particular, the rationality of applying the precautionary principle to mitigate climate change impact depends critically upon whether one is focused upon such impact or the negative economic impacts of the precipitous application of climate change mitigation. I’m not choosing to take sides on this debate, but for one side to accuse the other of suffering from the focusing effect would be soundly hypocritical. To the extent that this effect is disproportionately levelled at sceptics, I sense such hypocrisy is not uncommon.
Then there is the Backfire Effect; a dubious favourite of Dr Lewandowsky, purveyor of all that is wholesome and wise within the climate debate. Even the sceptical societies can see nothing wrong with invoking his risible Debunking Handbook.3 And yet who amongst the psychological cognoscenti is calling out Dr Mann, purveyor of all that is exciting and revolutionary in climate science statistics, as he clings on ever more tenaciously to his hockey stick self-enchantment?4
I could go on at great length, and indeed I did so recently, at WUWT (the promised shameless plug). But there is only so much one can achieve by preaching to the converted. Of all the cognitive biases that appertain, Bias Blind Spot, i.e. the ability to see cognitive bias in others but not in oneself, is perhaps the one to be most wary of. So the aim should be to encourage the professionals within the psychological sciences to admit the universality of cognitive bias and to apply their supposedly deft insights without prejudice. Even better, what if the journalistic profession were to get off its toadying backside and do some actual journalism every now and then? That would be nice.
Stepping back from my metaphor (and back into the literal world) I should point out that, upon completing the deed, I left the Tibshelf toilets, sheepishly leaving a trail of stale urine through the concourse within which giggling children frolicked, and proud parents were supping their wheelie-bin of Starbucks.5 But did I feel guilty?
No. I just felt embarrassed and disappointed. Which is the story of my life, really.
1 And in this case I think I really do mean to say ‘man’s’.
2 See Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998), “Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction.”
3 A fact brought to our attention by Hans Erren in his commentary on ‘The Conversation shakes its Willy at us’.
4 And yes, I am aware of the supposed corroborations. I say, ‘a proxy on all their houses’.
5 Other immorally tax-exempted beverages are available. Also, I should admit that the Tibshelf franchise is actually Costa Coffee, but the joke didn’t seem to work as well.