The Chains of Reasoning

If a dinner party is beginning to fizzle out, I always find it helpful to try one or two post-prandial parlour games. For example, you might want to try separating your guests into two groups. Each group is given a list of the same numbers and asked to estimate the list’s average. The only difference is that the members of the first group are given a list of numbers in ascending order whilst the second group is presented with the same numbers in descending order. And this is the fun bit: The group who averaged the ascending list will tend to underestimate the average, but the group who averaged the descending list will overestimate.

Okay, so it’s not as much fun as everyone throwing their car keys into a dish, but it does illustrate an important mental heuristic employed by all healthy minds. As one takes on additional information to help form an opinion, one is unduly influenced by the order in which the information is introduced. In this case, those who estimated the ascending list will start out thinking ‘this is a list of small numbers’ and then think ‘well, maybe not so small after all’. The other group will start out with ‘this is a list of large numbers’ before modifying that view. Both groups will converge as they re-evaluate, but each starts from a different anchorage; hence the name for this particular cognitive bias – ‘anchoring’.

Anchoring is one of a broader group of cognitive biases known as ‘Continued Influence Effect’ (CIE). The causes of CIE are numerous, but the main point is that none of us is a blank slate when confronted with new evidence; we all labour under preconceived ideas and are conservative when it comes to re-evaluating them. Nothing remarkable here, you might think.

Except, anchoring and its brethren biases do feature rather prominently in the psychoanalysis of climate change scepticism. It turns out that such cognitive biases are not the hallmark of a healthy mind after all – just the indulgence of your average, cognitively impaired climate change denier. Take, for example, this article written by Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society at the University of Nottingham. It paints a sorry picture of hapless conspiracists, mentally enfeebled by exposure to that dastardly Climategate nonsense (portraying, as it did, a totally unfair image of climatologists plotting and hoaxing their way to the top of their professional ladder). No amount of counter-evidence can help those duly exposed; they remain hopelessly anchored to a prejudice formed by what was surely a storm in a teacup. At least, that is the understanding that Professor Nerlich is anchored to.

Meanwhile, at the dog end of knowledge, climatologists are beavering away, seemingly exempted from accusations of anchoring (at least according to the likes of the dewy-eyed Professor Nerlich) because they have consensus to guide them toward the light. As Barack Obama will tell you, scientific consensus is a truthy thing; and if consensus doesn’t work for scientists, they can always try looking at the data.

Fortunately, however, not everyone is as naïve when it comes to evaluating climate science; there are those who are prepared to take seriously the possibility that anchoring plays a fundamental and central role, framing our scientific understanding of how the climate could evolve under anthropogenic influences. Take, for example, Jeroen P. Van der Sluijs, Professor, Theory of Science & Ethics of the Natural Sciences, Bergen University, whose curiosity was piqued way back in 1997 by making the following simple observation:

The consensus-estimate of 1.5°C to 4.5°C for climate sensitivity has remained unchanged for two decades in international assessments of the climate issue. Nevertheless, during these years, climate research has expanded enormously, and scientific knowledge and complexity of climate models changed accordingly.”

In a thesis titled ‘Anchoring amid Uncertainty’, he investigated what was seen as ‘a remarkable stability’ in the consensus-estimate, and he identified a ‘repertoire of sources from which the experts managed to acquire flexibility in maintaining the same numbers for climate sensitivity whilst not ignoring changing scientific ideas’. Such sources of flexibility included:

“…(1) the modes of reasoning, (2) the types of uncertainty accounted for, (3) estimates of the best guess rather than changes in the range; (4) the connotation of the range, (5) the definition of climate sensitivity and (6) the implication of the range.”

The paper moves on to say:

The remarkable, ostensible stability of the climate sensitivity range may play a significant role in holding together a variety of different social worlds in a situation where the state of scientific knowledge does not grant the 1.5 to 4.5°C range a higher scientific status than an ’educated guess’. But the stability can also be seen as a function of an implicit social contract amongst the various scientists and policy specialists involved, which allows ’the same’ concept to accommodate tacitly different local meanings.”

The point to take away is this: Climate science is a post-normal science in which high-stake decisions are to be taken under conditions of deep uncertainty, beset by disputed values. And, provided there is enough uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in the formulation of a particular proposition, it is surprising how much wiggle room there will be available to contrive adherence to it, notwithstanding emerging evidence. One only has to exploit the uncertainty1 and endlessly re-frame the current understanding to suit one’s purposes. By such chicanery, one can even simultaneously accommodate a plurality of understanding, as long as the individuals concerned are anchored to the same social contract. Anchoring is more than just a trap that climatologists can fall into. By dint of the post-normal character of climate science, anchoring can actually become the climatologists’ scientific objective. As the Van der Sluijs paper puts it:

“…the maintained consensus about the quantitative estimate concerning a central scientific concept in the anthropogenic climate change field, namely climate sensitivity, operates as an anchoring device in science for policy”.

Two more decades have passed since Professor Van der Sluijs made his initial observation regarding the remarkably persistent level of uncertainty ascribed to climate sensitivity; two decades in which there has been a lot more scientific advancement but still little movement in the consensus estimates.2 The anchorage is still holding firm and no one seems inclined to break their social contracts.3 Indeed, even if there were to be a narrowing of estimation – say, towards a conservatively low figure – that still wouldn’t be a cause to change direction. There is still ample uncertainty within impact analysis to accommodate such a development and yet stick to a preconceived notion of risk. You say it isn’t going to get so hot after all? So what? We have now decided that the environment is much more sensitive to heat. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

Anchoring is not an inherently bad thing. On the road to enlightenment we are all on a Bayesian journey, and we all set off from a house of prior beliefs. How one feels about someone’s anchoring very much depends upon how one feels about their beliefs and how much they accord with currently accepted social contracts. As far as society is concerned, the anchoring of the in-group is the settlement of science upon the moral high ground; the anchoring of the out-group is denial. Not that Professor Nerlich can appreciate the ubiquity of anchoring. In her view, climate science is unanchored, sailing majestically on its way through a sea of knowledge, heckled by climate change deniers who remain pathetically shackled to the sea floor by a cognitive bias that is uniquely their own. Not for the first time, those who are the most affected by a cognitive bias are the last to appreciate it.


[1] Let’s not make any bones about this. When Professor Van der Sluijs says the initial estimates for climate sensitivity were no more than an ‘educated guess’, he wasn’t making it up. To quote IPCC Lead Author, Stephen Schneider: “The range was never established by a firm decision-analytic protocol in the first place, but rather was a heuristic from a responsible, but somewhat sloppy, community in the 1970s.” It is sobering to think that this is what climatology has become anchored to.

[2] Professor Van der Sluijs wryly observes that, “IPCC experts felt a great need for unambiguous scientific evidence to change the range. Apparently, however, there is no equally great need for evidence to maintain the range.”

[3] Once ‘signed’, such social contracts have a way of self-sustaining down the years. For example, Professor C.J.E. Schuurmans said of the Toronto 1988 Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: ‘…the conference was not willing to drop these [climate sensitivity] numbers, as they were adopted from the Villach report, which forms the scientific basis of conferences such as this one. In general, questioning scientific judgments at this conference was not popular.”

31 thoughts on “The Chains of Reasoning

  1. John, Thanks for these reflections. I was first exposed to such ideas by Edward De Bono, who wrote extensively some decades ago on the subject of lateral thinking, or “thinking outside of the box.” His studies of human problem solving showed emphatically that everything depends on the sequence in which information enters a person’s awareness.

    Thus, on a topic where I have no opinion, my mind is open to various perspectives. Fairly soon, however, I am likely to form a gestalt, or paradigm that makes sense of what I know, which involves discounting or dismissing facts that don’t fit. This occurs because uncertainly and ambiguity is uncomfortable, even painful if the matter is of great consequence.

    Over time, I accept any and all information that reinforces my gestalt, and become increasingly resistant to facts that challenge or contradict my paradigm. This occurs because it is even more painful to discard a gestalt that I used to organize my thinking, since I now become disoriented, unable to process new information that comes to me.

    This is background to understand how serious is the educational propagation of the man-made climate change notion. I went through this process regarding global warming starting in 2009 as an adult with a background of a degree in organic chemistry, and I came out skeptical of the IPCC consensus perspective. That outcome would be less likely if I were a young student today.

    And my critical event was Crichton’s novel, evidence and speeches that preceded my exposure to the alarms, and predisposed me to question and examine critically. My takeaway message from Crichton’s book State of Fear had been: “When you hear scary things about the climate, don’t take them at face value–investigate and get a second or third opinion.”

    BTW, I see at GWPF there is another Dutchman pushing back at climate alarms, Professor Guus Berkhout who is setting up a new institute on the issue.

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  2. Ron,

    Thanks for sharing your personal experiences in this area. I think the averaged numbers-list example I gave in the introduction is attributable to Tversky and Kahneman. It nicely illustrates the psychology that lies behind some of the conservatism featuring in belief-revision at the personal level. However, when group-think kicks in, what starts out as a cognitive bias can quickly develop into a cognitively underpinned anchorage towards a given societal viewpoint. One might expect that the checks and balances inherent in the scientific method would act to counter such anchorage, i.e. as evidence is accrued, anchors must be weighed. However, in the case of post-normal science, weighing anchor is easier said than done, since such anchorage can serve an important role in maintaining cohesion and continuity at the science/policy interface. The Van der Sluijs paper goes into this in some detail, and I could not possibly do his thesis justice in such a short article. I heartily recommend reading it (particularly chapter 2). I, for one, found it quite eye-opening.


  3. An example of anchoring given by Feynman was the progression of estimates of the charge on an electron subsequent to the original Millikan experiment. I have always taken that as gospel. Looking it up now, I find that the original estimate was within 2% and it soon asymptoted to the “correct” value. Graph here.

    If only ECS had such precision…


  4. nice post.

    “Not for the first time, those who are the most affected by a cognitive bias are the last to appreciate it.”

    Indeed. There’s a long look at the CIE at the link below. along with other biases in a climate change context. The CIE turns out to be incredibly hard to protect against by all the normal means. But as described at the link, none other than Lewandowsky (and co-authors) says that skepticism is a ‘stable personality trait’ that makes people less susceptible to misinformation due to the CIE and other biases, plus more able to update their position in the light of corrections. At one point he calls skepticism ‘the key to accuracy’ within this context. Yes, incredible though it seems, this is the very same Lewandowsky.

    This work was mainly before his launch into climate change conspiracy theory, and is deeply ironic considering his subsequent enormous advocacy for a social consensus that propagates absolute certainty (which is also not supported by mainstream let along skeptical science, so aka misinformation), and his demonisation of the skeptical response. I think it’s the full head-on clash between what he and others in the same camp know from their own reasoned research (which is also not controversial and fits with the mainstream of the field for many years), and the ideological position that they also ‘know’ must be true, which causes such bizarre pronouncements and theories. In this particular case pretty much having to turn psychology on its head in order to try and make the circle fit the square. It’s either double down in this manner, or crash their worldview by admitting that not only was their conviction for a social consensus emotively based and wrong, but also that they’ve blinded themselves to their very own work which tells them this is so.
    (part 1 of 3, the CIE exploration mostly in the 1st, some follow-up / conclusions in the 2nd / 3rd).

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  5. John refers to Post Normal Science, a he did in the comments on the Climate Catastrophe due next Year thread @ 22 Jan 19 at 9:44 am when pointing out the very valid cultural influences on science.A standard work on PNS is Post-Normal Science – Funtowicz and Ravetz 2003. The article states

    In the sorts of issue-driven science relating to the protection of health and the environment, typically facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent. The traditional distinction between ‘hard’, objective scientific facts and ‘soft’, subjective value-judgements is now inverted. All too often, we must make hard policy decisions where our only scientific inputs are irremediably soft. The requirement for the “sound science” that is frequently invoked as necessary for rational policy decisions may affectively conceal value-loadings that determine research conclusions and policy recommendations. In these new circumstances, invoking ‘truth’ as the goal of science is a distraction, or even a diversion from real tasks.

    That is, rather than, subjective value-judgements in normal science being recognized and avoided, in PNS ideological mantras taking precedence over objective facts. This is reflected in the participants.

    (A)n ‘extended peer community’, consisting not merely of persons with some form or other of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue.

    The ‘extended peer community’ are not just academics with PhD’s but also activists who believe there is a problem to be resolved, and/or believe there are solutions to it. There is no pretense of academics being expert professionals, as most professions would recognize such value-loading as being a conflict of interest with serving the needs of their clients. But there is a role for activists who try to act as gate-keepers, such as by shouting down opponents.
    Further. there is nowhere within PNS for objective reality or alternative value systems to crack the mantras, unless the academic collective and their activist supporters allow it. This is particularly present in any justifications policy. The conventional way of justifying policy is through economics. For, instance the UK sought to justify what became the Climate Change Act 2008 with the deeply flawed Stern Review 2006. But economics is dismissed as value driven and inadequate to the tackling ecological problems. The consequence is that any analysis that shows that the policy chosen will not be achieved, or that policy will be harmful unintended consequences, are only countenanced in so far as the ‘extended peer community’ sees fit.
    Specifically excluded are those representing ‘vested interests’, with the classification being made by the ‘extended peer community’. Applied to climatology, anyone who opposes the issue-driven mantra of ‘facts uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent’ can be outed as a denier of science.
    There is also no room for risk management or quality control that is not recognized as such by the ‘extended peer community’. One consequence is that false prophesies like Paul covers in the Climate Catastrophe due next Year article are treated as science, but exposing as a false prophesy by reference to empirical reality could be viewed an act of dishonesty. 

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  6. Ron, it’s debatable what comes first: the Gestalt or the information which is said to form the Gestalt, which becomes ‘more than the sum of its parts’, maintaining an independent existence. My understanding is that the Gestalt evolves not as a result of an additive process, an accumulation of knowledge, but grows to accommodate that knowledge, having existed in a nascent state prior to the receipt of that knowledge.


    The original famous phrase of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts”[2] is often incorrectly translated[3] as “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, and thus used when explaining gestalt theory, and further incorrectly applied to systems theory.[4] Koffka did not like the translation. He firmly corrected students who replaced “other” with “greater”. “This is not a principle of addition” he said.[5] The whole has an independent existence.

    Wertheimer’s unique contribution was to insist that the “gestalt” is perceptually primary, defining the parts it was composed from, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as von Ehrenfels’s earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.

    This then begs the question: is there some fundamental difference between the Climate Sceptic Gestalt and the Climate Consensus Gestalt? What cognitive organisational framework is best served by the acceptance of man-made dangerous climate change and what similar psychological framework is best served by the questioning of evidence upon which the former consensus-driven framework rests? Can it indeed be maintained that scepticism based upon the accumulation of conflicting evidence is even a Gestalt in the normal sense of the word? Nerlich would definitely have us believe that it can:

    I also think we need to subject doubt itself to doubt. In the context of climate science, we need a better type of doubt. We need better evidence (better anchors) for doubt than quotes mined from private emails or misgivings about how surveys about an existing consensus are being used. Doubts rooted in rhetorically framing science as organised religion look particularly suspicious to me and need to be submitted to critical and sceptical inquiry.

    However, as you can see from her quote above, in order to claim that doubt about mainstream climate science is anchored, she has to resort to a gross misrepresentation of the origins of that doubt.


  7. JIT,

    The Millikan example is indeed a good one. It captures nicely the reluctance to move away from an initial assessment once there has been a social investment in it. Given the subject matter, one would have thought that objectivity would be the order of the day. However, Millikan’s reputation served to anchor people’s subsequent measurements to his initial one. One major difference with the climate sensitivity example is that, even though the initial estimate was ad hoc, there was little confidence amongst the community of climate modellers that they had anything better to offer, despite the increased sophistication of their methods. This problem was enunciated by Lawrence Gates (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA), when explaining why the climate sensitivity range was not extended in the IPCC’92 report:

    ’In the absence of a comprehensive exploration of parameter space in the doubled CO2 context, there appeared to be no compelling scientific evidence to change the earlier estimated 1.5-4.5°C range (which was itself an educated guess) since such a step would have given greater credibility to any new values than was justified.’

    There is a suspicion, however, that excuses were being made here. Changing the range would also have drawn public attention towards the low quality of the initial estimate – something that would have been embarrassing given the high confidence that the policy actors had already invested in the initial climate sensitivity estimation.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Jaime,

    “…in order to claim that doubt about mainstream climate science is anchored, she [Nerlich] has to resort to a gross misrepresentation of the origins of that doubt.”

    Yep, that’s one of the main problems I had with the Nerlich article; she was resorting to a somewhat hackneyed straw man. The other main problem was an equally assured view that the climate science itself is not anchored – a view which I believe is somewhat discredited by the Van der Sluijs thesis.

    There are, no doubt, many respects in which scepticism is anchored (possibly as many respects as there are sceptics). Nevertheless, Professor Nerlich would have to work a lot harder if she were to want to unpick them.


  9. Andy,

    Thank you for your feedback. I had thought about embedding a link to your CIE articles but didn’t, in the end, simply because I thought this might upstage my article’s reference to the Van der Sluijs thesis and, thereby, defocus the reader from the specific observations made by him (I have, however, no such qualms about you referencing your articles in your comment).

    The reason why I am particularly interested in the Van der Sluijs thesis is because it:

    a) addresses a scientific issue that is central to climate change

    b) highlights the role played by uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in facilitating anchoring, thereby perpetuating a particular scientific judgement in a manner that gives the impression of certitude (if only the certitude that we know how uncertain we are)

    I see nothing in the Van der Sluijs thesis that contradicts anything that either you or I have said previously regarding the emergence, persistence or salience of consensus, but I do think it exemplifies the issue rather well. I don’t know whether you were already familiar with his work, or have had time to read the referenced thesis (specifically chapter 2). If you have any specific views regarding the points he raises, I would be very interested to hear them.


  10. The big climate computer models are known for their inability to make forecasts, and that much is admitted by the IPCC itself. I suspect that the 1.5 to 4.5 range is one criterion to help decide which computer runs end up on the cutting-room floor (so to speak). If the purpose of the models is to illustrate the conjectured warming, then runs which show cooling or little change or even more dramatic warming, are of little use.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. John R:

    At least, that is the understanding that Professor Nerlich is anchored to.

    Very funny.

    Anchoring is not an inherently bad thing.

    Thank you for saying that. We all have to start somewhere to get anywhere. Thank you also for digging out the Van der Sluijs paper. There’s nothing ancient about it, happily, because official estimates of climate sensitivity move at about the same rate as tectonic plates.


  12. Richard,

    “There’s nothing ancient about it, happily, because official estimates of climate sensitivity move at about the same rate as tectonic plates.”

    And they wouldn’t have it any other way! There is a form of anthropic reasoning that can be applied here:

    Policy actor asks: “Why have the climate sensitivity estimates been so steady down the years?”

    Answer: Because if they hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be around to ask that question.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. John,

    no worries, including a ref in the main post would indeed have diverted too much from the Van De Sluijs specific angle.

    I’ve come across him several times in following up one thing or another. He has worked with Ravetz of PNS fame, and also James Risbey (sometimes both together), and Risbey in turn has worked with Lewandowsky. However, I don’t think I’ve ever read a whole paper of his, although various snippets regarding whatever it was I happened to be chasing at the time (and given some of your linked pdf seems familiar, maybe even snippets from this). He and James Risbey also cropped up in my catastrophe narrative search, but I excluded them in the end, can’t recall why. Maybe they were in your precautionary principle camp 😉

    I’d agree regarding your general characterisation, and haven’t too much to add. While somewhat more can be forgiven from such a long time back, the thesis suffers from the same conflict of knowledge and ‘knowledge’ (aka emotive conviction) as noted above for Lewandowsky and others working in this area. Per your quotes above regarding a ‘maintained consensus’ and a ‘social contract’, he appears not to have noticed his complete contrast to these (and indeed more similar phrases) when within chapter 1, in reference to objecting scientists outside of the IPCC, he says: “They strongly criticize the ’science by consensus’ approach of the IPCC. However, they are mistaken in criticizing IPCC because what IPCC does is not ’science by consensus’ but ’assessment’. It can be argued that consensus building is a legitimate approach for doing assessment, although it might not be the best way to cope with pluralism in climate risk assessment.”

    So having largely sloughed off the criticism by saying it’s not really a consensus, he carries on regardless with the reality that not only is it a consensus, it’s a long *maintained* consensus. You’d think that folks working at the intersect of science and uncertainty and society, would be far more aware of the fragility of science to cultural takeover, and that when something *maintains* a long-term consensus, i.e. socially enforced and indeed providing a social contract for the in-group, this is likely very bad because that’s exactly what culture does, not what science, even PNS, should be doing, and indeed it will attract a great deal of anchoring to its values as it emerges through the window created by uncertainty and (1) *perceived* risk. Plus, an emergent culture then causes an increased perception of domain risk, so return to (1) but with a stronger signal. Not to mention waxing lyrical about why emergence went big time when “a ’window of opportunity’ opened up in the socio-political landscape”, without questioning whether this meant it was a social (and driven by emotive conviction) not scientific impetus, saying instead that a scientific consensus must already have existed (what? In the mid to late eighties and inclusive of a high certainty of high risk??) and that it was just the right conjunction of planets to enable action. This then meant he has had to wriggle out of why many years of new knowledge hadn’t altered the goals at all; um… well maybe because these were indeed already anchored to the cultural values by then.

    The reams of climate sensitivity stuff is far too detailed for me. He’s right the uncertainty hasn’t diminished yet though, and even describes part of the process of why, indeed being that the sensitivity range (and certain emphases on it) are part of the social contract that holds the community together, without apparently realising that such a process cannot even in principle produce the right answer or assess the true risks, because the (subconsciously coordinated) process is *only* and exclusively about holding the community together. The process is part of our evolutionary heritage, and it isn’t meant to find anything out!

    I can imagine that there may be extremely rare circumstances in which PNS is actually a plausible gambit. It’s quite like what the national socialists engaged in when being crushed towards the end of the war. The high risk of bombings and the tanks approaching all borders was far from merely perceptual, and we are lucky that many of the technologies they threw everything and everybody at, were either highly interesting but non-starters in the time-frame, or were brilliant but didn’t quite get far enough in time, or were just bonkers. Of course they could merely have surrendered instead, but they were too culturally committed, and if it was an asteroid instead of tanks then surrender wouldn’t be an option. And to be maximally charitable, PNS is supposed to include *all* relevant / interested input, so for instance statisticians (!) citizen scientists (sceptical and otherwise), indeed economists as noted (the kind who may actually work all aspects of the cost / benefit equation, not just one), etc etc. But indeed only ‘as long as the individuals concerned are anchored to the same social contract’, which these folks were not, so they were gate-keepered out. This should have been a huge clue; it is cultures that gatekeeper folks out, it’s their very purpose as the mirror of forming an in-group. In failing to recognise that the massive promotion of dire risk (absent action) is itself a cultural construct that is ‘maintained’ by enforced social consensus, they also failed to realise that it’s inappropriate to kick-off PNS, and that doing so will only open the door much wider to a completion of the cultural takeover. At which point a reply to Jaime springs to mind, if I get around to it…


  14. Jaime,

    “This then begs the question: is there some fundamental difference between the Climate Sceptic Gestalt and the Climate Consensus Gestalt? What cognitive organisational framework is best served by the acceptance of man-made dangerous climate change…”

    As, largely, we think communally rather than individually, i.e. we owe allegiance to (several) group identities and many associated values (in different / overlapping domains), the holistic view formed during initial uncertainty is highly likely to align to the worldview we are signed up to as applicable to that domain (if there is an applicable aspect, won’t always be the case). So the cognitive framework is communal, i.e. culture, the most outstanding identifiable feature of which is a socially enforced ‘certain’ consensus (in this case, the high certainty of imminent global catastrophe, absent dramatic action). So, yes (1).

    “…and what similar psychological framework is best served by the questioning of evidence upon which the former consensus-driven framework rests?”

    Currently, skeptics as such** lack the single most identifying feature of a strong culture, i.e. a socially enforced consensus. I’ve seen this complained about on both sides: some orthodox folks because they sometimes feel they have no solid story to attack, instead a confusing plethora of challenging views that are not strongly coherent / organised, so a desire is expressed for just one big thing to attack and bring down; some skeptics because they feel they’ll never ‘win’ if they don’t get organised around a single coherent story (cum banner). Personally, I think this lack of a strong consensus is great, it demonstrates that culture has not dominated, albeit it may creep in through various means. However, unless or until it does, there is not a similar and common cognitive framework (indeed as John says there may well be as many anchors as skeptics). So, no (2), BUT SEE**.

    “Can it indeed be maintained that scepticism based upon the accumulation of conflicting evidence is even a Gestalt in the normal sense of the word?”

    Yes, because once that trail has been underway for some time, however it happened to remain on course initially (often via ** below), anchoring can still occur based upon the accumulated position to date (of which we know some data is likely not right). In the end, uncertainty is what allows all biases to play out on both sides. So the real question is, what is the biggest marshaller / co-ordinater / amplifier of whole rafts of biases that can in principle work within both sides, and this is (1) over (2) and per John the skeptic biases are still very variable (not culturally coordinated, though there is increasing alignment so for sure it’s a danger to avoid, i.e. zeroing in on truths is good but subconsciously zeroing into skeptical high loyalties / commonality is bad).

    **VERY NOTEWORTHY** Public scepticism (as opposed to tiny numbers of skeptics on blogs or skeptic scientists) IS largely coordinated by cultural mechanisms, if not always by culture. In the US for instance, climate culture is allied to Dem / Lib culture, so opposing Rep / Con culture has weighed in on the side of the skeptics. So scepticism there is most certainly coordinated by culture with the cognitive framework it thus imposes, but it is a *Conservative consensus* and associated values (for instance preserving cherished Con values that action on climate change may threaten), not a *skeptic consensus* and (climate / science orientated) values, though for sure it will parrot whatever handy climate weaponry comes to hand (with no eye to correctness). In countries where climate culture hasn’t aligned to older political boundaries, there is still mass scepticism; this is due to a defence mechanism that evolved along with the rise of cultures (and associated brain architecture), to keep them balanced and not too dominant (plus repel foreign cultures). I call it ‘innate scepticism’ but resistance to culturalization or such is more common. It basically amounts to the fact that you can often tell you’re being sold a fairy story (see my post on innate scepticism at Climate etc as to how). Think religious BS. However, unfortunately this BS detector is itself cultural value dependent. If a story doesn’t align well to the values you already have, the BS detector will scream; but if it does align, the BS detector is disabled ): So the vast majority of public skepticism is nevertheless not from ‘skeptics’, as such, although the above may drive some into more formal climate skepticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Andy,

    Thanks for your comment. I have to say, you and I took away slightly different messages from our reading of the VdS paper, perhaps because I had a relatively narrow motive for consulting it. From reading the paper, it was clear to me that VdS had collaborated with Ravetz (he was also on the paper’s judging committee) and so was coming from an assumption of post normal science. However, it didn’t bother me so much whether VdS was defending, challenging or extolling the virtues of post-normal science – I was only interested in finding a good case study that demonstrated the role of anchoring within climatology, and I think the VdS paper provided it with some good supporting material. Consequently, I didn’t think too deeply about whether or not VdS’s views on consensus were sound.

    That’s not to say that I didn’t notice along the way one or two statements to take issue with. For example, I too baulked somewhat when VdS rejected criticism of the IPCC’s treatment of consensus. It is all very well to say, ‘stop criticising the IPCC, you rotters, they are only doing post normal science, what else can you expect them to do?’, but it is quite another thing to completely gloss over the obvious dangers introduced when one starts to treat levels of agreement as a confidence-building metric on a par with levels of agreement between data. This is especially true when one fails to appreciate the correlation that one might expect between the two metrics and so blithely double-count, as indeed the IPCC does. VdS’s defensiveness on behalf of the IPCC, I thought, was the sign of someone who is still not quite getting what the problem is regarding the distinction between science and post-normal science. But, having had that thought, I quickly returned to my task.

    To summarize, I don’t disagree with anything you say regarding VdS’s ambivalence towards consensus, or the culturally underpinned dead-ends that post normal science can manoeuvre itself into. It’s not so much that post normal science is always wrong; more to the point, it is never knowingly right. But this is just not the theme I was interested in on this occasion.


  16. John,

    ‘you rotters’ – heh now that’s a lovely turn of phrase I haven’t heard in a long time.

    Sorry, yes, I vectored off at somewhat of a tangent. Agree with all your above, although in my defence I think that there are so many contradictions and issues in the VdS paper, this is very easy to do 0:


  17. Nehrlich’s position is most notable in it’s circularity and self-reinforcing closed-mindedness. It is the most disappointing of the disappointing consensus rationales discussed because it shines a light on how crippling climate consensus belief really is.
    I saw this circularity demonstrated by a dear friend recently. He is a highly experienced engineer, his wife a retired geologist.
    They were over for dinner, and being in Houston, the topic of weather came up.
    They are convinced that the weather has changed dangerously. I asked them if they were aware of the history of flooding in Houston over the last 100 years or so?
    He was not interested in finding out even though the Harvey flood got up to his front door.
    Then the topic of wind power came up.
    I asked if it was good for the environment to have industrial towers taking up miles and miles of open land, and crowding the visual horizon?
    He’s ok with that because fossil fuels are so bad.
    Then he spoke about his farm in Michigan, in an area covered in wind turbines. He noted that he turned down putting one on his farm. I asked why? He just shrugged his shoulders. That was fascinating to me, I thought dilently, because a wind turbine pays a substantial rent to the land owner. He just shrugged his shoulders.
    I pointed out that the power from wind is undependable and drives off industries that require stable and dependable large power.
    Avoiding that economic damage requires duplication, which means added expense to users and offsets the goal of reducing CO2.
    And that Germany and Australia are having real difficulties with this wind problem.
    His response was that the industrial users would figure it out and that consumers would deal with it.
    He was unaware of the French situation.
    This is of course a summary of a conversation, and took place in a very laid back format.
    I noticed that he was tiring of the topic and had no interest in souring a very pleasant evening.
    But the circularity and unwillingness to explore data and ideas he was unfamiliar with was notable, and somehow reminds me of the quote of Nehrlich, with the strange mixture of outward directed skepticism at skeptics, with no willingness to consider applying any skepticism inwards.


  18. The comments on the political environment that climate skeptics find themselves in makes me wonder:
    In reality, since the climate consensus is so bad that it threatens all positive political goals of improving human life the question arises:
    How to isolate and highlight this in ways that culls the coalition granting political power to what is frankly a kooky consensus?


  19. HUNTER says: 31 Jan 19 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve noticed here it’s becoming a topic to avoid at polite dinner parties, just like religion and ideologies are often avoided, because of the uncomfortable contradictions you note (and / or passions if there is more engagement). That it’s now entering this category is a clue 0:


  20. Jaime,
    You raise an interesting point (as usual).
    Calls to revolution frequently have metaphors about breaking loose the chains of bondage.
    It seems that it is all to easy to call ntuse the chains of bondage with the chains of reason….

    Liked by 1 person

  21. If there are folk who want to spend their valuable time looking for the value of something that may not even exist, namely ‘climate sensitivity’ – well, good luck.


  22. Andy, yes, there is a big difference between public scepticism of climate change and its proposed ‘solution’ and the more targeted and focused scepticism found on blogs like this and among a small number of outspoken scientists and public figures. The latter is a small but hardly close-knit community. What I was trying to ascertain is, regardless of culture, is there some subconscious archetypal pattern (gestalt) which finds expression in the rejection of consensus climate science? My personal opinion is that there is a strong, underlying eschatological impulse labouring away behind the climate change consensus and its translation into environmental activism, but I can’t imagine what similar archetypal impulse might guide (and bias) the thinking of sceptics.


  23. Jaime,

    Um… it seems that although I got your question the first time around, my answer must be pretty badly expressed 0: So here’s another attempt…

    Your questions as restated above use the words ‘subconscious’, ‘impulse’, and powerful enough to also support ‘activism’, and as originally stated further above within a ‘cognitive framework’, plus all being applicable at a *group* not an individual level (i.e. skeptics, or climate ‘consensus’ supporters, en-masse). And ‘archetypal’, presumably meaning a classic or fundamental or main / textbook / well-known mechanism. So not only is there a text-book mechanism for satisfying all these requirements, at group level there is only a *single* candidate mechanism which does so, and this is… ta da… a ‘culture’. This phenomenon works subconsciously (our brain architecture is geared to work in tandem with cultural narratives, subverting our reason in the process) and supports rafts of strong behaviours including passionate activism, plus co-ordinates a group (of any size) via these subconscious mechanisms (so the cognitive framework is communal), which are based on emotive convictions (so ‘impulse’, not reason) and identity, also greatly amplifying / aligning rafts of biases to a common direction so that they form a (cultural) ‘consensus’ (consensus forming is a social not scientific process) that is policed, and is usually a fairy story.

    “What I was trying to ascertain is, regardless of culture…”

    So… I don’t think you can disregard culture if you want any kind of meaningful answer, as due to the single candidate situation, these questions essentially translate to: is there an (eschatological) strong culture behind the climate change consensus? (which you believe is so), and, is there a strong culture behind the rejection of the same consensus? (which you believe isn’t so). There is no other candidate to fulfil the (shared) behaviours you speculate on for either of these (or any other) groups. Thus…

    “My personal opinion is that there is a strong, underlying eschatological impulse labouring away behind the climate change consensus and its translation into environmental activism…”

    Absolutely there is! Not only that, it is hardly hidden or ‘labouring away behind’ the consensus (the centre of gravity of which is outside not inside mainstream climate science); it is boldly out there in prime time. Many A-list presidents, prime ministers, UN elite and rafts of other authorities and influencers across the globe have frequently and for decades propagated the primary consensus narrative of the culture, which is a dire threat (absent dramatic action) of global catastrophe, often expressed literally as the end of civilisation / life / the planet, and even if not quite as literally as this. still in highly emotive expressions of a high certainty of global catastrophe, which are not supported by mainstream science let alone sceptical science. If that’s not eschatological I don’t know what is. So this is what I was trying to get across per (1) above.

    “…is there some subconscious archetypal pattern (gestalt) which finds expression in the rejection of consensus climate science.”

    The climate consensus is rejected for various different reasons. And per ** above, the vast majority of the public in different countries reject either because they are adherents of a culture (e.g. Rep / Cons in the US) that is opposed to an ally of climate culture, or because they are *innately* sceptical (nothing to do with reasoned scepticism) of the ‘religious’ characteristics that climate culture exhibits (religion just being the strong cultural template folks are most familiar with), and happen to be in a condition whereby they’re not already too aligned to values associated with climate catastrophism such that their BS detector would get disabled. This probably covers 95%+ of rejectors, maybe 99%, although there are also ‘movers’ whose opinion depends on the context and how much their identity is challenged by the questions trying to ascertain belief. So for all these folks, they *are* conforming to an archetypal and subconscious pattern, whether this is in support of a culture, or in an instinctive (not reasoned!) rejection of climate culture. For the tiny minority left constituting those who owe their position primarily to reason and not any of the above (whether or not the above was an original prompt)…

    “I can’t imagine what similar archetypal impulse might guide (and bias) the thinking of sceptics.”

    Per (2) above, and John’s very relevant comment about the fractured nature of scepticism, plus your own ‘but hardly close-knit community’; and not only that but what shallow community there is nevertheless completely lacks a socially enforced consensus (which is the prime expectation of a culture), then indeed there is *not* such an archetypal impulse (operating subconsciously at a group level), i.e. there is not a culture.

    But when people speak of skepticism it can be very hard to separate out the (massively greater) public skepticism that does conform to cultural mechanics, and this can be eschatological too, plus by no means neatly separate to bloggers or even scientists. For instance there are regular inputs on blogs from those who via their conservative leanings were emotively convinced before even seeing any detailed scientific arguments, that the climate change thing is a left-wing agenda to take us back to the stone-age (hence much death and destruction), due to their cultural conviction for right-wing values. As they get deeper in, they may or may not leave that emotive conviction behind. But if they don’t, then whatever may be right or wrong about the challenges they raise, what future history shows to be their ‘right’ parts may still own more to emotive drive than pure reasoning. And it means the very same people will must have lots of wrong parts too. This is an edge of spectrum example, but not that uncommon; none of us are Vulcans and we can’t leave our emotive convictions behind. The best you can say is as John notes above, the huge diversity of skeptic views on knowledgeable forums means this small minority at least attempting to use reason are not dominated by a single ‘archetypal (group) impulse’, whereas climate catastrophism clearly ticks every box for a strong cultural entity.


  24. Jaime,

    “…what similar psychological framework is best served by the questioning of evidence upon which the former consensus-driven framework rests?”

    If I may chuck in my tuppence-worth here: The very fact that you ask this question demonstrates the psychology of the sceptic. Don’t you realise that Lewandowsky and his epigones have already provided the answer to this question? Have you not already read chapter 2 of AR5? Do you not understand what they are telling you? Or are you like me – the sort of person who will always prefer to work something out for themselves rather than accept everything an authority figure tells you? What happened in your childhood to make you so distrustful of received wisdom? Was it discovering that Santa Claus was your Mum and Dad? Yes, they lied to you, didn’t they? Takes some getting over.

    So, you see, you are not misguided, you are just vulnerable and easily manipulated by those who have ulterior motives. John Cooke knows this, and he can inoculate you against the virus of misinformation. But to get better, you need to want to get better. You can’t get well if you don’t take your medicine.

    Indeed, there are many anchors used by sceptics, but there may also be an overarching fear of being taken in by institutionalised quackery. Therefore, they will tend to favour the anchors that prevent them from being swept along with cultural drift. They understand all too well where this can lead.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Oh yes John, we sceptics are accused of being ‘inoculated’ against truth by those who have self-innoculated themselves against alternative truths, but also that our scepticism, even in the case where it is not simply the result of mental impairment, somehow lacks rigour and attention to detail and, to be legitimate, must meet a standard undemanded of those who promote climate alarmism,

    Liked by 1 person

  26. “…but there may also be an overarching fear of being taken in by institutionalised quackery. Therefore, they will tend to favour the anchors that prevent them from being swept along with cultural drift. They understand all too well where this can lead.”

    Well put, and exactly so; this is the BS detector I referred to above, and everyone possesses one. Why isn’t is working for adherents (of climate culture, or religious culture, or strong ideologies)? Because the BS detector is unfortunately itself cultural value dependent. Even for the very same person, it may work fine in one domain, but not in another.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. P.S. the BS detector needs no domain knowledge whatsoever to work, it triggers on the style / form of the messaging (e.g. absolute certainty, ridiculously extrapolated relevance to every area of society, over-moral association, general in-group / virtuous signalling, etc) not its content. And folks *instinctively* understand where that all leads, so without needing to navigate the domain whys and wherefores. This is why mass skepticism can still occur in a public with no domain knowledge to speak of. But for knowledgeable skeptics, who to some extent may also be more knowledgeable about ‘where that all leads’ because they may see actual threads that form the initial potentials for this, it would be very hard to separate out how much of their position is driven by knowledge and how much by bias coming from the same instinct that drives most public skepticism (in countries where strong political alignment like in the US has not occurred). I presume there’s a range, but it’s still a more flexible motivator than cultural adherence, which is severely constrained by its consensus.

    Bear in mind that the BS detector can trigger *wrongly* wrt some science subjects too, e.g. because it can’t tell the difference between the absolute certainty of proof and the absolute certainty of a cultural consensus, the genuine authority of science and its cultural baggage (especially latterly), etc. This is the origin of bulk anti-GMO or anti-vax support; so we can’t rely on this instinct to always be ‘right’. It can trigger aptly, or inaptly (aka ‘denial’, although that word has become wrongly framed); so in particular domains, either protect us or damage us.


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