One day a terrific psychological study is going to be written on the madness and mass lunacy which arose after climate change swam into the public’s ken. I don’t mean the actions and thoughts of the man-in-the-street, which were and are no different in this area than they were and are in any political matterhe . No: the real curiosity is what happened to academia, inside departments which haven’t anything to do with climatology.
There, surrounded by people eager to agree with each other and fueled by infinite estimates of their own intelligence, great hoards of degreed non-experts, people who couldn’t derive the Omega equation if you threatened to remove their tenure and who think Vorticity is a town in Spain, lectured all of mankind on why The End Was Near, Unless…
Unless they, the non-experts, were hearkened to, esteemed, feted, moneyed, and just plain listened to, dammit.
The cornerstone of this future pathological report may well be the peer-reviewed Psychological Science paper “NASA faked the moon landing—Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science” by Stephan Lewandowsky, Klaus Oberauer, and Gilles Gignac, perhaps the completest, most representative work of its odd era.
Everything that could have been done wrong, was done wrong. Every bias that could have been manifested, was manifested. Every fallacy pertinent to the matter at hand was made. The conclusions, regurgitated from unnecessarily complicated statistical procedures, did not follow from the evidence gathered, which itself was suspect. In its way, then, the paper is a jewel, a gift to the future, a fundamental text to how easy it is to fool oneself.
Consider that its errors are not far to seek1. Take the opening sentence: “Although nearly all domain experts agree that human CO2 emissions are altering the world’s climate, segments of the public remain unconvinced by the scientific evidence.” Isn’t that gorgeous? I count at least seven mistakes, and we are only at the very beginning!
- Mistake 1: Lewandowsky is not a domain expert, and by his argument is not qualified to speak on matters climatic, yet speak he does.
- Mistake 2: His opinion about how to consider the science of climate change is therefore no more valuable than any other non-domain expert’s (about the physics), but he considers by this act of publishing that it is.
- Mistake 3: He conflates voting with truth. His fallacy is to suppose that because the majority of domain experts say X, X is therefore true.
- Mistake 4: He conflates numbers with weight of evidence. His fallacy is to suppose the minority of domain experts who do not agree with the majority are not to be listened to because they are only a minority.
- Mistake 5: He confuses physics with economics, a vulgar but common error. It may be true that, say, temperatures will rise by 0.5o C in the next five decades, but it does not follow that any theory of what will happen because of this temperature rise is true, nor is it true that anybody’s suggestion to combat the adverse consequences of what will happen is therefore worthy of consideration.
- Mistake 6: Since Lewandowsky committed this howler, and is obviously unaware of it, he cannot see it in the people he interviews, who often make a similar error. That is, when a civilian is asked, “Do you believe in climate change?” he often answers “No,” but the mistake is to assume he is answering the question as stated, when in reality he has answered the modified question, “Do you believe in climate change and should the government regulate, rule, tax, control, mandate, penalize, etc., etc. to combat this change?” Such an elementary mistake by a psychologist shows us just how far the madness has progressed.
- Mistake 7: Lewandowsky, because he is not a domain expert, misunderstood the basic physics. There are no domain experts who do not agree that mankind changes the climate. The only matters in question are: how much? where? when? with what certainty can we know? Notice the absence of “What can be done?” because this requires expertise in human behavior, and that expertise is what is suspiciously missing in this paper.
My dears, I emphasize that this was merely the opening sentence, and that much worse was to come. But before that, there was one more error, more grievous than any other, embedded in his starting sentence. This is Lewandowsky’s befuddlement that any non-domain expert could deign to question “the scientific evidence” (when much of what is “science” is instead politics). He assumes that any who do so, even in the admitted presence of disagreement over what “the” science is, suffers from a psychological flaw. Science has spoken, thinks he, and therefore nothing remains to be said. An actual instance of doublethink, and really quite marvelous when you consider the economy of words used to express it.
Now, the rest of Lewdandowsky’s work is more mundane. He commits the freshman mistake of only seeking evidence for his beliefs, and for none that would contradict him (and of which there is plenty); he says things like “Another common attribute of the contemporary rejection of science is its reliance on the internet” and then uses the internet himself in his “science”; he questions the influence of Steven McIntyre of Climateaudit forgetting that McIntyre is a domain expert and he, Lewandowsky is not.
He admits confirmation bias by calling dividing his sample into “pro-science” and “skeptic”, when the point in question is what the science says. He builds “latent variable” models to “prove” what he already believed, and biased himself to confirm; latent variable analysis being a lovely technique to give desirable results. He amusingly assures his audience of his “theoretical results”: not theories of climate, but psychological (academics do love a theory). He can’t help himself but use the ugly term denial, an appalling word one would have thought a psychologist would have understood was inappropriate.
As I said, a book could be written, and probably will be written on everything that has gone wrong with this paper.
Thanks to K.A. Rodgers who alerted me to the precious topic. Thanks too to John Moore for keeping me sharp.
1We haven’t time here to list and review each error: we leave that to genuine psychologists.
Update At Lewandowsky’s site, he puts up this puzzler: “Quick, consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not?” After you answer, “Yes”, he writes, “There is a 75% chance you might endorse this conclusion despite it being logically false.”
This is typical of the “gotcha” questions academics tease civilians with to prove that they, the academics, are smarter than the rest of us and therefore needed. Lewandowsky’s goes straight downhill after “Quick.” Of course people are going to say yes because every damn polar bear is white. They are not answering the question, which was absurdly required to be answered quickly, but instead recalling what they know to be true: polar bears are white.
To get at the true psychology, Lewandowsky should have instead asked, “Take your time and consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not? I am not asking whether polar bears are white—we know they are—but whether this logical argument is valid.” Not everybody will get this right, but we’ll at least be able to better estimate the actual percentage of folks who can’t.
As Joseph Epstein observed about speedy answers required by academics:
Only years later did I realize that quickness of response–on which 95 percent of education is based–is beside the point, and is required only of politicians, emergency-room physicians, lawyers in courtrooms, and salesmen. Serious intellectual effort requires slow, usually painstaking thought, often with wrong roads taken along the way to the right destination, if one is lucky enough to arrive there. One of the hallmarks of the modern educational system, which is essentially an examination system, is that so much of it is based on quick response solely. Give 6 reasons for the decline of Athens, 8 for the emergence of the Renaissance, 12 for the importance of the French Revolution. You have 20 minutes in which to do so.