Stephan Lewandowsky and ‘climate change denial’

By September 11, 2012Climate Change, Research

From time to time articles appear in learned journals about the cognitive problems that people like myself are said to have in maintaining ‘denial’ about global warming — or more recently ‘climate change’. I put the phrase in inverted commas because it is agreed to mean  not simply a change in climate patterns, but those that are caused by human activity. Who agrees? Well, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that’s who. The UNFCCC is the basis for all those meetings in faraway places like Copenhagen and Cancun and Rio where people gather to try and establish a binding international agreement that would limit the production of more greenhouse gases.

For the interested reader, climate is also agreed to refer to relatively abiding patterns of temperature, rainfall and all the rest, while weather is the short-term stuff that we experience every day. If you like, climate is the average of weather. As someone brought up in the strict primary school English regime of the 1940s, I dislike distortions of meaning and neologisms that are unnecessary. (For example, why do we need ‘ongoing’ when we already have ‘continuing’?) But we’re stuck with ‘climate change’.

Back to learned papers. The latest in those papers wondering about the strangeness of climate change deniers is one by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Western Australia, and published in Psychological Science. Lewandowsky and his colleagues asked the hosts of a number of well-known websites to let their readers know about the survey they were conducting and ask them to participate in it. The responses seem to have come from the orthodox sites, and none from the dissenting sites (some of which seem unaware that Lewandowsky had asked them).

The survey design, inasmuch as I have seen it, seems amateurish in the extreme. The questions, which I have now seen, were very odd, and badly constrained: participants were asked to say where they placed themselves on a five-point scale in reaction, for example, to the statement: ’12. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr was the results of an organized conspiracy by US government agencies such as the CIA and FBI.’ The scale ranged from Absolutely True to Absolutely False.

When I was learning about questionnaire design at the Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, I was told about the importance of the ‘Don’t Know’ response, and to provide an opportunity for respondents to indicate their uncertainty or lack of knowledge, in order to get at the real knowledge. You could argue that the intermediate position on the five-point scale — 3 — provides that possibility, but it could also be the position of someone who might say ‘Well, on the one hand … and then on the other hand …’

But, I hear you cry, what has the Martin Luther King assassination have to do with global warming? Ah, the short answer is that Lewandowsky et al see ‘deniers’ as being people who also believe in conspiratorial fantasies like that one, or the one about the Moon landing being faked. Loonies, to be blunt about it. And of course they got a lot of support from those who frequent the orthodox sites — indeed, they seem hardly to have had any truly sceptical responses at all!

All in all, this paper is truly embarrassing in both its methodology and its reasoning, and those of the sceptical fraternity are having great fun with it. As a social scientist myself I wish to goodness that there was more quality control in the journals where social scientists publish. Anyone with a background in survey research can show the awful flaws in this paper, and surely the editors at Psychological Science could have found one.

But that leads me to what I think is a genuinely important element of the study, and of others like it. There is a great deal of ‘belief’ about global warming, that it is true and that humans are responsible, and that doom is approaching, and on the other hand that it is a hoax, a scam, a conspiracy. I have no ‘beliefs’ one way or the other. As an old-fashioned empiricist I like to get at the data, of which there is an abundance, of varying quality.

But anyone who visits any of the major websites in this domain will quickly encounter ‘believers’, who are not interested in data, and who take as absolutely given and true, that the orthodox side is correct, and that anyone who doesn’t agree is a ‘climate change denier’ or a ‘contrarian’. There are believers the other way, too.

Why do people hold such beliefs, and why do they hold them so passionately? There are vastly more of them in the orthodox camp — which of course is why AGW is the orthodoxy!

I haven’t seen a paper on that question yet, but tomorrow I will set out a summary of why that orthodoxy has taken such a hold on our politics and society, despite the scientific basis for it being at best conjectural.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Ian McAuley says:


    I believe you touch on two problems.

    First is the general invasion of our public discourse by postmodernism. “Opinions” are all that count, and all have equal weight because there is no reality. A useless but influential philosophy.

    Second is the common confusion of noise and trend — specifically weather and climate. We may blame ignorance, but it’s a common confusion even among people well-educated in statistics, such as financiers with Harvard and Wharton MBAs who trade on short-term noise, mistaking it for trend.

    Ian McAuley

  • christine says:

    An interesting place to start to understand why debates about science become so heated would be with the debunking of prevailing orthodoxies in history. The theory of the flat earth is an obvious one, but there are many many more. What was at stake in the debates that they became so heated and polarised, that objectivity became difficult? Given that terms such as likely and X% certainty are used in the debate, the question has obviously not been finally settled. How much doubt is necessary to overturn an orthodoxy and how much certainty is necessary to establish one?

  • […] supposed links to business groups. The Lewandowsky link is even less helpful, as well as being an intellectually dreadful paper. I don’t know quite what I would expect to find as an example of entrenched denial in […]

  • Christine Hyde says:

    I thought that Stephan Lewandosky, being a psychologist, was dealing with questions of generally held beliefs.
    But I would like to say that sceptics have all the fun, deniers so called and their counterparts who likewise insist that their argument equals proof have miserable lives.
    Can the models really incorporate all the variables? The only solid thing we have is the Milankovic Cycle.
    The Greenhouse effect. No one seems to be measuring the chemistry taking place right now with the relevant gases.
    The Mantle. When Yellowstone or similar goes up humanity will be experiencing climatic catastrophe.
    Solar scientists offer a prospect of a cooling sun.
    This is not to say that climate models that forecast future warming are not based on good science. But can they do more than offer suggestions? Like any science.

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