Sunday, September 04, 2011

Disagreeing with Chris Mooney on handling the need for closure

I'll follow the now-universal practice of recopying comments I left elsewhere, in this case at Chris Mooney's Intersection site. I think in the climate communication field we have not done enough to highlight how skeptics/denialists/lukewarmists rely on multiple massive coincidences to explain why climate change is behaving as mainstream science has predicted since CO2 was identified as a greenhouse gas in the 19th Century. The non-scientist public doesn't generally like reliance on coincidence.


Chris wrote about how anti-evolutionists show a strong need for closure and intolerance of ambiguity. I suggested in the comments that at least in the field of climate communication, we have an advantage over denialists when appealing to fence-sitters with a desire for closure. Chris disagreed. Perhaps Chris may have just needed closure on the idea that we have little we can do with people who need closure.

Anyway, my final comment in that thread:

1. On evolution/creationism, I agree that closure favors denial for those who believe in the inerrant Bible. Evolution isn’t compatible with the Bible being literally true.

2. Climate theory doesn’t have the same trouble with Christianity (edit: Christian literalists). A few climate denialists have tried to use Christian determinist arguments, but they’re pretty weak even from that perspective.

3. On climate, if you accept that temps are warming, as many denialists (and more important, the fence sitters) do, then you have uncertainty and ambiguity. What explains the increase?

4. Climate realists have a theory that eliminates ambiguity – it’s warming because we’re messing up and warming the planet. This theory, btw, is compatible with a Christian frame of humans as immoral screwups who do a bad job as stewards of God’s creation.

5. Denialists who accept warming don’t really have an explanation – they have to rely on coincidence. It’s just coincidence, they say, that we happen to be in a time when temps are rising as part of a natural cycle. It’s just coincidence that Tyndall, Fourier, and Arrhenius more or less predicted what would happen long before it became politicized. It’s just coincidence that Hansen said in 1988 that temps would keep rising, and they’ve risen at the rate he predicted.

6. Some denialists resort to lies to deny their need to argue based on coincidences, but that opens them up to vulnerability when trying to persuade fence-sitters.

7. If denialists fall in the set that deny warming at all, then they have another group of coincidences that they have to explain away (edit: relating to multiple sets of ground/ocean/satellite obs).

8. I agree that some with a strong need for closure and who have already strongly settled on a denialist frame will be very difficult to bring around, but it’s not the committed denialists that we’re concerned about.

9. People who haven’t yet thought much about climate issues are the target. Some of them will have strong need for closure. We have a better story for them by pointing out the other side’s reliance on coincidences.

10. I can be proven wrong. I don’t know this psychological field. If it’s shown that people with a strong need for closure are also strongly tolerant of explanation via coincidence, then I’m wrong.

11. I suspect the opposite is true, that many people are intolerant of explanation through coincidence. It’s kind of an intuitive Occam’s Razor – it’s not science, but it’s not wrong, either. We should use it more – we have an explanation, denialists have coincidences. We have a solution, denialists want to sit there. Who do you trust?

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

> Denialists who accept warming don’t really have an explanation – they have to rely on coincidence.

I think this subgroup is more nuanced than you indicate. There are a sizeable number that accept warming, but argue one or more of the following:

a) it is less than "alarmists" claim
b) the negative impacts will be less than "alarmists" claim - possibly even positive
c) attempts to do something about it will cause more harm than ignoring the problem
d) there is too much uncertainty to warrant drastic measures

These are presently the most pernicious and damaging sort of talking heads, because their arguments are dressed up as reasonable pragamatism, while invariably being built upon highly selective interpretation or outright falsehoods that are comparatively hard to check/respond to.

This is also an extremely powerful approach, because it results in the same outcome (do nothing, or at least nothing of import) and doesn't demand a really obvious denial of basic physics - rather shifting the focus to much more esoteric things like sensitivity, feedbacks and socio-economic impact, which is helped by up-playing uncertainty and claiming to stand up for "true" scientific rigor, not this seat-of-the-pants IPCC alarmist malarkey.

It is a great strategy. Giving any concessions lends credence to their position on uncertainty, and damages the case for action. Refusing to these concessions marks you out as the more unreasonable (dogmatic) party and damages the case for action.

After all, all they want is to wash away the stench of "bad" science and go back to all the "good" science for a few more decades, until we have a really, really, sparkly clean picture, without any of that evil eco funding, or that naughty IPCC scaring children, and they promise, cross their hearts, not to find any more teeny tiny reasons to delay a little bit longer, honest guv. I mean, what can possibly be the harm in that?

-Dave H

Deech56 said...

Davi H. describes the "lukewarmer"/Curry position very aptly. Interesting that in the Mooney thread the usual climate trolls did not show up. The comments sections in any "Intersection" article dealing with climate are practically unreadable these days.

cRR said...

Denialists, including 'lukewarmers', fundamentally deny that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It is as simple as that; actually there is no nuance.
Meantime I use this saying on blogs where they appear: 'Soon in this theatre: CO2 doesn't exist!'.

"b) the negative impacts will be less than "alarmists" claim - possibly even positive." - Said Dave H. in the first comment. Well that really puts the denialists in a split. This actually leads to some very strange sights indeed. Feast on this, for instance:

"Once seen as a useless, ice-clogged backwater, the Kara Sea now has
the attention of oil companies. That is partly because the sea ice is
apparently receding — possibly a result of global warming — which
would ease exploration and drilling."

[ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/31/business/global/exxon-and-rosneft-partner-in-russian-oil-deal.html?_r=1 ] For those not willing to create an account (suddenly you to for this article), it's about the Exxon-Rosneft deal for drilling in the Arctic.

If AGW has benefits, why not advertise for reality instead of denying it??

Partly, apparenty, possibly 1984 was over a quarter century ago.

Anna Haynes said...

Maybe "climate coincidentalist" would be a better (less loaded and more descriptive) term to use, than "denialist". At least in some circumstances.

And to head off topic, what's the term for the unreality-based "let's all tend our own gardens and the world won't burn" mindset?

Brian said...

The lukewarmists have their own coincidence to explain: that the mainstream science is correct, but only correct up to the point at which their ideological and policy preferences would be threatened. Then - what a coincidence - the science isn't correct anymore.

Anonymous said...

"It is a great strategy. "

Except for the fact that things are going to get a lot worse. We're not even half the way through the 2C minimum bound of the rise predicted by the IPCC. The floods in Tennessee and Pakistan, the outbreak of tornadoes this spring, the droughts in Australia, Russia, and the American Southwest ... these are just preludes.

The graphs of CO2/temp increases over the last 2 million years are what haunt me. The temps just go vertical as if someone threw a switch. Yes, the graphs are in a geologic time scale, but that's not really consolation. If current weather events are just a scaled reaction to the coming changes, the next couple of hundred years are going to be dismal.

Rhetoric doesn't work against physics.

Jeffrey Davis

Dallas said...

I want a different name for my pigeon hole, Albedoist or Aguaist. As opposed to a ln(Cf/Ci)ist, we believe in the power of aqua in its trinity of phases to daze and confuse non-belivers. While we recognize the power of CO2, it is paltry compared to 1/(Swv+Ssolid+Sliquid). :)

Ted Kirkpatrick said...

Rejectionists have consistently claimed that mainstream climate science relies on a "concidence". For example, Will Happer claims:

"The argument starts something like this. CO2 levels have increased from about 270 ppm to 390 ppm over the past 150 years or so, and the earth has warmed by about 0.8 C during that time. Therefore the warming is due to CO2. But correlation is not causation." (p. 5)

Looks like they've also concluded that fence-sitters are averse to unexplained coincidences and aim to stick that label on the actual science.

I'd add that Christian literalists have big problems with one key area of climate science: The paleoclimate data for periods older than 6,000 years. From their point of view, such data can't exist. Interesting to note that both Salby and Spencer's recent arguments openly ignore deep paleo data. Whether or not those authors are young-earthers, their arguments tacitly solicit support from people who cling to young-earth beliefs.

Anonymous said...

@Jeffrey Davis

To be clear, by "great strategy" I mean in terms of gaining popular support, damaging scientific credibility and science-based viewpoints, preventing necessary action over a timescale that would make a difference etc. I also find it blinkered and dishonest.

Similarly, it has a great exit strategy. When we do actually reach the point of undeniable severity (by which time we're committed to otherwise avoidable hardship and cost), they can just sit back and blame the scientists for not doing "sound science" in the first place. Oh the lamentations. If only scientists had been pristine and honest, instead of corrupted by greed and misguided zeal, then we could have had a clear scientific picture all along and there would have been no need for all this muck slinging. The scientists brought it all on themselves, and if they'd been better behaved, why, honest guv, these "lukewarmers" would have been on board all along.

-Dave H

Anonymous said...

Dave H.,

By the time we're dealing with huge numbers of climate refugees and terrible food prices, I have to think cynical climate sophistry will be as transparently bogus as a Mitt Romney stump speech.

I have to think that or I'll go crazy.

Jeffrey "Montagnard" Davis

David B. Benson said...

I believe in the power of the Koch bros. purse.

J Bowers said...

This seems relevant to the conversation.

US counts the cost of nine months of unprecedented weather extremes:
“The insurance company Munich Re said in the first six months of the year there were 98 natural disasters in the US, about double the average of the 1990s.
[...]
A year of US disasters – 2011 so far
• Hurricane Irene, August 20-29. Over $7bn and around 50 deaths.
• Upper Midwest flooding. The Missouri and Souris rivers overflowed in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Damages: $2bn.
• Mississippi river flooding, spring and summer. Damages neared $4bn.
• Drought and heatwave in Texas, Oklahoma. Over $5bn.
• Tornadoes in midwest and south-east in May kill 177 and cost more than $7bn in losses.
• Tornadoes in the Ohio Valley, south-east and midwest on April devastate the city of Tuscaloosa, kill 32 and cause more than $9bn in damages.
• Tornadoes hit from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania 14–16 April. Toll: $2bn in damages.
• 59 tornadoes in midwest and north-east April 8-11. Damages: $2.2bn.
• 46 tornadoes in central and southern states 4 and 5 April. Toll: $2.3bn in damages.
• Blizzard late January paralyse cities from Chicago to the north-east. Toll: 36 deaths and more than $2bn in damages."

Mike Mangan said...

Coincidence? Another pathetic strawman argument that will never gain traction. Skeptics believe in natural temperature swings. The warming we have experienced since the end of the LIA started before the theoretical effects of co2. The warming from 1910-1940 was steeper, 1.6°C/century, than that of 1950-present, 1.2°c/century. (What a coincidence that the gain in heat occurs only during the positive phase of the PDO.) What a coincidence that when temps cooled at mid century, magical aerosols appeared to drop global temps. A tremendous increase in temps occurs naturally. Cooling then occurs due to Man, and then warming resumes, not to natural causes, but to Man! You people twist yourselves in knots to reconcile your coincidences.
IIRC one of your "climate scientists" is pulling out the old aerosol excuse to explain the current plateau in temps. What a coincidence that Chinese aerosols would now work as well as their capitalist counterparts did in 1940.

David B. Benson said...

I doubt anything I write will make the slightest (local) difference...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Mangan, since there's no such specific thing as "natural variability"* what changed to produce our current warmth?

*"natural variabilty" is just a catch-all phrase that describes the non-human induced swings in the state of a given phenomenon. The sun gets brighter. A volcano erupts. Something like that. You seem to claim it's due to the PDO, but the temperatures associated with the PDO are warmer now than they used to be. What caused that increase?

Jeffrey "Montagnard" Davis

Steve Bloom said...

Mangan probably doesn't even know what the PDO is, Jeff.

Deech56 said...

So if there's all this natural variability, how can the climate be insensitive to forcings?

Anonymous said...

Mike Mangan - empirical evidence reflecting the fact that 50% of humans are of less-than-average intelligence.


Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII

J Bowers said...

"A tremendous increase in temps occurs naturally."

Without breaking the laws of physics. This latest warming must have been caused by the climate fairies. How cool is that.

cRR said...

"Skeptics believe in natural temperature swings." Said Mike Mangan. Orwellian twist of the word 'skeptic'. They 'believe', Mike? Very well, climate scientists know natural temperature swings occur. They also know the recent warming is not natural, but caused by man.

J Bowers said...

And without climate scientists we'd never know about natural swings. Watch out for, "I meant recent climate scientists."

Brian said...

Ted - the denialist argument you isolate from Happer isn't arguing against contradiction, it's arguing via contradiction (as well as grossly misstating the mainstream position).

You're right about Young Earthers and paleodata. It really must be hard for YE types to engage any type of science before running into problems. Still, if they're willing to support action on climate, I'll accept their support.

Jeff Davis - you're right re Mangan, the PDO oscillation explanation fails to explain why the ratchet is one way and why temps barely moved down in mid-century. Denialists don't have a theory, so they have to argue the data fit to GHGs and aerosols are just a coincidence.

Brian said...

Shoot - re Ted, I meant "coincidence" not "contradiction".

Ted Kirkpatrick said...

Good point, Brian. Happer was misrepresenting the mainstream as "observations are just coincidence => no theory", whereas your original post was "no theory in rejectionism => awfully big coincidence left unexplained".