Sunday, June 01, 2014

Psychology, Science and Belief - Climate Change and Our Understanding of Behaviour

There are very few areas of science in which a single variable thing leads to another with significance consequences unless, that is, one is a mechanistic scientist who is not interested in complexity or subtlety.

Take the simple act of remembering something. We remember people, events, places, things. But we don’t know how. All attempts to “locate” memory through fMRI scans and other brain imaging techniques have failed and memory also seems to be something that can be shared. Experiments with rats who learn to run a water filled maze show that, once several hundred rats have learned to “swim the maze”, rats who were not part of the experiment can develop this ability faster, with some seeming to know “instinctively” how to run the same maze. Materialist and mechanistic biologists are continuing to look for the “memory” location in the brain, but others have moved on and have developed what is known as the “morphic resonance” theory of memory in which memories are available in the unconscious and can be shared within cultures and between people without any physical connection between these people. It may sound far fetched, but the evidence for this theory is beginning to be commanding.

So when we see a simple correlation, like CO2 = climate change, we need to be suspicious. There is no doubt that greenhouse gasses are part of the processes involved in the constantly changing climate, but it would be unusual to say the least for this to be such a dominant factor.  We need also to consider the role of the sun, ocean heat uptake, ocean circulation, water vapour, sea ice, land topography, distance from the equator, cloud formation,  and el NiƱo and la Nina (the El Nino southern oscillation cycle). There are also feedback mechanisms in place which affect the interaction of these factors and impact weather and climate.

Weather is thus complex and climate is the sum of weather activities over time. There is no simple relationship between CO2 and climate change. Further, climate is unpredictable. We cannot predict weather much more than 5-7 weeks ahead, but we seem to be confident that we can see what the climate patterns one hundred and two hundred years from now will be using computer simulations based on our understanding of climate systems. None of these models have been able to accurately predict past climate patterns, and none came close to predicting that there has been no increase in global surface temperature for over seventeen years. The “error rate” when model predictions are compared to actual observations from weather stations and satellites suggest that the models are poor predictors, but getting better. It is, after all, early days in the study of climate.

So why do many want to believe that there is such a simple man-made explanation of climate change? What is the psychology of this belief system?

Those who support the anthropogenic theory of climate change – e.g. mankind is responsible and therefore mankind can act to change climate – are locking into three belief systems. The first is the belief in the power of experts, in this case climate scientists and economists. The second is the age-old belief that mankind can change natural patterns and nature. The third is that climate change as a belief system has replaced religion for some.

It’s About Science

Mankind has long had a faith in science.  Such faith is based on an understanding of science as impartial, truth-seeking and independent of political, social or economic influence. This is known in the philosophy of science as “the immaculate conception of science” – science as truth. This is not, however, how science is practiced. Scientists are influenced in just the same way as are politicians, businessmen and women and advocates for a cause. Science is linked to economics by the rent-seeking behaviour of scientists who use grants and donations to fund their work, with these grants and donations reflecting a view of what is worth pursuing. Science is linked to society by a sense of “social good”. When society wished to “deal with deviance”, science obliged with the evidence to support eugenics (the practice of involuntary sterilization of those who were deemed mentally deficient, which continued until the early 1970’s); when governments wished to criminalize drugs, evidence was adduced by scientists which showed the pathway from marijuana or cannabis to hard drugs like heroin was clear and firm (the gateway drug theory) – a pathway now largely discredited.

Science is not “pure”, it is influenced by policy and investment choices – it is a socially conditioned activity. This has been the debate within the philosophy of science for some time – the debate between two schools of thought. One sees science as divorced from politics and economics and social influence (Popper) and the other sees science as embedded in social and economic considerations (Polyani). Indeed, revolutionary thinking in the philosophy of science suggests that evidence be used to campaign for social and political change since scientists should be advocates for social good (Feyerabend).

While many in science try to maintain a scientific independence, the reality is that this is very difficult to do within the science establishment. For example, challenging an orthodox theory of intelligence or personality or supporting research into psychic phenomenon can be difficult to do when the “norms” of psychology as a science require a certain degree of compliance to a dominant view.   Recent events related to the esteemed climatologist, Professor Lennart Bengtsson,  who chose to disagree with the dominant anthropogenic view of climate change and to do so by joining the scientific advisory board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, earning the wrath of many on the “other side” of this debate as well as death threats., demonstrate this. Richard Tol, a lead author for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested that competent people who take a view contrary to that of their own government on climate change are not invited to participate in the IPCC process, again making clear that social and political considerations are part of scientific activity. One final example, researchers within the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) of the IUCN have admitted that the “best guess” of how many polar bears were in the Arctic was in part based on meeting social expectations that the number should be low, enabling politicians to declare polar bears an endangered species. Polar bear numbers continue to grow for most, but not all, polar bear populations.

Some have suggested that critics of anthropogenic climate change theory are funded by the interests of coal and energy conglomerates. Indeed, Greenpeace and others are now seeking to establish the legal basis for a court case in which energy companies are to be accused of manipulating science to support their claims that CO2 is not the primary cause of global climate change. What Greenpeace is not doing is asking if the billions spent by Governments and others around the world in support of the anthropogenic view of climate change has an equal impact on science. Surely, if who makes the investment influences the outcome this would apply to any investor. The idea that governments are neutral is somewhat laughable.

It is often suggested that 97% of climate scientists support the anthropogenic view of climate change. This is based on political statements made by non-climate experts which in turn are based on some very problematic studies which seek to establish where scientists “sit” on this issue. A recent Wall Street Journal article as well as testimony before the US Congress shows just how flawed this claim is. Further, science is not about majority votes: it is about evidence and theory. New evidence can change theory and theories change over time as evidence becomes better understood. If a majority of scientists believe something, does this make it right? In 1982, Stanley B. Prusiner of the University of California, San Francisco announced that his team had purified the hypothetical infectious prion, and that the infectious agent consisted mainly of a specific protein which in turn was the cause of scrapie in sheep and CJD in humans. Prusiner won the Nobel prize for his discovery. In a recent interview he made clear that 97% of scientists working in his field rejected his ideas when first announced and that, even after the Nobel prize, he puts the current figure at 50%. Science has a culture in which skepticism is encouraged at one level and frowned upon when it looks like it is showing evidence of being a serious challenge to orthodoxy.

Faith in Experts

A part of the belief in science is also a belief in scientists as experts. We know a lot about experts and how poor they are at expert prediction.

Indeed, the so-called expert “consensus” position in climate science is based on selective use of evidence, some of it from peer reviewed journals and some not, and expert group-think. Psychologists understand this phenomenon and have developed a thorough understanding of just how wrong experts can be.

Phillip Tetlock author of Expert Political Judgement and a Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, provides strong empirical evidence for just how bad they are at predicting events. He conducted a long-running experiment that asked nearly 300 political experts to make a variety of forecasts about dozens of countries around the world. After tracking the accuracy of about 80,000 predictions over the course of 20 years, Tetlock found:

That experts thought they knew more than they knew. That there was a systematic gap between subjective probabilities that experts were assigning to possible futures and the objective likelihoods of those futures materializing … With respect to how they did relative to, say, a baseline group of Berkeley undergraduates making predictions, they did somewhat better than that. How did they do relative to purely random guessing strategy? Well, they did a little bit better than that, but not as much as you might hope …

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision-making, has looked at the issue of “experts” and why they so often get things wrong. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow he points to several aspects of their psychology as factors, but highlights two in particular: the illusion of understanding and the illusion of validity. These are primary causes of experts getting it wrong.

The illusion of understanding refers to the idea that the world is more knowable than it actually is. In particular, experts believe that they have an in-depth and insightful understanding of the past and this enables them to better understand the future. They use what Kahneman refers to as the WYSIATI rule – “what you see is all that there is” and this provides the basis for their confidence.

For example, it must be the case that high levels of government indebtedness (levels of debt to GDP ratio above 90% is the most recent version of this[3]) stifle the economy and reduce investor and entrepreneurial confidence according to some notable economists. Or it is obvious that human generated C02 is the major cause of climate change according to some climatologists. Both of these understandings are based on a particular view of historical data and “facts” and an extrapolation of these views into the future.

The views exist independently of the evidence to support them. Just as financial advisers are confident that they are successful in predicting the future behaviour of stocks, so macro-economists are confident that their views of austerity have the weight of history behind them. Those committed to the view that human produced CO2 is the primary cause of climate change are not deterred by evidence that it may not be or that climate change has stalled for the last seventeen years.

Experts are sustained in their beliefs by a professional culture that supports them. Austerians  (those who believe that austerity is the only way) have their own network of support, as do the Keynesians who oppose them. Anthroprocene climatologists who believe that man is the primary cause of global warming have their own network of support among climate change researchers and politicians while the skeptical climate scientists also have their support networks. All remain ignorant of their ignorance and are sustained in their belief systems by selected use of evidence and by the support of stalwarts. These supportive networks and environments help sustain the illusion of validity. It is an illusion because evidence which demonstrates contrary views to those of the “experts” are dismissed and denied – the expert position, whatever it may be, is valid simply because they are expert.

Indeed, using Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 work on Tolstoy (The Hedgehog and the Fox), Austerians and anthropocenes are “hedgehogs” – they know one big thing, they know what they know within a coherent framework, they bristle with impatience towards those who don’t see things their way and they are exceptionally focused on their forecasts. For these experts a “failed prediction” is an issue of timing, the kind of evidence being adduced and so on – it is never due to the fact that their prediction is wrong. Austerians who look at the failure of their policies in Europe, for example, suggest that the austerity did not go far enough; anthroprocene climatologists see the lack of warming over the last seventeen years as proof that they are right, it is just that the timing is a little out. Even the climatologist trapped in thick ice in the Antarctic in December 2013 who set out to study the thinning ice-cap claims he just went to the wrong place – “climate change is happening and the ice is melting” he says, as he is lifted off the thick ice by helicopter.

Tetlock’s work, cited above, is a powerful testimony to these two illusions – understanding and validity. His results are devastating for the notion of “the expert”. According to Kahneman, “people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart throwing monkeys”.

Tetlock observes that “experts in demand were more overconfident that those who eked our existences far from the limelight”. We can see this in spades in both economics and climate change. James Hanson, recently retired from NASA and seen to be one of the worlds leading anthroprocene climatologists, makes predictions and claims that cannot be supported by the evidence he himself collected and was responsible for. For example, he suggested that “in the last decade it's warmed only about a tenth of a degree as compared to about two tenths of a degree in the preceding decade” – a claim not supported by the data set which he was responsible for. This overconfidence and arrogance comes from being regarded as one of the leading climate scientists in the world – evidence is not as important as the claim or the person making it. Hanson suffers from the illusion of skill.
Kahneman recognizes people like Hansen. He suggests

“…overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”  

There are other psychological features of the expert that are worthy of reflection. For example, how “group think” starts to permeate a discipline such that those outside the group cannot be heard as rational or meaningful – they are referred to as “deniers” or “outsiders”, reflecting the power of group think. The power of a group (they will claim consensus as if this ends scientific debate) to close ranks and limit the scope of conversation or act as gatekeepers for the conversation. Irving Janis documented the characteristics of group think in his 1982 study of policy disasters and fiascoes[4]. He suggests these features:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. We can see this in the relentless pursuit of austerity throughout Europe.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. We see this in relation to both climate change and austerity economics.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions. Austerians appear to willfully ignore the level of unemployment and the idea of a lost generation of youth workers, especially in Greece and Spain. Anthropecene climate researchers generally present themselves as morally superior.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Climate “deniers” commonly face suggestions that they be prosecuted or punished in some way[5].
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. This has occurred in climate change research community, since grants appear to favour those who adopt the view that man made CO2 is the primary cause of climate change.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. This is especially the case in “consensus” (sic) climate change science and amongst austerians.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

- all of these characteristics can be seen to be in play in the two examples used throughout this chapter – economics of austerity and made man global warming.

There is also the issue of the focusing illusion. Kahneman sums this up in a single statement: “nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it”. “Government debt is the most important economic challenge facing society today” says a well known economists, or “climate change is a life and death issue” says US Secretary of State, John Kerry.  Neither of these statements are true for anyone unless they are obsessive.

Climate Change as Religion

 “Because it is what science tells us” is one explanation for why some people believe in the anthropogenic view of climate change, dutifully ignoring the growing evidence that this theory about climate (CO2 = climate change) is weak. Many people look up to expert opinion and permit this to influence their own thinking. But the other reason is that they want to believe because it means we can act in the good of humanity: climate change is religion, albeit in a very particular sense.

Indeed, in 2009 Mr. Justice Michael Burton, ruling on an employment appeal matter in the British legal system, ruled that a sincerely held belief in climate change and the need to act accordingly constituted a belief system according to the Employment Equity (Religion and Belief) Regulations of 2003. That is, climate change was not a new religion but had equivalent status under the law. Those who “believe” need the protection of the law to enable their beliefs.

All religions have a certain characteristics. Niels Nelson, in his book Religions of the World, suggests twelve such characteristics. Amongst these two are these three:

  • 1.     Providing a coherent worldview.
  • 2.     Promoting social organization and collective action.
  • 3.     Offering future hope, provided certain actions are taken

Environmentalists have developed a coherent worldview – e.g. the planet is endangered by mankind and we should respect nature and return the planet to its “natural state” (sic) and not damage it further through overpopulation, deforestation, industrialization, globalization and the emission of CO2 – around which many feel able to organize some of the whole or their lives. Future hope is provided by the simple idea that we can “stop” climate change by massively reducing CO2, even though this may mean radically changing the nature of developed society.

So profound are the belief systems associated with this particular world-view, that those who do not share this view are vilified. There have been calls for climate change “deniers” to be criminalized, prosecuted for crimes against humanity  (a call made by James Hansen formerly of NASA), with some calling for public trials and executions – all of which are contained in a 2007 US Senate Report. Many of the more rabid suggestions about what should be done with those who are sceptical about anthropogenic causes of climate change rival what was done in the Spanish Inquisition – indeed, some would make the inquisitors blush.

So why the fervour? Some environmentalists sincerely believe that the planet is in peril and that it is their duty to save it.  Further, they believe that time is running out (“the day of judgement is upon us”) to act – with estimates ranging from days, to weeks to months. It is urgent that we act (repent) and do so with gusto, so as to change the nature of nature.

Prince Charles is a follower of this religion. He recently told business leaders that it was necessary to “fundamental transformation of global capitalism” in order to halt “dangerously accelerating climate change” that would “bring us to our own destruction”.  He went on:

“Over the next eighteen months, and bearing in mind the urgency of the situation confronting us, the world faces what is probably the last effective window of opportunity to vacate the insidious lure of the ‘last chance saloon’ in order to agree an ambitious, equitable and far-sighted multilateral settlement in the context of the post-2015 sustainable development goals and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Put simply: we are doomed now if we do not repent and engage in acts of contrition and change our sinful ways. The end is upon us. A hypothesis which remains unproven has become an unquestioned truth.


As a psychologist and part-time philosopher of science the issue of a belief in anthropogenic theory of climate change poses interesting challenges. So many people are so passionate about something they know so little about and the evidence, when reviewed systematically, is not as compelling as many claim it is. Faith, not science, and commitment, not evidence, is driving and shaping behaviour.

Experts are no better than a group of “dart throwing monkeys” according to Kahneman, yet experts are who we are asked to believe and many are overly confident that experts know what they are talking about, after all “they are scientists”. Yet science is not a search for truth but a social and economically driven activity in which the cultural requirements for group-think are high, especially when supported by rent-seeking and status seeking behaviour.

Climate change is occurring, but we don’t fully understand the complexities of climate or how the changes are occurring. The earth is not warming, the sea level rises are within normal limits, yet the belief that the evidence is all pointing to catastrophe remains strong. C02 continues to rise, but the global surface temperature is stable – a challenge to the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Extreme weather events are known not to be directly connected to CO2, but the belief that they are persists, even amongst experts. A social psychological explanation of these beliefs and behaviours is needed.

1 comment:

david oldroyd said...

Thanks for this sophisticated essay, Stephen. I have placed a link to it in my own blog under the tab Dissenting Views. It is necessary to encourage a healthy scepticism about all the "stories" or world views to which we commit. I do think that the evidence for anthropogenic climate disruption is more compelling than do your sources, but wonder if the belief in exponential economic growth could also be cast as a religion?