Climate science and the political compass

In all my banging on about good science yesterday, I realise on one thing I was being unscientific. A couple of links, to Next Left and Crooked Timber, wondered why there seemed to be such an anti-AGW consensus on the right. I speculated it may have something to do with a different assessment of the risks - but this is missing a basic question that could be asked. I'll ask it now, and then suggest that it doesn't matter anyway.

Here's the proposition that the above links suggest: right-of-centre people tend to be anti-AGW. The implicit statement is that right-of-centre people are being anti-science. But then, state that explicitly and it should read: right-of-centre people don't understand the science. Oh - actually, might that not be true for people in different places on the political spectrum? It may, and you'd have to actually check that. Maybe that could involve a survey asking some basic climate science or science method questions, or a more detailed sit-down test.

The implication: it's quite possible there's an even spread of scientific knowledge across the political spectrum, but if your political leaning tends to make you sympathetic to climate change theory, you won't show up on anyone's radar as 'anti-science'. (p.s. in the unlikely event this ever gets read: if anyone ever quotes this out of context, I will find out where you live and burn your house down. Just so's you know.) That might manifest itself in a willingness to believe the basic science of co2 radiative forcing, and more of a willingness to trust those particular scientists.

So why doesn't that matter? Well, it does slightly: if you have no good reason to decide between James Hansen and David Bellamy, you'll choose the one that fits with your worldview. But, to alter the asteroid example slightly from yesterday: it's hurtling towards the Earth and 99% of scientists think its going to slam into us. We can send Bruce Willis up there to do something about it, but it's not going to be cheap. However, 1% of scientists think it will miss. There is also a much, much larger number of people saying its going to miss, but they're not even doing good science - they're just engaging in FUD or just doing really bad science - most commonly, looking at only one of the factors involved and claiming that characterises the whole problem.

The consequences if some people believe the science without having thought it through a huge amount are OK: we won't all be wiped out. Also, none of them are spreading weird theories about why the science is right. They're OK with trusting the scientists. The consequences if some people don't believe the science could be catastrophic.

So, yes, there may in fact be an even spread of scientific knowledge across the political spectrum. Pending research, I don't know. (Certainly, asking people if they believe in AGW won't do that - it would need to be a bunch of scientific questions of increasing technicality.) But the science is still the science. If one only had a finite amount of time - oh, we do - then there would be little point in trying to convince people already congenial to the idea that we should do something. Though I don't think that means letting them off the hook - a scientific approach should still be encouraged and easily available.

But then we have the other side. There's isn't just igrorance of science. There's FUD, there's cuckoo science and there's a multi-headed Frank Luntz-style campaign to call into question the science and scientists themselves. In the middle, there's a whole bunch of confused people who - because of this campaign - believe there's so much uncertainty that it's probably not a problem they need to worry about.

That still leaves another question: what makes someone decide to side with the 99% of pro-AGW scientists, and another side with a tiny minority, some of who you can find out with a minimal of googling are doing Really Bad Science or just talking nonsense? That might suggest our worldviews have an incredibly powerful effect on how we select. I'd kind of been doing the same: whilst I do question the particularly unreflective anti-capitalist take on global warming, the whole "why so many right wing anti-AGW" thing has puzzled me. It's still a complex problem, but I think realising that I'd been implicitly excluding proponents from my thinking gives me a much better feel for what's going on.

Note, though: a characteristic of the scientific method is making mistakes and acknowledging it. It also includes trying to think through what sort of selection biases you might be making, or what factors you haven't considered. If you don't, others will soon point it out, and no-one wants that to happen after results have been published. One of the largest faults of bad scientific thinking I'm finding is a lack of desire to ask what other factors might be involved, to weigh them appropriately. (See this great takedown of Superfreakonomics - if you can't weigh factors when they're orders of magnitude away from having a serious effect, what on earth are you doing writing about it?) This is odd, since many attacks on AGW science do exactly the opposite - accuse scientists of not considering some factor or other. My favourite is in Senator Inhofe's 'Minority Report', a series of quotes from various people (see that first link for an analysis). One of his 'highlight' quotes is:

The models and forecasts of the UN IPCC "are incorrect because they only are based on mathematical models and presented results at scenarios that do not include, for example, solar activity." - Victor Manuel Velasco Herrera, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

No, of course: the IPCC forgot to include solar activity. Silly IPCC - *slaps forehead*. At least go and glance at the reports before making such a muppet claim, please. The 'minority report' is a great collection of common denier tactics - we've just seen an outright falsehood, whether through stupidity or malice; lots of out-of-context quotes; plenty of pseudoscience - no actual argument. As one blogger says:

The ethics of lying are easy; you're off the hook. You just make up whatever suits you and see what sticks.

That's why I'm going to carry on worrying more about rightwing attacks on climate science, rather than left wing scientific knowledge.


A while back I read a letter

A while back I read a letter (to a car magazine, BTW) where someone was using the 'there's no hotspot' argument against AGW. What interested me was that they went on to say how they had realised that 'of course' this was the case, as 'obviously' global warming required a layer of warm air to raise the surface temperature.

The point here is that they were using a fairly standard argument, but had added their own logic to it, based on how they assumed global warming worked. This then seemed clearly true, as it was (as far as they knew) internally consistent and, most importantly, gave them the 'right' answer.

I think there is a fair amount of this in the AGW debate. I've seen it called motivated reasoning, which is just a fancy term for when you start with the conclusion and work towards that. This is based on what feels right to the individual, and the act of coming up with an explanation which sounds correct reinforces the conclusion. I saw a reference an academic paper about some of this posted on another blog, but unfortunately I've lost the link. Basically the research found that if people were presented with some facts then encouraged to come up with an explanation for them, they were more likely to continue to believe these facts were true even if presented with contradictory evidence.

I should also say this does happen on both sides of the debate. The concept of AGW feels right to some people and wrong to others, and some of the pro AGW arguments on blogs and the like mangle the science just as badly as the anti AGW arguments. And this is a problem because when 'sceptics' are able to find problems with arguments pur forward for AGW, this reinforces their beliefs that it is all nonsense.



In one of the fora I frequent, the meme that "AGW is a religion" has come up. All of the deniers who post there (I call them "denialists" to their face - it upsets them a little more) identify as conservatives. I made a guess that these conservatives are really Christian conservatives, and possibly creationist, and I have suspected that the "AGW religion" meme is a religious reaction on their part. I read recently that Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, had opposed the science of global warming because it detracted from the message of Jesus. The need to reduce the global population especially conflicts with the church's opposition to birth control. With these thoughts in mind, I suggested on this forum that the denialist opposition to AGW was itself religiously motivated, and that the denialists were like the creationists in their opposition to evolution. I hit the head on the head. The creationists came out of the woodwork to defend themselves aggressively, confirming my suspicions. There are a few denialists on this forum who have yet to out themselves as creationists. They present themselves as libertarians, who are supposedly agnostic, but I await in ambush for them to make some kind of religious declaration, but so far they have been very careful. In any case I have found it useful to attack the denialist movement generally on religious grounds.

Poll by the Pew Research Center

You may be interested in this poll by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with AAAS
From the report:
The political leaning of scientists is very different from that of the public in the US, just 6% identify themselves as Republican.
There is a wide divide between the US public and scientists on both Creation/Evolution and Climate Change. The Republicans differ more strongly from the scientists than the Democrats. With regard to climate change, 84% of the scientists attribute climate change to human activity and 70% / 22% consider it a "very serious" / "somewhat serious" problem. Of the general public, just 21% of Conservative Republicans attribute climate change to human activity, 28% deny it's warming at all. For Liberal Democrats numbers are 74% and 4%, respectively. These are the extremes on the political scale. So acceptance of human caused climate change is stronger in the science community than in any political faction of the general public.

Hey Dan, I've never been here

Hey Dan, I've never been here before. Nice blog.

Reality has a well known left wing bias, as they say. Or as Johann Hari said: "when talking to right wing Americans, you spend hardly any of the time discussing ethics or ideology. You are too busy trying to correct basic factual errors about the world"

Actually all of the climate deniers that I know are left wing, and I think that a lot of the mainstream climate discussion is actually extremely neoliberal (emissions trading is straight out of the Chicago School), so although I appreciate that there are more climate deniers on the right, the picture is more complex than that.

I'm keeping out of the way until the mass paranoid hysteria over these stupid emails is over. I really don't know what to do with such an outpouring of irrationality. I feel like I did in the weeks after Diana died - surrounded by a world gone completely mad. But all credit to Gavin Schmidt- he is doing an incredible job.


Yello! The whole "reality" thing is getting quite complicated. I've just been wondering how, in a libertarian utopia, you go about getting access to information. Everything's privatised, so all information is presumably the property of the producer. If information is a commodity, science doesn't really seem to have a huge role: you get what you pay for.

I've been arguing with a couple of people on the left who a) seem pro-AGW but b) anti-science. I've yet to find out what criteria they're using to decide what they believe. Not that any of this is straightforward, mind...