How climate science denial affects the scientific community

May 7, 2015, University of Bristol

Climate change denial in public discourse may encourage climate scientists to over-emphasise scientific uncertainty and is also affecting how they themselves speak - and perhaps even think - about their own research, a new study from the University of Bristol, UK argues.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, from Bristol's School of Experimental Psychology and the Cabot Institute, and colleagues from Harvard University and three institutions in Australia show how the language used by people who oppose the scientific consensus on has seeped into ' discussion of the alleged recent 'hiatus' or 'pause' in , and has thereby unwittingly reinforced a misleading message.

The idea that 'global warming has stopped' has been promoted in contrarian blogs and media articles for many years, and ultimately the idea of a 'pause' or 'hiatus' has become ensconced in the scientific literature, including in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Multiple lines of evidence indicate that global warming continues unabated, which implies that talk of a 'pause' or 'hiatus' is misleading. Recent warming has been slower than the long term trend, but this fluctuation differs little from past fluctuations in warming rate, including past periods of more rapid than average warming. Crucially, on previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid, the scientific community did not give short-term climate variability the attention it has now received, when decadal warming was slower. During earlier rapid warming there was no additional research effort directed at explaining 'catastrophic' warming. By contrast, the recent modest decrease in the rate of warming has elicited numerous articles and special issues of leading journals.

This asymmetry in response to fluctuations in the decadal warming trend likely reflects what the study's authors call the 'seepage' of contrarian claims into scientific work.

Professor Lewandowsky said: "It seems reasonable to conclude that the pressure of climate contrarians has contributed, at least to some degree, to scientists re-examining their own theory, data and models, even though all of them permit - indeed, expect - changes in the rate of over any arbitrarily chosen period."

So why might scientists be affected by contrarian public discourse? The study argues that three recognised psychological mechanisms are at work: '', 'pluralistic ignorance' and the 'third-person effect'.

'Stereotype threat' refers to the emotional and behaviour responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong. Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as 'alarmists', a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. Several studies have indeed shown that scientists tend to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as 'alarmist'.

'Pluralistic ignorance' describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalised. Thus, a that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

Research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the 'third-person effect'. However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think. This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.

Professor Lewandowsky said: "We scientists have a unique and crucial role in public policy: to communicate clearly and accurately the entire range of risks that we know about. The public has a right to be informed about risks, even if they are alarming.

"Climate scientists have done a great job pursuing their science under great political pressure and they have tirelessly rebutted pseudoscientific arguments against their work. However, sometimes scientists have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to frame the language of their scientific thinking, leading us to overstate uncertainty and under-communicate knowledge.

"Knowing about one's own susceptibility to outside pressure is half the battle: our research may therefore enable scientists to recognise the potential for this seepage of contrarian arguments into their own language and thinking."

The study is published today in Global Environmental Change.

Explore further: Climate scientists want to interact more directly with the public

More information: 'Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community' by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell and Michael Smithson in Global Environmental Change.

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15 comments

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gkam
3.4 / 5 (5) May 07, 2015
What do we do when we run into abusive folk hiding behind pseudonyms or Big Money? With all the crooked politicians the Koch Brothers bought, it will be really hard to take back America for the Decent Folk.

Shame them. Show them how they are the Ignorati, fools, puppets of Big Money and bad character. Remind them these are the same folk who screamed "WMD!" at them until we squandered $4,000,000,000 trying to steal Iraqi oil.

Go after them. It is for the survival of the Earth.
antigoracle
2.5 / 5 (8) May 07, 2015
MR166
1.6 / 5 (7) May 07, 2015
Members of the US congress want to investigate the funding of scientists that question the AGW science. WHAT KIND OF SCIENCE IS THIS! Question a paper and get investigated by congress.
howhot2
4 / 5 (8) May 07, 2015
@MR166, I think the entire republican party needs to be investigated for siding with the denier goon squad. Like where is all of the money that the Heartland Institute come from (the dark money 501c that funds the slimy rightwingnut ilk that is wattsupwith... that the W. Bush toejam-licker @antigore just posted a link to).

www.sourcewatch.o...nstitute

We all know what kind of science the repuglicans (and phoney twingers) support. It's the science of corruption and has been for years.
MR166
2.1 / 5 (8) May 07, 2015
Yup HowHot and Gkam any dissent is always funded by by nefarious hidden organizations and big business. Whereas real AGW science if funded by one or two dollar donations from hundreds of millions of concerned citizens. No big industrialists, governments or wealthy billionaires have any real influence in this research. And even if they did their ethics and morals would prevent them from interfering with potential findings.
julianpenrod
1.9 / 5 (9) May 07, 2015
Among other things, it's, frankly, laughable that the "scientific" community watch their words at all. Those who sprinkle "do" and "will" liberally instead of "can" and "might".
Consider, too, the disparagement of questions about climate change leading to "scientists re-examining their own theory, data and models". Shouldn't they be doing that already, on their own? Are their models so perfect they don't need fine tuning to observations? If so, they should have day-to-say temperatures exactly, so why is there any question, anymore?
And, if criticism of various theories, or "theories", endanger them, how did such things as "relativity", "evolution" and the Freudian personality model remain?
But, then, too, when the "scientists" heard the government was going to pervert the air with chemtrails, they probably felt they had an express ticket to fame. But, then, God stepped in and stopped them from working as well as they had.
Shootist
2.1 / 5 (7) May 10, 2015
No one in the scientific community is denying that the climate changes. Only questioning the cause(s) of climate change.

"I'm just saying I don't understand it (climate) and neither does anybody else." Freeman. Dyson

"I'm skeptical because I don't think the science is at all clear, and unfortunately a lot of the experts really believe they understand it, and maybe have the wrong answer." - Freeman Dyson

"Of course [the weather] concerns me, but of course, we don't know much about the causes of those things. We don't even know for sure whether it is more variable than it used to be. I mean the worst disasters were the Ice Ages, and nobody really understands for sure the causes of Ice Ages, so I'm not saying the climate disasters aren't real, I'm merely saying we don't know how to prevent them." - Freeman Dyson
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (4) May 11, 2015
Multiple lines of evidence indicate that global warming continues unabated,
What a bunch of hokum.

"global warming
n.
An increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change."

Global temperatures:
http://woodfortre....3/trend

Yes, it is as simple as that.

MR166
1.8 / 5 (5) May 11, 2015
"An increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change."

What a political definition. It infers that temperature change changes the climate. Whereas changes in climate result in long term changes in temperature.

Modern climate has been changing for the last 18k years since the ice age, Thank God!
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (4) May 11, 2015
"An increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change."

What a political definition.
It is the standard dictionary definition.

It infers that temperature change changes the climate.
You don't think temperature can change the climate? Really?

Whereas changes in climate result in long term changes in temperature.
Are you arguing for natural variability now?

Modern climate has been changing for the last 18k years since the ice age, Thank God!
And you don't think temperature has anything to do with this? Really?

ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) May 11, 2015
And you don't think temperature has anything to do with this?


No.

Temperature is a measure of energy.
Energy affects climate. Not temperature.
HannesAlfven
2.3 / 5 (3) May 11, 2015
This article is junk.
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (5) May 11, 2015
"It's sadly ironic that so many of the illiberal left view themselves as rational, intellectual, fact-based thinkers and yet have fully embraced a dogmatic form of un-enlightenment. Deviating from lefty ideology is equated to heresy and academic inquiry is too often secondary to ideological agendas. The illiberal left insert ideologically driven statistics into the media and academic bloodstream and then accuse anyone who questions them of diabolical motives. When researchers make discoveries supporting the wrong ideological conclusion, the character assassination and intimidation begin."
http://dailycalle...tenment/
Maggnus
3.9 / 5 (7) May 11, 2015
This is a great article! I see some great examples of the terms used by this author even in headlines of articles right on this site. The one I see most often is the so called "pause" or "hiatus". The headlines will often say stuff like " so and so addresses the pause" in the headline, whereas when you read the actual study, the authors almost invariably state that there is no pause, or they will call it the "so-called pause" or other similar terms.

It remains the case that 97% of all climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is the result of humans adding CO2 to the atmosphere.

Interestingly, articles are now beginning to notice that the projections from such as the IPCC were actually more modest than the reality of what is happening. The planet is heating faster, the oceans are acidifying faster, sea level is rising faster, ice sheet melt is happening faster, species migration is occurring sooner, spring bud-out is happening sooner and so on.
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (5) May 11, 2015
97% of all climate scientists agree that global warming

Cite the flawed study.

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