by Andy West
Lewandowsky and Oreskes raise the prospect that via the agency of memes, the climate Consensus with its high certainty of danger, could be a socially generated artifact and not a scientific fact.
At the beginning of May, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky brought out a new paper continuing his theme of highly eccentric challenges to climate skeptics and skeptical positions. Previous works include ‘Moon hoax’ and the (later withdrawn) ‘Recursive Fury’, dismantled here, here, and here. Naomi Oreskes is one of the co-authors of the new paper (L2015), which focuses upon the social psychology surrounding the concept of ‘The Pause’ in Global Warming. L2015 claims that a ‘seepage’ of contrarian / skeptical / denialist ‘pause’ memes into the scientific process has introduced unwarranted uncertainty, and even that the physical phenomena of the pause does not actually exist.
However despite being highly implausible, L2015 contains a profound admission which is critical to the climate debate. This post explores that admission and also the interesting role of ‘pause’ memes.
While L2015 is yet another strenuous attempt to attack skepticism by any means to hand, it reveals some knowledge of a key process via which the climate Consensus arose in the first place. Namely, narrative competition. In L2015 Lewandowsky rather surprisingly admits both that this process is in play, and that it can trump science.
As some commenters (e.g. hidethedecline) have pointed out, terms like ‘the pause’ and ‘the hiatus’ are changing the climate conversation, are impacting the perceptions of Consensus scientists. Lewandowsky is right in this regard; he understands enough about narrative competition to recognize this issue and is attempting to fight back in kind. Hence he is seeking to stigmatize ‘pause’ memes, in order to halt or to significantly reduce their advance against orthodox anthropogenic global warming memes.
Yet whether they realize it or not, in opening this front Lewandowsky and Oreskes and their co-authors are taking a huge gamble. L2015 essentially states that the entire mainstream climate science community has been significantly impacted by [arbitrary] memes. And not only that, they have a great case; over the last couple of years ‘pause’ memes have indeed spread through the Consensus and caused many adherents to make an accommodation of some kind. Hence L2015 exposes the fact that climate science is not by any means a purely factual domain, that social factors as expressed by popular memes can change the perceptions of climate scientists, and so can alter the very nature of the consensus they contribute to. In turn this places front and centre the possibility that the original, ‘unsullied’ consensus on CAGW might also be a product of memetic influence, and is not after all an objective and unquestionable truth.
Of course Lewandowsky and Oreskes would argue that CAGW memes conform to reality and ‘pause’ memes do not. But do either fully conform to reality anyhow? And if not, what determines their relative success? I.e. the replication and spread rates of each of the competing memes? (and hence the narrative frameworks in which they are grouped).
A brief look at the admitted process
Generically speaking, arbitrary memes prosper most in scenarios of (genuinely) high uncertainty and high urgency. These conditions stress our thought patterns and so allow memetic word-tricks to much more easily hit their target, which is our psychological ‘hot-buttons’. These are triggers for emotive or other short-cut mental processes that bypass or modify our reason. Hitting the hot-buttons enables replication; if folks feel strongly enough, they will tend to pass on the meme. The overall process is complicated by the fact that once emotive memes get a decent spread across a population (or at least across some key domains, for example climate science and environmentalism), and especially if a bunch are coevolving within an overall narrative structure, they can alter an entire society’s perception of urgency and uncertainty, hence creating conditions that better suit their further penetration.
This simple process is the key factor in the growth of the huge social phenomena of CAGW, which wields a raft of potent emotive memes. Many of these invoke worry or fear and other negative emotions, plus an amplified sense of urgency and certainty. Some invoke positive emotions within people who are already worldview aligned; for instance via hope of a new global order conforming to those worldviews.
It is the strong emotive content which enables high replication and a wide spread. These co-evolving memes are the root cause of huge bias, even within the supposedly objective (climate) scientific community. As Lewandowsky himself says in the executive summary of L2015: “Nonetheless, being human, scientists’ operate with the same cognitive apparatus and limitations as every other person”. Absolutely. The resulting huge emotional bias in the climate Consensus is examined here at Climate Etc. A positive amplification also occurs if memes are repeated more often and from more authoritative sources, which has indeed occurred with CAGW over the years; success breeds more success.
This success of emotive CAGW memes is not primarily dependent on any truth or lack thereof they contain; it is dependent on their ability to hit our hot buttons. As Lewandowsky acknowledges when talking about the spread of emotive misinformation in this paper, emotional response is rewarded more than veracity: “But we have also noted that the likelihood that people will pass on information is based strongly on the likelihood of its eliciting an emotional response in the recipient, rather than its truth value (e.g., K. Peters et al., 2009)”. Plus with thousands of meme variants circulating around millions of people, and undergoing change as they do so, the most successful memes will tend to outcompete lesser forms and so become dominant.
So apparently against a flood of emotive CAGW memes, why have ‘pause’ memes done relatively well? Especially when they do not seem to be particularly emotive themselves. While they have not caused the CAGW social juggernaut to screech to a standstill, they do appear to have caused modest braking and they do appear frequently in the debate.
Pause memes in particular: L2015 fail
Well firstly, let’s look at the reasons that Lewandowsky and Oreskes cite. They emphasizes three bias mechanisms ‘that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse’, which are 1) ‘stereotype threat’, 2) ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and 3) the ‘third-person effect’. While these are all genuine bias mechanisms, they aren’t relevant to the success of ‘pause’ memes or ‘contrarian’ memes in general.
Regarding 1), the executive summary of L2015 says: “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.” This will occur, but to a very modest degree. Alarmism is common among Consensus adherents in general, and some climate scientists. Many others turn a blind eye; few openly oppose it. While alarmism may not quite be a badge of honor, there appears to be very little stigma against it, and often some reward (e.g. publication).
Regarding 2), ‘pluralistic ignorance’ can occur when a minority opinion gets a disproportionate public prominence, resulting in a majority of people assuming that their own view must be more marginal than it actually is. But even since ‘the pause’ achieved some level of public consciousness, it is hard to see how the still very modest voice of the skeptics could drive this effect; you’d need a constant and very effective global media presence for the effect to be significant. Prior to pause-acknowledgement, the skeptic voice was much smaller still; and one can’t argue that the effect bootstrapped itself. Wrt IPCC technical papers as a marker, it is unsupported alarm not lack of concern that is overstated in the public domain. L2015’s referenced Vision Prize study likely reveals potent emotional bias as expressed by scientists here, here and here, which even the limited reality of IPCC process cannot underwrite.
Regarding 3), the ‘third person effect’ occurs because people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think. They falsely assume others are affected, but not themselves. However, the effect can only be powerful across a wide swath of society if both the repetitiveness and reach of the persuasive messaging are high. Similarly to the case for 2), this is not generally the case for skeptic memes even now (in scientific literature or the public domain), and certainly not for ‘pause’ memes originally; again the effect cannot start itself up from cold.
Effects 2) and 3) are essentially features of an established culture. They can achieve widespread influence on the back of other major bias effects or platforms (such as state propaganda). Notwithstanding tribalism in the US giving some voice to skeptic memes, these routes are far more likely for the dominant CAGW memes, even more so globally.
So why have ‘pause’ memes achieved relative success?
Pause memes in particular: informational or emotional
One would like to think that this is because pause memes better reflect reality, that their success indicates some resurgence of the scientific method; some ‘waking up’ from emotional influence and a return to greater objectivity plus reliance upon observations. Memes don’t spread exclusively because of emotion; for instance where the scientific method and associated results reporting are not subverted, they can even spread because they usefully reflect reality. Or at least more usefully than before. In this case the memes would not be arbitrary.
Yet hang on, we need to step back a bit. I don’t really trust what I would like to think. Social effects are best looked at with the ‘robot from Mars view’, i.e. with as much objectivity as we can muster…
So, given the many uncertainties in climate science, to start with at least we shouldn’t assume that there is any more reality within pause memes than in any of the others flying around. For instance, if there never was a strong AGW effect in the first place (much lower than natural variability, say) then to declare that GST observations are explained by AGW ‘pausing’, would not be a reflection of reality. Likewise, and notwithstanding the shifting emphasis of what apparently demonstrates warming, if AGW is continuing unabated as Lewandowsky and other Consensus folks assert, then again pause memes would not reflect reality. In both these hypothetical cases and maybe others, the success of pause memes would be just as independent of veracity as is the case for emotive CAGW memes. So with an eye on the fact that no-one can actually ascertain the truth right now, we should ask: why else might they spread? And one potential reason is emotive, very strong, and so may indeed trump whatever reflection of reality that pause memes happen to contain.
Whether or not ‘warming continues unabated’, the once primary icon of the Consensus, a ‘constantly rising GST’ has been contradicted. This creates something of a crisis for dedicated CAGW adherents, because via the penetration of potent memes into the psyche their position is largely underpinned by emotion, whatever reasoning is layered above. And even while new icons are being sought or promoted from a lesser status, adherents will attempt to minimize a negative emotional reaction to this serious demotion of the once revered ‘rising GST’ icon. A superb strategy for doing so (though typically enacted subconsciously) is to adopt the notion of ‘a pause’. While this does accommodate recent GST observations, it does not acknowledge any fundamental flaw in the core narrative (‘a pause’ concedes only some inconsequential minor delay), and also avoids the unthinkable consequence of being cast out of the community for heresy, risking only some criticism by the extreme enforcer fringe as represented by Lewandowsky and Oreskes in L2015. So despite what I’d like to think, this scenario seems much more plausible.
Hence the success of pause memes within the Consensus probably does owe more to emotive issues than to a voluntary return of more objective climate science, e.g. based on acknowledging the model / GST gap. They are being assimilated primarily as defensive memes, to avoid bad feelings and ostracism, and also to protect the core CAGW narrative from much worse damage. While their spread is certainly not unrelated to informational content, it is these powerful, emotive motivators that underwrite success against other candidates, such as the much more frank ‘we don’t know’ memes (unthinkable after the prior story of high certainty), or ‘model fail’ memes (also bad feelings plus highly damaging) or ‘AGW continues unabated’ memes (very risky, yet next best candidate) or ‘AGW has stopped / is not significant’ memes (worse than unthinkable, memeplex death), or others. This effect can also cold start; the resisted divergence of data and expectation for some years prior, effectively primed the community. So in a very real sense ‘pause’ memes are indeed arbitrary, just not in the way that Lewandowsky thinks they are.
Further cultural resistance appears to be the main reaction of CAGW adherents to the brute force of a sluggish GST. Adherents are not bailing out of orthodoxy or acknowledging any serious flaws within the Consensus narrative; for instance that the science has not yet got a good grip on the wicked problem of understanding Earth’s climate system. CAGW cultural orthodoxy is adapting to the new circumstances, via selection assimilating the concept of ‘a pause’, which preserves core narrative with minimal change. The concept is highly selective because in terms of risk and emotive comfort, it’s the least worst option. Orthodox adherents can message that the science still holds; ‘the pause’ must perforce return to warming.
More on what Lewandowsky doesn’t say
Unsurprisingly, Lewandowsky never mentions that memes work for the Consensus too. Nevertheless, he is still walking a dangerous path in highlighting bias mechanisms and the influence of memes. For instance what could be a more striking example of ‘stereotype threat’ than the effect of the highly emotive ‘denier’ meme? To see this we just mirror-image three words (retained as strikethrough) in the above quote from the executive summary of L2015: “Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’ ‘deniers’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist anti-science by downplaying the degree of threat uncertainty.” Even the milder stereotyping as an advocate for inaction, works strongly for the Consensus.
Lewandowsky has a series of papers (with associated authors) that warn of powerful bias effects. These include the ‘third party effect’, plus others he does not evoke in L2015 yet most certainly apply in the overall CAGW narrative competition. My series at Watts Up With That here, here and here demonstrates using these papers, plus support from other solidly Consensus sources and quotes (hence entirely without skeptic sympathies), that the climate Consensus itself is pretty much soaked in bias due to these potent effects. Arbitrary CAGW memes overwhelmingly dominate the narrative competition.
The ‘next best candidate’
The NOAA/NCDC Karl et al paper, discussed here at Climate Etc, presents GST analysis that challenges the very notion of ‘a pause’. Both the promotion and objection to Karl et al are dominated by ‘pause obsession’. It appears that the narrative struggle matters much more than the minor trend difference that may or may not truly exist in reality, yet is just enough to cross a line. Whether they know it or not, NOAA / NCDC are engaged in the same battle against ‘pause’ memes as Lewandowsky, and both are backing the ‘warming continues unabated’ candidate to win. As noted above this candidate is risky. In Karl et al significant risk appears because the consequence of demonstrating some upward trend within the hiatus period, is as Mosher points out, a lowering of the overall warming trend, which undermines that other core icon, catastrophe.
Lewandowsky and Oreskes raise the prospect that via the agency of memes, the climate Consensus with its high certainty of danger, could be a socially generated artifact and not a scientific fact. They still have significant influence within orthodox climate circles. Hence this possibility has been placed as a seed concept within many otherwise inaccessible minds, a feat skeptics could never have achieved. This bodes well for the future; the seed may grow into realization that the certainty of CAGW is a social artifact.
Meanwhile notwithstanding a second candidate, ‘warming continues unabated’, and hence tension within the Consensus, ‘pause’ memes prevent fatal damage to the CAGW narrative. They enable a proclamation of ‘nothing has really changed’, which also minimizes the emotional threat for mainstream adherents.
Andy West www.wearenarrative.wordpress.com
JC note: As with all guest posts, please keep your comments relevant and civil.