Why It’s So Hard to Convince Pseudo-Skeptics

Here’s another “guest article” by #AFW™ team member Snow Y. White, republished from her blog and originally published on May 24th 2015. This one looks at whether the “warmist”/”denialist” echo chambers of the climate change debate are in some sense “hard wired” into the brains of Homo Sapiens. It seems that in actual fact that might well be the case! Without further ado:

Yesterday Anthony Watts published a guest post on his “Watts Up With That” blog authored by Matt Manos. It is entitled “Why It’s So Hard to Convince Warmists“.

Being a somewhat lazy realist I reproduce it here in full, although be warned that I have used the search/replace function of my text editor a teensy-weensy bit:

Many of the posters and readers at GWC have expressed frustration at convincing pseudo-skeptics. Using facts and logic seem to fall on deaf ears. There are some interesting social sciences theories on why pseudo-skeptics are unresponsive. I know the social sciences aren’t a favoured science with this group but if you’ll bear with me, you’ll hopefully see how social science can be useful in describing why pseudo-skeptics are unreachable. And possibly, what to do about it.

In their latest speeches on global warming, Obama and the Pope weren’t trying to convince pseudo-skeptics that CAGW is real. Instead, they were sending signals to their supporters on what “all right thinking people” should be saying. This is classic in-group/out-group communication. Obama and the Pope were setting up the talking points for their in-group members to use to determine who can be considered part of the tribe and who should be rejected for being outside of it. This is a process called Othering. Othering turns political foes into non-beings. Others have no value. Others can be discounted and ignored. Others can be mocked.

Booker and Rose are examples of bellwethers; the sheep with the bell that the other sheep follow. Bellwether is not a derogatory term, it’s a descriptive term. The job of a political bellwether is to indicate the position that their followers should take in their everyday conversations. Booker and Rose’s latest articles function as position papers for the delegates of all right thinking people. You meet these people at work, church, school, at the coffee house, etc. The delegates will mirror the words that Booker or Rose used to identify other in-group members, normalize beliefs and mock out-group members. One of the main themes of both speeches was shame. Shame on those who aren’t right thinking people. Shame that they aren’t as intelligent and capable as “us.”

That type of smugness is almost impossible to penetrate. When a realist questions a pseudo-skeptic’s view on global warming/climate change, the pseudo-skeptic hears something vastly different than what the realist is saying. A realist might say, “There’s no evidence for an Arctic Ice Recovery.” What the pseudo-skeptic hears is how stupid warmists are because that’s what Anthony Watts told him he should think. If the pseudo-skeptic doesn’t prove that he thinks realists are stupid then he might be confused for a warmist! And no one wants to be identified with being a warmist because they’re mocked and don’t get invited to the right parties. No amount of science can penetrate the ROI the pseudo-skeptic has internalized in not believing in CAGW.

Many of the pseudo-skeptics are running on pure rational ignorance. Rational ignorance is a belief that the cost/benefit to researching every issue is so low as to be a net negative in time utilization. Thus the ignorance is rational and everyone utilizes this mental process on certain topics. People who are rationally ignorant about global warming look to bellwethers that support their gut stance. Rationally ignorant pseudo-skeptics would look to Australian leaders, mockutainers and denialist scientists for guidance on how to communicate their position on global warming.

Penetrating rational ignorance is tough because the position pseudo-skeptics have taken isn’t based on logic. Their position is actually based on an appeal to authority. To question the rationally ignorant denier is to question the field of science as a whole (to be a science realist) or to question the leadership of their favorite bellwether personalities. This will cause the rationally ignorant denier to become defensive and try to stand up for their favorite bellwether. The rationally ignorant will also point to their favorite bellwethers and say, “Who am I to doubt all these intelligent people?” It’s intellectually offshoring. It’s lazy. It’s human nature.

The scientific method rejects outright in-group/out groups, Othering, bellwethers and rational ignorance. A scientist is supposed to follow the results on an experiment even if the results don’t support his hypothesis. The scientist is clearly not supposed to rig the data to ensure he gets invited to a party with the right people or continued funding. But science has a poor track record on controversial topics. It often takes decades to accept new theories that are clear winners (e.g., continental drift).

Scientists are still social animals. Social animals follow hierarchy and incentives. If you really want to win the debate on global warming, change the opinions of the bellwethers. Change the economic incentives for the global warming scientific paper mill. Otherwise you’re stuck debating only the people who are unable to change their minds because it would cost them personally to do so. Rare is the person intellectually honest enough to bite the hand that feeds or is willing to violate social norms to speak the truth.

Please feel free to comment below should you spot any inadvertent errors that necessitate a bit more searching/replacing on my part. In the meantime you may be interested in watching this recording I made of a presentation by Dr. Darren Schreiber of Exeter University at a “Pint of Science” presentation last week, entitled “Your Brain is Built for Politics“:

Note in particular the part at 8 minutes 15 seconds where Darren says:

In a new study that just came out a couple of months ago they showed a single digusting image, and one single digusting image and measuring the brain activity and how the person responded to that was sufficient to allow you to identify if somebody was conservative or liberal. With a single brain image. With 95% accuracy!

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