When It Comes To Climate, 'Consensus' Has A Negative Connotation To The Public
    By Hank Campbell | September 14th 2010 11:14 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Does expertise make the difference?   It depends.   When it comes to climate change, having a Ph.D. and a faculty position does not mean as much to the public as it does for researchers in other fields.

    The difference?  Climate change researchers are perceived as being part of the cultural discourse rather than part of the objective science one, so if the scientist is taking a position different from yours, he is not an expert, he is just in the mud with politicians and environmental or industrial corporations trying to get money. Unfortunately, the same is true for both sides in the global warming discussion, and that is bad for science all the way around.

    How is it that the public can completely disagree on matters like climate change where scientists largely agree?    That word 'consensus' seems to be understood more by people in the cultural war over climate change than others.   Merriam-Webster defines consensus as general agreement and defines it as majority opinion.  Neither of those are great things in science because you can't vote on data.

    Whether or not the science consensus on topics is good enough for some and not others comes down to individualistic versus egalitarian values, according to a recent study by Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, University of Oklahoma political science professor Hank Jenkins-Smith and George Washington University law professor Donald Braman.

    Their study said people with individualistic values, who have a strong preference for independence and regard commerce favorably, were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality and believe industry harms the environment, to accept a scientist as an expert if the expert described climate change as an established risk.  

    It isn't just climate skeptics that were skeptical of experts, though.   Egalitarian people were 50 percentage points less to accept a scientist as an expert if the scientists was described as believing evidence on climate change is unsettled.

    Other politically/culturally charged issues had similar results.  In America, for example, nuclear power is a left/right position and their study found people were much more likely to see a scientist with excellent credentials as an expert only if he or she had a position that matched their own.

    "These are all matters," Kahan said, "on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued 'expert consensus' reports." Using the reports as a benchmark," Kahan explained that "no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be 'getting it right'," i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that 'most' scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions."

    This tells us why brandishing a scientific consensus, aside from being a logical fallacy, doesn't settle debates - and why it needs to be eliminated from the scientific lexicon.   Once a word is emotionally charged with any kind of psychological dynamic its effectiveness is finished and 'consensus' is just that.    In climate change, the word consensus was brandished by non-scientists as a weapon, and that seemed to be fine for scientists who liked the attention their work was getting, but a backlash was inevitable.

    "The problem won't be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe," added Braman. "To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments."

    In other words, stick to the science and leave the political and cultural grandstanding to others.  If both sides of cultural debates trust scientists again, then decisions will be based on data and not political perception - and that is good for everyone.

    Citation: Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, Donald Braman, 'Cultural cognition of scientific consensus', Journal of Risk Research,  10 September 2010 DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2010.511246


    Gerhard Adam
    Actually I don't even see the problem as being that significant for climate science.  I personally suspect that this is simply the byproduct of a deep cultural divide that has red state/blue state mentalities at each other's throats.

    It doesn't seem like anyone wants to engage in a dialogue any more, it's simply a matter of who's "team" is going to win.  As a result, anything that advances that polarization between the groups is fair game, and climate science has now fallen into that trap.

    Unfortunately, much of the political dialogue these days seems to be focused on propaganda anyway, so there's little likelihood that anyone is actually concerned with making decisions about how our society should function.  The only really disturbing thing, is that I don't recall a time when so many people seemed set on acting against their own best interests.  It really does begin to look like it's become more of a belief issue than one of actual information.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I don't recall a time when so many people seemed set on acting against their own best interests.
    A terrific point.  There was a time when you could be a conservative Democrat in the Scoop Jackson sense or a liberal Republican and now there are just huge coalitions that all seem to engage in an "I believe in yours if you believe in mine" mentality.   The notion that anyone should want to kill the economy to be right, or kill the environment to be right, is absurd.  Yet it's what we have. 

    I don't agree it is across the board.   Their study tried to lump in the 2nd Amendment by specifying concealed weapons, for example, but it is a hollow debate for 80% of people and no one tries to campaign on more government gun control these days - but global warming, where the US right is anti-science, and nuclear power, where the US left is anti-science, are pretty clear.
    Gerhard Adam
    ...but global warming, where the US right is anti-science, and nuclear power, where the US left is anti-science, are pretty clear.
    Perhaps it's my own bias showing, but I don't really consider either side as being anti-science except as an incidental issue. 

    In the global warming issue, the U.S. right doesn't believe that we should destroy our economy to satisfy the countermeasures.  So, I don't believe the science is directly implicated as much as it is the concern that taking drastic economic measures are more harmful.  So, they couch their argument in terms of questioning the science instead of just admitting that they don't believe there's an economic justification for the actions.

    Similarly in the nuclear power debate, the U.S. left doesn't trust the government and corporations to behave responsibly regarding the safety of nuclear plants, its workers, and the disposal of hazardous wastes.  So, once again, it seems to be a political issue that uses science as the excuse to oppose it.

    As a result, it's using science as the shield that actually stifles honest debate, since it is often simply being used as an excuse to avoid the discussion.  After all, if I don't accept the science, then there's nothing to debate and it gives me the excuse to call my opponent an idiot.

    What I don't understand is why neither side seems to recognize that it is fine to accept the science without necessarily accepting the policy decisions that others may advocate.  
    Mundus vult decipi
    As a member of that group of scientists working on climate related issues, (collecting sea level data for one) I never could identify with the term 'consensus' .

    Consensus is merely a practical way of making decisions that doesn't offend or disturb too strongly those who fall outside the mainstream of opinions. It is a tiresome process to reach such a point in international meetings where so many interests have to be taken into account. Within science itself it doesn't make sense at all, like you point out Hank. That is not only within the disciplines that make up climate science.

    That is another point by the way - there are a number of different disciplines that contribute to our understanding (or lack thereof :-)) of climate change. It is a diverse group of scientists that can all claim to be climate change experts. Another overlooked piece of fact.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    You'll love this study out today from Michigan State researchers who say women more likely than men to accept global warming.
    Gerhard Adam
    Wow, can anyone say "bias"?

    The researcher is reaching the sweeping conclusion that acceptance of global warming somehow demonstrates scientific literacy.  Perhaps instead of simply researching polls, it might've been a good idea to see if a baseline for scientific literacy could be established before presuming that it could be divided along gender lines.

    In addition, he manages to conclude that this is an indicator that women are better suited for the sciences than they may think.
    "Here is yet another study finding that women underestimate their scientific knowledge – a troubling pattern that inhibits many young women from pursuing scientific careers," McCright said.
    How exactly is it that one gets to do these studies? 

    (Where's that Dan Akyroyd Ghostbuster's quote again?)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Today there was data showing there are more women PhDs than men, so the 'inhibits young women from science' stuff is nonsense that he heard 25 years ago.  

    I concur that accepting a consensus is not necessarily an indication of more science literacy - it could be an indication of blind faith in leaders, which is not really a stereotypical American quality.

    Here you go:

    Hahaha - I don't think this guy have even heard of such a thing as modal logic. Talk about jumping to conclusions. :-)

    I agree that there are reasons to believe that there is a gender issue that needs to be addressed when communicating climate change to the people, just as with any other issue. To go from there to conclude that women are more literate in science because they tend to accept the CURRENT climate change consensus is a leap of faith, I'd say.

    It might very well be true of course, that women are more literate in science than men, but we'll never be able to find that out through falsify/verify methods, that's for sure.  Not the other way around either for that matter, that men are more literate in science than women. Too many 'subjects' involved for that. :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    How can "agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole" have a negative connotation? Perhaps a more accurate headline would be, "When It Comes To Climate, Big Words that Scientists use, like 'Consensus', Have Negative Connotations To The Public"

    Well, it is one group under discussion, not science as a whole.  If you have a group of scientists and the ones who disagree are removed, there is a consensus but not good science.   It is not conspiracy theory that the IPCC was letting its working groups establish percentage chances for events that were not evidence-based in their last report and removed scientists who disagreed even before that - if a US corporation were run the way the IPCC was run, the heads would be in jail.

    So you are correct that the bulk of climate scientists concur pollution is bad and the planet is warming - a consensus - many other things fed to the populace through 'media talking points' were not agreed on.   So climate scientists will need to work on repairing the damage done by a few but until then they should use arguments other than that 'C' word.

    The public isn't stupid because they are skeptical.  Skepticism is the essence of science.
    Dear Dr. Bye: So your idea is that we substitute "mainstream" for "consensus" ?

    No, that is not my idea.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth