Climate Change Denial Is Also Impacting Scientists Themselves

A new study suggests their attempts to respond to public opinion may actually be counterproductive.
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A  view of mangrove shoots planted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and  others on Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. (Photo: United Nations Photo)

A view of mangrove shoots planted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and others on Tarawa, an atoll in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. (Photo: United Nations Photo)

It’s clear enough that climate change denial is, to some extent, having its intended effect: Sewing doubt among the public, and hampering the government’s ability to take action to lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

But the oft-stated disconnect between the consensus among scientists and the ignorance or apathy of much of the populace may be obscuring an important fact.

According to a research team led by University of Bristol psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, the ongoing public debate over the issue is leading some climate scientists to soft-pedal their own findings. This, they argue, unintentionally reinforces the perception that calls for action are premature.

“In response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research,” they argue in the journal Global Environmental Change.*

"The mainstream scientific discourse ... is now extensively using a framing that was demonstrably created by contrarians. [This] constitutes a departure from standard scientific practice and is indicative of seepage."

Even when rebutting their critics, scientists often do so “within a linguistic landscape created by denial,” the researchers add, “and often in a manner that reinforces the contrarian claim.”

As a case study of this phenomenon, Lewandowsky and his colleagues point to “the notion that global warming has stopped or stalled,” which they call “a long-standing contrarian claim.”

“Arguments about a ‘hiatus’ or ‘pause’ can only be sustained by ignoring the fact that the most recent trend (of global temperature fluctuations) is nearly identical to that of other decades unless a single particular year (1998) is used as a starting point—in other words, only by cherry-picking,” they write.

Nevertheless, both individual scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have publicly referenced this “pause,” presumably because they felt the need to address an issue that had been publicly raised.

“The number of scientific papers devoted to this alleged hiatus is large and growing rapidly,” the researchers note. “The mainstream scientific discourse ... is now extensively using a framing that was demonstrably created by contrarians. [This] constitutes a departure from standard scientific practice and is indicative of seepage.”

“In effect, scientists came to doubt their own conclusions, and felt compelled to do more work to further strengthen them, even if this meant discarding previously accepted standards of statistical practice.”

In contrast, the researchers note, there was no similar flurry of papers in reaction to the opposite trend—an accelerated rate of warming—that occurred in “the 16 years leading up to 2007.” Rather, scientists saw that as a routine fluctuation.

This “asymmetry of response,” the researchers write, reflects the fact “there are no significant contrarian groups misrepresenting the science from the side of exaggeration.”

Lewandowsky and his colleagues point to several psychological processes that are likely at work here. One is "stereotype threat"—the desire not to be pigeonholed.

“A predicted response to allegations that the science is highly uncertain would be for scientists to exaggerate their concern with uncertainty,” they write. Similarly, scientists tagged as “alarmists” may “strive not to appear alarmist by downplaying the actual degree of threat.”

In doing so, the researchers argue, they may be undermining their own findings.

“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,” Lewandowsky told the University of Bristol press office. “The public has a right to know about risks, even if they are alarming.”

So how can scientists combat this subtle form of self-censorship? Self-awareness may be the key. As Lewandowsky puts it: “Knowing about one’s own susceptibility to outside pressure is half the battle.”

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

*UPDATE — May 07, 2015: This study was published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

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