Climate sceptic? You're probably a 'Birther', don't vaccinate your kids

Think cigs don't cause cancer, Saddam had WMDs etc etc

Opinion A psychologist in Australia - already well known for suggesting that climate "deniers" believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked and that Princess Diana was assassinated - has come out with new peer-reviewed research suggesting that such people also believe that President Obama was not born in the United States, that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that Saddam Hussein did in fact possess weapons of mass destruction.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky also argues that people who cast any doubt on the theory of looming, deadly carbon-driven planetary warming (and/or the need for massive global action to counter it) are the same sort of people who once sought to downplay the dangers of smoking - and are likewise more often than not funded by sinister corporate interests.

Not wishing to miss anything out, the good prof also hints darkly that your climate sceptic is also the type who probably believes in homeopathic medicine.

A press release issued to announce Lewandowsky's latest effusion begins thus:

Childhood vaccines do not cause autism. Barack Obama was born in the United States. Global warming is confirmed by science. And yet, many people believe claims to the contrary.

“At an individual level, misinformation about health issues — for example, unwarranted fears regarding vaccinations or unwarranted trust in alternative medicine — can do a lot of damage," says Lewandowsky in accompanying tinned quotes. "At a societal level, persistent misinformation about political issues ... can create considerable harm. On a global scale, misinformation about climate change is currently delaying mitigative action.”

Sure enough, the new paper Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing, published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, (free here) gets it all in:

On August 4, 1961, a young woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy in a hospital at 1611 Bingham St., Honolulu. That child, Barack Obama, later became the 44th president of the United States ... a group known as “birthers” claimed Obama had been born outside the United States and was therefore not eligible to assume the presidency ... they were widely believed by a sizable proportion of the public, including a majority of voters in Republican primary elections in 2011 ...

In the United Kingdom, a 1998 study suggesting a link between a common childhood vaccine and autism generated considerable fear in the general public concerning the safety of the vaccine ...

There is also evidence of concerted efforts by vested interests to disseminate misinformation, especially when it comes to issues of the environment ... There is considerable legal and scientific evidence for this process in at least two arenas—namely, industry-based responses to the health consequences of smoking and to climate change.

Messages denying climate change were similarly influential whether recipients were told they came from a study “funded by Exxon” or from a study “funded from donations by people like you.” Such findings suggest that situational indicators of credibility may often go unnoticed.

From a societal view, misinformation is particularly damaging if it concerns complex real-world issues, such as climate change, tax policies, or the decision to go to war.

Lewandowsky was already famous for his previous effort (pdf), subtitled NASA faked the moon landing, Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science. This was based on an internet survey of people deemed likely by Lewandowsky to be "denier" bloggers and such like, in which he discovered a link between the beliefs that the Apollo landings were faked, that Princess Diana's death was no accident - and that the menace of climate change has been overblown.

This led to an internet row in which many of the better-known sceptic bloggers (Anthony Watts, Steve McIntyre etc) pointed out that they had not participated in the survey. It turned out that Lewandowsky had asked some of them to participate by email, but they had either turned him down, not realised the survey was from him or not read his mail. This was seen as conclusive evidence that the survey did indeed accurately represent typical climate-sceptic views, by some.

In any case, the new paper is supposedly about methods for "debiasing" poor deluded fools who have been sucked in to the climate-sceptic/MI6-killed-Diana/Apollo-landings-were-faked/etc school of thought. In this, Lewandowsky is joining a fashionable trend among his fellow and soft-sciences profs - other such academics have already suggested that your climate sceptic needs to be "treated", and would be likely to have supported slavery prior to the US Civil War. Still others have called for the development of an Isaac Asimov "psychohistory" style research discipline which would be able to more effectively whip up public concern and appetite for action over the climate.

What's Lewandowsky's secret psychological recipe?

Here you go:

1) Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by false information

2) Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths

3) Make sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief

4) Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold

5) Strengthen your message through repetition


Wow, that's deep stuff, professor! Truly a PhD in psychology is well worth having! Number 4 is particularly good.

Obviously being only a psychologist Lewandowsky has nothing useful to tell us as to whether the menace posed by greenhouse gas emissions has been overblown, or not. Rather more disappointingly for the taxpayers who support him, he doesn't seem to have much grasp of psychology either: unless of course it was always his plan to trigger a storm of outrage and a serious hardening of attitudes among the climate-sceptics of the world. But since he claims to be trying to develop ways of winning them over, it seems more likely that he's just really bad at his job.

This is not even to mention the way he (and all too many of his fellow fuzzy-studies academics) are slowly but surely discrediting the terms "scientist" and "peer review". This sort of tripe - basically an amazingly lengthy and turgid rant to the effect that if you don't agree you must be a Nazi or something: the argumentum ad hominem applied shotgun style to all the members of an entire school of thought, topped off with some everyday marketing homilies - this isn't science. If it was, which we would not for a moment accept, science would be bullshit and scientists not worth listening to.

Certain authorities differ and say that folk of Lewandowsky's sort (for instance specialists in "Natural Preservatives in toiletries" and "Essential Oils") really are scientists. As usual, we would advance our preferred term, "boffin", for an actual real scientist (physicist, engineer, archaeologist etc) to differentiate from the trick-cyclists, sociologists and other marginal eggheads. ®

Full Disclosure: Your correspondent is quite OK with the idea that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and further that global temperatures appear to have risen noticeably at the back end of the 20th century - though there is a lot of uncertainty about how much, what they did before records began, etc etc. Nonetheless, I'm personally sceptical - only sceptical, I deny nothing - regarding the accuracy of forecasts and models which predict massively accelerated further warming this century; and also sceptical that anyone knows at all well what the likely consequences of this possible warming would be in terms of sea levels, crop yields etc.

All that said, it is quite possible that the alarmists are right and the coming decades could see serious sea-level rises, crop failures etc. Unfortunately I'm really, really sceptical about the idea that the human race can support any reasonably advanced and wealthy modern civilisation using only or mostly renewable power. The proposed cure seems likely to be worse than the disease. Furthermore it isn't actually on the table - most of the world's governments don't even offer a serious pretence of trying to achieve it, though they are happy to encourage others to choke their economies to death.

So I'm a sceptic.

For the record, though: I think Barack Obama was born in the USA; that the moon landings really happened; that Princess Diana's death was an accident; that Saddam Hussein didn't have any "WMDs" (though I did find some myself while serving in Her Majesty's forces at the time of the Iraq invasion); I believe that smoking increases your risk of cancer, and that homeopathic medicine is worthless snake-oil; my kids have had all their jabs. I'm pretty sure none of that (except the WMDs) makes me unusual among climate sceptics.

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