Trick-cyclists in America have come out with research which could explain why the debate on climate change continues to rumble on, even though there is a solid consensus on the facts of the matter.
Essentially, according to the researchers, people tend to live in "echo chambers" as far as climate matters go, seeking out information and advisers who agree with what they already believe. Thus, they may persist in deluded views regardless of what others think.
"Individuals who get their information from the same sources with the same perspective may be under the impression that theirs is the dominant perspective, regardless of what the science says," explains Professor Dana Fisher, the corresponding author who led the research.
The prof is of course correct: people will continue to believe marginal bloggers on climate matters, even when their "information" is debunked by proper climate scientists: here's a case from last year in which various dubious lunatic-fringe blogs - "DeSmogBlog"*, "Climate Central" etc - were found to be peddling misinformation on hurricanes in defiance of qualified climatologists. And yet many people continue to believe what these bloggers say.
On a larger scale it's been repeatedly established in recent surveys that most people don't agree with the idea that climate change is mainly caused by human activities. The United States Senate recently declined to endorse this position, also. And it's well known that nations around the world have consistently failed to sign up to any binding agreement on significant cuts to carbon emissions, no matter what position they may espouse on climate change.
So it's pretty clear that the "dominant perspective" here is the sceptical one: the belief that climate change certainly occurs, but it's not been proven to be primarily driven by carbon emissions - and in any case that the theorised consequences of carbon-driven change have not been shown to be such as to require urgent and economically painful action.
And yet many people, living inside their misguided "echo chamber", keep on insisting that the science is settled in the alarmist direction and the case for economic pain is made - or alternatively, that no pain is involved in emissions cuts, quite the reverse (though in that case it seems odd that people haven't just cut emissions on their own). These people obdurately persist in their denial of the consensus position.
“We find that the occurrences of echo chambers are indeed statistically significant, meaning our model provides a potential explanation for why climate change denial persists in spite of the consensus,” says Dr Lorien Jasny, a computational social scientist at the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).
Jasny, Fisher and their colleagues have laid out their research in full, in a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The two social scientists acknowledge that, of course, the echo chamber problem exists on both sides of the debate and it is important for those holding majority beliefs to realise that there is some chance - tiny as it may be - that the alarmist position may be correct, or more plausibly may have elements of correctness in it.
"Our research underscores how important it is for people on both sides [our emphasis] of the climate debate to be careful about where they get their information. If their sources are limited to those that repeat and amplify a single perspective, they can't be certain about the reliability or objectivity of their information," Jasny says. ®
We have not used the word "boffin" in this article as the researchers involved - sociologists, and as such from the soft-studies sector - do not qualify for that noble appellation.