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Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Seeps and SCAMS Part I: Lessons for Climate Scientists

Sou | 2:36 AM Go to the first of 6 comments. Add a comment

There is a new paper in the literature, or soon to be in the literature, about the impact on climate scientists of denialist propaganda campaigns. The paper is easy to read, being virtually free of specialist jargon. It's written from the perspective of psychology and the lead author is Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, currently at Bristol University in the UK. There is a team of co-authors, some of whom who you'll recognise - Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell and Michael Smithson. The paper is to be published in the journal Global Environmental Change, rather than a psychology journal. The reason becomes clear when you read the paper. It's explaining how climate scientists can be adversely affected by denier memes, such as "uncertainty" in climate science. [This is Part I of a three part series. Click for Part II and Part III.]

If you thought that dispassionate scientists, when doing scientific research, are immune from denialist propaganda you'd be wrong. It's not just when scientists talk about climate that they can demonstrate they've been influenced by denialists' campaigns. Even their scientific publications can be so influenced.

About seepage - of denialist memes and framing - into the scientific community

The paper is all about seepage. How denialists' talking points have "seeped" into the scientific community. The authors define seepage using two criteria. To be considered seepage the following two criteria must be met:
  1. the scientific community has adopted assumptions or language from discourse that originated outside the scientific community or from a small set of dissenting scientific voices. 
  2. those assumptions depart from those commonly held by the scientific community. 

If that's not clear enough, the authors add:
That is, at the very least it must be shown that in other circumstances or at a different time the scientific community did not accept the reasoning offered now. This criterion would be fulfilled if scientists are doing and saying things now that are at odds with what they were doing and saying before, but without any methodological or empirical argument to justify that change.

The paper brings to mind the Overton Window, which is defined as the range of ideas the general public will accept. Which is why activists push people to the extremes in order to get the community at large to accept a less extreme position, that is different to what was accepted in the past. Deniers use the same tactics, and those tactics are working to some extent.

Scientists are not immune to denier campaigns. This is despite the fact that almost all climate scientists are well aware that deniers are, by definition, in denial. And that disinformers, whether professional or amateur, are driven by anything but science. (Motives for denialism can encompass any or all of self-interest, political ideology and world view - but never science.)

The scientific community can, at times, allow deniers to frame their own communication of science. The prime example of that being the late addition to the IPCC's AR5 report on the so-called "hiatius" or "pause" in the relentless rise in global surface temperatures. The authors write:
...even when scientists are rebutting contrarian talking points, they often do so within a framing and within a linguistic landscape created by denial.

SCAM - Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods

You might be wondering where the SCAMS in the headline comes from. It's from the paper. Everyone who's come across Judith Curry knows that she frames her disinformation efforts around uncertainty. Did you know that this disinformation method has been researched? It's even been given a name: SCAM - which is exactly what that particular technique is. SCAM stands for Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods. 

Early in the paper, the authors talk about how this "appeal to uncertainty" has seeped into the scientific community. How scientist themselves can over-emphasise uncertainty - allowing contrarians and disinformers to play it up even more. They argue that:
...even when scientists are rebutting contrarian talking points, they often do so within a framing and within a linguistic landscape created by denial, and often in a manner that reinforces the contrarian claim. This ‘‘seepage’’ has arguably contributed to a widespread tendency to understate the severity of the climate problem.

How seepage occurs - the psychological basis

The authors describe how the seepage can be helped by three psychological mechanisms:
  1. Stereotype threat
  2. Pluralistic ignorance and false consensus effect
  3. Third person effect.

    Stereotype threat - this is when scientists don't want to be stereotyped. For example, they might respond to allegations of being "alarmist" by playing down global warming. Or they might accept an invitation to speak at a denier fest, so they aren't labelled as "avoiding the debate". (I'm not suggesting that scientists who talk to deniers are necessarily reacting to a stereotype threat. Just giving that as an example.)

    Pluralistic ignorance and false consensus effect - an example is when scientist think that the size of the denier outcry is an indication of the number of deniers, when in fact deniers are only a very small proportion of the community. Empty vessels, as everyone knows, make the loudest noise. Scientists can incorrectly think that their work is marginalised. In response, scientists may think they have to treat fake sceptics and their disinformation as if the general public goes along with their nonsense. If you treat an argument like "it's the sun" as serious, then that can result in people mistakenly thinking that maybe it is the sun, even though the science shows otherwise. In other words, scientists are tempted to frame their discourse using the deniers' framing instead of as the science is.

    Third person effect - this is when a scientist mistakenly thinks that most other scientists are more conservative than they themselves are. For example, if a scientist is of the view, based on their work, that the world will heat up to, say, two degrees above early twentieth century temperatures, over the next 30 years or so, they might think that most scientists would think temperatures will only rise by 1.5C over that time. This is the opposite to the way we generally think, Most people like to believe their opinion is in line with the majority most of the time. However when denier blogs and denialist media are downplaying or outright denying global warming, then this can have an impact even on climate scientists. As the authors write:
    Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think that their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

    The case study - allowing deniers to frame the science

    The authors go further than speculation and psychological theory. They do an analysis of the science. How they went about that is interesting and provides strong support for seepage, at least in the instance of the case study.

    What they did was simple in concept. They took the so-called "pause" as an example. This was given a last minute inclusion in the recent IPCC WG1 report. That section of the report was hastily written and, in my opinion (FWIW) very poorly written. It was put in as a sop to the denialati.

    The way it was framed in the IPCC report was as a "15 year hiatus". But instead of comparing it to other 15 year periods, the IPCC report compared it to the longer term trend, and stated:
    The observed global-mean surface temperature (GMST) has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years than over the past 30 to 60 years
    The authors of Lewandowsky15 did something so simple and obvious, that I'm surprised I haven't seen it done in quite the same way before. There was a paper that came close, also involving three of the co-authors of this paper plus others, that looked at 15 year trends, which I've written about previously. That's the closest I've seen.

    In this paper, the authors took 15 year windows starting from 1970 (45 years ago) up to and including 2013. They computed the difference from the long term trend as z-scores (the number of standard deviations from the mean). They found that the recent period had a notably smaller deviation from the overall trend than did previous periods of accelerated warming. This included the 15 year window that ended in 2007.

    They then argue that had the same logic applied to the current so-called "hiatus", then the literature after 2007 should have resulted in lots and lots of articles dealing with the rapidly increasing warming. But there weren't. That's not to say there wasn't research looking at internal variability. The authors aren't talking about normal ongoing science, they are talking about seepage. Allowing denialist talking points to frame the discussion on science.

    They didn't just cite the hasty and late addition to the IPCC report. They also pointed to the two special editions of Nature. They ask a legitimate question. Why didn't Nature publish two special editions post-2007, when the rise in the 15 year trend deviated much more from the long term average than the more recent 15 year period? Was it simply because deniers weren't shouting about the acceleration of warming?

    Let me illustrate. (Note: these are my own workings, not those of Lewandowsky15. It's similar but not identical to theirs.) This first chart shows the long term linear trend from 1950 to 2007, together with the 15 year linear trend from 1993 to 2007.

    The difference between the latest (to 2007) trend of 0.256°C/decade and the long term (from 1950) trend at the time of 0.124°C/decade was 0.132°C/decade.

    Compare that to the following chart, which also shows the long term linear trend from 1950 to 2007, together with the 15 year linear trend from 1999 to 2007 2013.

    Just eyeballing you can see that the difference between the long term and 15 year trend is much greater in the previous chart to the one above. You can also do the arithmetic. The difference in the trend line in the more recent 15 year period - the so-called hiatus period, and the long term trend is only -0.03°C/decade. That's considerably less of a deviation than the 0.132°C difference in the former period.

    Even if you add in 1998, the year of the super El Nino, which deniers want to do, then the difference is still a lot less. Here's the chart showing the trend:

    The difference between the trend over 16 years from 1998 to 2013, and the long term trend is -0.058°C/decade - again less of a deviation that the 0.132°C for the period from 1993 to 2007.

    So it is quite legitimate to ask why deniers weren't squealing about that, and why, in 2007, Nature didn't put out even one special issue about the rapid acceleration in global warming over the 15 years to 2007.

    Now you might argue that the 1993 to 2007 trend was obviously only so great because of that particular window, starting low and finishing high. However the same can be said for the period from 1998. It started very high and finished not so high. In any case, it doesn't get around the point that the trend during the so-called "pause" was considerably closer to the long term trend than trends in some other periods of similar duration.

    Which brings me back to seepage. The authors of Lewandowsky15 argue well that the reaction of some in the scientific community to the so-called "pause" was an example of seepage into the scientific community of denier nonsense and framing.

    Seepage is in the framing, not the science itself**

    I think it needs to be made clear that the fact that scientists have looked at the reasons for (a short) deviation between modeled surface temperatures and actual surface temperatures isn't the point at issue here. The point being made in the paper is about how some in the scientific community framed their own discussion in terms that denialists used. This includes words like "pause" and "hiatus". It includes the fact that Nature published not just one but two editions with a focus on "the pause" - Nature Climate Change: "March 2014 edition" and Nature Geosciences: "March 2014, Volume 7 No 3 pp157-244". It includes the fact that the IPCC itself didn't just refer to a "hiatus", it went as far as letting deniers define the start as being in 1998, the year of an anomalously high surface temperature.

    If you are wondering whether a particular behaviour or event can be described as "seepage" - just go back to the criteria, set out up top:

    • Has the scientific community has adopted assumptions or language from discourse that originated outside the scientific community or from a small set of dissenting scientific voices? And 
    • Are those assumptions a departure from those commonly held by the scientific community?

    In my view, this paper should provide food for thought, particularly for the climate science community and any of us who write or talk about climate science.  It's a timely reminder, before COP21, that:
    • Deniers are only a small proportion of the general public
    • When rebutting denier talking points (and it's important that be done), we should take care to not fall into the trap of letting deniers frame the discussion
    • We need to be careful not to overly downplay the impact of climate change, or exaggerate uncertainty. 

    We can't let the small minority of disinformers, deniers and contrarian scientists shape how information about global warming and climate change is presented - particularly to the public at large.

    ** It's been pointed out to me that the "not the science" in the heading could be misleading. The authors are arguing that seepage can shape the science as well as how scientists communicate. In other words, seepage can get scientists to deviate from their normal approach to science - in the sense that they tackle things that would not otherwise merit a research response, simply because of a ruckus in the deniosphere. Like the IPCC report and the so-called "hiatus".

    **Added a bit later by Sou

    Parts II and III to come

    You might have noticed from the headline that this is one of a series. I'll be publishing two more articles On Seeps and SCAMS shortly. Done.

    References and further reading

    Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell and Michael Smithson. "Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community." Global Environmental Change, 2015 doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.02.013 (open access)

    How climate science denial affects the scientific community -

    Seepage: The effect of climate denial on the scientific community - article by Stephan Lewandowsky at Shaping Tomorrow's World

    Voices from the climate community on "seepage" - NEW - article by Stephan Lewandowsky at Shaping Tomorrow's World

    James S. Risbey, Stephan Lewandowsky, Clothilde Langlais, Didier P. Monselesan, Terence J. O’Kane & Naomi Oreskes. "Well-estimated global surface warming in climate projections selected for ENSO phase." Nature Climate Change (2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2310 (subs req'd)

    No fatal blunder: Matching climate models with ENSO matches observations - from HotWhopper


    1. Breaking: The GISTEMP figure for April has come in just in the past few hrs, and as Nick Stokes estimated via his own Temp LS 'product', it comes in at exactly 0.1C lower than the previous month.

      BUT (and this is a big but!), it seems that a lot of previous numbers have changed as well. The entire 2014 average, for instance, have been revised back up from 67/66 to 68/67. And Mar 2015, which was 84 last time I looked, has been bumped up to 85. The Jan and Feb 2015 numbers may also have changed.

      Wassup? Is this a new version of GISTEMP? I'm guessing not because it's at the same V3 URL it always was:

      In any case, this is not gonna go down well in Deniersville. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, oh yes :-)

    2. Some of these revisions happen as all the data finally makes it in.

    3. Excellent Sou. This has been long over due! Thanks for reporting on it. Looking forward to reading, and sharing, the next two.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I'm most pleased to see this paper on the springboard. As one of the rather small band of people who has resisted succumbing to the "pause" meme I'm pleased that Stephan faced this psychology face-on and pointed out the facts.

      Speaking of facts, Tamino's back at work and has devastated those who claim "pause":

      FFS, can we put this "no warming for x years" nonsense to bed?

    6. Fascinating stuff. Less hilarious than the infamous recursive fury paper, but arguably of more interest.

      You do have a small typo in your text: "Compare that to the following chart, which also shows the long term linear trend from 1950 to 2007, together with the 15 year linear trend from 1999 to 2007."

      It should be "...the 15 year linear trend from 1999 to 2013."



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