September 14, 2011

#ChrisMooney: Get real about #AGW denialists

Chris Mooney claims nice graphs and other graphics will convince climate change deniers that they're wrong.

No, really. He makes it sound like a "conversion process" would probably be relatively simple.

Were DeSmog Blog insightful enough to have hired me, I would have written a far different post than his, titled: "New Research Says Motivated Reasoning May Not Always Be Easy to Overcome" and subhead "Self-Affirmation Can Inoculate Against Cognitive Dissonance." That's what took away from Brendan Nyhan's paper, which (linked below) was the basis for Mooney's post.

And, here's my take on what he should have written Sept. 14, and could have written at Science Progress Sept. 15, had he thought through connecting dots better, on the differences in motivated reasoning styles and motivators between conservatives and liberals. (Let's hope that Chris, with the platform he has, gets around to writing the post he should, with the knowledge he has to do so.)

Reality? Chris, like many a liberal who's not been "mugged by reality," to use the old cliche, I think has the idea that liberals and conservatives .... despite what he's written elsewhere ... have the same styles of motivated reasoning. And, they don't.

It's yet another example of how he's sometimes politically clueless while actually having a good grasp of global warming issues. He'd be a good Preznit Kumbaya lieutenant, with such beliefs about how easy it is to convert people, or conservatives in particular, from bad motivated reasoning.

In other words, Mooney himself is "pulling a Mooney," as I call it, trying to justify his own motivated reasoning.

And, yes, that may come off as a bit harsh, but ... this is also a person who praises Democrats for being better than the GOP at working with big business. (Sorry, Chris, but it "goes to motive" on political realities vs. your very good grasp of the science issues.)

The reality? Denialists will incorporate the information about global surface temperatures and then ... minimize the "anthropogenic" in AGW. In other words, you might get a denialist to become a minimalist, but, how much gain is that. If Chris didn't think of that, then he's not thinking that deeply. If he did, and rejected it, well, then his own reasoning is obviously "motivated."

There's plenty of reasons to confirm this, and at least partially undermine Mooney's optimism, in Brendan Nyhan's 56-page PDF upon which Mooney bases his post; And, I can say more that  Mooney's take on it ... and perhaps Nyhan himself, have other problems, too.

First, Nyhan says himself that his study focused only on temperature change, not the "anthropogenic," at least as far as stimuli, i.e, the graph at the top of this blog. Per page 34, body text of the PDF:
Since our stimuli only concern temperature change (and not the role of humans in causing it), we restrict our attention to the predicted probabilities that respondents will agree that “Global warming is just a theory” in Figure 4.

It's true, as I now see on the third reading of Mooney's post, that he does acknowledge that ... three-quarters of the way through the blog post. Given that this caveat undermines the strength of the claims of your whole blog post, as does another issue, immediately below, shouldn't you have been more upfront about this? I certainly think you should have.

Second, on body text page 4 of the Nyhan PDF is this:
However, unlike previous studies, we find little evidence that affirmation increases the persuasive power of corrective information.
In other words, the other-affirmation that Mooney touts isn't that powerful. (More on this below the fold.)

Followed by this a few pages later:
Individuals who encounter dissonant information that is threatening are thus motivated to restore their feelings of self-worth; resolving the dissonance directly is just one of many ways that this goal can be accomplished. Steele supports this claim with a series of experiments showing that individuals who completed an exercise in which they affirmed personally important values and thereby felt secure in their self-worth did not engage in dissonance reduction, suggesting that their need to do so had been eliminated.
(That's my emphasis within the pull quote.) In other words, rather than getting affirmation from a "scientific elitist," a John/Jane Doe can "pull a Stuart Smalley" and say, "I'm smart enough to have resisted such elitism." Nyhan goes on to add that the self-affirmation process can be contingent on personal or situational relevance.

So, the "attaboy" part of Chris' post ... has no "affirmation" from Nyhan. Rather, Nyhan makes very nuanced and very conditional claims, which Mooney simply doesn't note. (And, this part of Mooney's blog post gets back to what I see of political "naivete" from him on other issues.)

But, that's not the only issue with Mooney's post. Also, within Nyhan's generally great research, we may need to read further between the lines. More below the fold.

Next, and related to that, Mooney assumes denialists are denialists due to poor self-worth, I think, if he's listing boosting their self-worth as another "conversion strategy." However, that said, that does come in part from Nyhan's paper, despite Nyhan's caveat, and isn't just Mooney's conjecture. If Nyhan's correct, I wonder how "lasting" the effects are, as well as how strong.

For instance, the worldview of a denialist involves regular immersion in Faux News, climate denialist websites, etc. I'm going to assume the "affirmation" is lasting only until the alleged denialist plunges back into his/her normal milieu. Therefore, unless a denialist hears, with accompanying affirmation, climate science more often than climate denialism, I doubt such changes will "stick."

But, there's other issues.

First, is that a warranted assumption, the assumption that denialists are denialists in part over self-worth issues? It's arguable that it's patronizing to think that, isn't it? It's certainly arguable that such affirmation coming from a person on the other side of a major policy issue would be seen as patronizing. I mean, this is an "approach" that could backfire. Given tea partier-type, John/Jane Denialst (vs. Pielke Sr. et al "scientist" denialists) who already often claim scientists are elitists (where's Spiro Agnew's "pointy-headed intellectuals"?) "pulling a Stuart Smalley" while saying, "here, there's a graph that says your worldview on this issue is, nonetheless, wrong," isn't likely to work.

Beyond that, is it possibly a mistake to argue that worldview and self-worth are that tightly interlocked? I mean, that may be the case, at least to a degree, but how much research has been done there? The one pull quote from Nyhan suggests that.

Related to that, though, the information itself isn't the worldview. Or not necessarily. Plus, world temperatures, versus local ones, can be dismissed, the same way denialists point to a snowy winter in one part of the country to dismiss global warming.

There's one or two other issues I want to mention, focused around one fact.

Nyhan also self-limited the study, per page 31, body text of the PDF:
Second, we excluded respondents who failed to pass a pre-treatment attention filter designed to make sure that subjects were reading survey questions rather than clicking through mindlessly (the question is available in the online appendix).
How much does that correspond to reality? Given the level of motivated reasoning of many a denialist, they're more likely to be "clicking through," not necessarily mindlessly, but actively looking for "chinks in the other side's armor" as much as anything. That one falls on Nyhan, not Mooney, nonetheless, it's arguable that Mooney should have picked that up as another caveat to be taken away. Related to that, what percentage of respondents were thereby "excluded"? (I'm not plowing further through Nyhan to find the answer, if there is one; I doubt he lists that, though.) Was any further study done of them?

In short:
1. Other-affirmation isn't that strong, and Nyhan doesn't tell us how long its effects last;
2. Self-affirmation (which can itself be drawn out of tribal, motivated reasoning) can be a "fix" for cognitive dissonance
3. Self- or other-affirmation, or other fixes, are contingent in the degree of their "fix";
4. We may not be sure of the degree of accuracy of the survey results (even with Nyhan's good work on other issues in the past) due to the exclusionary filter, and lack of interpretation of those filtered out.

Thus: Conversion efforts aren't easy, can be "inoculated against," are contingent, and we're not sure of the degree of all this.

Hell, I could have told you that, anecdotally, from an entirely different area: talking to AAers about "secular" alternatives.

So, let's stop believing that denialists can be so easily converted.

At Google-Plus, Tony Sidaway reminds me that Mooney says:
"[T]he most hotly contested issue in the climate debate is not whether the world has warmed, but whether humans are responsible for that warming. Many deniers will agree that warming has occurred, but then claim that it’s natural. So they might not have found the information presented in the study very threatening."
Well, if you yourself admit that, and admit that's a problem with using the study, as Sidaway also notes, then why tout it that much? Your header says "Want to Sway Climate Change Skeptics?"In addition, are we talking about professional denialists, or John/Jane Doe types who listen to them?

And, while I'm at it ... note to "repeat commenter" Otter 17 at hrCis's post:
1. I had the pull quote above in an early version of this post;
2. I did eventually do more than just "skim" Nyhan;
3. I did update this blog.

No. 2 is probably more than Mooney did; if not, then he was doing "motivated reading." No. 3 is certainly more than he did, or probably will do.

So, Mooney's post is one of those "not even wrongs," I think. He's confirming his own public policy bias; he's exhibiting some sort of D.C. Village type environmental thinking; he's ... ultimately not doing Nyhan's paper justice. Nyhan's saying this process isn't easy and it's not simple. If we accept that, we won't promote simple-to-simplistic strategies for "conversion." In fact, we won't believe that many people will be "converted"; we'll recognize we need a truly progressive, non-Kumbaya president to push for top-down action.

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