Warming and Winter Storming

By Chris Mooney | December 29, 2010 3:32 pm

My latest DeSmogBlog post is up–it’s about the perennial problem of climate misinformation in relation to winter weather. It starts out like this:

It’s a typical blog comment for this time of year. “I hope,” wrote one of my ‘skeptic’ readers, “the folks in the NE USA and Europe didn’t hurt their backs when shoveling all that global warming.”

Har har.

This common insinuation–that somehow, human-caused climate change is refuted by the perennial occurrence of bad winter weather–puts us scientific rationalists in a bind. The problem is that unlike many denier talking points, there isn’t really even an argument being put forward here that might be refuted. It’s more of a “nyah nyah,” followed by, “I  never believed you to begin with, but this time of year, I just feel sorry for you.”

The article then goes on to describe the role of mental models and confirmation bias in making people quickly leap (or default) to the idea that global warming is no big deal, or not happening, whenever there’s a snowstorm. You can read the full piece here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, Global Warming
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Comments (14)

  1. Nullius in Verba

    Oh dear. Not this one again.

    Your CRED report says “But for a presentation of new climate change information to succeed, communicators should first do their best to discover what climate change misconceptions the audience may have in its mental models.” That means you first need to find out what sceptics are saying and why when they make this joke. What is their mental model here? Don’t just guess!

    As I have explained before, this is an ironic reply to the decades-long barrage of media assertions that every episode of hot, dry, wet, or windy weather is “evidence” of global warming. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most outstanding examples – a hurricane even appeared on the cover of Al Gore’s film – even though peer-reviewed literature has shown that there is no statistically significant change in hurricane frequency and the single instance of hurricane Katrina was not evidence of anything. But there are countless others.

    Most sceptics already know the difference between weather and climate. They’ve been shouting about it in frustration every time we get one of these “look! look! evidence of global warming!” stories. The point they’re making is that you can’t have it both ways – climate if it supports the global warming thesis, and weather (or not even reported) if it doesn’t. The natural background variation is large, and goes both ways. Hot weather and hurricanes can be perfectly normal weather, not climate, too.

    Besides the irony, it does have a persuasive element too. All those people fooled by the orthodox hot-weather-is-evidence drumbeat have been conditioned to expect global warming to mean a shift to generally hot weather. Pictures showing parched and cracked lake beds where all the water has evaporated away have created a particular mental model. Record snow and cold doesn’t fit into this mental model, and so is seen as evidence against it. Indeed, to the extent that some people think the evidence for global warming really does consists of warm weather anecdotes, this is in fact a genuine counter to that argument. The exaggeration of the effects to whip up enthusiasm for policy action has backfired. It also has a second beneficial effect: it gets you lot pushing the weather-is-not-climate meme too, which is going to make it much harder for people to go back to the hot-weather-is-climate-change meme again later on.

    So from that point of view, we’re going to be pushing the “shovelling global warming off the drive” joke for as long as the cold weather lasts in order to keep on provoking this response. Yes. Weather is not climate. Repeat it loud and often.

    But it really is a bit disappointing, when you have just cited a report emphasising the importance of understanding your opponents’ mental models before countering them, and when you have sceptics on tap to help out, that you keep on stumbling around making these same basic mistakes. Are you sure you’re taking this effort seriously enough?

  2. Chris, you need to review your links from the DeSmog Blog post. They don’t all work. Especially this one..” not something that all scientists are buying at this point.”

  3. Nullius’ post makes a great point. For years, advocates of global warming have seized on every weather event as supposed proof of warming. Now deniers are using the same dubious logic to supposedly disprove global warming. Both sides have been engaged in special pleading. The argument that weather is not climate argument, which I completely agree with, is much harder to make now.

    Bottom line: if you think g.w. is real, you’ll find evidence to back your belief up, and vice versa. It’s just the confirmation bias at work here–no different than people think about any other issue.

  4. Jon

    Jack Davis: if you think g.w. is real, you’ll find evidence to back your belief up, and vice versa.

    It’s the quality of the evidence that’s the issue. Sure, I can hoover up all sorts of factoids from the Internet purporting to tell me there’s no global warming–just like I can find information that it’s bad to vaccinate my kids. If I stick enough factoids together, I might think I have a case. Similarly, you could hoover enough fish remains off a canning factory floor to make cat food.

    Or, probably the more reliable way would be to discuss vaccines with my doctor. And even more reliable, get a second opinion, or a third.

    Similarly, I can ask a climate scientist about global warming, or three or four scientists, or better yet, whole organizations of scientists:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change#Statements_by_organizations

    (Keep scrolling down. You can stop where it says “Dissenting Organizations,” because they’re aren’t any.)

  5. sHx

    @Nullius

    Good comment. Much appreciated.

  6. Jon, your reply to me was well-reasoned but missed my point. By the way,if I left the impression I’m a climate denier, that was a miscommunication on my part. My argument was more about psychology than the truth of climate change. I agree it would be wonderful if people approached the subject the way you want them to do, with thoughtful analysis of the evidence, but they simply don’t. You’re appealing to rationality, but my argument is that reason/logic has little to do with how people approach this issue (and most other issues for that matter).

    Arguments that climate scientists overwhelmingly accept g.w., while true, don’t matter to deniers. Psychologists know that people only value expert opinion if they agree with the expert’s point of view.( I heard a podcast from Psychology Today saying this, this isn’t a wild theory I just made up.) My family, for the most part, rejects climate change, and they don’t care about the opinion of climate scientists. They say those people are frauds out to get government grants (my mom actually said this a week ago, this isn’t a strawman argument).

    My challenge to you is: send your links to all the climate deniers you know and tell me how many change their views. My prediction: you will get zero converts. As my favorite scientist, Scott Atran, said once: it doesn’t do much good when dealing with the basic fact of human irrationality to say that things ought to be rational and evidence-based.

  7. Chris

    One important fact that needs to be mentioned is that this cold weather we have been experiencing this December and last winter can actually be explained as a consequence of global warming. The Arctic has been warming more dramatically than any other place on Earth. This causes a weaker jet stream allowing it to more easily kink and drop cold Arctic air down here. (Even if the Arctic is 20+ above average and the average is -40, that is still plenty cold!) We need to look at the whole picture and not what is happening outside our window.
    http://climatecrocks.com/2010/12/15/jeff-masters-on-winter-cold/
    Francis, J. A., W. Chan, D. J. Leathers, J. R. Miller, and D. E. Veron, 2009: Winter northern hemisphere weather patterns remember summer Arctic sea-ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

  8. ThomasL

    Chris (#7)

    That’s the stuff that starts the wars Chris – “us supporters can use this because the theory says such may in fact be expected if things are understood accurately”, as though “may” somehow equals “does” and we ignore things like *if*. -> You are actually showing another problem with understanding and communication in general Chris, that theory is not fact, no matter how well supported. At any time new, previously unknown information can be discovered that upends previous thoughts on a topic – no matter how thoroughly we thought we understood it prior.

    Once more you are taking facts (actual weather) and theory (why we have the fluctuations and trends we see) and getting it all mixed up and then trying to give *ALL* of it the same standing as a simple fact – and saying it all just shows how accurate the theory is. Your attitude seems to be “there is only one reason we would be having “erratic” weather (said as if we honestly know what this planet would consider “erratic” and then taking the idea of “erratic” and changing it into a fact…).

    Theories, especially those designed like Hegels’ dialectic that allow anything to count as a “fact” of the theory’s proof no matter how contradictory (in Hegel disproving actually only goes to prove – why Kierkegaard wrote and where existentialism came from -> the only way to show the follow of “pure reason”) aren’t really very intellectually impressive Chris, and are sure to throw the general public (those who have never studied logic or science on a college level) into confusion.

  9. Another denier strategy that I experienced twice on a back-and-forth in the comments section of a youtube video on global warming (I know, arguing on the internet blah blah heh)…anyway, two separate instances deniers throw some ridiculous argument about consensus or temperatures, along with a link to some crappy blog post or denial website. Then when you counter with your own statistics, they start cherry-picking it, manipulating it, etc.

    I counter with holes in their evidence, and defending my evidence, to which they counter again with just attacking my evidence. It’s almost as if they used the bad evidence to bait the hook, so to speak…and then don’t go back to defend it. It’s all about being on the defensive.

    They completely ignore their own bad evidence.

  10. Nullius in Verba

    #9,

    I agree, that does happen. But it’s not specifically a ‘denier’ strategy. I’ve seen believers in AGW catastrophe do exactly the same thing. You point out a hole or problem in their case, and if they don’t have a good answer to it they just change the subject; attempt another line of attack.

    There are many people on both sides of the debate who can argue logically and knowledgeably, and an awful lot on both sides of the debate who cannot. There are people with no understanding of physics or climatology, with little scientific knowledge in general, with the most appalling errors and misunderstandings in what they espouse, but who are convinced that because they are following a popular “Global Warming” orthodoxy as given to them by Authorities they perceive to be “scientific” that they are unarguably in the right, and that anybody who believes differently to them is either an irrational idiot or a corrupt deceiver. But because they have come to the “right” conclusion, they are seen by some as rational and pro-science, irrespective of their methods. (And the same often applies the other way round, I am sure.)

    I’m pleased to see that you say you argue about the evidence, using statistics. There are too few in this debate who can do so; most resorting to Argument from Authority of various sorts. (e.g. whether a source is “peer-reviewed” or whether endorsed by a long list of “organisations of scientists”.) When somebody on the other side does make a good argument, one needs to listen, understand, and respect their viewpoint before you can work out how best to identify and correct any erroneous belief. One needs to behave as you would like your opponent to behave – if you want them to acknowledge points you win on, then it helps to acknowledge their successful points, if you want them to be open-minded to your evidence, then you have to first demonstrate open-mindedness oneself, and so on. It doesn’t always win the argument, obviously, but you can always gain a moral victory by raising the level of debate.

  11. Jon

    Nullius: You point out a hole or problem in their case, and if they don’t have a good answer to it they just change the subject; attempt another line of attack.

    Or, it could be that there are so many good lines of empirical evidence, that if someone has problems with one, you can find another line of argument that is just as convincing. There are many ways to arrive at the same finding through induction. And there has been an awful lot of science done on this subject, which means lots of lines of evidence.

    For example, my argument with you a while back was an example of this. You complained about the bristlecone pines and we quibbled over the statistics for quite a while. You insisted your nit was significant, I said your argument blows things out of proportion. Well OK, we can get into a “one way hash argument” over whether the bristlecone problem is significant or not, or I can just point out all the hockeysticks that have been created not even using tree ring proxies.

    To you, that’s simply me “having to come to the ‘right’ conclusion.” To me it’s eliding a needless argument by showing there are multiple lines of evidence, making your argument just about moot.

  12. Nullius in Verba

    #11,

    Thank you for reminding us all of such an excellent example!

    Yes, that’s a classic example of an initial presentation of flawed evidence (to “bait the hook”), that when the flaws in the evidence were pointed out, the protagonist simply presented new (and equally flawed) evidence without “going back to defend it”. The indefensible position was dropped and another substituted in its place, but without ever conceding the loss of the initial position.

    It also completely missed the actual point of pointing out the flaws, which was not about whether the conclusion was true or not, but about the process by which scientific results are checked and what happens when they fail. Again, rather than answer the original point, a new point is invented and vigorously defended while the earlier question is ignored.

    The strategy is widely used.

  13. Jon

    Nullius: … that’s a classic example of an initial presentation of flawed evidence (to “bait the hook”)… the protagonist simply presented new (and equally flawed) evidence without “going back to defend it”

    I *did* go back to defend it, quite strenuously. But when I saw that this was going to be a “one way hash argument”, a very technical argument that neither of us was qualified to make, I took a different tack and pointed to multiple proxies that *weren’t* tree rings and showed the same results. If you have a quibble with one dataset, fine. But even accepting the hypothetical that you’re right about the bristlecone quibble, there are multiple other datasets that have nothing to do with them and show the same results.

    Your saying “bait the hook” is telling. You characterize the people you’re debating as scam artists, which shows you start by implicating peoples’ motives. With that kind of stance, you can always find some sort of imprecision (which, BTW is usually called out by researchers, as was the case with the bristlecone pines) and blow it out of proportion and use it as a sign that all of the research is corrupt–that the bristlecone pine statistics implicate all of the other lines of research, even by completely unrelated institutions.

    It’s a McCarthyist way to argue. The note of paranoia never leaves. If you start with the assumption that the researchers are cheats, and then each nit you can find (even when they’re called out by the researchers themselves!) you turn it into an outrage, and treat it as if it takes down everything. This describes the practice of sophistry and overheated rhetoric, not science.

    Of course, earlier, you were arguing before that the scientists are the villains of 1984 (when Orwell says just the opposite). As Chris has written, there are a lot of you ideologues out there making war on science…

  14. Nullius in Verba

    #13,

    You may be thinking of a different discussion, but the one I recall was under “The Games Industry Plays”, where it appears at #17-18, with further discussion following.

    Sean had been arguing that if there were problems with the data then the way to reveal them was to reproduce/surpass the work independently rather than subpoena emails. “Reproducibility is a critical part of the self-correcting aspect of modern science”, he said. I pointed out that this had already been tried, and gave bristlecones as an example where the work had been reproduced, shown (again) to be wrong, and that science had not self-corrected. They were still busily using and doing paleoclimate studies using bristlecones, and people were continuing to use them as “evidence” of unprecedented global warming.

    What we were talking about was the breakdown of the self-correcting aspect of modern science. Bristlecones had been known before Mann’s study not to be temperature proxies. The fact was reported in the paper from which Mann got the bristlecone data. Sceptics pointed out the previous literature, explained the reasoning, got papers published in peer-reviewed journals to say it, carried out expeditions to collect and publish data to show it, even got technical reports for congressional committees to say in no uncertain terms that bristlecones are unreliable and should not be used – and the AGWers ignore all of this and continue to use the bristlecone studies in evidence as if nothing had happened. It should never have got past initial peer-review, let alone survive all the subsequent falsifications – and yet it has. What are the sceptics supposed to do to get the science corrected, since it’s clear that following the normal process doesn’t work? More importantly, what other examples of bogus science might have got past this travesty of “the self-correcting aspect of modern science”?

    But rather than respond to the community’s failure to unequivocally acknowledge this error, or try to explain why climate science continues to use results that it knows to be junk, you instead declare it to be “moot” and offer up another dozen lines of equally dubious evidence, covering the tactical retreat of the bristlecone studies with a burst of decoys. Ironically, if you examine the final graph closely, you’ll see that one of those lines you offered up is The Hockeystick itself – the MBH99 bristlecone-polluted study that started the whole thing! Bravo!

    I can, of course, shoot down all those other studies too. But by the time I’ve done so, readers will have forgotten the original clear and simple point and got lost in a morass of technical detail. The problem with bristlecones is not a “very technical argument” that requires extensive qualifications to see – it’s obvious and easily understood.

    “Your saying “bait the hook” is telling. You characterize the people you’re debating as scam artists, which shows you start by implicating peoples’ motives.”

    Excellent! You seem to have missed the fact that I was quoting somebody talking about sceptics! So your comment actually applies directly to AGW believers who are debating sceptics. Yes, they characterise the people they are talking to as scam artists, implicate their motives, can always find some sort of imprecision and blow it out of proportion, and use it as a sign that all climate scepticism is corrupt, even from completely unrelated institutions and individuals. This does indeed describe the practice of sophistry and overheated rhetoric, not science.

    If you’d like to talk about science instead of indulging in overheated rhetoric, I’d be happy to oblige. But you’ll need to start by not treating me as a scam artist with corrupt motives.

    The same applies to Chris’s CRED-based communications campaign – understanding mental models and confirmation bias isn’t going to work when you are operating with a mental model of sceptics as scam artists with corrupt motives. Changing such attitudes is a difficult thing to do.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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