On Not Persuading the Unpersuadable

By Chris Mooney | March 4, 2011 10:19 am

James Hrynyshyn has a new post up entitled “Why it’s hard to change a climate denier’s mind.” He uses it to channel the insights of Simon Donner, who argues that throughout the history of, like, all of humanity, people have considered themselves powerless to influence the climate. So why would that suddenly change?

I don’t doubt that this is a factor. However, it isn’t a partisan one; it suggests incredulity about human-induced climate change should be equally distributed across the populace.

Yet we know this isn’t the case. We know Republicans are much less accepting of climate science, and the idea that global warming is a problem, than Democrats and Independents.

We also know that those with “egalitarian” and “communitarian” value dispositions are much more concerned (and accepting of the science) than those with “individualist” or “hierarchical” value systems. For more on this, listen to my podcast with Dan Kahan.

So: I’m afraid I’m sticking with the view that partisanship and values, rather than anything hardwired about how we understand climate and weather, is the driver here. (At least in the U.S. context. I would guess that if you had a populace that wasn’t politically polarized, the factor Donner is highlighting might then come to the fore.)

P.S.: If you want to see some unpersuadables, check out this thread.

Comments (16)

  1. Chris,

    As you know, even a cursory analysis of the media will tell you that climate change denial is a partisan issue. Compare the positions articulated by the conservative versus liberal media. But of course climate change knows no boundaries. Everyone will be and perhaps is already being impacted by climate change, irrespective of political allegiance. The question is at what point do conservatives start to admit there is a big stick hitting them on the head?

    Another point is that this seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon. In the UK (which is presently under a Conservative government, with a capital “C”) there is broad agreement that climate change is underway and that it needs addressing. So why the difference here in the US?

  2. Here’s a graphic that illustrates just how big the biosphere really *isn’t*:


  3. TTT

    It is such a plain matter-of-fact that man can change just about everything else about the environment–introducing fire, leveling forests, draining swamps, wiping out predators, damming major rivers, obliterating entire ecosystems, etc.–that saying “but we can’t change the weather” would be like saying you can see all the colors of the visible spectrum EXCEPT orange. Just cutting down enough forests and installing enough pavement and skyscrapers can have immediately discernible effects on local climate that any layman would notice.

    There’s also a great deal of religiously-inspired hypocrisy going through the selective invocation of this belief. Many religious conservatives who see Earth as having been made specifically for human comfort and use, with man being the focal point of the very phenomenon of life, will then say that we are somehow too puny and weak to actually do anything to it.

  4. Follow the money. In what quarters would it be most inconvenient and expensive to modify, reduce, or eliminate the use of fossil fuels?

  5. ken

    I am tired of being told that “Republicans are much less accepting of climate science” and so on. I am not a registered Republican at any given time, but I have been in the past, and I do strongly believe the evidence supports man-caused climate change to some extent, actually it seems to a large extent. I have many friends who ARE Republicans, and I can’t think of any of them who are “climate change deniers” or who don’t believe we are to blame , with one exception, who happens to be a very bright collage educated intellectual who almost never goes to Church.
    I think the supposed association between Republicans and denying climate change is over-stressed to say the least. It makes me feel “profiled” and also causes me to wonder what biased agenda is promulgated by those who would use such an illogical and irrational method to categorize the likes of me?
    If we wish to solve a problem we must first understand it. I think this business does not address that.
    It may well be that those who deny climate change have encamped with the Republicans, so trying to find out why they seem to feel threatened by the Democrats might be a good place to start resolving the politics, if one was of that bent. Maybe they think they see the issue being used for political purposes. I agree with that, I think BOTH sides are doing that! Not just the Republicans.

  6. Daniel Shields

    You forgot the word “Earth” in the first paragraph.

  7. Chris Mooney

    @5 Ken when we use these statements, we’re talking about people in aggregate, not particular individuals. Individuals can of course buck the trend, as you yourself do. But there’s no doubt that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or Independents to reject climate science.

  8. Zev

    Ironic how the link to the poll directs us to a left-leaning site with further embedded links to Climate Progress, Think Progress, and Joe Romm. You bet this issue is politically biased…

    Furthermore, according to those polls the Democrats stand alone as the only political party where a signifcant majority supports the current “climate change” agenda. It’s quite obvious that it has to do with how it’s being handled, more than understanding the science (since the majority of the public are not meteorologists/climate scientists, they get information from the internet and news sources – much of which are biased). You don’t need to make a scientific argument to reject “CO2 as a pollutant” or “cap and tax” policies – that’s a huge contributing factor as to why the public majority are against the Democrats on this issue. Not to mention all the leftist sites that basically say “the science is settled, Republicans are idiots”. I’d be skeptical right off the bat too, before even hearing about the science.

    I think everyone can agree that relying on foreign oil is bad, however there’s a great divide on how to fix that problem – and that’s where the overlap between practical measures and “alarmist” measures collide. People want a solution that won’t cost them more money or higher taxes on gas, cars, etc. I believe they’re also aware that CO2 is not a pollutant. Hence, the skepticism against all those on the left from those of the center and right. Those on the hard left have been propagandized to believe in AGW just as much (likely more) as those on the hard right have been to being skeptical.

    Personally, I’m skeptical to the extent at which we effect climate and I reject the notion that taxing carbon emissions will accomplish anything.

  9. Zev

    I’d much rather see the government shift towards replacing coal with nuclear and/or geothermal plants because wind and solar are simply impractical (from a physics and economic stand). Nuclear is the best and, in my opinion, the only source that can currently replace fossil fuels in that it has the potential to provide for the majority of our growing energy needs over any other source along with significantly reduced emissions. The obvious hurdle is the political opposition by the left (which we never hear about – only that Republicans are against clean energy when they support nuclear, hybrid technology, solar, wind, geothermal, etc. within a practical economic sense) and how they deem it “too dangerous” when nuclear has had the best safety record of any other industry (3 safety events since the 50s, only 1 of which was significant – Chernobyl).

    If everyone in DC (and public) stopped trying to solve the “who is right” battle on AGW and looked at the practical implications of getting off of foreign oil and boosting the economy with cleaner energy solutions, I believe we could make significant progress in becoming cleaner and energy independent. Republicans/Independents are all for energy independence, it’s a big platform of their base.

    Conversly, Democrats are all about eco-policing to an impractical extent where taxing/trading carbon emissions will somehow result in less emissions. They know there’s currently no other energy source that can meet our energy needs and that’s why they target it – more tax revenue and control over the energy industry. Instead of supporting incentives to provide new tech and investments in practical (key word) alternative sources, they want to simply tax all fossil fuels until they magically go away – which they will not because there’s simply no other adequate alternative in sight. It would simply result in more cost to the consumer and a neglible decrease in overall emissions. Only when there’s a viable alternative available will penalizing fossil fuels with taxes and regulations result in a switch to an alternative source.

  10. Just to clarify: I don’t think many are arguing that the contempt for science is hard-wired, i.e., genetically determined. But some cultural memes are just so entrenched they might seem hard-wired. As you and others point out, climate denialism varies from country to country. So that raises the question of how some groups have been able to overcome this particular entrench meme better than others.

  11. Paul in Sweden

    4. Earl Wajenberg Says:
    March 4th, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Follow the money. In what quarters would it be most inconvenient and expensive to modify, reduce, or eliminate the use of fossil fuels?
    My quarters and just about everyone else’s quarters have been negatively influenced by by the legislation already enacted to reduce, or eliminate the use of fossil fuels! We have seen the effects & damages of Climate Change Policy on our food, electricity and fuel costs and supplies throughout the world. These effects, if left unchecked will only get worse and will continue to have a disproportionate effect on poorer families throughout the world.

  12. Archie

    There is a major religious element at work in climate change denial. It runs something like this: humans are insignificant, only God has the power to change climates, and if it’s happening it’s God’s will and it is hubris to think humans can do anything about it anyway. A major tangent to this is Christian apocalypsism, which is: climate change doesn’t matter, since the world is about to end anyway. Facts and forecasts about the climate just don’t matter to such people.

  13. Jody

    @9. Sadly I agree with you, Democrats (liberals) shoot themselves in the foot over the nuclear issue. There does seem to be a sad form of reverse anti-science when it comes to nuclear, and my fellow liberals fall victim. I think it’s because, for decades, the nuclear issue was so heavily wrapped up with anti-war, anti-proliferation efforts led by liberals. The pollution/waste issue, combined with the fear of a Chernobyl-like accident (improbable), exacerbates the fears. I am a liberal who firmly believes that nuclear is a necessary key to reducing CO2 and dependence on fossil fuels.

    American Scientist had an article a few months ago about evolutionary vs. Strategic design of a clean energy system, where the author argued that politicians are not allowing engineers to design the strategy. He likened it to the Kennedy’s moon landing speech: Kennedy said we’re going to the moon, and then scientists and engineers took over. Politicians didn’t tell them how to build the best rocket or lander, nor were they generally forced to use systems that they didn’t feel were appropriate. (oversimplification but you get the point).

    Obama has said we should reduce CO2 by 80+% by 2050. Not as dramatic as we’re going to the moon, but still now the scientists and engineers should take over. But they’re stymied by politicians. The engineer who wrote the article pretty clearly load out the case for nuclear from a strategic sense.

    Chris, perhaps this has been discussed on a previous board I’ve missed, but it seems only fair, from an intellectual standpoint, to take a look at the nuclear issue from a political standpoint. Are liberals more likely to be anti-nuclear, and does that stance appear to be “anti-science” insomuch as the rationale isn’t rooted in current scientific consensus on the need and safety of nuclear power?

  14. ken

    I do know that the argument is that ‘in “the aggregate ” Republicans are more likely to be “deniers”. But my point is that many maybe even most are not depending on if you think polls are accurate or not (and I am skeptical).
    So what motivates those who are in the sub-category of “denier”? Is it merely ignorant politics or something else unique to that sub-category, like the already mentioned religious association? I don’t really buy this either, as I also know many liberal Democrats who are believers in Pyramid vodo, Buddhism, etc. and other types of “magical thinking”.
    A lack of skepticism and critical thinking might be closer to the root of it, in which case the most rational approach to this might be to view BOTH camps with dis-trust. Which I do.
    Again my point is that exclusively painting all persons of one party with the “climate change denier” brush smacks of bias, big time, and is not helpful in revealing truth or enlightenment.
    Are all Democrats “Godless”? Does saying so help anyone, even if it is true?

    I suggest it might be more useful to discover WHY some people are deniers, rather than ascribing this perceived negative trait to an entire group. By doing the latter, the entire group may feel threatened and become more entrenched behind those members who might justly deserve the tag of denier.
    By doing the former, rational discourse may at least be attempted with some part of the group.
    Always a better choice than stupid irrational name calling, which is what this has boiled down to.
    The one person I know who is a Republican and a denier, is mostly, I think, due to a lack of confidence in the Democrats agenda as a whole. THIS is where the issue should lie.
    Persuade those whom you would convince firstly that you are deserving of some amount of TRUST. It does no good to say “Scientists say” as many examples, true or not, can be dredged up of bad, faulty, or just plain dishonest science, correct or not, used by many for a host of reasons. Persuade them secondly that your sources are reliable, not biased, and correct. Last of all, engage them in a rational debate, looking at all the elements.
    Too much to ask for either side it seems. Easter Island, here we come. -Ken

  15. I should add that it’s worth thinking deeper about the partisan divide on climate change. What values are causing that divide? Where do those values originate? You may find the answer lies deeper in the past than most analyses bother to go.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    “I suggest it might be more useful to discover WHY some people are deniers…”

    A sensible suggestion. There isn’t any single answer – as different people have different reasons.

    Some are sceptical through having looked at the science in detail and found errors and unanswered questions. Some are sceptical because they see what they consider to be the necessary elements of the scientific method not being adhered to. Some have heard about the data quality issues, and are sceptical that conclusions with such high levels of certainty can be derived from such flaky data. Some because they reject arguments from authority out of principle, and have not personally been able to verify the results themselves. Some because they are aware that the question is in dispute, and so long as neither side seems to be clearly winning will not commit themselves. Some because they are alarmed at the economic and democratic implications of the solutions being proposed. Some because they see it as a follow-on from previous environmental scares that later turned out to be false. Some because while they trust arguments from authority, they have chosen different authorities. Some try to fit in with their social circle or political allies, and if everybody they know and are friends with or whose judgement they trust is sceptical, they will tend to go along. Some are sceptical because they have been exposed to a lot of sceptical arguments, or to a lot of obviously bad pro-AGW arguments. Some because they are naturally suspicious of political advocacy, advertising, bullying, and disproportionate efforts at persuasion. Some because they see many of the most prominent and vocal advocates for cutting carbon continue to burn huge amounts of energy, live in huge mansions with heated swimming pools, drive SUVs, and jet around the world. Some are deniers because loudly expressing such outrageously politically-incorrect views really annoys liberals, and they enjoy annoying liberals.

    I could go on. It isn’t a simple phenomenon. Most sceptics have a mixture of several of the above.

    “Persuade those whom you would convince firstly that you are deserving of some amount of TRUST. [...] Persuade them secondly that your sources are reliable, not biased, and correct. Last of all, engage them in a rational debate, looking at all the elements.”

    A very good three-stage plan. The problem with it seems to be that fixing the things that are causing much of the mistrust would be seen as an acknowledgement that they had previously been done wrong, and not many of the people involved seem to be willing to allow that to happen. It would probably derail quite a few gravy trains.

    There are a few good initiatives quietly being started. The BEST temperature record looks like the right sort of approach – although it is too early to be sure. The updating of the USHCN infrastructure in response to the surfacestations revelations is another. The use of open source software methods, as in the CCC project has been widely praised on both sides. And there are a few of the more neutral scientific heavyweights starting to move into the blogosphere and interact with sceptics – Judith Curry has made a big impact; and some of the smaller names continue with their own outreach efforts, like ScienceOfDoom.

    There are far too few of them, with not enough support from the rest of the pro-AGW community. The tide has turned, and it would take a major and widespread effort to reverse the momentum now building up, which apparently is not going to be forthcoming. But in principle at least, it’s still a good plan.


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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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