The Nisbet Report on Our Climate Failures, Part I

By Chris Mooney | April 19, 2011 10:45 am

Matthew Nisbet has a big contrarian report out that criticizes environmentalists–and scientists, and Al Gore–for their role in the failure to pass a climate bill or to achieve progress on the issue. Meanwhile, the report seeems to downplay the influence of climate change denial, ClimateGate, and Fox News.

I collaborated with Nisbet on framing several years ago, and thought his work on that topic was insightful–but I’m troubled by this report, as I know are many, many others.

Joe Romm has gone on the offensive, and one of Nisbet’s peer reviewers, Robert J. Brulle, has dropped off. Romm debunks Nisbet’s (apparent) claim that environmental groups outspent their industry opponents during the cap-and-trade battle. Media Matters, meanwhile, challenges Nisbet when it comes to the significance of ClimateGate (which, obviously, has had a transformative effect on the political debate around climate, as anyone paying attention to Capitol Hill knows) and of Fox News.

No one has yet taken on the part of the report that I find in some ways the most stunning: Nisbet’s attempt to claim that members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “in comparison to other social groups for which data is available [rank] among the most partisan and ideological.”

Nisbet also acts as if the notion that there were copious attacks on science during the last administration is just some biased opinion subscribed to by politicized AAAS scientists–rather than a reality extensively documented by myself and many, many others, like the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For the moment, I just want to flag this–I’ve collaborated with Nisbet in the past, but this is not something I can stay silent about.


Comments (16)

Links to this Post

  1. Beyond the Climate Blame Game - | April 25, 2011
  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for giving me a call to talk about the report before taking Romm and Media Matters point of view on this. Why not call me before going on an offensive against someone you have known since college?

    Here is a detailed response to Romm. More will be coming.

    The report is only “contrarian” in your mind because it says that while the actions of Republicans are a problem in mobilizing societal action, there a range of other factors involved including the message strategies of admired leaders like Gore.

    The financial analysis is thorough, deep and complex. It has been twisted and skewed by Romm.

    Romm’s is the same type of false personality fight and effort to undermine academic research that you write about Republicans and conservative operatives of doing on issues related to science.

    You just wrote a big piece on motivated reasoning at Mother Jones, focusing the lens on how ideology shapes selective views among Republicans. Motivated reasoning works both directions, as I describe in detail in the report, as a researcher who specializes in this area and has published many public opinion studies. Authors of these studies reviewed the report.

    The point of the AAAS analysis is that when you have a social group that is strongly one sided in their political outlook, evidence suggests that this will shape how they selectively view the complexities of climate politics.

    This is one reason as a community we tend to focus heavily on the efforts of conservatives and conservative media as a singular reason for the decline in public opinion, while overlooking more parsimonious and stronger influences related to the economy and the differing elite cues provided by political leaders.

    It’s not that conservatives and conservative media have not had an impact, the question is what is the relative impact in comparison to other factors and who are conservative media influencing? Indeed, specific to Climategate, my discussion of the study by Leiserowitz and Maibach (a reviewer) reflects directly your own description at Mother Jones.

    –Here’s my description:

    Similar factors related to selective attention and motivated reasoning apply to understanding the impact of Climategate on public opinion. Analyzing national survey data from January 2010, Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach find that just 25 percent of Americans were aware of and had followed news of the controversy. Moreover, just 12 percent of all respondents said the event had diminished their certainty that climate change was happening and these expressed doubts were held strongest among those respondents scoring high on individualist/conservative values. 28

    –Here’s yours:

    Climategate had a substantial impact on public opinion, according to Anthony Leiserowitz [25], director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication [26]. It contributed to an overall drop in public concern about climate change and a significant loss of trust in scientists. But—as we should expect by now—these declines were concentrated among particular groups of Americans: Republicans, conservatives, and those with “individualistic” values. Liberals and those with “egalitarian” values didn’t lose much trust in climate science or scientists at all. “In some ways, Climategate was like a Rorschach test,” Leiserowitz says, “with different groups interpreting ambiguous facts in very different ways.”

  2. Gaythia

    I haven’t had a chance to read the report yet (the link didn’t work when I tried it there, but yours is good).

    But I am very concerned about these statement in Nisbet’s post:

    “The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were chosen for the analysis because they remain the trend-setting news outlets of record in the U.S. and their selection also replicates the three most influential U.S. newspapers analyzed in previous oft-cited studies on false balance by Max Boykoff. ”

    “While Fox News and other conservative media have some persuasive influence on viewers, this influence tends to reinforce existing doubts rather than create them anew. ”

    Obviously, living in Metro Washington, DC is different than living in places like Berthoud, CO, but I think he needs to get out of town once in a while. I would have thought that the viewership/readership statistics would be obvious.

    In my opinion, there is plenty of opening here for an expansion of your Mother Jones piece regarding motivated reasoning, and David Ropeik’s comments (and my subcomment) within that piece on re-enforcing tribal loyalties.

  3. TTT

    Why not call me before going on an offensive against someone you have known since college?

    Reminds me of the NRO crowd complaining that Jim Manzi had hit “inside the family” when he criticized Mark Levin’s total climate-science buffoonery.

    we tend to focus heavily on the efforts of conservatives and conservative media as a singular reason for the decline in public opinion, while overlooking more parsimonious and stronger influences related to the economy and the differing elite cues provided by political leaders.

    False dilemma. “Political leaders” include the Republican Party, which has science denial–particularly climate denial–as one of its central tenets, and whose luminaries are firmly established on the Fox / talk-radio echosystem. When denial is institutionally normalized at the highest political levels–as it was in this country for most of the last decade–that’s going to have an effect. And speaking of which….

    While Fox News and other conservative media have some persuasive influence on viewers, this influence tends to reinforce existing doubts rather than create them anew.

    Argh, you came so close to getting it! That right there should have been the lede for your entire report! “Fox News reinforces existing doubts,” or, in a less unnecessarily polite and circumspect phrasing, “Fox News constantly lies to people, its deliberate agenda being to keep them both uninformed and angry.”

    How could you miss that? How, man?

    Your “rather than creating new doubts” is trivial. It doesn’t matter if Roger Ailes creates new denialists, as long as he nurtures and normalizes denialism as a political response to scientific problems. And that’s the lede.

    Future research should apply a similar methodology to tracking coverage at cable news

    You should have done that already.

    Time and time again your explorations of science communication problems diminish the problems caused by actual antagonists and ideological opponents of science-based reasoning in and of itself. It’s always “the teachers should do better at not getting creationist students mad” or “Al Gore shouldn’t speak so much because he attracts haters.”

    Question, and I mean this in full seriousness: can you cite a case where your recommendations or analysis ever helped the cause of improving public knowledge and/or educational and/or policy outcomes on controversial scientific issues?

  4. JDL

    Matthew: Your insights on social science are interesting. Allow me to introduce what appear to be some fatal flaws:

    – In a political debate that needs a 50 or 60 percent vote of the Congress to reach resolution, a swing in public opinion of a few percentage points can make the difference between success and failure. Your characterization of opinion swings of “just 12 percent” suggests you do not have a good grasp of the political or policy process.

    – Prior to ClimateGate, there were dozens of Republicans who openly voiced their concerns about climate change and their willingness to take action. After ClimateGate, there were none. So the impact of a 12 percent swing in a core demographic was to convert 100 percent of elected officials in a political party to an ideological position. This is the sort of thing that Professors at American University should understand.

    On the numbers: you have yet to answer any of the questions about how you assessed the money spent by opponents and proponents of climate policy. Your analysis appears to be off by several orders of magnitude, but I haven’t seen you respond to any of the questions raised about how you arrived at the numbers.

  5. Chris Mooney

    Matt, you chose to do this report, this way. Knowing what you do about framing and media, you must have known how it would be taken.

    Our descriptions of the study are quite different–with you downplaying ClimateGate’s significance. Anyone who follows the politics of this issue knows that no matter how you try to present the data, it had a huge impact on the debate.

    I’ll have more to say.

  6. Chris,

    The focus of Chapter 4 is specific to general American public opinion. It does not deal with elite opinion on capital hill, interest groups, journalists etc. Those are all subjects worthy of further inquiry and study.

    The chapter addresses: Why do we assume that Climategate and conservative media/commentators are the major factor driving the decline in public concern since 2007 while overlooking the economic context, the role of elite cues from both parties, the policy dependent nature of perceptions etc and other factors, as I review in the chapter.

    One answer as the chapter goes on to examine is that as a natural human tendency, just as among the public, the community of scientists and environmentalists engages in motivated reasoning, choosing to believe that conservatives and Climategate are predominantly to blame when a range of other factors are involved.

    Overlooking these other factors — while also overlooking the fact that ideology shapes our own perceptions of events — colors our decision making. This merits more discussion and attention as we move forward.

    Here is the link to the full chapter:

  7. Chris Mooney

    Note: Romm has further reanalyzed the data on environmental group vs industry largesse

    I personally think ideology is more important than money in explaining the resistance to climate progress or climate legislation–but Romm’s analysis certainly calls into question Nisbet’s apparent claim that enviros are now outspending their opponents. (I say “apparent” because the strength of the claim seems to be stated differently by Nisbet at different times; see here

    I’m most taken aback, though, by Nisbet’s depiction of AAAS members:

    “AAAS members are as ideologically like-minded as evangelical church members and substantially more partisan. Only black church members exhibit a stronger partisan lean than AAAS members and only Fox News viewers, Mormon Church members and Tea Party members exhibit a stronger ideological lean.”

    But wait, surely “ideological” is a technical term here….right? And surely that’s how the report will be read.

  8. kramer

    I’m not surprised that the AAAS has very few Republicans. This stat reminds me of a book I read called “Rio: Reshaping the International Order – A Report to the Club of Rome” with Jan Timbergen, a Nobel Winning economist as the book’s coordinator where he writes:

    “In many branches of science there are radical movements. Increasingly, both in the rich and poor worlds, scientists are involved in active advocacy which they see as an intellectual and ethical duty. ”

    Page 133

  9. Chris Mooney

    Marc Morano’s headline on this report “Environmental groups spent more money on climate-change than ‘skeptical right-wing groups and industry’

    Nature’s report: “Environmental groups and their supporters spend more money on climate-change and clean-energy activities and campaigns than sceptical right-wing groups and their industry supporters, according to a report by a US social scientist, who questions some of the most common reasons given for US political inaction on global warming.”

  10. NikFromNYC

    Actual data does exist that establishes a historical warming trend as being utterly natural since there is NO TREND CHANGE WHATSOEVER in the modern era in ACTUAL THERMOMETER RECORDS that carry back for centuries.

    Not even the global average shows a trend change before/after the huge postwar burst of CO2 output:

    Logic alone dictates that history cannot be a hockey stick if actual thermometer records are immune to forming little hockey sticks themselves. And if history is not a hockey stick, temperature-wise, then claims that recent warming is alarming fail to even pass the laugh test.

  11. AL

    Nisbet’s original response on Romm’s first pass at the financial claim is a non-argument: “The financial analysis is thorough, deep and complex. It has been twisted and skewed by Romm.” What exactly has been twisted and skewed? And what about the exact same criticism that has been leveled at Nisbet my one of his former reviewers, Robert Brulle? While Nisbet says that he took those criticisms into account there is, as yet, no answer from Nisbet of the exact criticisms of the report that Brulle has made.

    The key thing that Nisbet has not yet addressed is how he could possibly count the *entire* lobbying budget of BP and other industry members of USCAP in the pro-cap and trade column. On his press call yesterday rolling out the report Nisbet changed his tone a bit and said that his point was only to represent the amount “available” on each side to lobby on the climate bill. But use such figures in a tally of the money spent on both sides of the legislative fight is nonsense on stilts. One might look at my total yearly income, and my commitment to passing some kind of climate legislation, and then argue that my total income should count in the sum of total money available to the environmental movement to pass climate legislation. This would of course be ridiculous.

  12. I encourage everyone to read the section on lobbying.

    Here’s how that section concludes:

    With the exception of the figures for the environmental groups, this comparison of lobbying expenditures across coalitions should not be interpreted as reflecting the actual amounts spent on cap and trade legislation. Instead, in the aggregate, these totals are representative of the capacity for power and influence that each side could apply in 2009. Through their work building coalitions and alliances, the environmental groups were able to forge a network of organizations that spent a combined $229 million on lobbying across all issues. In comparison, the network of prominent opponents of cap and trade legislation spent $272 million lobbying across all issues. These figures represent a dramatically reduced power difference compared with past legislative debates over climate change.

    NATURE editorializes today that the Climate Shift report “is a must read for anyone remotely interested in the climate change debate.”

    I encourage everyone to go beyond the blog debate and engage with the research and ideas found in the report.

  13. Chris Mooney

    Right, Matt, then why does everyone think the environmental groups spent more money, as quoted above? That has nothing to do with your conscious framing of the report, does it? They’re just delusional–they’ve just made it up?

  14. NewYorkJ

    The mere identification of AAAS members as being less conservative, with much fewer identifying with the Republican party isn’t in itself wrong. It’s the implication that this necessarily biases their views, causes them to reach incorrect conclusions, or to intimidate other “moderates” within their ranks from expressing opinions on policy proposals or intolerance of critique of “admired political leaders” (if that last parts sounds particularly ridiculous, read the last paragraph of Nisbet’s conclusion). Scientists are characterized as forming their views at the Church of Gore and protecting their admired political leaders.

    There doesn’t seem to be any consideration for what leads scientists away from the Republican party. Perhaps years of their leaders denying evolution, denying health effects of certain chemicals, outright denial of climate science, calling their work a “hoax”, or attacking their research and in some cases, their colleagues is what leads scientists in another direction. According to Nisbet, the evidence that scientists identify less with Republicans or conservatives is not evidence that Republicans are at fault, but evidence that scientists are heavily biased and therefore must reach false conclusions (some of the “correct” conclusions identified by Nisbet are rather dubious, as noted here and elsewhere).

  15. TTT

    So through the magic of Framing and other various rhetorical / conceptual categorization mechanisms Nisbet made up, environmentalists spent more money even though they spent less money, and he didn’t say they spent more money even though he did.

    This is lower than Lomborg.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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 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.


See More

Collapse bottom bar