Facts Don't Persuade Climate Skeptics–So What Does?

By Chris Mooney | September 14, 2011 10:54 am

The answer, according to a new study, is making them feel better about themselves. As I report:

…the contested issues under examination were whether the 2007 troop “Surge” decreased insurgent attacks in Iraq (it did), whether the U.S. economy added jobs during 2010 under President Obama (it did), and whether global average temperatures have risen since 1940 (they have). Those who opposed the Iraq war and supported troop withdrawals were disinclined to credit George W. Bush’s surge with having worked. Those who oppose President Obama are disinclined to credit him on the economy, or to generally believe in global warming—especially that it is human caused.

Nyhan and Reifler once again confronted partisans with information on these subjects that (presumably) contradicted their beliefs—but there was a twist. This time, the contradictory information was sometimes presented in the form of a convincing graph, showing a clear trend (in attacks, jobs, or temperatures). And second, sometimes the individuals went into the manipulation after having undergone a “self-affirmation” exercise, in which they were asked to describe a positive character attribute or value that they possessed, and a situation in which showing that attribute or trait made them feel good about themselves.

And in both cases, the manipulation worked—although by different means.

Presenting an unequivocal graph was powerful enough to change people’s views, even as presenting technical text (at least in the rising temperatures case) was not. Meanwhile, getting people to affirm their values and sense of self also decreased their resistance, presumably because they felt less threatened by challenging information after having had their egos reinforced and their identities bolstered.

Read on here. Huge implications for effective science communication.

Comments (10)

  1. plutosdad

    Ben Franklin said much the same thing, I thought I highlighted a quote by him in my Kindle but I can’t find it. But when I read his autobiography a few years ago, I was struck by his notes about arguing and using well not flattery per se, but geniality and letting them know you’re”on the same side” in order to convince them to change their mind.

  2. Don

    Chris: Congratulations on a string of extremely interesting and informative posts.

  3. I’m a big fan of both CFI and science education, but part of this really rubs me the wrong way.

    “…whether the 2007 troop “Surge” decreased insurgent attacks in Iraq (it did)…” Really? The *correlation* between the occurrence of the surge and the subsequent decrease in insurgency conveniently ignores the fact that we were also actively *bribing people to switch sides* at that time [One source linked above].

    And I resent the implication that I’m a “partisan” belaboring confirmation bias for saying that, since I don’t vote, hate both parties, and am not represented anywhere in mainstream politics. Just the use of the word partisan there — admittedly probably a poor choice of words — implies that one must either be a Republican and support the Iraq War or a Democrat and oppose it, which is absurd on its face. There’s more to politics than the two parties, and hundreds of self-proclaimed Democrats did and still do support the War, just like several self-proclaimed Democrats don’t believe Obama is doing enough on jobs (see Krugman), which is really the point.

    Articles about climate change denial don’t belong in an amalgam with political hackery relying on the cause-correlation fallacy and the bifurcation error. I’d like to see better than this from CFI, an organization of which I was once a dues-paying member.

  4. vel

    So it seems “appeal to their vanity” is what works. Vanity could include “patriotism” since that always is wrapped up in how “great” someone is.

    I’ll have to say it seems that those who aren’t persuaded by facts are immature human beings. They act like four-year olds.

  5. vel said: “I’ll have to say it seems that those who aren’t persuaded by facts are immature human beings. They act like four-year olds.”

    This is a very strong statement, one sure to provoke an equally strong reaction, possibly an argument.

    In other words, not only do I agree with it and am I glad someone said it, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t say it first.

    I detest this line of thought, which we’ve all seen repeatedly on various sites in the last year or so, that those of us listening to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on this topic have to find some way to coddle the skeptics or fool them into siding with reality. Is this where we’ve come as a species (or civilization or country)? A significant portion of us not only doesn’t believe that the glowing red stove is hot and wants us all to touch it, but those people have to be tricked into acting in their own and everyone’s best interest?

    And what happens when we find some other “common ground” or way of approaching the topic that wins them over, only to have other circumstances change so that they revert to their prior viewpoint?

    Finally, I think that this entire approach is quite naive. Walk into a room full of randomly selected people (in the US) and start a presentation by saying, “Hi. I’m an environmentalist.” A sizable portion of the audience will instantly decide that every word you say after that is very likely a lie, and that you’re some kind of closet commie who wants to kill capitalism and hates the US. The applicability of any of these indirect approaches to getting skeptics on the reality-based side of the climate issue is severely limited, thanks to their devotion to ideology.

    This is where someone asks me, “OK, smart guy, so what’s the solution???” That’s the problem — I don’t have one.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    This is a very interesting experiment! We’ve seen how the words affect people’s conclusions, now let’s test their reaction to the graphical form.

    Follow the link to the paper given above, and turn to pages 42-44 where figures 1-3 are presented.

    For figure 1, which of these is true?
    a) Affirmation decreased errors in 3/6 cases and increased them in 3/6 cases.
    b) Affirmation significantly decreased errors across the board.

    For figure 2, which of these is true?
    a) Affirmation decreased errors in 1/4 cases and increased them in 1/4 cases, and made virtually no difference in 2/4 cases.
    b) Affirmation significantly decreased errors across the board.

    For figure 3, which of these is true?
    a) Affirmation decreased errors in 3/6 cases and increased them in 3/6 cases.
    b) Affirmation significantly decreased errors across the board.

    Considering your answers to the previous three questions, which of these is true?
    a) Affirmation enables us to recognise when errors have been made.
    b) Looking at the graphs enables us to recognise when errors have been made.

  7. How about the following? How about, instead of publishing the umpteenth study that people who disagree aren’t really human beings, can’t really think, we try to address their line of reasoning?

    Here’s the reason that there is so much denialism about. Because the chain of logic that is presented is:

    Global warming is real ========> We need to give huge amounts of money and power to sinister types like Al Gore and James Lovelock.

    Since the presumptive conclusion is obviously insane, they conclude that the premise must be equally insane.

    To put a bit more meat on those bones, the public can see the Green Jobs racket, the kickbacks and subsidies and sweetheart deals, the biofuel disaster, the bullying and hectoring of the Green Movement, and they decide they want no part of it. Okay? They aren’t climate scientists, but they are not fools and they judge on the evidence that is presented to them. The evidence being that the climate change political movement (I keep banging on about this because it’s important, climate change politics must be sharply divided from the climate change science) and they conclude that it is a fraud.

  8. ron

    hugo schmidt – yet those same people have zero problem whatsoever with the iraq war racket, the kickbacks and subsidies and sweetheart deals or the billions stolen via no-bid contracts by politically connected contractors to totally botch the iraq war.

    they are fools. and you are too to call the green movement bullying and hectoring – a myth carefully constructed by people like the koch bros. and the rightwing noise machine – or think biofuels as constituted in this country had anything to do with climate science – guess who is getting rich off that scam? the same koch bros.

  9. I’ve experienced this myself in talking to people, surprised at how easily people warm to new ideas when they feel encouraged in some way, and how stuck they get when I offer them my advice because I know better than they do. And even though I know better about what works, I still get stuck in giving advice that way.

  10. yogi-one

    Whether we trust people or not is basically an emotional decision. After that hurdle is passed, we then feel better about evaluating their logic.

    I think this is perhaps because the first person you trust is your mother. It’s a purely biological, instinctive, intuitive trust, and becomes the standard against which all trust relationships are measured.

    It may be countered that it is indeed possible to decide to trust someone on the strength of purely logical reasoning. I would counter by asking “yes it’s possible, but how often do you actually do that – form your trust relationships on the basis of logic?”

    If you trust someone you are far more likely to entertain their viewpoint, if not adopt it for yourself.

    I think this is why attempts to being such disparate parties to agreements don’t work.

    If you hate Obama, it won’t matter what his economic logic is. If you hate Rick Perry, then the foregone conclusion is that everything he says is either utter BS, or an attempt to propagandize you.

    You will never accept the other’s viewpoint when no trust is established.

    ESPECIALLY when it’s emotions vs logic. Every politician worth his salt knows who wins that battle, every time.

    Which is why climate science gets beat up so badly.

    But now, because of actual events that feel like the effects of climate change, especially if they affect you directly, the emotional pendulum is finally beginning to swing the other way.

    When your home state has been slow cooking for 10 years, then finally explodes in flames, you look less believable when you tell people that warming is a hoax.

    In that case, your logic is not supporting the emotional experience of the people.

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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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