This tweet from today caught my eye:
One picture that will convince everyone to vaccinate their kids http://t.co/cPH5cnbd9C
— ThinkProgress (@thinkprogress) April 8, 2014
The smart folks at ThinkProgress seem to have missed all the media coverage of this recent study, which found that, for those already suspicious or concerned about vaccines, images of sick children and dramatic, cautionary narratives “actually increased beliefs in serious vaccine side effects.”
This is a known as the “backfire effect,” a phenomena defined concisely here:
When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
Two of the researchers (Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler) who have previously written about the “backfire effect” in the context of political issues, are the lead authors of the recent study on ineffective vaccine communication approaches. (I discussed their paper here several weeks ago.) The study’s results suggest that vaccine-hesitant parents are immune to pro-vaccine messages and scary warnings, leading the authors to ask:
how should physicians and public health agencies respond to parental questions about vaccine safety? This question is difficult to answer. For instance, while some have advocated that health professionals engage in dialogue with vaccine-hesitant parents, relatively little is known about which messages are effective in overcoming parental reluctance to vaccinate.
But some are working assiduously to discern which messages are effective. On this front, I was encouraged to learn recently about Julie Leask, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, in Australia. (Hat tip to Dan Kahan, who also has relevant vaccine-related papers here and here.) Leask has written about her work here and here and laid out seemingly effective communication approaches in this 2012 paper.
Several weeks ago, I had an email exchange with Leask, in which she elaborated on her research findings. Below is a lengthy excerpt from her that spells out some of the strategies now being used to communicate with vaccine-hesitant parents:
In recent years, as I have paid closer attention to how our individual biases influence the way we think about everything from climate change to gun control, I have periodically been overcome with a sense of futility.
I blame Dan Kahan for this. His research at Yale, along with the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky, have revealed the limitations of the rational mind.
I am not the only one in my profession who has wondered if journalism can penetrate confirmation bias. The findings of social scientists and cognitive researchers has also led Andrew Revkin of the New York Times to call himself a “recovering journalist.” His “denial,” he wrote several years ago,
lay in my longstanding presumption, like that of many scientists and journalists, that better communication of information will tend to change people’s perceptions, priorities and behavior.
If our evolutionary brain functions in a way that filters information subjectively and how we view the world and, say, the science behind climate change or genetically modified crops, then how can journalists penetrate a lens already colored by politics or ideology? (For example, ask Grist editors how its core audience responded to this deep dive into the facts surrounding GMOs.)
According to the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Not in an absolute sense, but in a practical sense, the Center says:
This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts.
Of course, we know that not everyone is deriving their facts from the same pool of knowledge. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many people who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago.
In the mid-2000s, I was researching an archaeology story that took me to several national parks in the Southwest. At one of them, the National Park Service (NPS) archaeologist discussed competing theories about the disappearance of a mysterious ancient culture. For decades, there had been heated debate among scholars over what became of this culture.
In an aside, the NPS archaeologist told me how professional squabbles in her field prompted her at one point to flee the Southwest to do archaeology in another region. Why? “One reason I left is I find southwestern archaeologists… [long pause] very unforgiving.” How so? “Part of it is the backstabbing.” The archaeologist didn’t care to elaborate, so we turned back to a discussion on the different factors that led to a depopulating of the American Southwest a millennium ago.
By this time, I had already learned that some topics in southwestern archaeology were highly contentious, that the field was fraught with cultural biases and that one scientist in particular–Christy Turner–had felt the wrath of his colleagues for research that challenged prevailing views.
Of course, turf battles and petty behavior are not unique to anthropology (though the field has its share of high profile controversies). And the fierceness of scholarly combat is usually confined to academic conferences and journals. (Sometimes it spills into public view–oh look, another example from anthropology.) But when research has public policy implications, it attracts wider interest and scrutiny. And if the research leaps onto the political stage, it becomes cannon fodder for competing agendas.
Several years after my sojourn in the Southwest, a tranche of emails from climate scientists were stolen from a university server and made public on the internet. The 2009 episode, which became known as “Climategate,” did not undermine the multiple lines of evidence for human-caused climate change. But the event reverberated globally because 1) climate change had already become an intensely political and partisan issue, and 2) the emails were leaked just prior to an international meeting that many had hoped would lead to an agreement between nations to curtail their carbon emissions. That expectation proved unrealistic.
By this time, I had recently switched from my day job as an editor covering the environment for Audubon magazine to a freelancer writing and blogging more frequently about climate change. I also started my own blog–Collide-a-Scape, where I interrogated the claims, arguments and tactics used by the various combatants in the climate debate. Sometimes I touched a nerve. It soon became apparent to me that anything I wrote on the subject of climate change–including responses to a reader at my own blog–had the potential to be cherry-picked for the blogospheric funhouse.
This is just one dimension of the warped environment that much coverage, commentary, and discussion of climate change takes place in. My own fleeting experiences pale in comparison to those of climate scientists, whose work is the subject of intense and relentless public scrutiny. A number of them have been unfairly treated, hounded, and personally slandered for years.
To those aware of this history it came as no surprise that the correspondence between climate scientists made public in 2009 revealed a siege mentality. It also revealed a side of scientists that people didn’t normally see, which I thought was then put into terrific context by one biologist: Read More
The anti-GMO troops in the United States received some unwelcome news this week from Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Hamburg reiterated the FDA’s support for voluntary GMO labeling initiatives, but nothing beyond that:
The way FDA has for many years interpreted the law and it has been supported by the courts is that mandatory labeling is appropriate and required when there is a fault claim or misbranding. The fact that a food contains GE ingredients does not constitute a material change in the product.
She also mentioned the large body of science that points to the safety of genetically modified foods, (a consensus opinion of all the major scientific bodies, including the AAAS and the Royal Society of Medicine).
“It is an insult to anyone who buys food in this country to go on record stating that the FDA has ‘not found evidence of safety risks’ associated with GMOs,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the OCA. “The American Medical Association has called for pre-market safety testing of GMOs, and almost 300 scientists and doctors last year signed a statement saying that there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”
Really? Because such a statement might be considered an insult to the American Medical Association (AMA), which says that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.” I guess Cummins must have read right past that part in the 2012 AMA statement on genetically engineered crops and foods.
Oh, and as for those “300 scientists and doctors” asserting “no scientific consensus on GMO safety,” perhaps they have something in common with this group of scientists who reject the scientific consensus on global warming.
Further down in its press release, the Organic Consumers Association asserts: Read More
currently there’s no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be.
Critics in the Guardian and elsewhere dismissed “clean coal” as industry greenwash. But such broad denunciations conveniently ignored the billions of dollars the U.S. federal government (under President Obama) had poured into what is known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. So while the term “clean coal” may well be a misnomer, people should be aware that the U.S. Department of Energy has a slew of projects it categorizes as “clean coal research.”
In a 2010 feature for The Atlantic, James Fallows laid out the rationale for decarbonizing coal: It remained a cheap, abundant and widely-used energy source and will continue to be so “for a very long time.” He also surveyed the state of clean coal technology, which led him to China. Fallows reported:
In the search for “progress on coal,” like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well. “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States,” David Mohler of Duke Energy told me.
Fallows took the idea of clean coal seriously because the Chinese–who rely on coal–were investing hugely in the technology to make it cleaner. And they seemed to be making strides. But as I noted in a 2012 piece for Slate, many people were still snickering:
Chris Rock recently joked on Twitter that “clean coal is kinda like clean porn.” Several years ago, a Washington Post op-ed scoffed: “Never was there an oxymoron more insidious, or more dangerous to our public health.”
Today, some heavyweights in the media are looking past this ridicule and again taking a close look at clean coal. The delicacy of such an effort is obvious in the National Geographic story published in the magazine’s April issue. The author Michelle Nijhuis starts off her piece this way: Read More
As I discussed in the previous entry, a recent Guardian blog post (structured loosely as a news article) made worldwide headlines. It was trumpeted by the Guardian blogger as an “exclusive”; he was given a copy of a paper soon to be published in the journal Ecological Economics. Because he didn’t provide any context for the paper (the authors were not interviewed, nor were any independent experts), I thought I’d jump into this vacuum.
Let’s start with the first paragraph of the study’s abstract:
There are widespread concerns that current trends in resource-use are unsustainable, but possibilities of overshoot/collapse remain controversial. Collapses have occurred frequently in history, often followed by centuries of economic, intellectual, and population decline. Many different natural and social phenomena have been invoked to explain specific collapses, but a general explanation remains elusive.
Anthropologists are loathe to make sweeping generalizations about the dissolution and/or reorganization of prehistoric cultures. This hasn’t stopped popular narratives about carrying capacity from taking hold and remaining immune to mounting evidence that challenges prevailing views.
Let’s return to the study’s abstract:
In this paper, we build a human population dynamics model by adding accumulated wealth and economic inequality to a predator-prey model of humans and nature. The model structure, and simulated scenarios that offer significant implications, are explained. Four equations describe the evolution of Elites, Commoners, Nature, and Wealth. The model shows Economic Stratification or Ecological Strain can independently lead to collapse, in agreement with the historical record.
In other words, overconsumption by elites and/or resource depletion lead to societal collapse, the authors assert.
Early in the paper, they walk us through the historical record, citing, among other examples, the fall of the Roman Empire and the crumbling of ancient societies from Southeast Asia to the American Southwest as case studies that suggest “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” The question this raises, they write, is “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible” to a crash.
One of the questions nagging at me when I read this study was whether prehistoric societies are appropriate analogues for our 21st century world. Oxford’s Steve Rayner, an anthropologist I contacted, provided valuable context:
Whether historical empires were fragile or robust depends on your time perspective and how you divide up historical epochs.
But the authors insist in their paper:
The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.
But China as a civilization dates from at least 2070 BCE, that makes it 4000 years old at present. Just because it has been eclipsed by the west for a mere couple of centuries should not blind us to this. The first Egyptian dynasty began around 3000 BCE and the Ptolemys collapsed in 30 BCE when Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, which lasted another 400-500 years, before itself morphing into the Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium respectively, the latter morphing into the Ottoman Empire. These seem to me to be pretty long epochs in human terms, if not in geological ones. Nothing lasts for ever and arguably while individual human societies come and go humanity seems to be better off in general today than ever before.
He also said that “the very idea of collapse is ideologically loaded” and offered a suggestion:
For a much more balanced approach to the issue of technological innovation and sustainability I recommend you take a look at the final chapter of Joseph Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”
Overall I found the paper to be trivial and deeply flawed. It is amazing that anyone would take it seriously, but clearly some people do (at least in the media).
You are correct that they cite my work a lot, but they seem not to have been influenced by it, or even to understand it. I suspect they were strongly influenced by the work of Peter Turchin—for which, please see the attached (short) review.
He then promised to send a more detailed response, which he emailed several days later. Here it is in full (emphasis mine)
It is interesting how collapse theories mirror broader societal issues. During the Cold War, we had theories ascribing collapse to elite mismanagement, class conflict, and peasant revolts. As global warming became a public issue, scholars of the past began to discover that ancient societies collapsed due to climate change. As we have become concerned about sustainability and resource use today, we have learned that ancient societies collapsed due to depletion of critical resources, such as soil and forests. Now that inequality and “the 1%” are topics of public discourse, we have this paper focusing largely on elite resource consumption.
Models depend on the assumptions that go into them. Thus the first four pages of the paper are the part most worth discussing.
The paper has many flaws. The first is that “collapse” is not defined, and the examples given conflate different processes and outcomes. Thus the authors are not even clear what topic they are addressing.
Collapses have occurred among both hierarchical and non-hierarchical societies, and the authors even discuss the latter (although without understanding the implications for their thesis). Thus, although the authors purport to offer a universal model of collapse (involving elite consumption), their own discussion undercuts that argument.
Contrary to the authors’ unsubstantiated assertion, there is no evidence that elite consumption caused ancient societies to collapse. The authors simply have no empirical basis for this assumption, and that point alone undercuts most of the paper.
The authors assert that there is a “two-class structure of modern society,” and indeed their analysis depends on this being the case. The basis for this assertion comes from two papers published in obscure physics journals. That’s right, this assertion does not come from peer-review social science. It comes from journals that have no expertise in this topic, and whose audience is unqualified to evaluate the assertion critically.
In other words, there is no empirical or substantiated theoretical basis for this paper’s model.
In modeling, once one has established one’s assumptions and parameters, it is a simple matter to program the mathematics that will give the outcome one wants or expects. For this reason, models must be critically evaluated. Unfortunately, most readers are unable to evaluate a model’s assumptions. Instead, readers are impressed by equations and colored graphs, and assume thereby that a model mimics real processes and outcomes. That seems to be the case with this paper, and it represents the worst in modeling.
Sagoff was bluntly dismissive:
I skimmed the article yesterday and saw that it was the Club of Rome all over again — the computer that cried wolf.
I have no doubt that many empires fell as others rose. Now the average man lives better than the ancient emperor. We have seen creative destruction before and we will see it again. But what destroys improves.
There is nothing here [in the paper] that was not presented in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Ehrlich and other “Cassandras” as they called themselves. Their views, repeated in this [Guardian] article and study, have been completely discredited.
Sagoff ended on a down note:
I am sorry to have seen the paper you sent — it is discouraging. Nobody learns anything or bothers to try.
So what do the authors of the study think of this harsh criticism? (I’m still waiting to hear back from additional social and environmental scientists. I’d like to know if others have a more charitable take on the paper). I’ve contacted two of the three co-authors repeatedly this week, asking to interview them about their paper–including how it’s been characterized in the media and the critiques lodged in this space. But they have declined. They say they would rather wait to speak to the press until their paper is published in several weeks.
If that’s the case, then I think they will come to regret giving a Guardian writer an advance peek for a story ahead of publication. A second wave of media interest is unlikely to be triggered by the paper’s official publication.
Perhaps the authors are fine with that. One of them, Eugenia Kalnay, a University of Maryland atmospheric scientist, did convey to me, via email, her approval of the Guardian article:
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed wrote an excellent discussion based on a pre-publication draft of the paper.
Ahmed wrote an uncritical appraisal of the study. He didn’t bother to inquire about the merits of the model or its results. If Kalnay and her colleagues would like to engage in actual discussion of their paper, I encourage them to visit this space. I will gladly post their responses.
The end of the world, like everything worth knowing these days, will be tweeted:
NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? | Nafeez Ahmed http://t.co/nWqOcD3UkB
— Guardian Environment (@guardianeco) March 14, 2014
If a study with the imprimatur of a major U.S. government agency thinks civilization may soon be destined to fall apart, I want to know more about that.
The piece cuts to the chase in the opener:
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.
What follows is a straightforward summary of the paper, which the Guardian writer tells us has been accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal called Ecological Economics.
I’m going to discuss the actual paper separately in the second part of this post. First, let’s talk about the Guardian write-up, its author, and how his piece went global, the latter of which is a sad commentary on journalism today.
Technically, the story appears on a blog in the environment section of the Guardian. The blog’s host is Nafeez Ahmed, who in his Guardian bio describes himself as “a bestselling author, investigative journalist and international security scholar.”
Since joining the Guardian’s blogging network in 2013, Ahmed has carved out what I would call the doomsday beat. He highlights individuals and academic papers that reinforce the thesis of his 2011 documentary, “The Crisis of Civilization,” which is about Read More
In the late 2000s, a new climate change story line emerged in the media.
The seeds for this narrative were perhaps sown ten years ago, when a worst-case scenario report commissioned by the Pentagon triggered breathless headlines about a research field known as “abrupt climate change.” Perhaps you saw the 2004 movie.
What followed was a more sober analysis from Beltway think tanks assessing the linkages between climate change and geopolitical strife. Congress held hearings on the climate/national security nexus and the issue –while politically contentious–was taken seriously in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Indeed, climate change was projected to be a major driver of future conflicts and instability around the world.
In the last several years, some scholars and influential pundits have argued that global warming played a major role in the Arab Spring. The notion that climate change sparked Syria’s hellish civil war has also gained currency in some circles.
When we get to this point–when famines and wars with deeply rooted socio-political causes–are attributed to climate change–we are approaching the same territory inhabited by those who routinely cast every severe weather event and catastrophe in the context of climate change. (This unfortunate tendency is rued by some in the climate community.)
Researchers who study the environment/security intersection–and who strive to remain unbiased–know that the climate change-security discourse has taken a problematic direction. (Indeed, some warned about it.) At the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security program, read this new post by Francois Gemenne, who writes: Read More
A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist. We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent. He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent. Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic. Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.”
If you want to know why the Ehrlichs think it’s essentially game over for civilization, read their 2013 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Their diagnosis:
The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.
Translation: Too many damn people on the earth, driving cars, buying too much crap, all made possible by a globalized, industrialized, capitalistic system. Or something like that. Unsurprisingly, the Ehrlichs don’t agree with those who paint a sunnier view of humanity’s current trajectory. (What might a model sustainable society look like? Paul Ehrlich recently pointed to Australia’s Aboriginal culture.)
Now I’m not the only one to observe that the environmental community, as a whole, has a bleak view of the future.
But is the near-future collapse of civilization virtually guaranteed, as the Ehrlichs seem to think? Is there no reversing this collision course? Here’s what UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt said last week in an interview: Read More
Not long ago my wife and I went out to dinner at a restaurant with another couple, who, like us, have two boys. The conversation inevitably turned to our kids, school, family stuff. Their older son made the transition this year to junior high school. I asked how this was going. Pretty well, the mother said, except he had recently become anxious and wasn’t sleeping well. “He’s worried about climate change,” she said. “It’s keeping him up at night.”
Shortly after that outing, my wife and I had dinner with another couple. Again, the conversation revolved around our kids. (They have a 13-year old son and an 11-year old daughter). Their teenage boy, I learned, was also having anxiety and sleep issues. “He’s become obsessed with climate change,” the father told me. “He thinks the world is doomed.”
Now I admit these are anecdotal stories. Not every 13-year old kid is worried about global warming. Generally speaking, most fret about grades, being cool, etc. When I was that age, I cared about mundane things, like boxscores and comic books. My world didn’t widen until I reached high school and college.
If kids today have a greater awareness at a younger age of environmental issues, it’s probably because many schools have made earth science a part of the educational curriculum in earlier grades. For example, the fourth grade students in my son’s Brooklyn public school just performed in a recital called, “A musical journey through four environments: The arctic, the forest, the ocean, the city.” That’s a terrific way to teach young minds about ecosystems. (They also learn about the environment in their science class.)
I’m not sure how climate change is taught to students when they reach 6th or 7th grade, so I have no idea what might have triggered the sudden anxiousness experienced by the two aforementioned boys. It’s also worth pointing out that my social circle is made up of politically progressive, socially-conscious well-to-do families. (Yeah, the kind of people that unfortunately, also worry about being poisoned by GMOs.) In this case, however, I know that the parents of the two boys don’t have strong feelings about climate change, so I don’t think the trigger was at home.
Nor would I argue that these two examples of teenage anxiety about climate change reflect the typical fears of American youth. Still, for kids who are dialed into global concerns, there’s no doubt they are exposed to a climate discourse that is heavy on apocalyptic warnings. It is the dominant tenor of the conversation that takes place in the media and in environmental circles.
So it doesn’t surprise me that a 13-year old researching a class project on climate change becomes anxious after reading about a future careening toward unavoidable climate catastrophe. Look it up for yourself: Doomsday is all but assured, we are constantly told. I was flipping through a recent issue of Utne magazine when I came across this re-publication of a 2012 essay by Chris Hedges. He writes: Read More