Four ways to assemble the evidence on climate change

How it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded?

The answer, from a Cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward. People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then, if you want to persuade large numbers of people, is to produce and shape a variety of evidence. Here are some suggestions for what climate change might look like, viewed four different ways.

Just before we begin, note that science communicators seem to be ridiculously bad at doing this. Their so-called evidence and so-called solutions are almost always heavily weighted towards the Egalitarian version of climate change alone, which is why their views are contested. As we’re about to show, there’s much more to life than egalitarianism, but since that’s how much of the climate discourse is presented, that’s where we’ll start.

Egalitarian Climate Change:

On this view you should demonstrate with science and/or emotive rhetoric (whichever appeals best to hearts and minds, the Elephant and the rider as Jonathan Haidt would say) that our very civilization is in danger unless we change our profligate ways. Changing our energy sources is to be depicted as only a preliminary step to changing our values. Peter Preston said we need an ‘eco-prophet’ to show us how to believe but this is emphatically wrong. Such Egalitarian eco-prophets as have arisen – Al Gore in the US, George Monbiot in the UK, and many others – have been shot down in flames, derided as extremists.

Egalitarian authority comes most authentically not from prophets but from the masses. Common sense, what everyone knows, is what is true. That’s why ‘scientific consensus’ is so much more important to Egalitarians than it is to scientists themselves (scientists themselves rather like arguing and starting feuds).

Individualist Climate Change:

From an Individualist perspective you should provide information and examples on how to make a profit from climate change, appealing all the while to visceral self-interest. If it turns out you actually can make a profit from climate change, and do so better than your competitors, then climate change must surely exist.

Alternatively, and inversely, demonstrate concrete (not hypothetical or future) impacts on the bottom line of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change.

On this view scientists who make photovoltaics competitive with coal fired power stations are doing more to combat climate change than any amount of hand-wringing by the likes of James Hanson, who is simply discounted as a crypto-religious or crypto-communist ‘fanatical environmentalist’. A figurehead Individualist expert would be someone like Shi Zhengrong, China’s first solar billionaire. Money doesn’t lie.

Hierarchical Climate Change

Paying attention to the Hierarchical perspective you should develop and promote management theories of climate change. If you can reconfigure governance to take account of climate change in ways that enhance management functions, and if it makes evident sense to have a Minister for Climate Change, then climate change must certainly exist.

Alternatively, demonstrate (perhaps by means of case study) real and damaging governance failures of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change in their management structure. What risks demonstrably increase when you don’t have a Minister for Climate Change or a framework for global climate change governance? Ideal Hierarchical experts will be at or near the top of the tree. It will be their status that speaks loudest. If Prince Charles and the Pope both worry about climate change, who are we to argue? Failing the biggest guns, the Head of the Royal Society will do at a pinch, unless you can find someone more senior.

Fatalist Climate Change

With reference to the Fatalist perspective you should demonstrate the randomizing impact of climate change on the status quo. Fatalism thrives by enhancing and systematizing the luck of the draw and turning it into policy (explicit or, more often than not, tacit), or reward (the lottery). Fatalists tend to say ‘climates change!’ with the twin implications that it was always like this and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Fatalist institutions tend to make a virtue of doing nothing about it, and try to make sure no one else does anything about it either.

What not to do

If you keep using only one of the four perspectives described by Cultural Theory, your message will appeal to some people but deeply antagonise many others. It will be welcomed in some social settings but shunned in others. Don’t keep doing this, because so far it hasn’t worked.

There is nothing wrong with professing the view that in light of dangerous climate change problems what the world needs now is global governance. But to expect that this will not be seen as politically inflammatory is to be naive in the extreme. The global governance line works well before Hierarchical audiences (bureaucrats and some heads of state, for instance), but really badly before audiences with the other three cultural biases.

Simply put, any media release about a new piece of climate research could do with not one but four different versions, each targeted at a different cultural bias. A more sophisticated version of this would be to develop a communications strategy which includes interaction with all four cultural world views, not just with one or two, as at present.

A little help from Aristotle

But that’s not quite enough. Prof Dan Kahn at the Cultural Cognition Project has suggested that any message about science really has two channels: the content itself, and the cultural meaning attached to that content. He rightly suggests communicators need to be aware of both. But his model reminded me of Aristotle, who thought there were three, not just two, channels of communication.

In presenting an argument, Aristotle’s classic rhetorical concepts of ethos, pathos and logos still have a great deal to contribute (Gottweis in Fisher, Miller and Sidney, 2007: 237-250). Too many presentations rely almost exclusively on logos, the actual ideas and concepts, the contents of the presentation. This is certainly important but in some ways overshadowed by the other two. Pathos refers to the emotions evoked and ethos refers to the character of the person delivering the message. These are both highly important but often underused. The implication of Cultural Theory is that all three, ethos, pathos and logos, are configured according to the main cultural biases. An egalitarian logos, for example, may work best when it is supported by Egalitarian pathos and Egalitarian ethos. On the other hand, a speaker trying to appeal to an Individualist audience may keep some of the Egalitarian logos, while appealing to an Individualist pathos and using an Individualist ethos.

More reading:

The dark side of Cultural Theory

Edit: changed the title of this post from ‘make up’ to ‘assemble’. See the discussion in the comments.

Experts and Cultural Cognition

Dan Kahan‘s blog at the Cultural Cognition Project makes some conjectures about whether experts think in similar ways to non-experts. Specifically he wonders whether experts exhibit the kinds of cultural biases already demonstrated by non-experts. Do experts use cultural cognition?

My observation is that there would need to be care taken to avoid something like the fundamental attribution error. That is to say, being an ‘expert’ in a given field is strongly conditioned by situation. So the very choice of who the experts are may be conditioned by unacknowledged cultural bias. My conjecture is that experts therefore say what their audiences and sponsors expect them to, otherwise they would be unrecognizable as experts. In situations where the message is critiqued, so is the messenger’s status as an expert. In situations where the message is positively received, the messenger’s status as expert is regarded as obvious.

Three possible examples:

Who is an expert in local economic development? Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, tends to have a strongly Egalitarian outlook on the world. He recently complained that the ‘growth as usual’ mindset of local council officers called into question their competence as expert in their own field. His position is that true economic development experts would take into account peak oil, economic crises and climate change and allow for the possibility that economic growth, as it has been understood, may be a thing of the past.

Second example: Climate science has its experts and it is an open question as to whether the geologist Ian Plimer is one of them. At one level he is not an expert in climate science since that is not his area of professional competence. However, he has written a book on the subject and since he is a ‘climate sceptic’, there are some people who wish to present him as an expert in climate change. His new book for students was launched by a former prime minister of Australia.

The third example is that of US judges, experts in legal deliberation, many of whom are appointed on specifically political grounds. Voters have a sense of the liberal and conservative candidates for office and they vote accordingly. To those of us living in places where the judiciary is appointed on merit rather than elected, this appears strange indeed. After all, what could be less political than judgements concerning the facts?

In these examples the kinds of statements made by ‘experts’ are received not on the basis of whether the person in question actually has qualifications or professional standing, but on whether their words fit with a particular cultural bias. That is to say, each cultural bias already has its own experts, who are brought into the argument in order to cast doubt on the competence of the other side’s supposed expertise.

So before we can identify how experts behave it’s necessary to create a definition of expert that is broadly acceptable across the conflicting cultural solidarities described by Cultural Theory. The three examples given above show that this may be quite difficult.

 

It matters who presents the message

unsafe area

Who would you trust to tell you what the risks are?

Research from the Cultural Cognition project suggests the cultural identity of the presenter matters significantly to the public reception of a particular message about risk. In other words, we need our experts to be our experts, not the other side’s experts.

It follows from this that one way of reducing the polarization of debates on risk may be to provide a variety of views on an issue from within a particular cultural bias. Two examples of this in practice are presented below, one quite successful, the other less so.

Continue reading “It matters who presents the message”

The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.
Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

Culture and the Science of Climate Change

George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.

Prof Kahan says:

‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’

However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.

But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.

  • First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
  • Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
  • Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.

Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.

He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.

People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.

Here are some suggestions: Continue reading “Culture and the Science of Climate Change”

“People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook”

…according to law professor Don Braman, that is. NPR has an interview with members of the Cultural Cognition Project, who have been demonstrating experimentally that people’s climate change beliefs are strongly linked to their worldview.

It’s intuitively obvious that our views, opinions and beliefs are linked together a bit like constellations in the night sky, but when it comes to working out what exactly it is that connects them, it’s quite hard to come up with a viable answer. Now it seems the pattern is becoming clearer.

Warmer is better!

slateworkers. Credit: Slatesite

Well into the Twentieth Century the slate industry of North Wales was the world’s largest. It roofed the buildings of the world and left a huge scar on the beautiful landscape of what is now the Snowdonia National Park. But that’s not all it left. If you visit Yr Amgueddfa Llechi Cymru – the National Slate Museum – outside the village of Llanberis you can tour the old buildings of the slate quarries, including the infirmary. One of the human legacies of the industry was to bequeath workers, especially slate-splitters, with chronic and fatal respiratory illness from breathing in the slate dust created from dressing the raw material and turning it into usable roof slates. In oral accounts you can hear at the museum workers describe how the air in the slate dressing buildings was thick with dust. On the wall of the infirmary is a row of certificates signed by medical doctors. These documents certify that not only is slate dust not the cause of respiratory illness, it is actually promotes good health. If you ever happen to be visiting North Wales, go and have a look.

My forebears worked in the Dinorwic quarries near Llanberis and so there is a family, if not a personal reason to feel a little affronted by the lie perpetrated by people who could have known and almost certainly did know better. The lie they told on the walls of the infirmary and in their supposedly professional diagnoses condemned many, many people to a slow and painful death. Slate dust was not safe. It was obviously not safe. Anyone who worked in it could have known and did know that. And yet profit was to be made by avoiding and denying the obvious.

These days we like to think health and safety has come a long way. In some ways it certainly has. It’s improved a lot since the time my great great uncle fell and was injured on the quarry face, only to be charged by the company for delaying production. But when I look at the climate change denial industry, I realise in truth we’ve barely moved forward. Continue reading “Warmer is better!”

Stewart Brand: Four sides to climate change – but which four?

Credit: D Sharon PruittStewart Brand (whom, incidentally, we have to thank for the ‘whole earth’ photo at the Fourcultures masthead) wrote an op-ed recently in which he identified four types of climate change talk, based on two scales, scientists-politicians and agreement-disagreement. This produced four poles, not merely two. They are:

  • denialists (ideological disagreement)
  • skeptics (scientific disagreement)
  • warners (scientific agreement)
  • calamatists (ideological agreement)

This is a very worthwhile attempt at getting some subtlety into the standoff between the naysayers and the yeasayers. But frankly, I think the existing typology of Grid-Group Cultural Theory does a more parsimonious job of this, at the same time as giving us more information about the motives and practices of the proponents and their institutions.

This typology, derived from the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas,  can be summarised as:

  • Indvidualist (low grid-low group)
  • Egalitarian (low grid-high group)
  • Hierarchical (high grid-high group)
  • Fatalist (high grid-low group)

Fourcultures has recently called these four approaches expanders, restrainers, managers and shruggers.

There’s more about whether climate change or its denial is a ‘new religion

and about climate change responses as four types of deviance (reflecting the work of Robert K Merton rather than Mary Douglas).

On the science and politics of climate change

photo of Mike HulmeMike Hulme, author of the splendid Why We Disagree about Climate Change, has written a very measured op-ed about the theft of his emails from the University of East Anglia and the relationship between science and politics in the climate change debate.

Fourcultures has previously written about:

  • Mike Hulme’s book, Why we Disagree about Climate Change
  • a critique of the idea that climate change deniers are necessarily acting in bad faith
  • the climate change debate as an exercise in four types of deviance
  • and quite a lot more on the social aspects of climate change.