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« A cancer in our midst | Main | Portents in Paris - Josh 306 »

Persuading the public

One of the climate-related memes that has tended to induce yawns in yours truly over the years concerns the so-called "deficit model" of climate communication. This is the idea that on the subject of climate the public are at best ill-informed and at worst pig ignorant and that they need better information about climate change in order to bring them round to the idea that we need to tear down the economy and build the new socialist future together.

Or something like that.

I thought the idea had been largely debunked - certainly for a number of years almost everybody from the sci-comms community seems to have been poo-poohing the idea and studies have shown that the scientifically literate are slightly more sceptical of global warming than the norm. So I was surprised to read this draft paper by Jesse Shapiro of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, which almost seems to want to resurrect the idea:

On most topics, competition among special interests is innocuous and may even benefit the voter. Because it is easier to affiliate an expert when experts are divided, there can be a separating equilibrium in which parties have affiliates only when experts are divided. In such an equilibrium, the journalist reports both sides of the issue only when the science is indeed uncertain, and the voter always chooses the optimal policy given the distribution of expert opinion.

On high-stakes topics with a high likelihood of expert consensus, competition among special interests leads to a breakdown of informative communication. High policy stakes mean that changing the voter’s beliefs is very valuable, so the parties want to affiliate an expert even when there is an opposing scientific consensus. A high likelihood of expert consensus similarly encourages investment by the parties, because when consensus is likely, the unchallenged opinion of a random expert conveys a lot of information to the voter. If the parties’ incentives are strong enough, then both parties have affiliates regardless of the distribution of expert opinion, the journalist’s report always says that the issue has two sides, and the voter learns nothing.

According to the model, then, persistent public ignorance on climate change arises because, not in spite of, the issue’s importance and its amenability to empirical science. Perversely, greater scientific ambiguity would help the public, by dampening special interests’ incentives to challenge expert opinion.

I'm struggling with several of the ideas here. Firstly the suggestion that climate change is "amenable to empirical science". Given that the climate is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, I'm not sure that amenable is the right word. And the idea that there is a high likelihood of expert consensus is certainly highly questionable. Yes, most people involved agree on the greenhouse effect, but that may only be 30% of of the total effect with which some people say we are threatened. We are almost completely ignorant of even the sign of some the components of the remaining 70%. The IPCC's estimates of climate sensitivity go from 1 to 6°C for Pete's sake! To say that there is a high likelihood of expert consensus here is preposterous.

The other thing to say is that Kahan has advanced the idea that the public are somewhat immune to the opinions of experts anyway because everyone engages in motivated reasoning. It's odd that Kahan's work isn't discussed in Shapiro's paper.

The paper is rather mathematical and it is clear that Shapiro has put a lot of work into it. It's too bad that he didn't scratch the surface of what the climate debate is all about before he put pen to paper.

(Shapiro is lecturing in London on Monday week if any readers are interested).

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Reader Comments (23)

It's perverse that Kahan still thinks it's a bad thing for the public to be "somewhat immune to the opinions of experts anyway."

According to the rules of science, the opinions of experts should be ignored completely.

[Snip - language]

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterBradley Keyes

I saw a post on a Warmist blog complaining about all the sceptical comments coming from engineers. I am an engineer and my degree is a BSc so does this make me a dumb member of the public or an expert scientist.

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:05 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Hmm, well Shapiro is an economist so may not have come across the deficit model literature. Having said that, certain social science papers are cited...

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:06 PM | Registered Commenter@warrenpearce

On high-stakes topics with a high likelihood of expert consensus, competition among special interests leads to a breakdown of informative communication.

As does having a dominant government funded media organisation that is a signed up member of the blob and only wants one side of the argument promoted.

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

If only the 'experts' spoke to the public and explained their science.

Instead for more than the last 40 years the 'experts' have recited a litany of dooms ranging from new ice age to global warming, nuclear winter, radioactivity in our milk and food, carcinogenics in everything, food wars because of over-population, mutant GM crops which will poison us, Y2K, antibiotic resistant bugs, no more oil, etc.

Since none of these prophesies has come to pass, 'experts' are just background noise to the drone of the politicians promises of vote for me today, jam for you tomorrow.

As I understand it the 'experts' refuse to engage in any public debate about the science, because the science is 'settled' and any debate which inevitably would involve alternative expert opinion, would demonstrate the real uncertainty and lack of corroborative evidence, thus undermining their Apocalyptic cause.

If 'experts' feel the public is just not well enough informed, then why are they not informing the public instead of just shouting 'Fire!' you must do exactly as we say?

For a start it would be nice to hear a public account from the 'experts' detailing the heart of the matter, that is what is the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 added to the atmosphere (any source)... but they would then have to say, 'We don't know', so we are back to the uncertainty thing. Then they would have to point out that the real troublesome greenhouse gas in the sensitivity equation is water in the atmosphere and nobody is going to see water as a threat to the Planet.

When they complain that the population is ignorant, what they mean is the population refuses to be panicked by what the 'experts' have been saying even as they become more strident.

Perhaps they don't know the story of the boy that cried wolf.

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

PS Happy New Year Bish... thank you for your blog.

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

It's a MODEL!

He's produced a MODEL for how people think about climate change!

Is there no end to this strange use of models to justify any argument you want? What is it with climate change supporters? Actual observations not good enough? Or do you all want to be given really powerful super-computers?

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterdodgy geezer

read this draft paper by Jesse Shapiro

At first read I thought this read as "daft paper".

Jan 11, 2015 at 3:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

If you want people to trust you, then stop getting caught out doing things like deceiving them

We talked about narratives the other day and that is the "ClimateAnger lobbies biggest problem.
They've done things like circle the waggons and told what they think are "little white lies" and got wrapped into going in circles covering their the same time as failing to set limits on proclamations.

That is their problem ..Their own narrative now is that "they cannot be trusted".. The public were told that wind and solar are magic , that the temp was rising faster than ever etc .. all those things have turned out not to be true.
oh and Greenpeace have turned out to be a bunch of bullies

Jan 11, 2015 at 3:30 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

"..... on the subject of climate the public are at best ill-informed and at worst pig ignorant and they need better information about climate change ....." Never a truer word was said.

I don't know anything about Jesse Shapiro but the extract, especially the bit, "In such an equilibrium, the journalist reports both sides of the issue only when the science is indeed uncertain, and the voter always chooses the optimal policy given the distribution of expert opinion," suggests he is an idiot, another of those with much learning but little wit. The truth is the 'journalist' always exaggerate the negative and minimises the positive and the 'voter' votes in accordance with emotion rather than intellect, fact and reality having little to do with anything.

Jan 11, 2015 at 3:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter C

Stephen Richards

This reminds me of the time a colleague of mine wrote a letter to a client saying "Please find enclosed our daft management letter". The partner had signed it and it had gone out in the post before the error was noted.

Jan 11, 2015 at 3:38 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Read the paper. Utter junk for three reasons.
One, cites Oreskes and Cook as the evidence in support of a consensus that IPCC is right (true).
Two, fancy model seeks a binary two state 'information' equilibrium (CAGW true or false). Climate change is complex and nuanced, not some binary IPCC is right or wrong. And, ignores the fact that on things like sensitivity, IPCC AR5 is less certain than AR4 despite asserting higher certainty.
Three, expressly assumes skeptics (citing Singer, implicitly you, McIntyre, Curry) are bought mouthpieces for special interests speading disinformation (CAGW false). Special interests like the Kochs, big oil, king coal.

Hence the papers utterly ridiculous conclusion that if IPCC were less clear, special interests would have a more difficult time countering it. Ignoring that (a) Because CAGW was clear (per IPCC), it is amenable the scientific methods and has been in large part observationally falsified (pause/models, hot spots, polar bears, polar ice, ...) and (b) if less clear woild have been impossible to sell Kyoto, attempt Copenhagen, or push for Paris.

Fun to watch academics explaining how the wheels fell off the CAGW wagon. Anything but the stark fact it wasn't true.

Jan 11, 2015 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterRud Istvan

Later on in the introduction, he announces that he has discovered the flaws in the deficit model:

"Strikingly, I find that Americans who consume more news are not more likely to believe in climate change than those who consume less news".

which is a bit amusing. But this kind of re-invention of the wheel occurs frequently in academia.

I also note that he misrepresents the findings of Grundmann and Scott. They say advocates are far more common than skeptics. He says sceptics have a prominent voice and cites G&S!

I will have a look at the mathematical model and comment tomorrow if I have anything to say on it.

Jan 11, 2015 at 4:10 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

He says sceptics have a prominent voice and cites G&S!
Gilbert & Sullivan? Might as well be!

Jan 11, 2015 at 4:19 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

It is amazing that the warmists are still convinced, that their problem with the public is a communication issue, not a science issue.

When Warmists stop communicating lies, dressed up as science, by liars dressed up as scientists, Death Valley may have frozen over.

Jan 11, 2015 at 4:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Jan 11, 2015 at 2:30 PM | John B

I liked your 'litany of dooms' ... except you were wrong to include Y2K - see this BH Discussion. (And, if you're really interested, see this.)

PS: in the rather unlikely event that you (or anyone) wants to discuss this tedious subject, please do so at the Discussion item - link above.

Jan 11, 2015 at 5:20 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

As it only takes one expert , sincere or bought for the occasion to artificiall divide and separate the existing equilibrium, perceptions of consensus, however well justified , can be subverted with dismal ease.

This basic precept of public agnotology may date bact to Aristotle's rhetoric, but it deserves to be known as Luntz's Law after its most famous postmodern preceptor.

Jan 11, 2015 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

the journalist’s report always says that the issue has two sides, and the voter learns nothing.
And that's the nub of this deluded worldview. God forbid that people be allowed to make up their own minds, or even be told that there are two sides to an argument.

Actually, most often the "journalist" does no such thing, but that's another issue.

Jan 11, 2015 at 5:56 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Is there an english translation of this document anywhere?

Can't help thinking of Feynman...

...I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped—at random—and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.

Jan 11, 2015 at 6:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

Great quote, Jack.

One of the hallmarks of a pseudo-intellectual is obfuscation in language. Whereas, Feynman is the real thing. His language is crystal clear, and anyone of moderate intelligence can understand his point.

When people use big words and convoluted sentences to express themselves, there is a very good chance that either the reader is being conned, or that the writer doesn't know what he/she is talking about.

Jan 11, 2015 at 7:32 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

And here is another great quote, from Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Art. It is about art, but could equally be applied to science:

"But young men have not only this frivolous ambition of being thought masters of execution, inciting them on the one hand, but also their natural sloth tempting them on the other. They are terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires, from mere impatience of labour, to take the citadel by storm. They wish to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means, than those which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed."

A perfect description of Michael Mann, who started his career in climate "science" having barely completed his PhD.

Jan 11, 2015 at 10:01 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Anyone who wants to study the effect of media on public understanding and attitude to climate change should look to the UK. Brain washing has been going on much longer and despire us Brits being broadly more amenable to environmental messages than the US, we're admirably losing interest fast in AGW hype.

that said I bet very few, including the Chief Scientist, knows that much about AGW. One might almost assume it was deliberate.

Jan 12, 2015 at 1:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Johanna, surely you are not giving us the convoluted intimation that people could be involved in conspiracist ideationising of uncomplicated conceptualisation by resorting to byzantine linguistic convolutions in an attempt to beguile members of the social community by misinformation displayed in complex syntactical form on antiquated media in accepted graphical form for visual receptors or by electromagnetic transmission and reception of signals on prevailing media, stimulating usage of aural receptors?

Are you?

Jan 12, 2015 at 11:01 AM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

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