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Discussion > Psychology of Climate belief/dis-belief

As I try to help people stay out of Telexfree pyramid scheme I see some strange psychological effects. They maybe well known to psychologists, but I don't know what they call them. Rather than use pure reason people are skewed by thinking biases.
1. Programmed to believe over disbelieve - People seem naturally biased in favour of believing rather than not believing.
They want to believe the magic money business is real, over me saying it's a scam.
- So I see parallels between the pyramid believers
and warmists.
a) The warmists want to believe CAGW is highly probable, over me saying it's not that clear.
b) They want to believe wind/solar are magic power sources way better than fossil fuels, over me saying the maths does not stack up. *
- At first I thought humans are biased in favour of positive beliefs, but then I come against that they are willing to accept a negative "catastrophe is coming" over the uncertainty of the skeptics.
AND also accept "skeptics are funded by big oil" meme, but not accept skeptics cos they are seen as cynical nitpickers even though ultimately witha positive message saying "OK we don't need to panic right now"

* NB $$ Dynamic favours acceptance
a) Getting people into a scam earns you money whereas helping them stay out does not.
b) Selling green crap earns money, whereas helping people keep their money in their pocket does not.

Mar 25, 2014 at 3:47 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

My theories
2. Certainty beats uncertainty
3. Bias in favour of a story/narrative against pure reason. It seems to me that people want to believe in the pyramid scheme cos it has a strong story, and the same for CAGW. They are less inclined to believe skeptics cos the nitpicking is the main thing, they are not really pushing a story.

- I was going to call this story/narrative bias, but then I see there is already a thing called Narrative Bias saying you look for factors confirming your pre-existing bias thus lefties will say "man, it's those big corps polluting the air", while they puff on a cigarette. I guess that Narrative bias is just a form of confirmation bias. And I have long said CAGW certainty seems a form of confirmation bias as hot days are mentioned, but cold days not.
.. True skeptics also exhibit confirmation bias, as they pick up on the contraries.

Definition : Narrative Bias
This occurs when the inherent "story" is well known, as in baseball batting practices, political hearings and the like. One then filters out out any information that does not fit the already known storyline.

Mar 25, 2014 at 3:49 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

questions for warmists
1. Over time has your certainty of CAGW issues changed ?
2. Can you explain how IPCC certainty increased from 90% to 95%
3. Do you think their is anything wrong with shouting 97% of climate scientists believe.
4. Do you think there is anything wrong with using the "denier" word on TV ?

Mar 25, 2014 at 3:50 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

My answers,
1. Yes I used to be a True Believer (way before there was SkS) but when I got new info, my opinion changed. I have few firm opinions except that the warmists case is well fishy.
- My doubts do change , yes I doubted the quoted CO2 due to Mona Loa, but do now accept it gives a reasonable representation. However I don't rush from accepting points 1 and 2 to accepting 3,4, 5 & 6. So, yes although the greenhouse effect maybe demonstrated in a laboratory, that doesn't mean there is a validated relationship between CO2 & temperature in the real world. (if there was models predictions would work, and they currentky don't)
2. There is no scientific/mathematical basis for this, and the fact that warmists keep their mouths shut is one of the 100 factors that shows me that they are pushing a narrative rather that behaving with reason.
3. No, same reasons as above.
4. No, same reasons as above.

You can't reason with people who don't use reasoning.
You can't reason with people who are not reasonable.

Mar 25, 2014 at 3:54 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Somewhere I have a book that I read years ago. Can't remember its title or who wrote it but its theme was that the human brain is programmed to believe.

I'll see if I can dig it out.

Mar 25, 2014 at 5:18 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

> a) The warmists want to believe CAGW is highly
> probable, over me saying it's not that clear.

Most warmists I have come across would be delighted if it turned out that CAGW was a false hypothesis. Unless it is clear that you have relevant and comparable knowledge to a climate scientist people are likely to reject your reassurance because they assume you don’t know what you are talking about. Nothing to do with preferring CAGW.

> b) They want to believe wind/solar are
> magic power sources way better than
> fossil fuels, over me saying the maths
> does not stack up. *

I imagine the same thing holds - they don’t trust your opinion.

> So, yes although the greenhouse effect
> maybe demonstrated in a laboratory, that
> doesn't mean there is a validated relationship
> between CO2 & temperature in the real world.
> (if there was models predictions would work,
> and they currentky don't)

What is your best evidence that model predictions don’t work?

Mar 25, 2014 at 8:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterChandra

"What is your best evidence that model predictions don’t work?"

Wrong way round - what is your best evidence they do work? Like the coin flipped out of view - how do you demonstrate that guessing its outcome correctly isn't chance? How many correct guesses do you need to show predictive power? How does each incorrect guess impact on that confidence? What is your model for model success?

Mar 25, 2014 at 9:23 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Hi Stew

I don't know why but this clip from The Matrix with agent Smith interrogating Neo came immediately to mind when I read the title of the discussion thread.

Good scene either way.

Mar 25, 2014 at 11:30 PM | Unregistered Commenterjones

Mar 25, 2014 at 3:49 PM | stewgreen
3. Bias in favour of a story/narrative against pure reason.

Yes. Good theory :) This happens because wherever the threshold of uncertainty is high enough, narrative success will be rewarded more than verifiability. I.e. the rate at which a narrative can replicate matters more than its factual content. Thus, if a relatively untruthful narrative pushes psychological hot-buttons in us that means it gets repeated often, it will replicate far more and so 'drown out' over time a mundane but more truthful narrative within the same topic domain, which *doesn't* push hot-buttons.

There's much more to it, e.g. the narratives tend to come in groups (think of all the different memes within CAGW). Evolutionary reasons why we are pre-sensitised for the psychological hot-buttons in the first place (and so why the bias so easily takes hold). Reasons why there are upsides as well as downsides for society from this mechanism (so need to look at *net* effects). And reasons why if the hot-buttons get pushed enough in enough people, then our perceptions of the original uncertainty will change (you mentioned one - 'confirmation bias'), typically hampering the ability to bound uncertainty. And much more too. But you have found your way to a fundamental that underpins many cultural entities, e.g religions, and I believe CAGW too.

The discipline of cultural evolution explores this stuff, and your number 3 is a big plank in a bunch of its theories.

Mar 26, 2014 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Belief is a very flimsy thing compared to knowledge. It seems we can believe all sorts of things and yet behave as if we don't know they're true. Belief might be enough to make you tick a particular box on a survey or travel thousands of miles to attend climate meetings but it does extend as far as actually cutting CO2. Politicians are happy to sign away public money but would be dismayed if they were expected to make serious changes to their own lifestyle. 'But my emissions are important!'

People like being a bit scared. Horror movies and roller coasters are examples. CAGW isn't real to people so they can engage in mock fear. They gossip about it but then when other things intrude, they forget about it.

At the same many suffer from what I call 'non specific worry depression'. I'm sure there is a technical term for it but it's that mindset 'worriers' fall into where they refuse to look at a problem and put it into perspective. Because they don't resolve how they would/wouldn't suffer, how likely it it is and what they could do about it, the person builds the issue into nightmare proportions. Older women and children are particularly vulnerable to this because they are used to handing over the solution of problems to others and often feel they have no control over the resolutions. Often they're don't even know what it is they're worrying about but have constant nervousness about life in general.

We are approaching AGW in the worst possible way. We need to debate it, make our mind up about what to do or what not to do about it and put the issue into perspective. Instead it just festers in the public consciousness.

Mar 26, 2014 at 7:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2


"At the same many suffer from what I call 'non specific worry depression'. I'm sure there is a technical term for it but it's that mindset 'worriers' fall into where they refuse to look at a problem and put it into perspective."

I suspect you are searching for the term "dysthymia".

Perhaps the propensity to have "overvalued ideas"?

Just a thought.


Mar 26, 2014 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered Commenterjones

Another thing too Tiny is that it's often a mistake to think that the "worry" is always a dysfunctional thing. It may, in fact, serve a very useful purpose to the person with the worry. People can, I believe, have very dependent personality traits which can manifest in a myriad of ways.

In my travels I've encountered a phenomenon known as "illness behaviour" which is quite a fascinating human facet. Often not what people think.

I suppose that perspective is all in such matters.

Hope this is of some use to the thread.



Mar 26, 2014 at 9:28 AM | Unregistered Commenterjones

I think your misunderstanding in your opening post is about what is perceived as "positive" or "negative".
"Catastrophe is coming" is a positive statement (whether for good or ill is not that relevant) and likewise "no need to worry just now" is negative.
People may agree with the latter and want it to be the case but they are very susceptible to thinking "well, maybe we ought to [whatever], just in case".
I can't remember the book Martin A is referring to either but I know the theory has been aired somewhere. By and large the warmists have managed to keep the message positive (in the belief sense) pushing those who disagree onto the back foot. We don't need to come up with an alternative hypothesis to AGW but the psychological attitude we encounter demands one.
There is a saying that the man who wants something is always in a stronger position than the man who doesn't want him to have it. I think it applies.

If warmists genuinely wanted AGW to be false then they would not dismiss quite so readily scientific work that calls the more extreme model conclusions into question. Grantham's money is made on the basis of AGW which is why he turns his monkey loose to denigrate anything and anyone who might cause even the slightest doubt in the minds of decision makers. Just to take one small example.

Mar 26, 2014 at 9:44 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

MJ ..yes quite clever ..yes I rushed now I see that you are right
It is the alarmists language that is positive ..whereas ours is almost entirely a negative language, even though our message is more positive.

- So far I have almost all our trolls to be malicious, the exceptions being the ones that saw our case and converted almost straight away.
I am just interested in truth rather than Gotchas, but when I had a strong point against Monty, he immediately changed the subject and accused me of changing the subject .. so someone who has experience in PR, but shows no expertise in climate matters.
- My screens seem to have a problem in that Chandra's posts aren't visible at all.. a convenient saving of time.

Mar 26, 2014 at 12:06 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

MJ & Martin A

A number of folks have written on the evolutionary origins of belief and how 'programmed' it may be. Although 'belief' is in a religious context, it doesn't stop the same mechanisms being invoked within secular belief systems in later eras. I think a likely popular author might be Stephen Jay Gould, though I can't rightly recall either (read 2 or 3 of his works some years back). He does get a mention in the wiki link here:

Mar 26, 2014 at 1:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

@MJ @Jones
a) The alarmists POSITIVE claims:
1. The climate is getting warmer
2. and there is a real chance of catastrophe !
3. And Climate Change is accelerating (this is an out & lie, but media are afraid to challenge)
4. wind/solar are magic power sources way better than fossil fuels
5. They are free energy (another lie they are not challenged on)
6. skeptics are funded by big oil
7. Skeptics have massive undue influence on the media, trying to censor debate.
8. 97% of climate scientists say climate change is real .. (a wholey misleading claim unchallenged by the media.)
16. Your children COULD suffer.
that provoke to worry that @Jones mentions, could be very imp

b) The Skeptics POSITIVE claims:
1. The climate is varying, it always does.
2. It is varying within natural variations
3. Mankind has coped with these variations in the past.
4. Fossil fuels are great, we have power whenever we need it
5. Fossil fuels have got much more effiecient, so $ for $ you save more CO2 in replacing old fuels sources,with gas than you do with renewables.
5b. Fossil fuel power pays into the tax system, renewables take out.
6. Alarmists have massive funding, we have evidence,nsee the big multi-national eco-charities spending.
6a. We can list many times where there is a conflict of financial interest between companies which fund alarmist propaganda and their business.
6b. Money spent on alarmist lobbying and propaganda is many magnitudes more than money spent by skeptics, we have evidence of this.
7. Alarmist have massive undue influence on the media. We have multiple examples of evidence e.g. See the way BBC/ABC employees can be shown to have green/keft views over more conservative
7a Alarmists are trying to censor debate. We have evidence; multiple examples see how they always refuse to debate and exert influence on forums/media to censor.
8. MORE THAN 97% of skeptics believe that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and may effect temperature.
9. MORE THAN 97% of SCIENTISTS ARE SKEPTICAL of people who claim to have CERTAINTY to tie the temperature in 100 years time to this decades production of CO2.
10. Alarmists have an integrity problem, we have evidence of myltiple breaches of integrity.
11. It is quite likely that we will have fusion power before most countries adopt large scale renewables
12. Our CO2 reduction measures are laughable as they will hardly make any difference to glibal CO2 in 50 years time.
13. Every time the west succeeds in reducing by 5 units the rest of the world grows by 50 or 100 units. So in 50 years time without any introduction of fusion power CO2 will be 630 instead of 660.
14. We have evidence of mammals evolving during times of CO2 being above 1000
15. Humans breath CO2 at levels if 4000 in submarines, no problem.
16. One of the reasons why your children are going to grow up poorer than you, are cos of the green policies you approved, cos you believed in CAGW.

The skeptics ones are all true positives, however I think they fail the simplicity test compared with "Oh my god we are going to die"
.. and note we fail on the negative COULDs, which be a bigger motivation than positives

17. We could get left behind China in terms of economy.

Mar 26, 2014 at 3:33 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

@Jones ..that risk of losing something is a strong driver of belief.
And I have seen people (middle aged women mainly) really psychologically pre-occupied with worry for CC in a similar way seemed to be irrationally worried by the death of Princess Diana.

Mar 26, 2014 at 3:40 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

You're in deep waters here, and coming up with some most interesting catches.

I got into the question of climate belief via the kind of psychological studies of sceptics done by Lewandowsky, Adam Corner and others. There's a whole body of social science research into people's beliefs about the climate and the environment in general. Behind it all is a research tool developed by Dunlap and van Liere in 1978 called the New Environmental Paradigm (later adapted to become the New Ecological Paradigm) which is based on work by Paul Ehrlich and Denis Pirages. This is simply a series of statements which people are asked to react to like “We live on a fragile planet” etc. Dunlap and van Liere got very high agreements with the pro-environmental attitudes, which led them to suggest that this New Paradigm was ready to replace the Standard Paradigm (which is basically a belief in modern industrial capitalist society).

What no-one in the social sciences seems to be doing is to ask some basic questions about this kind of research into people's attitudes. For a start, what's the difference between a belief, an attitude, and an opinion? What does it mean, for Gaia's sake, to say that you agree that the planet is fragile? Can you really call it a belief, or isn't it more like a vague fuzzy feeling? Isn't it more to do with a tendency to wear ethnic clothing and eat organic vegetables, rather than a supposed statement of fact?

I wonder whether, in attempting to list positive and negative attitudes of sceptics and warmists, you're not treading the same booby-trapped path as the eco-sociologists. Good luck with it though. I'll be following this thread with interest.

Mar 27, 2014 at 10:44 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

One important thing is Certainty Fallacy - is the heavy certainty way beyond the evidence
as I mentioned on my webpage it is detailed in the book On Being Certain: Even If You Are Wrong by Robert Burton 8/5/2013
Conclusion : This neuroscience explains thinking errors and I think it is consistant with explaining "denier shouter" thinking

Mar 27, 2014 at 12:34 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

On that list of positive claims skeptics can make recently on the BH blog Reader Alex Henney sends some comments on The Royal Society/National Academy of Sciences Report on Climate Change It concludes :
"The consequence of the demonisation of carbon dioxide by the Met Office, Royal Society and others has been that for no useful purpose we have messed up our electric market and have generation policies which will increase costs significantly but will achieve absolutely nothing to mitigate CO2 emissions, while the Chinese, Indians, and others (including the Germans and Dutch) build coal stations galore. Our policies are to:

- Build the most expensive nuclear plant in the world at £16bn for 3200MW (for which one could build 27,000MW of gas turbines). The headline contract price of £92.5/MWh (compared with the current wholesale price of about £50/MWh) is misleading because the price is indexed. By the time the plant is finished the price will be about £120/MWh which compares with the current wholesale price of electricity of about £50/MWh.

- Support residential solar panels in our gloomy climate with subsidies which make nuclear look cheap.

- Support expensive (£95/MWh) - and for offshore, very expensive (£155/MWh) – wind. But these figures are only part of the story –there will be additional costs of up to £20/MWh for system balancing and additional transmission. Furthermore, in a system such as ours with little hydro, the vagaries of wind output have to be balanced by ramping gas or coal plant up and down. This reduces their thermal efficiency hence increases their CO2 emissions. Consequently wind farms do not achieve the mitigation of CO2 they claim on the tin.

- Throw money at wood chips from new cut trees which are imported at considerable cost from the US. But cutting down trees to burn them actually increases CO2 emissions.

...I suspect that in the not too distant future if the "pause" continues, the signatories to the report, and past FRSs and PRSs who have actively and politically promoted anthropogenic climate warming/change will be thought to have discredited the Royal Society."

- I have seen quotes of spending due to CAGW scare costing us $1bn/day worldwide ..What a different world it would be if that money had been spent in other ways.

Mar 27, 2014 at 12:39 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Behind it all is a research tool developed by Dunlap and van Liere in 1978 called the New Environmental Paradigm (later adapted to become the New Ecological Paradigm) which is based on work by Paul Ehrlich and Denis Pirages.

Thanks for explaining that Geoff. Is it the planet that's fragile or these intellectual foundations, I wonder?

Mar 27, 2014 at 1:02 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

"what's the difference between a belief, an attitude, and an opinion? What does it mean, for Gaia's sake, to say that you agree that the planet is fragile?"
- Hm No experience in psychology, but I have experience with market research and there the actual word is not important it's the correlations in action that matter.
So for example people who tick yes to "Do you agree that the planet is fragile?" will be much more likely to buy a certain product or vote in a certain way.

- The strange things is the correlations of action often have nothing to do with what they are buying "I like purple" may correlate very highly with "buying indian food" etc.

Patronising as it might seem I think there is only one rational way to interpret data, but many irrational ways to interpret the same data.

Mar 27, 2014 at 4:42 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen


This clip concerning opinions from the superb "Yes Prime Minister" may clarify matters.....Or just give you a chuckle anyway.

Mar 28, 2014 at 2:52 AM | Unregistered Commenterjones

Related but I wanted to ask a very specific question:

BH Discussion: Warmism, a new form of global cult?

Mar 28, 2014 at 7:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

The psychology of Global Warming "true believers" may come from something in dream psychology. This dream terror paralysis. That tunes onto an emotion "uh oh my God, we just have to do something !"

- As an engineer you may face promblems in a project, many problems even a chain of problems. But the system is that work through brick by brick, new problems may arise but you continue on brick by brick. You may even give up saying the next part will cost too much.

- Now compare that to some dreams e.g. the bad guy is going to get you and you need to pick up your bag and leave. But you can't you can't grab your bag. Something that you have done lots of times before, something that should be easy can't be done. You have this feeling of being totally overwhelmed, it's frightening. Except that is dreamworld not reality.
- Seems to me that the behaviour of some people who believe very strongly in Global Warming is the same. This dream terror paralysis. And it tunes onto an emotion "uh oh my God, we just have to do something !"

- That is why they have this absolute feeling of certainty, but are unable to explain brick by brick.. as it originates in strong emotion rather than logic.

- See how it applies in other instances : people know that GMOs will be cataclysmic, similarly certain about Fracking danger, or certainty "its your immigrants thats the problem" ..all coming from overwhelming emotion ...not the brick by brick approach of the engineer problem solver.

Jan 14, 2015 at 8:51 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen