Seepage: The effect of climate denial on the scientific community

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 7 May 2015
Filed under Climate denial

The article “Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community” just appeared in Global Environmental Change. The article is authored by me and Naomi Oreskes, James S. Risbey, Ben R. Newell, and Michael Smithson.

It is open access and can be found here.

Seepage: The Executive Summary

We initiate our argument with the known fact that vested interests and political agents have long opposed political or regulatory action in response to climate change by appealing to scientific uncertainty. We know from earlier work that uncertainty is no cause for inaction—on the contrary, greater scientific uncertainty should make us worry more, not less, about the potential consequences of climate change. Alas, those actual scientific implications are often inverted in public discourse where uncertainty often invites wishful thinking and hence inaction. In this new article, we examine the effect of contrarian talking points that arise out of uncertainty on the scientific community itself. We show that although scientists are trained in dealing with uncertainty, there are several psychological and cognitive reasons why scientists may nevertheless be susceptible to uncertainty-based argumentation, even when scientists recognize those arguments as false and are actively rebutting them.

Climate scientists have done an admirable job pursuing their science under great political pressure, and they have tirelessly rebutted pseudoscientific arguments against their work. Nonetheless, being human, scientists’ operate with the same cognitive apparatus and limitations as every other person. In consequence, it is important to be aware of the factors that may cause scientists to take positions that they would be less likely to take in the absence of outspoken public opposition. We refer to this phenomenon as seepage.

We highlight three well-known psychological mechanisms that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse and thinking: ‘stereotype threat’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and the ‘third-person effect’.

Stereotype threat refers to the emotional and behavioural responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong.  Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. There are now several studies that highlight this tendency by scientists to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as ‘alarmist.’ 

Pluralistic ignorance describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized.  Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

Finally, research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the third-person effect.  However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think.  This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.

While those potential drivers of seepage are well-understood outside the context of climate science, it is a different matter to show that they have actually affected the conduct of science. In our article, we illustrate the consequences of seepage from public debate into the scientific process with a case study involving the interpretation of temperature trends from the last 15 years, the so-called ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. This is a nuanced issue that can be addressed in multiple different ways. In this article, we focus primarily on the asymmetry of the scientific response to the so-called ‘pause’—which is not a pause but a moderate slow-down in warming that does not qualitatively differ from previous fluctuations in decadal warming rate. Crucially, on previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid, the scientific community did not give short-term climate variability the attention it has recently received, when decadal warming was slower. During earlier rapid warming there was no additional research effort directed at explaining ‘catastrophic’ warming. By contrast, the recent modest decrease in the rate of warming has elicited numerous articles and special issues of leading journals and it has been (mis-)labeled as a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’.  We suggest that this asymmetry in response to fluctuations in the decadal warming trend likely reflects the ‘seepage’ of contrarian memes into scientific work.

Finally, we offer ways in which the scientific community can detect and avoid such inadvertent seepage.

Seepage: Some FAQs

There are a few questions one might reasonably ask about our article, and we start by addressing some of those below. We may follow up with additional posts as the discussion evolves:

1. What is seepage?

  • The inadvertent intrusion of memes that arose outside the scientific community into scientific discourse and thinking. There are two criteria for the detection of seepage: First, the scientific community has adopted assumptions or language that originated outside the scientific community or in a small set of dissenting scientific voices. Second, these assumptions depart from earlier norms and scientific conventions.
  • Although scientific conventions may occasionally change as theorizing evolves, in the case of seepage explicit conceptual rationale or empirical support for a departure from previous norms is lacking or weak.

2. How does seepage work?

  • There are a number of known psychological and cognitive variables that provide the opportunity for seepage. We focus on three: Stereotype threat, pluralistic ignorance, and the third-person effect.

3. What effects does seepage have?

  • At a minimum, seepage arises when scientists adapt linguistic frames that were created outside the scientific community for political purposes. We use the case of the so-called “pause” in global warming, which should not be called a pause or hiatus given that global warming continues unabated. Ironically, seepage can arise even when scientists are rebutting a contrarian meme but are nonetheless framing the problem in a way that is inappropriate or misleading.
  • At worst, seepage may alter the way in which scientists interpret data. This arises when they depart from long-standing and long-accepted practice in response to contrarian memes (for example, by entertaining the possibility that a short period of a reduced rate of warming presents a challenge to the fundamentals of greenhouse warming.)

4. Is the research on the “pause” wrong?

  • No. On the contrary, irrespective of the framing chosen by their authors, all articles on the pause have reinforced the reality of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions, and this body of work has yielded more knowledge of the processes underlying decadal variation. None of this work has come to the conclusion that the physical processes underlying global warming are somehow in abeyance or that prevailing scientific conceptions of them are incorrect.
  • However, by accepting the framing of a recent fluctuation as a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’, research on the pause has, ironically and  unwittingly,  entrenched the notion of a ‘pause’ (with all the connotations of that term) in the literature as well as in the public's mind. Some of that research may therefore have inadvertently misdirected public attention.

5. Who is responsible for seepage?

  • There is abundant evidence that climate science is subject to intense scrutiny and hostility from vested interests. Much is known about how those attacks on climate science take place and the funding that is devoted to those attempts to undermine science.
  • There is also evidence that media coverage surrounding climate change is often misleading and that some media organs disseminate falsehoods routinely, thereby denying the public the right to be accurately informed about risks from climate change.
  • Climate scientists have devoted much time and energy to rebutting those contrarian arguments (often called “zombie” arguments because of the number of times they have already been rebutted).
  • For the reasons outlined in our paper, climate scientists may nonetheless not be immune to (unwittingly) adapting to contrarian framing, for example by talking about a “pause” when there is none.

6. How do we eliminate seepage?

  • Knowing about the potential for seepage is half the battle. For example, there is evidence that merely being aware of the operation of stereotype threat is sufficient to limit its adverse consequences. Our paper lists a few further factors that may be helpful.
  • In addition, scientists need to remember that the purpose of contrarian memes is to keep the controversy alive. While it is a scientist's job to answer genuine scientific questions, getting pulled into contrarian linguistic frames helps maintain the fiction that the science is still riven with fundamental equivocations and therefore too uncertain to form a reliable basis for public policy. Awareness of this fact is crucial for scientists to resist seepage.

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. I think I noticed seepage years ago with the so-called "tropical tropospheric hot spot". I believe the thing was invented by Christopher Monckton, not by a scientist. For one thing, it's not "hot" (just expected to have a slightly faster temperature rate increase than the surface). For another, it's not a "spot" (more like a ring around the world centered on the equator).

    I think the term stems from a misinterpretation by Monckton and other "skeptic" friends of a figure in the AR4 IPCC report, released in 2007. The term "hot spot" does not appear in this sense in the scientific literature earlier than that, as far as I can tell. RealClimate covered the topic using different terms ("tropical tropospheric trends" for instance), not "hot spot". So my feeling is this "hot spot" idea, which rests on a misinterpretation, is another good example, much earlier than the "pause".
  2. Chris Shaw at 23:06 PM on 9 May, 2015
    Excellent, an important and overdue intervention. Did you get funding for the paper?
  3. Barry Woods at 19:10 PM on 10 May, 2015
    A well know climate scientist has already congratulated me - "on my jedi mind tricks".. LOL

    Ref 'the pause'
  4. Howard Goodall at 03:50 AM on 11 May, 2015
    Vested interests and political agents?
    Sounds like a conspiracy.
  5. Well, look at what's pumped out by the various "right wing" think tanks beholden to their vested interests.
    Not a word about understanding how our planet operates, it's all about how to protect their sacred economic beliefs and stop any political action to slow down our emissions.

    What about the way every scientist or lay-person presenting their work supporting the theory of AGW, winds up getting demonized on a personal level, while the substance of the evidence arguments get ignored (or misrepresented)?
    Or how about the internet and the viral dissemination of the latest talking points in cut and paste fashion? What's going on their?
  6. Although, yes I will be cutting and pasting this article in order to share it. But, I'm willing to listen to and consider objections and defend what I'm cutting and pasting with my own thoughts.

    Perhaps a better way to explain myself is in explaining there are two kinds of debate:

    The political lawyerly debate to win regardless of the actual truth of a matter.

    The constructive scientific style debate where getting at the heart of matter is what's most important. (Protecting one's turf and ego is subordinate to the goal of a thorough realistic understanding of the issue under consideration.)
  7. FYI. Exhibit Three: Lewandowsky et al. 'Seepage' paper and fabricated bias.
  8. PeterM - I agree, although the only relevant respondent to Lew is Dr. Robert Hare, who developed the psychopath checklist, the PCL-R.
  9. Just wanted to thank you for adding this (I'm about to download the 'long version' right now) to the boring, yet important discussion with all those self-called "scepticists" since scientific facts became better known in 1988. I read the lobbyists and journalists who deny man-made global climate changes since quite some years, and am sure I'll find a lot of most valuable informations. Thank you all!
    Naomi Klein's "this changes everything" is right if she states that the self-called "scepticists" like in Germany Maxeiner/Miersch, Broder or Vahrenholt among many, or Mr. Lomborg or Singer etc. know quite well what global climate changes mean for the system they prefer. This is why they are so extremely one-sided and biased and never admit their many mistakes, and ignore science.
  10. "Vested interests and political agents?
    Sounds like a conspiracy."

    No, it sounds like sociology ... which it is.
  11. I'd like to offer a couple of points from another point of view on this.

    First, the words "hiatus" and "pause" seem to be reasonable words to describe the current 21st century record, if one is examining the various expressions of global mean surface temperature. This seems especially true in contrast with (a) late 20th century trends and (b) the warming predicted by the various computer models referenced in IPCC annual reports. In fact, since each of those words implies that atmospheric warming will resume after the current, unexpected "flat spot", I don't think these words are good examples of the undesirable "seepage" which is the subject of Mr. Lewandowsky's paper. Note that I am not contradicting his thesis, here, but only suggesting that it would be more persuasive if better examples were chosen, such as "stop", "halted", "cessation", "reversal", etc. These latter words would be less likely to inspire lawyerly quibbling over words, which would distract attention from the more scientific discussion of the imbalance of research.

    Second, a more serious objection might be raised that the biases he proposes as being related to the undesirable influence of vocabulary from an "outgroup", could instead be considered helpful counterweights to other biases which work to support the values of the "ingroup". If we go through the biases one by one, we find (in the conceptual sphere, at least) opposite biases which are equally damaging to the rational evaluation of evidence. Both the abstract and the executive summary would be more persuasive, in my opinion, if this fact were acknowledged.

    Since I haven't read the full paper, I don't know whether I would find that these concerns have been addressed there--if so, I believe the paper would be more persuasive if the abstract and other summaries reflected that.
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