Seepage: The effect of climate denial on the scientific community

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.