The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus

The embargo on my latest paper on the cognition of climate change, published in Nature Climate Change, has now been lifted. The paper and abstract are available using the doi: 10.1038/10.1038/NCLIMATE1720.

The paper is entitled “The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science”, and its abstract reads as follows:

Although most experts agree that CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), public concern has been declining. One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest: in particular, it is unknown whether consensus determines people’s beliefs causally. It is also unclear whether perception of consensus can override people’s ‘worldviews’, which are known to foster rejection of AGW. Study 1 shows that acceptance of several scientific propositions—from HIV/AIDS to AGW—is captured by a common factor that is correlated with another factor that captures perceived scientific consensus. Study 2 reveals a causal role of perceived consensus by showing that acceptance of AGW increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information also neutralizes the effect of worldview.

There are a number of interesting aspects to the results, and I am highlighting three that I find particularly noteworthy or intriguing.

The first one is the finding that people’s attitudes towards science are a mixture of specific opinions (i.e., how much people endorse climate science or the link between tobacco and lung cancer) as well as a general factor (i.e., how much people endorse scientific propositions in general). This is quite interesting because it means that there is something about science in general that (partially) determines people’s acceptance of scientific propositions about issues as diverse as tobacco, HIV, and climate.

We furthermore showed that this general factor capturing acceptance of science was correlated with another general factor that represented perceived consensus among scientists. That is, the public’s views on science are at least partially driven by the extent to which people perceive agreement among scientists.

This correlation is neither surprising nor entirely new, as other researchers have reported similar results for climate science (although no one has previously reported the involvement of a general factor). It also explains why climate deniers expend considerable effort to negate the existence of that consensus, using the usual array of deceptive techniques such as pseudo-experts, or pointing to unreviewed blog-posts as “evidence” for their contrarian positions.

The second intriguing finding is that when people were explicitly informed about the scientific consensus on climate change, they became significantly more likely to endorse the basic premise of global warming, and they attributed a larger share of the observed warming trend to human CO2 emissions, than people in a control condition who received no such information. This result suggests that consensus information causally contributes to people’s acceptance of scientific propositions.

The final intriguing finding was that the effect of the consensus information was particularly effective for people whose “free-market” worldview predisposed them to reject climate science. It has long been known that personal ideology or “worldview” is a major driver of people’s attitudes towards climate change: the more strongly people endorse a “fundamentalist” view of the free market, the more likely they are to reject climate science. The role of worldview presents a formidable challenge to science communicators because ideology may override any factual information. Worse yet, the provision of factual information may lead to “backfire” effects that reduce—rather than enhance—acceptance of science among people with extreme worldviews.

The fact that in our study, the provision of consensus information attenuated the role of worldview and increased acceptance particularly among people who maximally endorsed the free market may therefore present an avenue to overcome the communication challenge faced by climate scientists.

Another Downfall video in the making

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is best known for its reliance on feather dusters to “achieve active self-regulation” by the radio industry. In a notable development today, ACMA traded in the feather duster for some chalk and a blackboard when announcing that one of the nation’s most notorious Shock Jocks, a certain Alan Jones of station 2GB in Sydney, will be given basic training in journalism. This training will presumably introduce Mr.Jones to subtle distinctions such as the difference between a fact and a falsehood.

The ruling is notable for its succinctness and clarity:

New measures applying to programs hosted by Alan Jones

  • Pre-broadcast fact-checking by the program’s executive producer of any material provided by non-media sources or third parties which may require additional confirmation and attribution.
  • Creation and retention (for at least six weeks) of records of the verification material sourced by the executive producer for the facts contained in the editorial piece.
  • Identification by the executive producer of controversial issues of public importance that are not covered by other 2GB current affairs programs.
  • Communication of these exceptions to 2GB’s program director who will then be responsible to ensure that another current affairs program presents an alternative, significant viewpoint to that presented in the program hosted by Alan Jones so that 2GB can discharge its obligations under the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice.
  • Creation and retention of records by the program director for the above steps.

New measures applying to all news and current affairs programs

  • The program director will conduct random checks of daily broadcasts for each of the programs and will record the details of the controversial issues of public importance canvassed in the program. The program director will also record the reasonable efforts made/opportunities that have been given by the relevant programs to present significant alternative viewpoints.
  • Training will be conducted (including with Alan Jones) focussing on the ACMA’s findings concerning factual accuracy and significant viewpoints.
  • The training will be completed by the end of November 2012.

Apparently that training will be organized by 2GB but will involve an “external provider.” ACMA has asked for confirmation that the training has taken place but it is unknown whether this confirmation will involve any sort of assessment, such as a spelling contest or gold stars.

To put this into context, it must be noted that Mr. Jones is a “patron” of the Australian Galileo Movement, which heralds him for his “long history of speaking out for the downtrodden and for protecting freedom”, and which believes that “his innate expertise straddles the fields of politics, sport and the media.” (This is not necessarily good news because innate traits, such as the lengths of one’s arms or nose, sometimes resist modification by a few weeks of training. But then again, the notion of “innate expertise” is itself an oxymoron based on what we know about expertise acquisition, so maybe they shouldn’t be too concerned.)

By the way, the Galileo Movement’s self-proclaimed mission includes the “Restoration of Morality & Justice” (in addition to a few other minor projects, such as denying climate science). That Restoration was recently delayed when their other media champion, Mr. Andrew Bolt, discovered that he would have no part of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories sprouted by the Galileos. Mr. Bolt abandoned the Movement to pursue his own version of morality and justice while blogging for a Murdoch tabloid.

And now it looks like the Galileos lost their last remaining media champions to their greatest enemies, reality and facts.

But not to worry, there is always another theory waiting to be sprouted.

The sky is not falling–but emissions are

Today’s headline in The Age, one of Australia’s major newspapers, is Power pollution plunges. The article notes that the introduction of a price on carbon (currently $23/tonne) may have contributed to a fairly sharp drop in emissions intensity (i.e., the amount of of CO2 emitted per unit power generated). The article is accompanied by the following graph:


There is some interesting debate in the article concerning the underlying reasons; in addition to the carbon tax, there has also been an overall decline in power consumption, which may have had an indirect effect on emissions intensity by permitting generators to turn off old and particularly polluting plants.

The decline in emissions intensity can only be considered good news. The reality of this decline also provides an interesting counterpoint to the intense and fact-free scare campaign that preceded introduction of the carbon tax. It remains to be seen how public opinion will evolve over this issue, although one of the individuals involved in that earlier relentless campaign is presently in considerable trouble over remarks so tasteless that even his long-time sponsors withheld advertising on his radio show.

However, this welcome decline in emissions intensity should not obscure the fact that Australia’s emissions are still among the highest in the world as I showed earlier. The graph below, reproduced from that earlier post, puts our polluting record into a global context:

We are still not doing much better than India, although we beat Botswana and Cambodia. (Note that the axis in this graph is in g/kWh whereas The Age reports t/MW, and note that this graph is for the country as a whole whereas The Age reports Victoria only. This explains the different units and slight divergence of values. Note also that the values in this graph are slightly older; see original post for details.)

So the sky hasn’t fallen in.

We are cutting emissions intensity without any apparent harm to the economy.

But we have a long way to go to catch up with the other 135 countries that generate power more cleanly than Australia.



A **rumor** I’ve heard is ARC DPs announced in December with funding arriving in June. The next ARC DP application deadline will also be delayed until mid-year.

On Wednesday, 17 October 2012 20:53:22 UTC+11, fionama… wrote:

Melissa Sweet from Croakey (crikey health blog) has just emailed to say: “There are reports that ARC grants will be frozen, with details to emerge in next week’s midyear budget statement:”

In the SMH today:

And a recent piece in The Australian

Sent from my iPhone

The Stickiness of Misinformation

Together with colleagues Ullrich Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook I recently published a review paper of the literature on misinformation—why does misinformation “stick” to people’s memories? Why would anyone believe patent nonsense, such as the claim that President Obama was born outside the U.S.? And how can we help people discard such erroneous beliefs?

The citation for the paper can be found below, and here are links to a fairly extensive follow-up interview conducted by the American Psychological Society:


Lewandowsky, S.; Ecker, U. K. H.; Seifert, C.; Schwarz, N. & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13, 106-131.

Inferential Statistics and Replications

When you drop a glass it’ll crash to the floor. Wherever you are on this planet, and whatever glass it is you were disposing of, gravity will ensure its swift demise. The replicability of phenomena is one of the hallmarks of science: once we understand a natural “law” we expect it to yield the same outcome in any situation in which it is applicable. (This outcome may have error bars associated with it but that doesn’t affect our basic conclusion).

Nobel-winning cognitive scientist Dan Kahneman recently voiced his concern about the apparent lack of replicability of some results in an area of social psychology that concerns itself with “social priming”, the modification of people’s behavior without their awareness. For example, it has been reported that people walk out of the lab more slowly after being primed with words that relate to the concept “old age” (Bargh et al., 1996). Alas, notes Kahneman, those effects have at least sometimes failed to be reproduced by other researchers. Kahneman’s concern is therefore understandable.

How can experiments fail to replicate? There are several possible reasons but here we focus on the role of inferential statistics in scientific research generally. It isn’t just social psychology that relies on statistics; many other disciplines do too. In a nutshell, statistics enables us to decide whether or not an observed effect has occurred simply by chance. Researchers routinely test whether an observed effect is “significant”. A “significant” effect is one that is so large that it is unlikely to arise from chance alone. An effect is declared “significant” if the probability to observe an effect this large or larger by chance alone is smaller than a pre-defined “significance level”, usually set to 5% (.05).

So, statistics can help us decide whether people walked down the hallway more slowly by chance or because they were primed by “old” words. However, our conclusion that the effect is “real” and not due to chance is inevitably accompanied by some uncertainty.

Here is the rub: if the significance level is .05 (5%), then there is still a 1 in 20 chance that we erroneously concluded the effect was real even when it was due to chance—or put another way, out of 20 experiments, there may be 1 that reports an effect when in fact that effect does not exist. This possibility can never be ruled out (although the probability can be minimized by various means).

There is one more catch: as an experimenter, when reporting a single experiment, one can never be 100% sure whether one’s effect is real or due to chance. One can be very confident that the effect is real if it is extremely unlikely to observe such an effect by chance alone, but the possibility that one’s experiment will fail to replicate can never be ruled out with absolute certainty.

So does this mean that we can never be sure of the resilience of an effect in psychological research?


Quite on the contrary, we know much about how people function and how they think.

This is readily illustrated with Dan Kahneman’s own work, as he has produced several benchmark results in cognitive science. Consider the following brief passage about a hypothetical person called Linda:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. In university, she was involved in several social issues, including the environment, the peace campaign, and the anti-nuclear campaign.

Do you think Linda is more likely to be a bank teller or a bank teller and an active feminist?

Every time this experiment is done—and we have performed it literally dozens of times in our classes—most people think Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a mere bank teller. After all, she was engaged in environmental issues, wasn’t she?

However, this conclusion is false, and people’s propensity to endorse it is known as the “conjunction fallacy” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). It’s a fallacy because an event defined by multiple conditions can never be more likely than an event requiring only one of the constituent conditions: Because there are bound to be some bank tellers who are not feminists, Linda is necessarily more likely to be a bank teller than a bank teller and an active feminist.

Replicable effects such as the conjunction fallacy are obviously not confined to cognitive science. In climate science, for example, the iconic “hockey stick” which shows that the current increase in global temperatures is unprecedented during the past several centuries if not millennia, has been replicated numerous times since Mann et al. published their seminal paper in 1998. (Briffa et al., 2001; Briffa et al., 2004; Cook et al. 2004; D’Arrigo et al., 2006; Esper et al., 2002; Hegerl et al., 2006; Huang et al., 2000; Juckes et al., 2007; Kaufman et al., 2009 ; Ljungqvist, 2010; Moberg et al., 2005; Oerlemans, 2005 ; Pollack & Smerdon, 2004; Rutherford et al., 2005; Smith et al., 2006).

Crucially, those replications relied on a variety of proxy measures to reconstruct past climates—from tree rings to bore holes to sediments and so on. The fact that all reconstructions arrive at the same conclusion therefore increases our confidence in the robustness of the hockey stick. The sum total of replications has provided future generations with a very strong scientific (and moral) signal by which to evaluate our collective response to climate change at the beginning of the 21st century.

Let us now illustrate the specifics of the process of replication within the context of one of my recent papers, with colleagues Klaus Oberauer and Gilles Gignac, which showed (among other things) that conspiracist ideation predicted rejection of a range of scientific propositions, from the link between smoking and lung cancer to the fact that the globe is warming due to human greenhouse gas emissions. This effect was highly significant but the possibility that it represented a statistical fluke—though seemingly unlikely—cannot be ruled out.

To buttress one’s confidence in the result, a replication of the study would thus be helpful.

But that doesn’t mean it should be the same exact study done over again. On the contrary, this next study should differ slightly, so that the replication of the effect would underscore its breadth and resilience, and would buttress its theoretical impact.

For example, one might want to conduct the study using a large representative sample of the U.S. population. The kind of sample that professional survey and market research companies specialize in.

One might refine the set of items based on the results of the first study. One might provide a “neutral” option for the items this time round: the literature recognizes both strengths and weaknesses of including a neutral response option, so running the survey both ways and getting the same result would be particularly helpful.

One might also expand the set of potential worldview predictors, and one might query other controversial scientific propositions, such as GM foods and vaccinations—both said to be rejected by the political Left even though data on that claim are sparse.

Yes, such a replication would be quite helpful.


Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Briffa, K.R., et al., 2001: Low-frequency temperature variations from a northern tree ring density network. J. Geophys. Res., 106(D3), 2929–2941.

Briffa, K.R., T.J. Osborn, and F.H. Schweingruber, 2004: Large-scale temperature inferences from tree rings: a review. Global Planetary Change, 40(1–2), 11–26.

Cook, E.R., J. Esper, and R.D. D’Arrigo, 2004a: Extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere land temperature variability over the past 1000 years. Quat.Sci. Rev., 23(20–22), 2063–2074.

D’Arrigo, R., R. Wilson, and G. Jacoby, 2006: On the long-term context for late twentieth century warming. J. Geophys. Res., 111(D3), doi:10.1029/2005JD006352.

Esper, J., E.R. Cook, and F.H. Schweingruber, 2002: Low-frequency signals in long tree-ring chronologies for reconstructing past temperature variability. Science, 295(5563), 2250–2253.

Hegerl, G.C., T.J. Crowley, W.T. Hyde, and D.J. Frame, 2006: Climate sensitivity constrained by temperature reconstructions over the past seven centuries. Nature, 440, 1029–1032.

Huang, S. and Pollack, H. S. and Shen, P.-Y. (2000). Temperature trends over the past five centuries reconstructed from borehole temperatures. Nature, 403, 756-758.

Juckes, M. N. et al. (2007). Millennial Temperature Reconstruction Intercomparison and  Evaluation. Climate of the Past, 3, 591–609.

Kaufman, D. S. et al. (2009). Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling. Science, 325, 1236.

Ljungqvist, F. C. (2010). A New Reconstruction of Temperature Variability in the Extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere During the Last Two Millennia. Geografiska Annaler , 92A, 339–351.

Mann, M. E., Bradley, R. S., & Hughes, M. K. (1998). Global-Scale Temperature Patterns and Climate Forcing over the Past Six Centuries. Nature, 392, 779–787.

Moberg, A., et al., 2005: Highly variable Northern Hemisphere temperatures reconstructed from low- and high-resolution proxy data. Nature, 433(7026), 613–617.

Oerlemans, J., 2005: Extracting a climate signal from 169 glacier records. Science, 308(5722), 675–677.

Pollack, H.N., and J.E. Smerdon, 2004: Borehole climate reconstructions: Spatial structure and hemispheric averages. J. Geophys. Res., 109(D11), D11106, doi:10.1029/2003JD004163.

Smith, C. L. and Baker, A. and Fairchild, I. J. and Frisia, S. and Borsato, A. (2006). Reconstructing hemispheric-scale climates from multiple stalagmite records. International Journal of Climatology, 26, 1417 – 1424.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review, 90, 293-315.

Wahl, E. R. and Ammann, C. R. (2007).  Robustness of the Mann, Bradley, Hughes reconstruction of Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures: Examination of criticisms based on the nature and processing of proxy climate evidence. Climatic Change, 85, 33-69.

Indigenous Heritage: Case Studies in Western Australia

One of the common tactics used by both corporations and governments to gain the consent of Indigenous people to the destruction of their heritage is to “divide and conquer”, as the Fortescue Mining Group has done to the Yindjibarndi people of Roebourne and the W.A government has done in the Kimberley. 

In 2003, a united group of 10 Yindjibarndi elders put a Native Title claim on behalf of their people for a large area of their traditional Karijini land in the Pilbara. Some five years later, the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) lodged applications for mining leases in the middle of the claim and began negotiations through the representative body, the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), who rejected the initial offer of compensation from the company.

Under Native Title law miners cannot commence mining unless they reach agreement with traditional owners or have negotiated in “good faith”.  When the negotiations broke down in this case, FMG requested arbitration from the Native Title Tribunal which, as it almost always does, ruled in the miner’s favour. Further appeals from the YAC followed but, before their completion, the State Government issued licences for the company to proceed and the company re-started negotiations with – and funded – a breakaway local group. They also provided funds for legal advice to the group to enable them to apply to remove some of the original native title claimants from the claim, since the law requires that the company should negotiate with all the claimants. Community division and distress of the elders unable to protect their country has been the result.

The company has also sought to evade even those few ministerial conditions originally placed on the project and the W.A. government eventually allowed FMG’s request to delete Aboriginal heritage conditions on its mining leases relating to the need to avoid burial sites and consult with local people about heritage sites. The YAC have also been prevented from entering the area in question in breach of the mining lease, which requires that use of and access to the land by the Yindjibarndi people should not be restricted except for safety reasons.

Like many other groups, the Yinjibarndi people have been asked to trade off their heritage for economic benefits and employment; while they would undoubtedly welcome improvement in their living conditions and life chances for their children, many of them are very uneasy about the fact that this may mean the destruction of important heritage sites and the destruction of their capacity to exercise their responsibilities to care for the land and make sure that the language and the culture are passed on. Mr Woodley, chair of the YAC has said, “We are deeply angered that fundamental human rights standards spelled out in United Nations covenants are being blatantly violated in this state. The Minister’s decision steals from our people what is at the centre of our world, the cultural heritage that lies at the heart of our identity, our confidence, our right to exist as Yindjibarndi.”

Given this sort of experience – and there are many such stories – it’s not surprising that a survey of traditional Aboriginal owners which asked what they wanted to do with their land found that less than 13 per cent listed economic development as a first priority, while more than one-third highlighted access, residence, land and sea management and cultural heritage (Balsamo and Calma 2007).[1] As researcher Jon Altman points out[2], “there is considerable empirical evidence that Indigenous people rarely benefit equitably when major extractive activities occur on their customary land—indeed it is far more common for such activities to impact negatively on the livelihoods and cultures of Indigenous communities” (p 3).

While many hoped that this would not be the case for the proposed Woodside gas hub at James Price Point in the Kimberley, the signs are not good. Anyone fortunate enough to have visited the area will agree that the West Kimberley, listed by the Australian Heritage Council in 2010, is an extraordinary place by any measure. It has a fascinating and unique wildlife, a magnificent coastline, spectacular gorges and waterfalls, ancient and ongoing Indigenous culture and a distinctive pastoral and pearling heritage. Not only is it recognised as one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the world, but scientists discover new species almost every time they visit. Some have argued that it deserves UNESCO World Heritage Status as a “site of outstanding cultural and natural importance to the common heritage of humanity.”

The whole area is marked by many overlapping stories, principally those of the Aboriginal people who have occupied the land for over 40,000 years. This is the traditional and spiritual home to 13 traditional owner groups who speak more than 30 different Indigenous languages, some unique to the region. It is home, too, to their ancestors and the many creation beings held by Traditional Owners to have shaped and occupied the ranges and plains, rivers and waterholes, seas and islands.  Powerful creation beings such as the Wanjina are seen in many different forms; in the rock art, river systems, tidal movements, stone arrangements, geographic formations, animal and plant species and in the stars and planets.

What has come to be known as the “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” is for Aboriginal people the Law, transmitted through traditional narratives, images, song and dance, weaving together the elements of their social world – their entitlements, responsibilities and obligations. As one Bardi women said, “they are living stories; they are the spirit of us”[3]. The many Wanjina paintings of large eyed, mouthless, anthropomorphic beings with halo like rings encircling heads and the elegant human-like painted images (the Gwion/Gwion) have attracted a lot of international interest. They form what is considered one of the longest lasting and most complex rock art sequences anywhere on the planet. However, to the aboriginal people, this is not art in the western aesthetic sense but places where creation beings have placed themselves in rock.

There is no doubt the Kimberley will be permanently altered by plans to exploit oil and gas off the coast and to establish a gas hub at James Price Point. And that will almost certainly not be the end of the story; a great many mining projects await the green light for development. What is in contemplation is not a small footprint but a very large and complex piece of infrastructure, which will almost certainly expand over time; witness the LNG complex to the south, on the Burrup rock art precinct, which is now an industrial estate. And the company, Woodside, has explicitly sought approval to destroy Indigenous sites in order to build the pipes they need to bring the gas onshore.

Despite the fact that some of the local aboriginal people, represented by the Kimberley Land Council, initially approved the proposal, even they are now threatening to withdraw that approval if a proper social and cultural impact assessment is not undertaken,[4] citing evidence that “aspects of the project would cause “significant disturbance” to indigenous heritage values.” Other local Goolarabooloo people have steadfastly opposed the development because it will destroy important sites crucial to aboriginal law and culture. Just this weekend, evidence emerged[5] that, at the request of Woodside, the West Australian government withdrew letters from the Department of Indigenous Affairs to Woodside, advising that their proposed work site at James Price Point overlapped with significant sites integral to Aboriginal men’s song cycles. Apart from the potential impropriety of this action, the message is clear; aboriginal heritage can be sacrificed without public knowledge and without penalty.

In a recent interview, 43 year-old South Australian aboriginal man, Aaron Stuart, who has worked for many years to try to reduce suicide amongst his people, attributed the high rates of suicide in some indigenous communities to people “grieving from loss of culture and identity”[6]. There is some indirect evidence to back him up: looking at the benefits of maintaining contact with country, Garnett and Sithole (2007) found that time spent on traditional lands engaged in traditional activities appeared to reduce excess morbidity and mortality.[7] It seems clear that unless we re-weight the balance between economic activity and heritage and culture, priceless human assets will be lost forever and the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians – and of all of us – further compromised by the pressure to develop at any price.

This is part 3 in a series: Part 1 can be found hereand Part 2 here.

[2] Altman, J. (2009) Contestations over Development, In Altman, J & Martin, D. (Eds) Power, Culture, Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining. CAEPR (ANU) Research Monograph 30.

[3] Australian Heritage Council’s final assessment of the national heritage values of the West Kimberley

[4] Prior, F (2012) Aboriginal blow to gas hub deal, The West Australian, September 5

[5] Lloyd, G. (2012) Gas giant silences advice on songlines, Weekend Australian ,8 Sept.

[6] Horowitz, K (2011) Stolen Lives: Crusader saving lives by promoting identity, February 17.

[7] Garnett, S. & Sithole, B (2007) Sustainable Northern Landscapes and the Nexus with Indigenous Health: Healthy Country, Healthy People, Land and Water Australia, Australian Government, 2007.

The State of Indigenous Inheritance

The progressive, cumulative destruction of Indigenous cultural resources as a result of the cumulative impact of individual development was highlighted in the 2011 recent State of the Environment (SOE) report[1], largely ignored by the mainstream media. In the chapter on heritage, two main threats to Indigenous heritage were identified: the disruption of knowledge and culture and the disturbance and destruction of sites due to urban expansion and resource extraction. 

Part of the problem, as outlined in the report, is that the nature and extent of Indigenous cultural heritage is unknown to most Australians, with the result that we do not really know what is being destroyed.  In fact, surveys and assessments of Indigenous heritage are often funded and undertaken only in response to specific threats from development projects.  Record – then destroy. The SOE report also points out that conflicts about the destruction of Indigenous heritage by industry remain common and that “one of the main threats to indigenous heritage places is conscious destruction through government approved development.” [2] Even when decision makers are aware of potential heritage impacts, they frequently choose to authorise destruction, bit by bit; economic considerations are given priority over heritage protection and the cumulative impact of development is not properly assessed.

Aboriginal heritage may be described as having two main dimensions: the first,  evidence of Aboriginal communities from earlier times, including burial sites, middens, rock and cave paintings and scatters of stone tools, some as old as 50,0000 years , others more recent; the second encompassing the places or landscapes that are of spiritual significance to living Aboriginal people. Such areas are often associated with the actions of mythological beings during the creative period of the Dreaming, moving over the land and shaping the form it now takes and the laws and ceremonies that guide people’s lives. Both aspects of Indigenous heritage are under threat.

It is clear that Australia’s Indigenous people view their world as an interconnected whole: they make no intrinsic distinction between the lands, waters, the plants and animals and the culturally significant sites and objects linked to the traditional knowledge, which  lie at the heart of Indigenous culture and identity handed down through the generations[3]. Such traditional knowledge can only be kept alive through use and application in the country to which it is tied. Protecting land and places and promoting cultural practices (especially languages and creative expression) are both crucial for the maintenance of traditional knowledge. Where such use and application are disrupted, as is often the case with resource extractive industries, cultural heritage in the broadest sense is under threat.

This is particularly evident in Western Australia where the mining boom (despite hiccoughs in recent weeks) is still at full tilt, with both state and federal governments enthusiastically barracking industry players.  Resource extraction industries inevitably place pressure on heritage places, since the activities of the mining and oil and gas industries and the taking of timber from native forests usually require the removal or degradation of features which form an important part of Indigenous heritage and of our heritage more generally – landscapes, habitats, rock art, ancient story lines, geological formations. In the rush to feed and fire the steel mills of China we barely stop to consider the loss that this represents.

What little research there is has shown that “mining and other forms of industrial development can result in profound and often irreversible damage to the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples”[4]. It is fear of such damage that sometimes drives opposition to development by indigenous people, especially since heritage laws have generally proved ineffective in protecting their heritage.  And, in many cases, the promised economic benefits have not materialised.

Some 60% of mining activity in Australia actually abuts or is located on aboriginal land. Commonly, an application is made by a developer or mining company to undertake some activity which may harm Indigenous heritage and the responsible agency will then require that an Indigenous heritage assessment be undertaken by the applicant before a permit is issued. Most of Australia’s Indigenous heritage laws allow Ministers, or other statutory bodies, to authorise the destruction of sites. While consultation with relevant Indigenous groups is generally required, it seldom results in the applications being refused and, as a result, such decisions are a continuing source of conflict between Indigenous communities and government agencies and resource companies.

To compound the problem, there are limited public data on how many and to whom permits or consents are issued authorising harm or destruction of Indigenous sites. The authors of the SOE report indicated that they could find no long-term studies that have systematically assessed the cumulative impact on Indigenous heritage of these decisions to approve destruction; but what evidence there is indicates a perilous situation.  Given the rapid expansion of the resource extractive industries and in the absence of comprehensive strategies to reconcile competing economic and heritage values, this deterioration is likely to accelerate.

This is part 2 in a series: Part 1 can be found here.

[1]Australian State of the Environment Committee (2011) Australia: State of the Environment Report. Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities,

[2] Australia: State of the Environment Report (2011),  p 735.

[3] [3] Damien Bell (2011) “Whose Heritage?”  Essay commissioned by the Australian Heritage Commission,

[4] O’Faircheallaigh, C. (2008). Negotiating Cultural Heritage? Aboriginal-Mining Company Agreements in Australia, Development and Change, 39 (1), 25-51.


Development at any price? The case of Australia’s Indigenous heritage

This is the first of a series of three posts addressing issues surrounding Australia’s indigenous heritage. The content is based on the 2012  John West Oration to the Launceston Historical Society given by the author.

Part 1:  Why should we protect our heritage?

In the broadest sense our heritage is what we inherit; it’s what we value of that inheritance and what we decide to keep and protect for future generations. Heritage is both global enough encompass our shock at the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and as local as our own sepia tinted family photographs.  Everything which our predecessors have bequeathed, both tangible and intangible, may be called heritage – landscapes, structures, objects, traditions, stories and language.

This inheritance shapes and expresses who we are; it gives meaning and depth to our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Each of us has both a unique as well as a shared heritage; and some of that heritage will be directly experienced, understood and incorporated into our sense of ourselves (like my Irish ancestry); some of it only dimly apprehended, requiring a respectful recognition and willingness to learn – like Australia’s Indigenous heritage to most Australians.

It is no accident that one of the first targets of those engaged in genocide is the obliteration of heritage – and through that, identity. The destruction of important civic buildings and places of worship is often part of so-called “ethnic cleansing” in violent conflicts. The victors systematically seek to remove the traces of the vanquished community in order to establish control over them. As Milan Kundera (1981) put it in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”: ‘the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history’ (p 159).

In Australia, those who took the aboriginal children to try to turn them into domestic servants and farm labourers explicitly prohibited the children from speaking their own languages and taking part in cultural practices. The Bringing them Home Report[1] documented these effects in considerable detail, finding that principal effect of the removal policies was the severe erosion of cultural links. This was, of course, the aim of these policies. It was said at the time that the children were to be “prevented from acquiring the habits and customs of the Aborigines” (South Australian Protector of Aborigines in 1909). Clearly, the intended outcome of the removals was to prevent Indigenous children from developing Indigenous cultural identity as part of their sense of themselves. As the Bringing Them Home Report made clear, while Indigenous cultures were not destroyed by these policies, and continue to exist, many were profoundly changed.

But the destruction of heritage need not necessarily be the result of such traumatic and cataclysmic events. We are constantly making judgments about what is worth protecting and passing on – as well as about what we would prefer to forget. Not all of these judgments are carefully considered – or even conscious – and many are hotly contested. In struggles to preserve our heritage, economic goals, in particular, generally take precedence over what is really precious to us. Circumstances, of course, may also conspire to erase the traces of our past – we feel for the people of Christchurch.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are connected to and influenced by our social and physical environments, our cultural landscape. Most people have strong emotional bonds to particular places and the communities in them. There is a now a great deal of evidence too that our well-being depends in large measure on our relationship with our environment, broadly conceived – the relationships we have with the people around us and the natural and built environment we inhabit[2]; if this cultural environment is destroyed or degraded or if people are prevented from enjoying it, their health and well-being are compromised.

For example, research in Western Australia has shown that the happiest and healthiest Indigenous Australians, with low arrest rates and good educational attainment, are those who have been able to retain a strong attachment to their culture and have a strong aboriginal identity.[3]  Conversely, the psychologically adverse consequences of destruction of people’s familiar environment have been well documented. For example, interviews with people living in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales found that “the transformation of the environment from mining and power station activities was associated with significant expressions of distress linked to negative changes to interviewees’ sense of place, well-being, and control” (p 47)[4], a phenomenon philosopher Glen Albrecht[5] has described as “solastalgia”, a loss of a sense of place.

Even though we may only dimly apprehend the deeper human loss which ensues from the destruction of our heritage, the effects are, nonetheless real and lasting. This alone is reason enough to take heritage protection very seriously.

[1] Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, April 1997

[2] Lewicka, M. (2011) Place attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 207-230.

[3] West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, Kalinga Research Network Report, 2004.

[4] Connor, L., Albrecht, G., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Smith, W. (2004) ‘Environmental change and Human health in Upper Hunter communities of New South Wales, Australia’, EcoHealth, 1, 47-58.

[5] Albrecht, G., Sartore, G., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., Stain, H., Tonna, A. and Pollard, G. (2007) “Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change”. Proceedings of the RANZCP Social and Cultural Psychiatry Creating Futures Conference, Australasian Psychiatry, 15 (Supplement): S95-8.

A simple recipe for the manufacturing of doubt

Mr. McIntyre, a self-declared expert in statistics, recently posted an ostensibly unsuccessful attempt to replicate several exploratory factor analyses in our study on the motivated rejection of (climate) science. His wordy post creates the appearance of potential problems with our analysis.

There are no such problems, and it is illustrative to examine how Mr. McIntyre manages to manufacture this erroneous impression.

Our explanation focuses on the factor analysis of the five “climate science” items as just one example, because this is the case where his re-“analysis” deviated most from our actual results.

The trick is simple when you know a bit about exploratory factor analysis (EFA). EFA serves to reduce the dimensionality in a data set. To this end, EFA represents the variance and covariance of a set of observed variables by a smaller number of latent variables (factors) that represent the variance shared among some or all observed variables.

EFA is a non-trivial analysis technique that requires considerable training to be used competently, and a full explanation is far beyond the scope of a single blog post. Suffice it to say that what EFA does is to take a bunch of variables, such as items on a questionnaire, and then replaces the multitude of items with a small number of “factors” that represent the common information that is picked up by those items. In a nutshell, EFA permits you to go from 100 items on an IQ test to a single factor that one might call “intelligence.” (It’s more nuanced than that, but that captures the essential idea for now).

One core aspect of EFA is that the researcher must decide on the number of factors to be extracted from a covariance matrix. There are several well-established criteria that guide this selection. In the case of our data, all acknowledged criteria yield the same conslusions.

For illustrative purposes we focus on the simplest and most straightforward criterion, which states one should extract factors with an eigenvalue > 1.  (If you don’t know what an eigenvalue is, that’s not a problem—all you need to know is that this quantity should be >1 for a factor to be extracted). The reason is that factors with eigenvalues < 1 represent less variance than a single variable, which negates the entire purpose of EFA, namely to represent the most important dimensions of variation in the data in an economical way.

Applied to the five “climate science” items, the first factor had an eigenvalue of 4.3, representing 86% of the variance. The second factor had an eigenvalue of only .30, representing a mere 6% of the variance. Factors are ordered by their eigenvalues, so all further factors represent even less variance. 

Our EFA of the climate items thus provides clear evidence that a single factor is sufficient to represent the largest part of the variance in the five “climate science” items.  Moreover, adding further factors with eigenvalues < 1 is counterproductive because they represent less information than the original individual items. (Remember that all acknowledged standard criteria yield the same conclusions.)

Practically, this means that people’s responses to the five questions regarding climate science were so highly correlated that they reflect, to the largest part, variability on a single dimension, namely the acceptance or rejection of climate science. The remaining variance in individual items is most likely mere measurement error.

How could Mr. McIntyre fail to reproduce our EFA?

Simple: In contravention of normal practice, he forced the analysis to extract two factors. This is obvious in his R command line:


In this and all other EFAs posted on Mr. McIntyre’s blog, the number of factors to be extracted was chosen by fiat and without justification.

Remember, the second factor in our EFA for the climate item had an eigenvalue much below 1, and hence its extraction is nonsensical. (As it is by all other criteria as well.)

But that’s not everything.

When more than one factor is extracted, researchers can rotate factors so that each factor represents a substantial, and approximately equal, part of the variance. In R, the default rotation method, which Mr. McIntyre did not overrule, is to use Varimax rotation, which forces the factors to be uncorrelated. As a result of rotation, the variance is split about evenly among the factors extracted.

Of course, this analysis is nonsensical because there is no justification for extracting more than one factor from the set of “climate change” items.

There are two explanations for this obvious flaw in Mr. McIntyre’s re-“analysis”. Either he made a beginner’s mistake, in which case he should stop posing as an expert in statistics and take a refresher of Multivariate Analysis 101. Or else, he intentionally rigged his re-“analysis” so that it deviated from our EFA’s in the hope that no one would see through his manufacture of doubt.