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Climate Change Climate change denial strategies

Published on February 7th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley

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We Need Smarter People, Not Smarter Machines, To Conquer Climate Change

February 7th, 2018 by  


Some people believe that right at the moment when climate change threatens to make human life on earth impossible, a deus ex machina moment will occur to save us. That’s how it happens in the movies, so why shouldn’t it happen in real life? Somehow, some way, we will suddenly discover something that will let us “science our way” out of extinction. Maybe artificial intelligence will save us.

Climate change denial strategies

Horse puckey! Finding strategies to blunt the impact of global warming before our species is wiped from the face of the earth will require smarter people, not smarter machines. Although autonomous cars and smart grids powered by artificial intelligence may help, solving the global warming conundrum will require the most massive cooperative effort in human history. But how do we get the climate deniers and naysayers on board?

John Cook is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Together with colleagues Peter Ellerton, and David Kinkead, he has just published a paper in Environmental Research Letters that examines 42 common climate myths. The authors found every single one results from faulty reasoning. Cook and his colleagues suggest a number of strategies to inoculate people against misinformation.

Coincidence Is Not Causation

One popular myth is that global warming has occurred due to natural causes in the past, therefore it can only be caused by natural causes today. This is like saying World War I resulted from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, therefore all wars must begin with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo. When put that way, the conclusion is immediately revealed to be absurd and loses its power.

The abstract to the new paper, entitled “Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors,” published on February 6, puts it this way:

“Misinformation can have significant societal consequences. For example, misinformation about climate change has confused the public and stalled support for mitigation policies. When people lack the expertise and skill to evaluate the science behind a claim, they typically rely on heuristics such as substituting judgment about something complex (i.e. climate science) with judgment about something simple (i.e. the character of people who speak about climate science) and are therefore vulnerable to misleading information.

“Inoculation theory offers one approach to effectively neutralize the influence of misinformation. Typically, inoculations convey resistance by providing people with information that counters misinformation. In contrast, we propose inoculating against misinformation by explaining the fallacious reasoning within misleading denialist claims.

“We offer a strategy based on critical thinking methods to analyse and detect poor reasoning within denialist claims. This strategy includes detailing argument structure, determining the truth of the premises, and checking for validity, hidden premises, or ambiguous language. Focusing on argument structure also facilitates the identification of reasoning fallacies by locating them in the reasoning process. Because this reason-based form of inoculation is based on general critical thinking methods, it offers the distinct advantage of being accessible to those who lack expertise in climate science.

“We applied this approach to 42 common denialist claims and find that they all demonstrate fallacious reasoning and fail to refute the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming. This comprehensive deconstruction and refutation of the most common denialist claims about climate change is designed to act as a resource for communicators and educators who teach climate science and/or critical thinking.”

The essence of the paper is conveyed visually in the following video.

Critical Thinking Is Required

The paper by Cook, et al, concludes by saying,

“We hope our work will act as a building block for developing educational and social media resources, which teach and encourage critical thinking through the examination of both misinformation and fallacious reasoning. Our critical thinking process is a useful tool that scientists, educators, and communicators can employ to identify fallacies in misinformation, which they can use to create inoculating messages that neutralize the myths.

“This approach is practical, achievable and potentially impactful in both the short-term (e.g., in social media applications) and long-term (incorporating this kind of content into curriculum). Misinformation needs short, sharp, immediate inoculation. Our paper provides a blueprint into how to write these inoculations.”

Reactionaries And Fake News

Another study published recently by researchers at the University of Oxford finds that the vast majority of  low quality, extremist, sensationalist, and conspiratorial news published in the US is consumed and shared primarily by right wing social network users who strongly identify with Donald Trump. “On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers report. On Facebook, the  “extreme hard right pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”

The researchers examined the Twitter activities of 13,500 politically active Twitter users in the US. They also looked at a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages to find the external websites they were sharing. These are people who are proud of their ignorance and revel in sharing it with others. For them, basing their existence on falsehoods is an empowering experience, a form of personal validation that allows them to pretend the have some measure of control over the events that shape their existence.

“The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers report. Nothing surprising there. However, “The Trump support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter and spreads more junk news sources than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”

Deprogramming The Lunatic Fringe

The Trumpies didn’t get to where they are all by themselves. They had massive amounts of support from the individuals who fund the the “know nothing” consciousness, people like The Koch Brothers, Peter and Rebecca Thiel, and the fossil fuel industry. We can thank decades of misinformation spewing from propaganda purveyors like Rush “Anal Cyst” Limbaugh and Fox News for creating a culture which celebrates ignorance. Can John Cook’s misinformation inoculation strategies make a dent in such a seemingly insurmountable wall of willfully delusional thinking?

That requires more than belittling those who disagree with us, a technique used in the famous “Jane, you ignorant slut” episodes of Saturday Night Live years ago. We have to be smarter humans, learn what it is that motivates the naysayers, and patiently bring them toward enlightenment. Understanding how John Cook and his fellow researchers do this can make the task easier.

If humanity is going to find solutions to climate change/global warming, it must find ways to keep the denialists from delaying the process until it is too late for us all. Thinking critically and teaching others how to do so will be vital to confronting climate change successfully.


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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