Cascading doubt: shaping the publics perception of science

It’s well understood that public opinion polls are an ineffective means to determine scientific truths. However, for the various anti-science movements they are an essential tool – or weapon – in manufacturing doubt.

By allowing people to think scepticism of established scientific facts are in fact “disputed”, they can influence broader public perception.

Perhaps the most famous example is in the US, where only “4 in 10” of the population accept the science of evolution. A fair proportion of those doubting evolution think the world is less than 10,000 years old. As far as a science goes, evolutionary biology is without question “a fact”.

But a well-funded and organised movement of “intelligent design” advocates and creationists continue to wage war against this science. The anti-evolution movement finds comfort in these opinion polls. It creates the impression their is “controversy” when none exist.

Richard Dawkins, in his most recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth, provides a brilliant analogy:

Imagine that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world — for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors. That’€™s a big undertaking and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class’€™s attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses (as a Latin scholar you would know better than to say ignorami) who, with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin.

Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defence of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defence against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren’€™t too busy fighting it.

The very same could be said of the denial movement.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is happening, deniers continue to insist there is a “debate” when none exist.

Deniers scenting victory?

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has been waging war against climate science since the early 1990’s.

They do not engage in scientific research. Shaping opinion polls and PR is their business.

In May of this year they released the results of a poll they commissioned from Galaxy Research claiming “two-thirds of Australians are now doubtful” about climate change. The accompanying press release from the IPA claims:

  • 35% of Australians believe that “The world is warming and man’s emissions are to blame.”
  • 26% of Australians believe that “The variation in global temperature is just part of the natural cycle of nature.”
  • The largest group, 38% of Australians agreed with the statement that “There is conflicting evidence and I’m not sure what the truth is.”

For the IPA, this is vindication of their world view and the product of their steady disinformation campaign. A recent Sydney Morning Herald interview with John Roskam, the director of the IPA gives a good feeling for how they view the results as vindication of their views:

”I truly believe that the Australian people are waking up and it’s a victory for liberal democracy,” Roskam says.

In the battle for public opinion, Roskam is finally scenting victory. He cites a poll commissioned by his organisation since the federal government decided to postpone its ETS, which showed 26 per cent of the 1000 people surveyed thought “The variation in global temperature is just part of the natural cycle of nature,” with another 38 per cent not sure what the truth is.

Typical of right-wing extremists, Roskam wraps up the rejection of the scientific method as patriotic victory.

As Shaw said, patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

However, as the article later explains the results are less clear-cut. Other polls are less favorable to the position of the IPA:

Other polls are less clear cut, and suggest that public support for working to solve climate change remains strong, although sceptics are represented in most communities and age groups. The Lowy Institute for International Policy has been polling changing public attitudes to climate change for several years, and allows for more nuanced responses than the IPA’s Galaxy survey.

Although often cited as evidence of waning public support for climate change action, the most recent Lowy findings show that interest in the issue peaked with the election of the Rudd government and quickly declined thereafter to its current level, with about half the population wanting immediate greenhouse gas cuts, and the proportion who think nothing should be done ”until we are sure global warming is a problem” steady for the past two years at 13 per cent.

Still, what does it all mean?

In my estimation there is a large and significant proportion of the population who are confused on the issue. They hear a lot of noise from both sides – “alarmist” and “denier” – and are understandably confused.

But that is the very intention of the denial movements campaigns.

Manufacturing doubt: make “uncertainty” the issue, when none exist

The IPA is engaged in the same style of politicking and seeding of doubt that was outlined in the famous Luntz memo for the US Republicans. This has been the template for the denial movement ever since. The key strategy is to emphasis the “science is not settled”:

“…you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

Luntz was a political consultant who worked for the George W. Bush administration, and advised how to “manufacture doubt”:

“…Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming with the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.”

The is achieved by constantly flooding the media and internet with disinformation and publicising the views of dissenting scientists and sceptics. The IPA has been doing that for decades in Australia. The same Sydney Morning Herald article gives an insight into how they do this:

The IPA’s operating budget is small but its influence in nurturing climate scepticism in the wider community is large. About a quarter of its $2 million in annual funding comes from corporations with a direct stake in the climate change debate, not including contributions from its 1000 individual members, some of whom also have a personal interest in climate change.

The money is used to pay for sceptic research and extend patronage to prominent sceptics by giving them a platform for publication and media exposure. The IPA is a key part of Australia’s small labyrinth of think tanks, foundations and internet-based communities attempting to undermine public confidence in climate science.

The network was instrumental in nurturing the deluge of climate sceptic emails that helped to convince Liberal MPs to dump Malcolm Turnbull, and their influence is likely to have had an effect on the internal ALP polling that convinced it to shelve the emissions trading scheme until at least 2013.

Argument from popularity: meaningless to the science, important to policy debate

Obviously there is a basic flaw with the angle the IPA is pushing: arguments from popularity are a logical fallacy:

Argument from Popularity (formally, argumentum ad populam) is an informal logical fallacy where an individual claims that a proposition is true because it is or has been widely believed. In its most general form, the argument is generally presented as follows.

  • P is believed by millions of people worldwide
  • Therefore, P

It is a fallacy because millions or billions of people can still believe in something that is wrong.

Just because millions don’t accept evolutionary science, it does not mean it is not true. The same applies to climate change: the opinions of a certain percentage of people do not carry any weight in the scientific debate.

However, the use of opinion polls like this by the IPA are intended to make “doubt” and “scepticism of climate change” more acceptable amongst the general public.

Cascading denial: how a lie is given life

The recent New Scientist special on denialism again provides a good framework for understanding why the IPA and other anti-science advocates place such enormous store on shaping public opinion. They know that if a enough people “doubt” an established truth, then it has a “cascading effect” in which others join them in sharing that doubt:

Imagine a group of parents who are individually weighing up the evidence for and against vaccination. Let’s say that one couple, perhaps already suspicious of mainstream medicine, encounter a rumour that vaccines cause autism, and decide not to vaccinate. The next couple now have new information to consider. As well as the scientific evidence, there is the knowledge that two friends are worried enough not to vaccinate. This might swing them against vaccination too… and so on for each subsequent parent. At some point, expert advice and reports of scientific studies arguing for vaccination come to be outweighed by the mass of parents who say vaccination is unsafe.

This is an informational cascade, a phenomenon first described in 1993 by the economist David Hirshleifer, now at the University of California, Irvine. Cascades can drive the popularity of everything from YouTube videos to medical procedures. They also mean that falsehoods can come to be believed simply because others believe them.

The process is amplified by the “echo chamber” of the internet, which has made it easier than ever to encounter and spread falsehoods. It also makes it easier to start them. Propagators are often aware of what they are doing, according to Sunstein. Some act out of self-interest, such the desire for money or fame. Others are defending an ideology or faith. Some are simply malicious. (Giving life to a lie, Jim Giles pg. 42)

What the IPA and other think tanks are engaged in is manufacturing such information cascades.

Falsehoods are given life because a number of people believe they are true.

5 thoughts on “Cascading doubt: shaping the publics perception of science

  1. Fred Orth says:

    Greatly appreciate your analysis. I am shocked that this “war” continues when it is so well supported in the science community. Your reasoning adds much clarity to my confusion, and, I appreciate your sharing.

  2. Tim says:

    Great write up Mike!
    It demonstrates the problem of when science interferes with political arenas. Truth has one weapon; TRUTH – which it can continue to say until the cow comes home but lacks dynamics and where it is beyond the audience, can lack interest. Politics, or ideology is far more dynamic and sly; as Abbot illustrates every time he talks to anyone; anything goes as long as it sounds nice and stimulates the particular belief. Reason is a mere annoyance in the way of a good show.
    Polls are a form of peer pressure also. There is little to no debate within the appropriate community on AGW, more the nuts and bolts of the findings. What is clear is inaction is not only inhumane but certainly a crime against the natural world which is being pushed towards breaking point.
    Taking away all the jargon that floats about on the subject, if we were to take action, the only thing that would occur is that we would change the mindset of our species to one that is far more practical and increasingly sustainable and no doubt richer (economically, understanding, happier and more connected to our planet)… there’s none of the Monckton stupidity of a fascist world government – the man is (and other like him , such as Minchin) nothing more than the paranoid result of cold war propaganda.

  3. Watching the Deniers says:

    Thanks for the positive comments guys, it’s much appreciated🙂

    The question that has been raised again and again is how to combat this stuff. Patiently refutation of each of their distortions/lies is certainly one approach, and very much needed.

    But, we also need to dig deeper and expose their tactics, networks and funding. The public thinks it a case of one set of experts against another – when in reality, it’s a organised movement against science.

  4. Girma says:

    The variation in global temperature is just part of the natural cycle of nature

    That is very true.

    Global temperature is cyclic:

    Seeing believing.

    Who is the REAL denier?

    [Girma, you add nothing to the debate or conversation. Your posts are no better than spam, so for that reason I’m banning any future posts by you. Mike @ WTD]

    Good on Australians!

  5. Howdy great blog! Does running a blog like this take
    a great deal of work? I’ve no knowledge of coding however I was hoping to
    start my own blog soon. Anyway, if you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners please share.
    I know this is off topic but I simply wanted to ask. Thank you!

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