Category Archives: Research

When facts fail: study notes that facts can reinforce false beliefs

[Hat tip to reader Helen from Scotland]  

A recent study in the journal Political Behaviour provides some fascinating – and worrisome – insights into how people treat facts that challenge erroneous beliefs.  

Titled “When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions” [1] it clearly demonstrates the fact that people will cling desperately to a misconception despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts that belief. As the abstract notes:

“…An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

Upon reading this paper my immediate thought was “Climategate”.   

This is the example par excellence of a misconception (that scientists have acted fraudulently to “manufacture” global warming) that has no basis in reality. It’s a belief in which large numbers within the denial community still cling too despite overwhelming evidence that no fraud took place.  

While many of us are surprised that so many individuals can continue to believe in a massive conspiracy, this paper provides some valuable insight into “why” this may be the case.  

Do corrections matter? Not according to this study…  

The authors looked at how individuals filtered information – based on their ideological preferences – on a number of issues: the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the effectiveness of tax cuts as an economic stimulus; and the “banning” of stem cell research.  

Groups were given a mock news report followed by another one that “corrected” it. The results were interesting:  

“…The experiments reported in this paper help us understand why factual misperceptions about politics are so persistent. We find that responses to corrections in mock news articles differ significantly according to subjects’ ideological views. As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

Most of what we know about climate change is filtered via the mainstream media. The situation is not helped by the media who use the “he said/she said” formula of presenting both sides of an argument. The authors of this study note this as well:  

“…people typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions—a view that is consistent with a wide array of research…”

Such “balanced” views actually distort the debate. By giving such prominence to climate “sceptics” the media helps feed the misconception that there is still debate over the facts of global warming.  

Climategate: the denier response  

As a recent poster on this blog with denialist tendencies said of the various inquires that found no evidence of conspiracy, data manipulation or fraud:

How come Phil Jones got to chose his own papers for the so-called “independent” Oxburgh enquiries?

Do they think we are stupid?

The above poster is representative of the majority of the denial community… “Of course its a conspiracy…” says the denier “Just look at the results of the Lord Oxbourgh’s inquiry!  

The above study shows why people continue to cling to false beliefs. It has nothing to do with intelligence: cognitive biases, ideology and prejudices build up a solid wall of denial that no facts, reasoned arguments or truths will breach.  

People such as this have (a) little real understanding of the science and (b) filter information based on their political views. I’d also suggest that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very much at work (i.e. the tendency for incompetent people to overestimate their abilities).  

The truth is supposed to set you free, when actually it can backfire  

The authors of the paper note that corrections can often have a “back fire” attempt:

“However, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views. Instead, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—what we call a “backfire effect.”

Within the denial movement Climategate is an established narrative. The various inquires that have cleared scientist have only served to further entrench the view within the denial community that there is a massive conspiracy.

Indeed, most “deniers” believed the results were a foregone conclusion: of course “they” cleared the scientists. What else could one expect when “they” are also in part of the conspiracy. Facts only serve to strengthen their belief global warming is not real.  

This is Climategate’s “backfire” effect.  

It also means the impact of the denial machine’s disinformation campaign are even more insidious.   

Not only are they free to lie, distort and construct fabrications, but the average person who falls for their misinformation becomes increasingly impervious to the truth. The strange logic of denial dictates that any and all information from “warmists” and “alarmists” is tainted, and thus inherently suspect.  

As the authors note in the conclusion:

“…The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in “motivated reasoning.” While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs—an empirical finding with important theoretical implications.”

Before anyone rushes to say that it’s not fair to pick on “deniers” I’d note the study finds no one is free from such biases: those with either conservative and liberal worldviews are prone to making the same tendency to disregard factual corrections.  

So, we should give up then? Here’s the good news  

Despite the tendency for individuals to disregard conflicting information, the authors of the paper do note that over time it is possible for an individual to “correct” their misconceptions:

It’s important to note that the account provided above does not imply that individuals simply believe what they want to believe under all circumstances and never accept counter-attitudinal information. Ditto and Lopez (1992, p. 570), preference-inconsistent information is likely to be subjected to greater skepticism than preference-consistent information, but individuals who are “confronted with information of sufficient quantity or clarity… should eventually acquiesce to a preference-inconsistent conclusion.” The effectiveness of corrective information is therefore likely to vary depending on the extent to which the individual has been exposed to similar messages elsewhere. For instance, as a certain belief becomes widely viewed as discredited among the public and the press, individuals who might be ideologically sympathetic to that belief will be more likely to abandon it when exposed to corrective information.

One of the key driver of a persons acceptance of a fact (or belief) is its popularity.  

This is the reason why the denial machine works so hard to flood the internet and mainstream media with disinformation.  

Its also the reason why the comments field on every online news item is quickly flooded with the comments of deniers. They are working hard to create the impression that large numbers of people share their world view in the hope this has a cascading effect. The more that doubt global warming, the more will follow their lead.  

Which is why the continual, sometimes exhausting and seemingly never-ending work of correcting the falsehoods of the denial movement is vital. By providing an antidote to their campaign of misinformation, we will eventually neutralise their effectiveness.  

More importantly, clearly articulating the basics of climate science and explaining it to the general public will make an enormous difference. As I’ve already noted we have not paid sufficient attention to this issue:

Thus I’ve come to the belief that we need a body of similar scope and ambition to the IPCC that will help educate the public. And yes, in saying this I understand just how complex it would be to establish such an initiative. So I’m speculating, thinking “big”…

The IPCC materials are publically available, but they are not easily digestible. They are intended for a specific audience, and are a masterful synthesis of the science. However they are not readily accessible to a lay audience, let alone people without access to the Internet. The IPCC materials target an elite audience.

It has taken me months to read them, understand and educate myself on the basics of the science. And I have access to the internet, the benefit of a post-graduate education and the time to devote to this interest. How does my opportunity compare to the average farmer in China? Or the slum dweller living on Jo’Burg?

We need to broaden the audience of the IPCC from policy makers to a global scale… The scientists can’t do it alone, it needs to be part of a broader initiative. The remit of the IPCC could be broadened. It could be a multidisciplinary body comprising not just scientist but sociologist, historians, psychologists, communications experts and politicians that would examine communications strategies for the various demographics and “audiences”.

Sure, I’m quoting myself here: but I stand by these comments.

[1] When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in Political Behaviour 30 March 2010 (10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2)

Herald Sun War on Science #7: cherry picking “facts” to suit your argument.

The very definition

Its always a amusing when a climate denialist such as the Herald Sun’s (aka “The HUNs”) Andrew Bolt claims the views of a prominent climate change “sceptic” have been taken out of context.

Given that Climategate was essentially about framing snippets of emails to create a faux scandal, one wonders if Bolt is aware of the irony.

Upon reflection, I think not.

Still, Bolt rushes to defend Tony Abbot’s claims that it was “hotter” when “Jesus” was alive.

“Take last Friday, when Abbott visited Adelaide’s Trinity Gardens Primary School and told the children it had been warmer than now “at the time of Julius Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth”.

Abbott plus Jesus plus warming scepticism? Kaboom!

What an explosion of sneering and jeering we’ve heard ever since, from followers of the new faith, mocking the old.

It was best summed up, unwittingly, by environment reporter Adam Morton, who wrote in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald: “Tony Abbott is under pressure to justify telling students it was considerably warmer when Jesus was alive after leading scientists said his claim was wrong.”

Those warmists would be some Australia’s most prominent scientists. But for Bolt scientists, who accept the science of climate change, are warmists. That the vast vast majority of scientist concur AGW is real.

However, what’s amusing is when Andrew attempts to do “science” by quoting scientific studies. I say amusing, because without exception Bolt gets it wrong or uses very dodgy sources.

Open a dictionary and look under the term “scientific illiteracy” and you will see a picture of Andrew Bolt. Still, let us examine the claims he makes in today’s HUN article:

Recent studies add to the evidence that those times were indeed warm enough for Romans to grow grapes in Britain.

Canadian and British researchers writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science noted in March that oxygen isotopes in the shells of bivalve molluscs indicated that Iceland about 2000 years ago was probably warmer than today.

Likewise, a 2003 study of sediment cores in Spain agreed there was an RWP between 250BC and 450AD, and a 1999 Spanish study reckoned it to be about 2C warmer.

It’s the same story in Georgia, according to scientists studying growth rings of fossilised trees.

Even warmist Phil Jones, implicated in last year’s Climategate scandal, was part of a 2002 study that concluded “warm conditions of the late 20th century do not exceed those reconstructed for several earlier time intervals”, including “a ‘warm’ Roman period in the first centuries AD”.

Sorry if I go on, but the Abbott mockers need putting in their place.

To finish: last December the Hydrological Sciences Journal summed up the tree ring evidence to declare that the “Roman Climate Optimum … (had) temperatures that were (probably) higher than at present”.

Phew, so much to take in!

However, once you start digging you find all kinds of problems.

It also illustrates just how denialists like Bolt operate: throw in lots of jargon and authoritative sounding references.

Let’s take but one of the sources Bolt likes to quote, the last one.

I had to do some digging to get this one, as Bolt doesn’t understand the concept of citing your references in a scientific debate.

Here’s the important thing: Bolt fails to mention that the paper in Hydrological Science Journal is authored by scientists his work is well outside the established science. I’d also ntoe that Bolt gets the date wrong. I believe the paper he is referencing is dated April 2009, not December 2009:

DISCUSSION of “The implications of projected climate change for freshwater resources and their management”, Hydrological Sciences–Journal–des Sciences Hydrologiques, 54(2) April 2009

The paragrpah that Bolt appears to quote appears on page 400:

Figure 3(a) indicates large fluctuations of temperature during the Holocene period, with prominent minima (e.g. the recent Little Ice Age) and maxima (e.g. the Medieval Warm Period, the Roman Climate Optimum and the Minoan Climate Optimum, with temperatures that were likely higher than at present).

Firstly, the language of the paper is anything but scientific:

“A common argument in favour of the political orientation of the IPCC is that its aims are good for humanity and the natural environment and that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will be beneficial for the planet, regardless of the ultimate validity of the IPCC model predictions. However, we believe that science is a process for the pursuit of truth and that fidelity to this system should not be affected by other aims. History shows that such distractions can be detrimental to science…”

These overblown statements, references to history, politics and “big picture stuff” is not how most scientific papers are written.

But let’s look at the authors themselves, who are they?

This if unecessary “fluff”. If your data is good, you don’t need to frame it with these talking points. But denialists can’t help themselves… denialists you ask?

Isn’t this a “real” piece of research? Well, only under the most generous of definitions.

The authors include Timothy A. Cohn, a noted sceptic:

“Cohn’s most controversial research, which has not been fully embraced by the climate science community, suggests that the significance of climate trends may be greatly overstated because it does not consider the possibility that long-term persistence is a component of climatic variability.”

Cohn has published many papers with another climate sceptic, Harry F. Lins (another one of the paper’s authors):

“Since the early 1980s, Lins’ research has focused principally on characterizing the surface water response to climate, with an emphasis on regional streamflow variability, long-term trends, and the statistical techniques appropriate for such analyses. Lins’ most controversial research, which has not been fully embraced by the climate science community, suggests that the significance of climate trends may be greatly overstated because it does not consider the possibility that long-term persistence is a component of climatic variations…”

Another author is Demetris Koutsoyiannis who writes on climate sceptic Roger Pielke’s blog:

“I must say that what I’ve been reading in the recently hacked and released confidential files from the CRU (aka “Climategate” documents) is not a surprise to me. Rather, and sadly, it verifies what I had suspected about some in the climate establishment…”

Oh dear, it’s Climategate and the usual complaints about conspiracies. Bolt no doubt got a hold of this paper via Roger Pielke’s blog, where Koutsoyiannis also states

“In recent years, I have tried to publish a few papers related to climate. Some of them were initially rejected, but eventually published elsewhere—usually in journals without a specific focus on climate. From the experience I gained through the review process of the rejected papers, I became more confident about the analyses I’d performed and the significance of the results I’d presented. I have not been surprised, therefore, to see that these once-rejected papers have become the most cited among my papers.”

Uh oh, one of those “I’m the little guy going up against the establishment” types.

Koutsoyiannis have been doing what climate sceptics do when their substandard work isn’t accepted into climate journals: they shop around, looking for a non-climate related journal hoping they will get accepted.

Hydrological Science Journal: edited by the papers authors

When you dig, you find that these scientists are outside the mainstream, and in fact are part of the small clique of contrarian scientists like Ian Plimer.

Actually, it gets worse as an alert reader has pointed out: Koutsoyiannis is one of the journals editors. He is self publishing his own work! [hat tip JG for excellent reserch]

Real Climate, the blog maintained by actual climate scientist offers a very good overview of the value of their work. Discussing another simular piece of work, Real Climate notes:

“…With that in mind, I now turn to the latest paper that is getting the inactivists excited by Demetris Koutsoyiannis and colleagues. There are very clearly two parts to this paper – the first is a poor summary of the practice of climate modelling – touching all the recent contrarian talking points (global cooling, Douglass et al, Karl Popper etc.) but is not worth dealing with in detail (the reviewers of the paper include Willie Soon, Pat Frank and Larry Gould (of Monckton/APS fame) – so no guessing needed for where they get their misconceptions). This is however just a distraction (though I’d recommend to the authors to leave out this kind of nonsense in future if they want to be taken seriously in the wider field).

Koutsoyiannis are not taken seriously.

Not because their work is “heretical”, but because it is sloppy and poor.

This is why it is not published by serious climate journals, and why the authors shop it around.

The want the credibility of being peer reviewed. It also gives denialists such as Andrew Bolt something to wave around in the air shouting “See, this is just like real science!”

Just think for a moment how much work it took me to dig all that out.

Imagine what the average reader would think reading Bolt’s quote. This is classic anti-science tactics: cherry pick relevant facts without giving full citations and the proper context.

But this is how the denial movement works: they throw out these “facts” hoping to overwhelm the average person.

Excuse me as I go have a lie down after that exhausting piece of research that was needed to refute just one paragraph of Bolt’s nonsense.

Trust me, I’m an expert: researching a climate commentators expertise

"I say!"

Who can you trust?

In a debate as complex and technical as this one you need to have confidence in the experts. These are the individuals whose job is to help the general public navigate the torturous, and esoteric debate around the science.

However, in the climate debate not all is at it seems and not everyone is who they say they are. So how can you trust an expert? Luckily there is a wealth of resources and databases out there that can provide you information on the more prominent deniers out there whose job it is to mislead.

Biographical information: where to start looking

Always start by profiling the individual. There are some handy – and free – resources out there that can help you determine their expertise:


Sourcewatch is an excellent “wiki” style database developed and supported by the Centre for Media and Democracy. It’s mission is to “profile[s] the activities of front groups, PR spinners, industry-friendly experts, industry-funded organizations, and think tanks trying to manipulate public opinion on behalf of corporations or government. We also highlight key public policies they are trying to affect and provide ways to get involved…”

It has a great deal of information, including individual biographies of high profile individuals in the denial movement with some good links to other resources. A quick look at the page on Anthony Watts – of “Watts up with that” fame – gives you a good idea of the information they produce. I use this as my first port of call for researching individuals.

DeSmogBlog Information Database

The guys at DeSmog Blog have put together a great list of the most prominent “sceptics” in the climate change debate. It is not a search-able database, but is arranged alphabetically by the surname of “climate change sceptic”. The have good profiles which gives you basic biographical details (education, professional career etc.) and some notable facts.

Profiles that contain the most relevant information

University and research department websites

You’d be surprised just how much information the average university website has. Not only will it give you the  qualification of a scientist, but also a list all their publications. It also is a means to qualify their expertise: if an individual claims to be a scientists at a specific institution, go their website and look for proof!

More often than not there will be a searchable database of academic staff. Many of these sites also make available the full text of their publications, an added bonus to dedicated researchers.

Compare and contrast qualifications with profiles on the web

The home pages for right-wing institute and think tanks associated with the denial movement are worth visiting. Normally they will profile their experts and try and “sell” them as qualified to comment on the science. Checking this sources does two things:  it qualifies the claims of the individual and allows you to see how they are attempting to present themselves.

Let’s look at our old friend Richard S. Courtney again. . On his profile for the Heartland Institute it is claimed:

“He is an expert peer reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in November 1997 chaired the Plenary Session of the Climate Conference in Bonn. In June 2000 he was one of 15 scientists invited from around the world to give a briefing on climate change at the US Congress in Washington DC, and he then chaired one of the three briefing sessions…”

As we have already discovered, the claims to being a scientist and a “expert reviewer” for the IPCC are simply false. This is not just misleading, they’re outright lies.

Wikipedia: a launch pad for research, not the end

I will use Wikipedia as a handy tool to help brief me on general concepts, and then dive into more specific research papers, reports and links. Indeed, the most valuable section in most Wikipedia entries is at the end of the page where it will list the sources consulted.

Don’t stop at Wikipedia, go to the resources it cites for further clarification.

This is where the real gold is...

Google: some search tips

Ah Google, my very good friend and bitter rival! You are the gateway for to the universe of knowledge. And yet the danger is that anyone with a website, blog or  YouTube account can publish and become an instant “expert”.

Treat everything you encounter you find on Google with a high degree of scepticism:

  • Pick your search terms – plugging in the term “climate science” will obviously wield millions of results. If want to understand what “global warming is”, then use search terms such as “climate change” and “understanding”. Google also has advanced search feature that will allow you to filter your results by date, media type and even country.
  • Start with scepticism – the first rule for using sources on Google is don’t trust them. Don’t start reading the website/blogs content uncritically. Read the section called “About” to get an understanding of the author/s intent and point of view.
  • Apply some filters – what is the authors expertise? Where have they published? Blogs are usually the strict opinion of the author and should taken as such (including this one). A blogger that purports to take apart climate science, and who lacks scientific traditional in the area is an enthusiastic amateur. They have no expertise, it’s just arm chair theorising. A scientist conducting research in that area usually as a far greater understanding of the real issues.

I hope this helps anyone out there wondering just how “expert” some of those familiar names are in the climate debate. Scepticism is a powerful tool to find the truth, not simply the oppurtunity to disagree.

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