Saturday, September 17, 2011

Polarizing the debate -- for the win

Al Gore recently hosted "24 Hours of Climate Reality" which reviewed the basic science of climate change and tried to sharpen the contrast with deniers:

Each hour people living with the reality of climate change will connect the dots between recent extreme weather events — including floods, droughts and storms — and the manmade pollution that is changing our climate. We will offer a round-the-clock, round-the-globe snapshot of the climate crisis in real time. The deniers may have millions of dollars to spend, but we have a powerful advantage. We have reality.
Judith Curry, you will be shocked learn, was not happy:

As a scientist I find the mantra “remove the doubt, reveal the deniers” to be objectionable and antithetical to the scientific process. . . .  Gore’s effort will further polarize an already inflamed and politicized debate surrounding the science and policy response to climate change.
To call someone or something "polarizing" is a rather clever invective, since you are holding them responsible for your own reaction to them. Do climate skeptics foam at the mouth at any mention of this portly former vice-president, a charisma-challenged but highly effective science communicator? Well, what do you expect? He's polarizing!

What I find "objectionable" is introducing the logic of domestic abusers into the climate debate, such that the problem is Gore, communicating the science and trying to win a political argument in a democracy, holding a webinar on climate science (8.6 million views in one day), and not the person who reacts with this:

Meanwhile, rich, fat, dishonest and immoral men like Al Gore continue to roll in the cash while they surrender American industry, innovation and a strong work ethic to the Third World in pursuit of their Hippy Utopia -- at the expense of American jobs.

Men like Al Gore believe that the world is too small for its "current" population which is the premise of their support for abortion and homosexual activism.  If the population should be decreased, they want it to occur at the expense of Americans who disagree with their views.
You see what you made me do, baby? I get so mad sometimes. You're so polarizing. You make me so crazy. You see what you made me do?

But back to the larger question: Is it really a bad thing, to be polarizing? As you might suspect from my own contribution to the debate, I doubt it. In fact, when the Republican candidates for president (with the unfortunately not-really-notable exception of Huntsman) went all-in for climate denial, I argued there might be an upside to "polarizing" the debate:

This doesn't have to be a negative development, or not entirely. We know that the right is the driving force behind climate denial. As the leading representative of the mainstream right takes up the torch (and pitchfork) of climate denial, we have an opportunity to get this debate into the open, fight this fight, and win it. If -- and this is a big "if" -- if the Democrats chose to stand up for science and make this a real point of differentiation between themselves and the Republicans.
Thursday a Reuters/Ipsos poll brought unexpected support for my optimistic take on one of our two major political parties abandoning science:

The percentage of Americans who believe the Earth has been warming rose to 83 percent from 75 percent last year in the poll conducted Sept 8-12. . . .
The current front-runner, Texas Governor Rick Perry, has accused scientists of manipulating climate data while Michele Bachmann has said climate change is a hoax.
As Americans watch Republicans debate the issue, they are forced to mull over what they think about global warming, said Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University. . . .
"That is exactly the kind of situation that will provoke the public to think about the issue in a way that they haven't before," Krosnick said about news reports on the Republicans denying climate change science.
 The GOP's straight-up denial -- calling climate change a hoax, top elected officials blaming volcanoes and other denialist malarkey -- obviously polarizes the debate. With polarization, though, comes not a backlash against climate science, but strengthening belief in the science. And this is, in fact, just what we should expect to happen, based on the polls.

According to the recent George Mason University survey, only 41% of the public thinks "Most scientists think global warming is happening." The numbers break down as follows:

Democrats: 55%
Independents: 46%
Republicans: 29%
Tea Party: 10%

Time spent in the blogosphere could fool us into thinking that the problem in getting to climate action is the climate "skeptics" who know most scientists believe global warming is happening, but think those scientists are stupid, or corrupt, or have given in to group think and peer pressure. But that is not what the numbers are telling us, at all. The numbers are telling us that most of the people who oppose action to slow climate change -- and even most of the people who support action to slow climate change, and the vast majority of those that have no strong feelings about the matter -- don't understand the strength of the scientific support for the theory of AGW. They trust scientists, as we saw in the Six Americas survey, but they don't understand what scientists believe.

This becomes even more apparent when we get down to figures:

Q30. To the best of your knowledge, what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is happening?

a) 81 to 100%
b) 61 to 80%
c) 41 to 60%
d) 21 to 40%
e) 0 to 20%
f) Don't know enough to say

Before I tell you what the survey respondents said, does anyone reading this have trouble with this question? Pro-science, lukewarmer, or denier, we should all know this one. Remember, 65% of those surveyed believe themselves that the world is warming, meaning that, at most, one-third of those surveyed could be understating the consensus to rationalize their own doubts. The rest should not have any reason to misstate the scientists' views -- unless they truly do not know what they are.

Survey says:

National Average

a) 81 to 100% (14%)
b) 61 to 80% (20%)
c) 41 to 60% (24%)
d) 21 to 40% (14%)
e) 0 to 20% (3%)
f) Don't know enough to say (26%)

This is good news masquerading as a sign of the fall of Western civilization. Yes, this is shocking. Six out of every seven people -- including most people who believe global warming is happening -- do not even begin to grasp the strength of the science on this issue.

But what it means is that in the climate debate, "polarization" is going to move things in the right direction, and not just because fence-sitters are not going to want to move closer to people who don't believe in evolution -- or in preventing deaths from cervical cancer. "Polarization" is going to draw more people out of the middle, and when it does, most of them are going to be drawn to the pro-science side, because most of them trust scientists, and most of them don't yet know, and haven't factored into their own views, the fact that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and is caused by humans.

Do you want to share a pole with this woman?

In economic analysis, they use the term "priced into the market" to describe the effect of information on the trading value of a stock or other asset. Once a piece of information is broadly known and generally accepted, people should be expected to be factoring it into their decisions already, so things like the value of a stock do not always respond dramatically to things that we would expect to change their value. When Steve Jobs retired, for example, Apple stock did not plummet, because the market expected him to retire in that general timeframe. Losing Steve Jobs already factored into decisions about the value of Apple's stock.

What these George Mason University surveys are telling us is that the strength of the scientific consensus is not "priced in" by the public at large in forming their opinions about climate. It is easy to lose track of that in the blogosphere, which is populated by hard-core deniers who sneer at the idea of scientific consensus and allege sloppy work, corruption, and fraud by scientists. They have "priced in" the scientific consensus, and it doesn't matter to them, but they are not the target audience, because we do not need to persuade them to win the political debate.

Remember the "Six Americas":

Alarmed: 12%
Concerned: 27%
Cautious: 25%
Disengaged: 10%
Doubtful: 15%
Dismissive: 10%

The "dismissives" are not going to be won over. "Polarizing" the debate may lose many of the "doubtful." But among the remaining three-quarters of the public, who believe the climate is warming, but have not paid a lot of attention to date -- people who overwhelmingly say they trust scientists, but mostly do not know how strongly convinced most climate scientists are that AGW is a valid theory and a threat to human welfare -- polarizing the debate is going to bring a lot of them to a point of choosing a side. And when they chose a side, most of them are going to chose the side that the scientists are on. For the concerned, the cautious and the disengaged -- together over 60% of the public -- the truth about climate change and the scientific consensus has not been "priced in." Polarizing the debate -- not with insults or invective, but in drawing clear distinctions between denier myths and real science, emphasizing the strength of the scientific consensus and the dishonest and manipulative behavior of climate deniers -- is the way to win.


  1. Curry is science's version of the political realm's, allegedly sensible, "centrists": the subtly pernicious Brooks, Gergen, Friedman and (late) Broder, among others.

    John Puma

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one to find Friedman awful. He is so consistently shallow, superficial and smug in his "expert" analysis that I hate it when he agrees with me -- I feel dirty.

  3. Six years on, Matt Taibbi's takedown of "The World is Flat" remains brilliantly funny. If you want to feel less alone, Tracker, Taibbi is a great place to start.

  4. "Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic."

    That is -- dare I say it? -- flat-out awesome.

  5. I almost picked that as the money quote, myself. Glad to hear you enjoyed the article!