Michael Tobis’ interesting post on the 28th May has provided an inspiration for some thoughts.

First thought is about the denialist/skeptic machine, the nature of the debate, and the significance of ‘educating’ the public. There is no question that the machinery of public communication is used more effectively by the ‘skeptic’ camp than by the ‘scientific community’ (inasmuch as these are the competing ‘camps’). Perhaps this has to do with a difference between the people who engage in science as a profession and those who qualify as ‘laymen’ (sic).

It seems that what has not been adequately grasped by too many scientists who blog about climate change is that the lay person’s attitude to the questions arising from the climate change debate are not derived from either fact or reason, primarily, but from belief and inclination to believe. This is not a criticism of the lay person; it is a reflection of the state of our culture, wherein we (the lay people) are obliged to take a great deal on trust in terms of what is or isn’t true about our world, since we lack either the training or the knowledge required to be able to determine for ourselves what specialists have laboured long and hard to work out.

This is why the process of changing social attitudes to issues deriving from scientific research or observation are very slow in coming. My personal observation is that most, if not all, the protagonists in online debate about climate change, come into the discussion, or their own enquiry, with their opinions already at least half-formed. Generally, the engagement with the debate reflects a desire to improve our own understanding, but we tend to be more accepting of the material which suports our predispositions than we are of that which contradicts it. Thus, the process of engagement serves to reinforce our original belief and ‘harden’ our attitude, rather than ‘open’ it out.

From research it appears that the proportion of laymen who are skeptical about AGW, whilst it is regionally different, is currently around 20-25% of the population. But this is too vague, for their skepticism covers a host of uncertainties and beliefs, rather than a simple question of fact. And this is one area where the do-nothings score highly; they are able to play on a range of insecurities and doubts to reinforce their skepticism, since the issues at point have two different fundamental natures.

The first type of ‘lay’ skepticism is the doubt about the facts. The issue is of ‘what’. Generally, more people are content to agree that climate does in fact change, and is changing now, than are inclined to have other doubts. Perhaps this is because we are well-trained to understand that science is good at questions of ‘what’, in other words, the recording and observation of fact and its reporting, of measurement and the observation of trends. Really, there shouldn’t be any debate about this at all, since either the climate is warming or it is not, and either it is being correctly measured or it is not, but even here, the lay reader can be drawn into doubt by skeptics or scientists who cast doubt on the reliability of observing systems or of methodologies.

We don’t understand the problems, but we do understand that the existence of a ‘problem’ in itself casts doubt on the reliability of the claimed facts. Thus, if we are already disposed to skepticism, our doubts are reinforced by the very existence of disagreement; we are able to say ‘See, it isn’t all that certain after all…I am right to have my doubts, since some scientists also have them.’ This skepticism can be challenged by reason and evidence, though people still tend to see only what they want to.

But the second type of issue is far more difficult to deal with. These are the issues not of what is happening to the climate, but of why. We are inclined to understand debates on causality as being more uncertain than issues of fact, since they are often not easily resolvable by purely scientific method, and they are, in our minds, ultimately ‘matters of opinion’. Of those who are skeptical about AGW, more have doubt about the causality than the observation. Here is where the do-nothings have their richest ground; there are many ways to reinforce peoples’ predisposition to doubt when the issue appears, on the surface, to be about matters of opinion.

So, is there a need for ‘better explanations’? Is there a point to having information sources somewhere between the ‘layman’s guides’ and the ‘science pages’? To what extent could these change people’s predispositions or opinions?

First of all, I’d suggest that most, if not all, of the decent blogs about climate change already exist in this ‘middle ground’. Moreover, there are blogs and websites suited to a whole range of levels of understanding, from the completely ignorant and credulous, to the almost completely academic. The ‘better explanations’ probably already exist, and their existence is necessary to counter the well-coordinated and funded subversion provided to the layman from people such as Inhofe and Morano, Spencer and Lomborg.

The question is, to what extent more needs to be done? Is it necessary to further win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Doubting Thomases, or is the majority already sufficient to ensure action/agreement? We already know that skepticism is more profitable than alarmism for the relevant protagonists, and this suggests that assuming that the battle has been won would be dangerous. But we should not expect to win many converts, or to see many examples of people ‘changing their minds’; we, the lay people, just aren’t wired that way.

Thanks for the inspiration, Michael, and all the others who are out there fighting the good fight…