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Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

About a month ago The Age published an opinion piece I wrote under the title “Do you hold a Bayesian or Boolean worldview?“.  I had submitted it under the title “Madmen in Authority,” and it opened by discussing two men in authority who are/were each mad in their own way – Maurice Newman, influential Australian businessman and climate denier, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  Both men had professed to be totally certain about issues on which any reasonable person ought to have had serious doubts given the very substantial counter-evidence.

Their dogmatic attitudes seemed to exemplify a kind of crude epistemological viewpoint I call “Booleanism,” in contrast with a more sophisticated “Bayesianism”. Here is the philosophical core of the short opinion piece:

On economic matters, Keynes said: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Similarly, on matters of truth and evidence, we are usually unwittingly beholden to our background epistemology (theory of knowledge), partially shaped by unknown theorists from centuries past.

One such  theory of knowledge we can call Boolean, after the 19th century English logician George Boole.  He was responsible for what is now known as Boolean algebra, the binary logic which underpins the computing revolution.

In the Boolean worldview, the world is organised into basic situations such as Sydney being north of Melbourne. Such situations are facts. Truth is correspondence to facts. That is, if a belief matches a fact, it is objectively true; if not, it is objectively false. If you and I disagree, one of us must be right, the other wrong; and if I know I’m right, then I know you’re wrong. Totally wrong.

This worldview underpins Castro’s extreme confidence.  Either JFK was killed by an anti-Castro/CIA conspiracy or he wasn’t; and if he was, then Castro is 100 per cent right. Who needs doubt?

An alternative  theory of knowledge has roots in the work of another important English figure, the Reverend Thomas Bayes. He is famous for Bayes’ Theorem, a basic law of probability governing how to modify one’s beliefs when new evidence arrives.

In the Bayesian worldview, beliefs are not simply true or false, but more or less probable. That is, we can be more or less confident that they are true, given how they relate to our other beliefs and how confident we are in them. If you and I disagree about the cause of climate change, it is not a matter of me being wholly right and you being wholly wrong, but about the differing levels of confidence we have in a range of hypotheses.

Scientists are generally Bayesians, if not self-consciously, at least in their pronouncements. For example, the IPCC refrains from claiming certainty that climate change is human-caused; it says instead that it has 95 per cent confidence that human activities are a major cause.

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Tom Toles, US cartoonist, writes in a post called Own Facts:

The main thing is they [Republicans] are in absolute, abject and catastrophic denial about a straightforward set of facts that is probably the most important set of facts we face as a nation, and as human beings on planet earth. They have turned their faces away from climate change in a way that is simply and utterly unforgivable. They now apparently DO feel entitled to their own facts, and they live, campaign and purportedly do their jobs in a zone of outright lies. Lies they have every reason to understand are lies, and lies that will almost certainly result in massive destruction and death. Exactly how would you be “fair” to these people?

In Australia unfortunately we have our share of Republicans.   And we’re much too fair to them.

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OK, I know picking on climate pseudoskeptics is like… well, shooting fish in a barrel.  (Not that I’ve ever shot fish in a barrel – but Mythbusters have shown it is easy to do, and that’s good enough for me.)

But this example illustrates an important general point.

One of the most basic, widespread and damaging thinking errors is: failure to make a relevant comparison.*

Consider this comment by someone I’ll call “Peggy Balfour,” since that’s what she calls herself.

The Europen Union has been carbon trading since 2005. All are industrialised nations.

According to the Mauna Loa air quality measurements Global CO2 was rising at average 1.67ppm per year prior to 2005.

7 years later, 2012, CO2 is still rising at 1.67ppm per year.

Check out ‘Full Mauna Loa CO2 record’ on this site. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

E.U carbon trading hasn’t made one whit of difference.

To show that E.U. carbon trading “hasn’t made one whit of difference” Ms Balfour compares C02 levels in 2005 with those in 2012.

Of course, the relevant comparison is CO2 levels in 2012 with what CO2 levels would have been in 2012 had European Union carbon trading not been in place but all else remaining the same.

The relevant comparison for this kind of causal inference is between an actual reading and a hypothetical value, one which can only be estimated using the kinds of complex quantitative global climate models that pseudoskeptics are wont to cavalierly dismiss.

I personally have no idea how much difference EU trading has made.  Maybe its not very much.  But I do know that you can’t properly answer that question, or a host of others, without making relevant comparisons.

* I think Robyn Dawes made something like this point in one of his excellent books.

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Essay co-authored with Paul Monk.  Cross-posted on the YourView blog

Over half of Australians are dismissive about global warming.  That’s the apparent message from a survey on the ABC website, part of its “I can change your mind about climate” programming airing this evening (Thurs 26th April).

With over 20,000 responses, the survey appears to be unusually large and therefore to provide an excellent view into the Australian mindset.

Some might see these results as confirming that Australians are coming to their senses in rejecting the excesses of the “warmist” school.

Others might see the results as revealing the effects of a sustained campaign of disinformation and manipulation by powerful vested interests and their supporters.

They might also suspect that the poll has simply been gamed by the “denialist” crowd, jumping on and pushing their views in great disproportion to their real numbers.

Gaming the survey would actually have been quite easy.  There seemed to be nothing to stop one person responding numerous times.

But more generally, online polls and surveys are of dubious merit, since their participants are generally self-selected and therefore unrepresentative of the population at large.

That’s why, when The Age runs an online poll, it says “Disclaimer: These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.”

Translation: Results are basically worthless.  For entertainment value only.

The ABC’s survey, for this reason, is seriously deficient as a perspective on what Australians really think about climate change.  Indeed it is disturbing that the ABC doesn’t openly admit these shortcomings on the survey site.

The ABC survey does have one merit: it enables participants find out what category they belong to (Dismissive, Alarmist, etc.).  Much like those “What kind of lover are you?” questionnaires found in popular magazines.

The deeper problem here is that uncovering what Australians genuinely think on matters of public moment is actually quite difficult.  Considered as a large group, “the people” doesn’t have vocal chords and can’t speak its thoughts.

Consequently, specially designed processes are needed to elicit this thinking.

Opinion polls, of course, are one common approach.  When properly conducted, they improve on mere online polls in that they at least canvass opinions from fairly representative samples.

But standard opinion polls have their own drawbacks.  The randomly selected participants are typically relatively ill-informed about the issue and aren’t able, in the polling situation, to give the questions any serious thought. Further, the attitudes of the ill-informed are often easily manipulated by the rhetoric doing the rounds at the time of the poll.

At best, these polls provide a statistical snapshot of “off the top of the head” responses.  They don’t ascertain the considered views individuals would have if they were better informed and able to reflect properly.

Much better are the kind of careful surveys conducted by psychologists, such as the 2010 Griffith Climate Survey by Joseph Reser and colleagues.   These by design elicit more thoughtful responses and provide more nuanced insight into people’s perceptions.

That survey found that “less than six per cent of people surveyed were sceptical about climate change”. The stark difference between this finding and that of the ABC poll should give us pause.

However even the Griffith-type surveys are only aggregating what individuals come up with in the 30-60 minutes they spend answering the questions. They don’t provide the collective view, i.e. the view that we would develop as a group if we had the chance to think together about the issue, pooling our perspectives and debating them thoroughly.

The deliberative democracy movement, led in Australia by pioneers such as Lyn Carson and John Dryzek, has long been urging that in a genuine democracy, governments should be guided and constrained by this kind of considered collective view; and that it is best ascertained through a well-designed process in which representative groups of ordinary citizens – “mini-publics” – convene and engage in extended deliberation.

In recent decades, around the world, many such exercises have been conducted.  They reliably show that the considered collective view differs from the results of ordinary opinion polls. They show that under the right circumstances, many people change their minds in informed ways.

Australian democracy would be much healthier if such exercises happened far more frequently and played a much more central role in serious political life.

However there is a prohibitive practical problem with the standard deliberative democracy approach: its exercises are costly and cumbersome, and so happen too infrequently.

One challenge for twenty-first century democratic politics is to design and implement better processes for identifying what we think, not about personalities or political intrigues but about major public issues.

Like the ABC survey, such processes will need to be easily and inexpensively implemented, which means they must be conducted online.

However, like deliberative democracy, they must also able to provide genuine insight into what Australians really think, i.e. the considered collective view.

Reconciling these two demands is far from easy, but the new era of social media is rapidly throwing open new opportunities.

Taking the broadest historical view, the new communication platforms may enable democracy to return, in some key respects, to its Athenian roots – and, indeed, improve on the Athenian model: something that modern representative democracy has always sought to do, but has managed only very imperfectly.

YourView, of course, is our foray into this space.

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A new national poll finds:

  • “A clear majority of Australian electors oppose the Gillard Government’s plan to introduce a carbon tax, 37% support the proposed carbon tax and 10% can’t say.”
  • “A majority (64%) believes that Australia’s proposed carbon tax will make no difference to the world’s climate.”
Political scientist James Fishkin, in his landmark book When The People Speak, writes: “Consider some of the limitations of mass opinion as we routinely find it in modern developed societies.” and then lists four problems with polls of the above sort:
  1. Citizens are ill-informed; indeed they are “rationally ignorant” because, being just one of millions, any individual’s opinion is likely to have so little effect that it makes no sense to put in the effort of becoming well-informed.
  2. “Opinions” reported in polls are frequently not genuine opinions at all; when people are forced to answer a question on a topic they know little or nothing about, they “choose an option, virtually at random.”
  3. When people do try to form an opinion on a topic, they tend to talk mostly with people just like themselves, thereby, frequently, just reinforcing their ill-informed and prejudiced views.
  4. Mass public opinion is vulnerable to manipulation.

So when you get stupid answers like the ones delivered in the poll, its because you’ve asked stupid questions. Or rather, you’ve asked questions stupidly. There’s nothing intrinsically stupid about a question like “Do you support the Gillard government’s plan to introduce a carbon tax?”  Rather, what’s stupid is the asking.  It is the whole practice of opinion polling as a mechanism for identifying the public’s viewpoint on important matters.

There must be better ways.

Fishkin has devoted much of his career to developing and promoting an alternative: deliberative polling.

We’re working on another.

Update, 5 July:

For an illuminating discussion see Australians and climate change – beliefs about public belief may be quite wrong and Polls, framings and public understandings: climate change and opinion polls by Joseph Reser.

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Regarding climate change, there is ”no website that has evidence-based information” that would allow a ”common-sense debate” .

So says the outgoing Governor of the state of Victoria, David de Kretser.  Or at least, this is what he was reported as saying in today’s Age.

I can hardly he believe he really said it.  There are many (how many? I don’t know – but heaps) of websites presenting evidence-based information.   Here are just a few which come to mind quickly:

  • Real Climate – “Climate science from climate scientists”
  • Climate Progress – the legendary blog relentlessly fighting the good fight;
  • Skeptical Science – a wealth of evidence-based information, including detailed responses to standard “denialist” arguments, at three levels of scientific detail, and available on an iPhone/Pad app;
  • Our very own CSIRO’s website section on climate change;
  • The IPCC.

Supposing de Kretser both said it and believed it, his strange assertion calls out for some kind of explanation.   Here’s a couple which seem plausible to me.

1.  de Kretser doesn’t actually surf the web very much.  He doesn’t read online.  He is of the generation that hardly uses computers very much, let alone dwells in the digisphere.  de Kretser thinks there is nothing out there because he hasn’t ventured out there to look.

2. de Kretser is sort of aware that there is at least some good stuff out there.  But he’s working backwards from the fact, seemingly inexplicable to him, that there is so much ignorance, delusion, and apathy in the population.  He tends to believe that when people are exposed to good information, they change their mind accordingly.  Since vast numbers of Australians don’t know and don’t care about climate change, they can’t have been exposed to information.  So there must be a lack of good information.  Maybe we should have a good website!

But this is naive.  It is naive about  individual psychology and how beliefs form and change.  And it is naive about the forces at work in society whose effect (only sometimes deliberate) is to distract, disinform, and confuse.   Possibly, intelligent and ethical scientists such as himself are exposed to, interested in, and form their beliefs on the basis of, good information.  But people such as himself are a tiny minority.

Sir, we don’t need more websites.  We have plenty already, and websites on their own are nearly useless in dealing with the kind of challenges we have – not just the primary challenge of dealing with climate change itself, but the tactical challenge of inducing appropriate change in people’s minds and behaviors.  Please devote your considerable capacities and influence to activities with real impact, not the shifting of pixels on the digital decks of a sinking civilisation.

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