Denialism as an Anxiety Disorder

My wife is a psychologist specializing in obsessive/compulsive disorders. Sometimes she deals with very extreme cases. She is careful not to share names or identifying information with me, but occasionally discusses cases with me on the same basis she might to a roomful of colleagues.

I am struck by the confusion of the cerebral and the visceral in the more extreme cases of OCD, and in that way it reminds me of science denialism. In fact, you could argue that it is exactly the same thing.

A person in the grips of severe OCD will have certain rituals that they perform to avoid certain threats than they have greatly exaggerated in their own minds. An OCD sufferer may, for example, be afraid to touch doorknobs for fear of catching AIDS. Even though it is likely that nobody has ever gotten AIDS from a doorknob, and even though one can get the patient to acknowledge that this is the case, the fear of AIDS-infected doorknobs has been so firmed up in the patient’s mind that rational evidence to the contrary will not change the doorknob-avoidant behavior.

The treatment, as I understand it, is threefold. Convincing the patient that doorknob use is less detrimental than doorknob avoidance is necessary but it is not sufficient.

Getting the rational understanding is only the beginning.

The second step is to get the patient to actually touch doorknobs, despite their fear: this is the phase where the rational side stops cowering under a virtual table, stands up, and confronts the irrational.

The third step is to actually calm down about doorknobs through becoming reaccustomed to them, this happens purely at the emotional, limbic level. The cure is never perfect; a person who has been in the grips of such severe emotional gridlock will never be entirely comfortable around doorknobs, but can learn to tolerate the discomfort and act normally around doors.

What strikes me about this, is that there has to be cerebral collaboration in the development of the fear in the first place. After all, typically the person has never been injured by a doorknob and clearly has not contacted AIDS. The fear reaction must have been mediated through a thought process, albeit not a very clear-headed one. It is the sort of thing you might come up with in a dream, an AIDS-vector doorknob, not something you would take seriously in the light of day. But you aren’t fifteen and unusually anxious. (I hope. If you are, you have my sympathies and best wishes. I’ve been there myself.)

Irene says the way it works is that the anxiety comes first. Then the cerebrum does what it does, which is to interpret the information it has at hand. It tries to evaluate where the anxiety comes from, and latches onto something random. (“That doorknob I just touched! Could it be contaminated with a disease?”) If the attribution is sufficiently satisfactory, (“I know what to do. I’ll never touch such a filthy doorknob again!”) the cerebral process is reinforced.

Modern society is deeply disturbed. Anxiety prevails everywhere. People want to explain their anxiety and discomfort in the face of unprecedented wealth and comfort, exactly the things they were raised to desire and work for.

Most of us (except those few who still think things are going swimmingly) settle on social and historical forces to blame. Some of us are less sophisticated than others, and develop social theories that are less informed by history, geography, and (dare I say it) biology, chemistry and physics. We develop blame attachments that have something in common with the doorknobs. It’s Exxon! It’s the United Nations! It’s the Gringos! It’s the Mexicans! It’s Monsanto! It’s ACORN! etc. etc.

Look, there is such a thing as a dirty doorknob. I don’t think any of the groups mentioned are entirely blameless or harmless. They’re just collections of people doing their best to get by, sometimes cutting corners or ignoring their own flaws.

Amazingly, a group that finds physical climatology (the discipline, not the process) a key factor in their conspiracy fantasy is emerging.

Our heads are spinning in trying to deal with this.

Climate science finds itself in an exceedingly awkward position as it is being used as a proxy for the battle between these two increasingly mutually hostile and suspicious tendencies. You constantly see talk among our symparthizers of climate scientists “standing up for the cause”. Usually the suggestion is complete nonsense.

The cause of the field, that which unites the members, is simple enough. Climatologists want to be left alone to study the stuff that fascinates us. Many of us want other things, but that is the main cause which unites us.

Unfortunately climatology is obligated to explain the extent to which plausible scenarios over the next few decades could lead to severe consequences. We would like to fulfill this obligation and be left alone after the fact, since most of the work in coping will be done by others (except in case of geoengineering).

The correct thing for society to do is to take our advice into account and develop policies that reasonably account for the risks and costs associated with this circumstance. It becomes a problem in energy engineering, social policy and economics.

But people are terrified of the implications. Capitalism always operates on thin margins and does not like large disruptions. Yet we collectively must impose various large disruptions on ourselves. This feeds into various fears and hostilities, including, in America, the paranoia and racism deployed toward Obama.

So we are being door-knobbed. Significant numbers of people believe ridiculous things about us. The Murdoch press and a few likeminded media stir this up. We become a target of habitual fear and paranoia.

The mainstream press feels compelled to tell “both sides” of the story. Are we a deadly AIDS-infected doorknob, or just an ordinary, imperfect but functional doorknob? The truth must lie somewhere between.

It has gone too far. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. Except we have no clue what to do.

People like Fleck and Yulsman and Revkin tell us our cause is hopeless, that people simply do not make decisions based on evidence, and that so the windmill/jobs program approach is the best we can do. This is perfectly silly advice because it does not actually account for the interests of the scientific community at all. We do not need to argue for emissions cuts. We need to argue for science. Emissions cuts are just a consequence of reason.

Almost every scientist will agree that a carbon policy is much better than no carbon policy, but a carbon policy is not the point of science. The point of science is to discover and report truth, most consequentially in areas where the truth actually matters to the health of civilization.

When an individual has an anxiety disorder, the first thing to do is to work around the anxiety and get the person to acknowledge that their anxieties are dysfunctional.

It seems to me that the first step when soicety has an anxiety disorder is to do the same.

The second thing to do is to get them accustomed to the idea that their behavior will have to change. Eventually some healing can happen.

The journalists and PR folk are right that conveying the state of science is insufficient in getting political support for a sound policy, but I am convinced that they are absolutely and demonstrably wrong that it is unnecessary. If we are to behave rationally as a global collective, we sort of have to have some respect for the information that we need to apply our reason to.

The problem is that people grew up in a world where there was no global collective, and the idea threatens them. The fact that practically any reasonable reading of the implications of climatology presents a very clear case for the necessity of global governance connects that fear and hostility to a science.

Those who give us this advice to let it slide, that facts are not relevant, misconstrue our jobs as much as do the people who have the irrational hostility. This tragicomic “climategate” farce illuminates the problem, once you see past the pathetic behavior of the press.

The first step in treating an anxiety disorder is to convince people that their anxieties are irrational and dysfunctional. It’s not enough. But that is the only place we can start.

Update: I am NOT saying that everyone who propagates denialism is actually paranoid; some are ideological difference-splitters who simply cannot believe that the truth might not lie in “the middle” of the extremes they perceive. A few are simply psychopathic, though I think that most psychopaths tend to find other games to play.

Of course, the main problem is that they are wrong. The point here is that they can make the case by appealing to visceral as opposed to rational responses in the public.

In this view the Murdoch press et al have been functioning to make people upset and paranoid. Even if it isn’t entirely deliberate, that is how it is working. This is, of course, the opposite of helping. If the real purpose is just to sell newspapers, the psychopathology of it all is mind-boggling.

What I add here is perhaps some new insight into why it has been so easy to trick people (and so easy for people to trick themselves) and why it will be so difficult to set enough of them straight.

Our friends, especially the habitual difference-splitters in the press, tell us that we cannot realistically overcome this gap; that climate is now irrevocably a partisan issue and that people’s positions are irrevocably set by culture rather than reason. I think there is a chance that the advice is right. If so, the PR disasters of the past few months may reverberate for millenia. How tragic and how absurd!

I think we have no choice but to try. If we can’t do it soon, that doesn’t mean we can stop trying.

reBlog from Manuelg: Manuel "Moe" G.

I found this fascinating quote today:

There is no evidence that humanity likes science or the burden of responsibilities that pay out decades in the future. Humanity does not mind playing with some the end products of both, like consumer electronics or the body of modern medical knowledge, but humanity really doesn’t like either science or the responsibility of the very long view.Manuelg, Manuel “Moe” G., Mar 2010

Also trying the Zemanta “reblog” widget on Moe’s site for size. It auto-reposts a single paragraph of your choice. Go read the rest of the article; it’s germane.


More on Samanta et al. following up on Loose Cannon in the Press Office? I wrote the following as a comment on the RealClimate article.

The contents of the press release are not remotely supported by the publication.

It is clear that the political process is much more concerned about press releases than about the underlying work. Consider the McLean/de Freitas El Nino paper and its subsequent spin.

The relationship between scientists and their respective press offices is no longer the trifling matter that many scientists would be inclined to expect, if indeed it ever was so.

As matters stand Dr. Samanta or someone claiming to be him (did RC verify it was him?) stands by the press release. This thus becomes less of a process issue; we do not need to establish how this nonsense got past the press office if Samanta is willing to say he approves it. Assuming the attribution is correct, it now becomes Dr. Samanta’s responsibility to defend the argument implied in his comment #27, which is hardly less tendentious than the press release.

The IPCC WG II comment that “up to 40% could react drastically” simply expresses a concern. There is no implication of certainty; indeed it implicitly states that “at least 60% is unlikely to react drastically” which could be taken as reassuring. In any case it would be difficult to refute.

As has been discussed at length in the parent article and the comments, the quoted research does not constitute a refutation of that position in the slightest, but rather is a detailed refutation of the contrary and counterintuitive paper by Aragao Saleska et al (Corrected. Thanks Kooiti Masuda!) that seemed to claim that rain forests love drought. This is a case where you don’t need a weatherman to say which way the wind blows. If tropical rainforests were so fond of drought, they would be growing in dry places. However, Samanta et al did the service of refuting Aragao Saleska.

It is far from obvious how Samanta disputes Rowell or the IPCC. Many of us who have taken a first look at the matter believe that it does not.

A couple of additional points remain to be resolved here. How did a press release which is perfectly attuned to what the doubt merchants might want it to say, and almost perfectly tangential to the actual results of the study, come out of the press office? This, it seems to me, remains a matter for the university to investigate.

Second, it is important to note that if a paper were to come out that actually did refute Rowell 2000, it would not constitute any indication of a flaw in the IPCC process, nor an error in any sense. Questioning the conclusions of IPCC is necessary, else the first report would suffice.

Science progresses. The idea that a refinement or even a reversal on a particular point in the consensus report constitutes evidence that the consensus process is flawed is hopelessly pernicious. It puts science in a perfect bind.

But we need to cross that bridge in cases where the science has actually progressed. The distinction between a one-year drought and a persistent decline in precipitation ought to be obvious to a person working in the field. It is less obvious to the rest of us. If there is a case to be made, it was not made in the peer reviewed publication, but rather only in the press release.

I have not been alone in spending a lot of time worrying over the badly damaged links between science and the press and writing about it. But so far as I know, little has been written about the connection between scientists and the institutional press offices that are supposed to serve scientists. The Samanta et al. story makes it clear that this relationship can’t be taken for granted.

Followup comments to the linked RealClimate story, please.

Please note updates to my prior posting on this matter.

Loose Cannon in the Press Office?

If there are temptations about to misrepresent science, it is the responsibility of scientists to stop them.

Looking at the matter from the point of view of the young career-seeker, apparently there are two career paths for “science writers”; one being science journalism and the other being the “PIO” or “Press Information Officer” for a scientific research institution.

The failures of the first have been crucial to our recent problems, but we should spare a moment to consider the second group. The ongoing fiasco with the development of yet another utterly baseless meme in the denialist canon is described fairly well on RC and on Deltoid. Unfortunately, the press did not have to work very hard to screw up this particular story: the misinterpretation was handed them on a platter by the press office of Boston University, in a release signed by Richard Taffe.

Neither the opening sentence of the release nor the closing three paragraphs are remotely supported by the study. The quotation apparently from Jose Marengo is surely a paraphrase. It seems that Sangram Ganguly, a coauthor, may be responsible for both the bizarre spin and the quotation of Dr. Marengo. Neither Marengo nor the first author Arindam Samanta seem quite aware of how the press is systematically mangling the story of climate science.

On the other hand, Richard Taffe, press officer at Boston University, is another matter. It seems he or Gangully or both must have known they were feeding the denial squad just the sort of red meat they want.

How did he come up with this spin? Is it really in the interests of his host institution? Did the first author even take the slightest notice of this process, never mind approve it?

The press itself accords far too much power to the press offices. As @j_timmer tweets:

PIO’s product is being treated as science news by PhysOrg, etc. Public unaware of difference.

which allowed me to track down a couple of relevant and insightful articles which address the power of the press office when wielded in the interest of public information.

The Samanta case, though, is very remeniscent of the McLean et al fiasco, wherein a marginal and unsurprising paper on El Nino was spun into the “death knell of global warming” by some creative post-publication interpretation.

Make no mistake what this means. What this means is that there is a systematic process of turning ordinary science into denialist memes that bears precisely zero relationship to the actual substantive content of the publication.

In the present case a press officer was at least complicit if not responsible.

I don’t know anything about the press officer, Richard Taffe. I don’t know if he has pulled such stunts in the past. I am willing to presume he is a good neighbor and a stalwart friend and so on. I hate to do anything that might incline to make his life miserable the way so many other people’s lives have been made miserable by the toxic environment around climate science these days. Let’s just call it a mistake. But someone at BU needs to call Mr. Taffe to account.

Some may be tempted to accuse me of demanding an inquisition of Mr. Taffe for failing to toe the IPCC line. Lest that occur let me point out that I welcome any real evidence that calls IPCC into question, because the advance of truth is what matters.

In the present case, though, the press release demonstrably did not represent the published research in question. Mr. Taffe is entitled to his own extrapolations from the research, of course, as much as is anyone else. He is not, or at least should not be, entitled to present those extrapolations as the product of the scientific effort of his institution.

This event constitutes an institutional failure at the university in question and, likely, a common vulnerability elsewhere.

Update: It now looks like we won’t find out how this mess occurred.

The first author, Dr. Mr. Samanta, has (apparently) stepped up on RC to try to dampen the furor. His statement, while woefully unconvincing, makes it unlikely that we’ll be able to sort matters out in any detail. It also makes it certain that the denialist camp will continue to misuse the evidence. It still remains an instructive instance of how attacks on the IPCC are habitually spun out of nothing, and also illustrates how far actual scientists in the field are from being engaged in its politics. Unfortunately, Samanta’s efforts to protect those around him and keep the controversy at bay will have costs for the world at large.

Here’s the statement, copied from RC. I don’t know that the authorship is authenticated.


The press release accompanying the GRL article disputed the following IPCC AR4 (2007) claim –

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000). It is more probable that forests will be replaced by ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas.”

for two reasons: (1) this is presented as the consensus view by quoting Rowell and Moore, 2000. (2) There was more than a slight reduction in precipitation during the third quarter of 2005 and, most of the drought-impacted forest area for which we have uncorrupted satellite greenness data showed no enhanced or reduced greenness levels (third quarter average EVI values) as compared to non-drought years (between 2000 and 2008).

It is only in this context that the material in the press release and the GRL must be understood. We do not dispute any other results related to this theme in these two documents.

Arindam Samanta (on behalf of the authors of the GRL papers).

Update: Keith Kloor asks:

Here’s a fact: university press releases that tout scientific studies are routinely vetted by the principal researcher(s). And that’s the case here, as I confirmed this morning in a phone call with Richard Taffe, who wrote the Boston Universtiy release. So why are Tobis et al playing this disingenuous game of gotcha with the messenger? It strikes me as yet another example of misdirected anger.

Emphasis added.

I respond as follows:

Disingenuous is a bit strong. I was wrong, to some extent and Taffe is off the hook.

The press release is an awful misrepresentation of the import of a more or less sound and ordinary publication. That the PI is backing up the release means that responsibility must be allocated entirely to him.

Had it just been a matter of idly signing off on it without paying attention, the press office would be suspect. I remain inclined to believe that this is what occurred, but Dr. Samanta seems disinclined to admit it, thereby protecting Mr. Taffe.

As a comment on my blog entry shows, their motivations are not to represent the researcher, but to get the university’s work into the press, no matter how represented. Given this, researchers in areas plagued by public controversy cannot take the press office lightly.

Regardless of whether the press release is factual, it is certainly not based upon the publication that it claims to report.

Thus the press office has usurped the function of peer review by innovating scientific assertions without subjecting them to review, assertions which the rest of the press will feel comfortable repeating. If the principal investigator collaborates in this process, (as clearly happened in the McLean/deFreitas paper last fall and seems to have happened here) it does not legitimize it.

I stand by “complicit if not responsible” regarding Mr. Taffe’s role. I think, though, that Dr. Samanta has accepted full responsibility and we need to take this up with him.

Update: Eli has a modest suggestion: Proposed outreach, so called “broader outcomes” have become an important part of grant applications and press releases are certainly an outreach.

Require all press releases to be included in any grant renewal request.

Let the reviewers at em.


Update: The point here is that I came across this attitude toward Texas completely at random on an article with little in common with any of the interests of the State Board of Education. If Texas education becomes a running gag on the Internet it will take the state a very long time to undo the damage.

This note is also something of an homage to Neverending Audit.

Does Science Even Matter?

In an oh-so-reasonable-sounding article on Slate, Daniel Sarewitz argues the contrary of the position I have been taking recently.

My position is first, that science can no longer depend on the press, or the institutional press office, or pop science media to get important messages out. That much has become blazingly obvious. Second, that certain messages of science are necessary to sound governance, that science is a crucial component of collective decision making in modern society. As a conclusion, it is necessary for science participate directly in public communication. It may not be feasible for science, as currently institutionally structured, to do so.

Consequently, to fulfill its responsibilities to society, science as a culture may need to create new institutions, and certainly science needs to create new career paths. This is necessary so that scientific knowledge is appropriately considered in consequential public discourse.

You would think that would be blazingly obvious too, but Sarewitz makes an argument that inclines pretty strongly to the contrary.

Not to put words in his mouth, his thesis is

A dangerous idea has taken hold in modern politics, and the sooner it is discredited, the better. The idea is that political disagreements can be resolved by science. Its basic logic seems sensible: As good children of the Enlightenment, we should turn to science to establish the facts about problems such as climate change before deciding what policies to implement. Yet the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don’t have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide.

This starts out as reasonable. Lest I be misunderstood, let me concede that science is insufficient to make the sorts of decisions we need to make. Decisions need to be based on values and preferences, as well as on pragmatism, political tradeoffs and competing goals. Science will never trivialize politics; any such claim is ludicrous. But Sarewitz claims that “the types of things that scientists are good at figuring out don’t have much to do with the types of things that politicians need to decide,” in other words he claims that science is essentially unnecessary to politics.

This is the sort of dream world that beltway types actually live in. I am, as Dave Barry would say, not making this up.

It is instructive to look at his arguments. First of all, he notes,

The most wonderful illustration of this mismatch between what science can tell us and what politicians care about is the effort to build a long-term storage site for nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. It’s probably fair to say that, after 25 years and $13 billion of government-funded research, no area of ground on Earth is more studied than Yucca Mountain, yet all of this science has done absolutely nothing to quell opposition from locals and environmental groups. On the contrary, it provided a continual source of new discoveries and uncertainties that combatants could draw upon to bolster their political and legal cases. For example, varying estimates of the amount of ground water flowing through the rocks at the site were central both to claims that Yucca Mountain was safe and that it should be abandoned.

What makes Yucca Mountain such a political quagmire is not the complexity of the science but the way that Congress rammed Yucca Mountain down Nevada’s throat in 1987—an exercise in top-down power politics that provoked profound and unquenchable resentment.

There is spin and there is twist. The above is a horrifying twist on Bill McKibben’s observation that

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.

The issues about Yucca Mountain are indeed instructive.

Those issues are about the tradeoffs between traditional location-based politics and a world of national needs and global consequences. Whether nuclear power is pursued in the future or not, somebody needs to take the waste we already have. Nevada is arguably the right place for it. That paranoia and resentment results within Nevada is, perhaps, inevitable. That the society cannot manage to settle the question with facts and negotiation is not. To celebrate the failure of factual argument and global implications to enact a Yucca Mountain repository or something similar is to do what beltway types so often do; it is to confuse a problem with an insurmountable principle.

The important conclusion to draw is not that a Yucca repository was rammed down anybody’s throat. The important conclusion is that for purely cultural, totally nontechnical, nonphysical reasons, we cannot implement a technical, physical solution to a technical, physical problem.

The problem is not that reason fails. The problem is that politics fails to be reasonable.

Blaming reason for the failure of politics is about as backwards as you can get something.

Yet, Sarewitz manages to do so:

When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.

When it comes to questions like these, political beliefs can map nicely onto different ways of selecting, assembling, and interpreting the science. If you believe that government should intervene in markets to incentivize rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, you can justify your preference with data, theories, and models that predict increases in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. And if you believe, as do many conservatives, that government intervention in markets and in social arrangements should be kept to a minimum, you can find factual support for your views in the long-term unpredictability of regional climate behavior, the significant economic and social costs associated with shifting to more expensive energy sources, and the historical failure of government efforts to steer large-scale social and economic change.

In other words, we beltway types, journalists, politicians, lawyers and such, do not have the competence to distinguish realistic arguments based on evidence from trumped-up arguments based on cherry picked evidence . (Indeed, cherry picking is our job description. We come up with a point of view, and troll the internet for supporting facts. For some reason (!), in the past ten years we have gotten quite good at it.)

Consequently, you guys might as well not bother, because we are running the show, and we can’t pick the serious thinkers from the ringers to save our lives.

Well, yes, these guys are, for the moment, running the show. And indeed they can’t tell science from the most absurd woo-woo. True enough.

Somehow the conclusion that we might as well not bother is not the one I reach from that.

Update: Sarewitz had a far less irritating piece at Nature a few days ago. Tom Yulsman and RP Jr have already had their say on that one. The point on the politicization of science is a real concern. But the Slate article takes it much too far.

Update: Fleck defends Sarewitz. And again.

Go Ahead, Act Like a Scientist

Being a scientist is not a putdown. How strange, in these years of the revenge of the nerds, this time of huge respect for engineers and programmers, that scientists are urged to be ashamed of ourselves.

Today, Revkin says

The more I talk to social scientists and psychologists about humanity’s growing pains in its current population and appetite surge, the more it’s clear that the “market failures” described by economists examining environmental issues derive from fundamental patterns of behavior rooted deep in the brain.

Right. So, what grownups do, in circumstances like that, is exert cognitive pressure from the frontal lobe to overcome atavistic appetites. This means that the reason to stop emitting carbon is because we have way too much carbon sitting around loose already, not because there will be an economic boom from making windmills.

Speaking as a boomer, the self-indulgence of the boomer generation was curative of a very restrained and fear-driven generation that came before us. We called them “uptight”. But we sold the society on emotional fulfillment at the expense of responsibility. We did too good a job of curing what ailed us.

If we don’t revisit the notion of collective responsibility and sobriety soon, our descendants will pay a heavy price. The people to lead the way to restoring this balance would be scientists acting very much like scientists do.