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Why Good Politics And Good Climate Science Don’t Mix

Imagine two people walking through a field. One of them tiptoes gingerly, zigging and zagging from one side to another. The other strides confidently straight ahead. Who looks more like they know what they’re doing?

Now what if I told you the field is full of land mines?

Confidence doesn’t equal competence. But our brains tend to assume it does. And that can create big problems when scientific evidence collides with political rhetoric. The senator who confidently throws a snowball to prove that winter is cold can be more memorable (and more believable) than the one who takes the podium to carefully explain how we know fossil fuel use is changing climate over decades. “Denialism has an advantage. Absolutely. There’s no question,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in the UK.

As the U.S. confronts what to do about climate change, human psychology leaves climate-conscious politicians in a tough spot. Political action means convincing both constituents and colleagues that said action has to be taken and that you know the right path forward. But the global climate system, and our understanding of how humans are altering it, is complex and nuanced enough that talking about it can easily involve a stumbled series of “ifs,” “ands” and “buts.” So it’s worth asking: Is the science of rhetoric fundamentally at odds with the science of evidence-based policymaking?

Scientists who study the psychology of storytelling and rhetoric say there are several factors that give climate change denialists an advantage in the political marketplace. Simplicity and smoothness of the message is a big part of it, said Eryn Newman, professor of psychology at the Australian National University. In an email, she told me that the easier it is to process information, the more likely people are to believe it.

In other words, the simpler the words are to understand, the clearer and more consistent the narrative is and the more absolute and concrete the claims, the more likely people are to nod along. Anything that makes us briefly confused or makes our train of thought stumble will make an idea less believable. On the extreme end, this effect can mean that people have a harder time believing experts whose names they can’t pronounce, Newman told me. And in one study, a question asked in a hard-to-read typeface even makes it less believable. Scientists asked participants to read and answer a question that was intentionally flawed — “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?” When the font was less easily legible, people were more likely to notice that it was Noah, not Moses, who built the biblical boat.

Pretty often, we’re just working off intuition about what seems reasonable, Newman said. And this effect matters to political debates about climate change because scientists and advocates of climate change action often sacrifice smoothness of narrative and ease of processing in favor of nuance and accuracy.

Case in point: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

This is the document that summarizes climate science for politicians and the public. It’s pretty crucial to lay understandings of climate risks and to the crafting of policy meant to address those risks. But a 2015 study showed that the language used in the IPCC report tends to be more cautious, more complex, and less confident than language used by a factually misleading denialist report. The IPCC had more tentative words, more modifiers, more use of passive voice. The other report confidently told a narrative with fewer caveats.

“They have a rhetorical advantage because they don’t have to be scientific. They want to be politically effective. And that makes it very easy to come across as being convincing,” Lewandowsky said.

The trouble, of course, is that nuance and complexity aren’t always optional.

Take, for instance, the data that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration collects on trends in natural disaster frequency. One metric that’s tracked is events where damage is valued at $1 billion or more. The statistic combines winter storms, wildfires, hurricanes, severe storms, freezing, flooding and drought. Since 1980, these events have become more frequent … and more expensive. There are only eight years that had 10 or more of these billion-dollar disasters, and seven of those years have happened since 2008.

This metric can tell us something about the risks of climate change, said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information Center for Weather & Climate. Other research shows that drought, heavy rainfall, and sea levels are all increasing in the United States and those things play a role in increasing the costs associated with fires, floods, and hurricanes. Combined, this is all useful information for politicians and the public to have because it helps us make cost/benefit analyses and decide what risks are too big.

But you also can’t talk about this metric without clarifying that the increase in billion dollar disasters isn’t totally attributable to climate change. As Smith wrote in a NOAA blog, some of it also has to do with increases in wealth, population, and the size and scale of buildings built in high-risk zones. But those caveats don’t mean climate had nothing to do with the cost increases.1 Climate isn’t the whole picture but it is part of the picture. Politicians can certainly simplify this into something less accurate and more sticky. But, by doing that, they also open up a space for another politician to point out the discrepancy and create doubt. The metric is valuable, but can only be explained in ways that tend to make it — psychologically speaking — less believable than an all-or-nothing factoid.

And this is why the political rhetoric of climate change is such a pickle. The very nature of the science means it’s easy for opponents to rebut it with doubt. You can see that at work in the “sound science” movement my colleague Christie Aschwanden wrote about in 2017. Gathering scientific evidence is always a nuanced and complex process. So it’s easy for someone with an agenda to highlight that complexity and make the conclusions seem less trustworthy than they really are. Currently, President Trump’s critics are worried that’s exactly what the Trump administration plans to do with climate science by putting together a panel overseen by an official whose climate denialist organization has distributed misleading data in the past. “A simple sound bite is going to stick really well, and a nuanced, complicated story that is perfectly true but has caveats is much harder to sell. People just don’t remember that,” Lewandowsky said.

But he, and other experts, also offered some reason to be optimistic that politicians are starting to figure out ways around the rhetorical divide. For instance, Newman said, consensus is one of the tools that people use to decide, on a gut level, if something is true. We’re generally more confident in our beliefs if others share them and trust our own memories more if they’re corroborated by others. That probably goes a long way toward explaining why politicians who don’t believe in climate change spend so much time trying to undermine the idea of scientific consensus. But it also means that, when governmental organizations and politicians focus on consensus, they’re making headway. In fact, research has shown that telling people there’s a scientific consensus on climate change makes them more likely to believe in it.

What’s more, lessons from psychology offer some hope of making political headway on climate change in a world where a person’s ideological affiliation seems to determine whether they believe in climate change (rather than the other way around) and where action on climate might need to come from the top down (rather than bottom up). Our gut instinct is more likely to believe a person we know, who shares our identities and ideologies. And that means political leadership matters. So when psychologists see bills like the New Green Deal changing the arguments we’re having about climate change policy or Republican politicians coming out as believing in climate change and opposing denialism — those things look like viable paths forward.

“The entrenchment of attitudes is conditional on what leadership is doing,” Lewandowsky said.

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  1. We had to learn this lesson the hard way. Early in FiveThirtyEight’s existence, we published a story that inaccurately claimed climate could be discounted as a factor in disaster cost increases over time.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.