Lewandowsky on Radio 4 – missing out basic human psychology

Mike Haseler comments upon the appearance of Prof Stephan Lewandowsky on Radio 4 this week.

Lewandowski is a nasty piece of work who set out to fabricate data using bogus questions by which he attempted to prove sceptics are conspiracy theorists. All he managed to prove is that he is incapable of admitting the poor quality of his work. So, imagine my disgust tonight when I heard the BBC were broadcasting some of his material:

“Why do we continue to believe information even when we are told it’s wrong? Claudia Hammond discovers how the brain stores facts and why we don’t erase erroneous explanations.” (all in the mind)

That section of the program wasn’t very interesting (I fell asleep listening) but having had the misfortune to read the scenario before, the gist of it was that sometimes people will use ideas that they have been explicitly told are wrong showing that most people do not trust academics like Lewandowski.

Obviously that’s not what he intended the result to be.

The scenario given was that subjects were told there was a fire in a barn. They were told oil paints were stored in the barn. They were then told they were not stored in the barn (at which point is anyone going to believe the researcher?). Then they are asked why the fire had thick smoke. Lewandowski is trying to prove “false memories” or some such junk, by showing people still use the information that there was oil paints which they have been told is false. The reality is that what he proves is that very often people don’t believe the information the academics force down their throat and they come up with quite plausible explanations (the smoke was caused by the oil paints the researcher told them wasn’t present) which don’t agree with the “truth” ordained to them by academics like Lewandowski. What this clearly shows is that the general public is more inclined to trust their own ideas of what happened rather than rely on academics like Lewandowski when they are so untrustworthy they can’t make up their mind whether there is or is not paint in the barn.

My comment was

Your point about not believing somebody who has fed you false information is an enormously important part of human psychology. In close relationships, such as with one’s partner or a close friend we trust the other implicitly. If that trust is betrayed – such as a wife finding out after many years of marriage that the husband has a mistress – then it is not easily regained. A lot of distrust in climate science is that when the science gets it wrong, or is found giving false certainties (such as Glaciergate and Climategate), the reaction has not been to confess to error, but to sweep the issue under the carpet, or blame others.

Another aspect is that people tend to trust new information from people that they trust and respect, rather than people that they are prejudiced against. However hard we try to be neutral, people tend to more easily accept the words of the politicians that have their world view, than those of the opposite party. A life-long Tory from Haslemere has similar prejudices to a Labour supporter from Middlesbrough. They would far sooner trust a politician from their party than from the other side.

The problem with Lewandowsky is he fails to understand the problems of regaining trust when it has been breached, but instead tries to create prejudice against those who question his dogmatic views.

Scottish Sceptic on summarizing the sceptic position

I came across the blog Scottish Sceptic at the weekend. At the site, the owner has been compiling a non-polemical summary of the mainstream sceptic view of the science. Unlike here, the statement studiously avoids discussion of policy or politics. I made the following comment in the hope of furthering discussion.

I have had a look through the above, and it appears a fair summary the sceptic position of the science. In general it shows how magnitude and likelihood go in opposite directions. The best corroborated science has trivial implications. The most alarming predictions are basically of the form “If A then maybe B. If B then possibly C. If C happens in a certain way then it could be D. D is an extremely alarming situation” This then gives the headline like

Leading scientists are concerned we are heading for D“.

Having read quite widely on sceptic ideas, on the subject of climate models, sceptics view them as “black boxes“. This would not be concerning if they followed the normal scientific procedure of rigorously evaluating the predictions with the actual data, and adjusting accordingly. Instead, it appears to be past data that gets adjusted to the models, along with some very fuzzy analysis.

Another point is that sceptics tend to see a scientific approach as questioning, identifying anomalies, and getting ever more precise answers. Mainstream climate science is nearer to a definition of “science is what scientists do”.

That leads to another point. Sceptics tend to demand higher levels of evidence. The mainstream seems to accept levels of evidence that a criminal court of law would reject. “Scientists believe/agree”, or “Climate Models predict” or comments a court would reject such views as either hearsay or unsubstantiated. So in the wider world sceptics are not the ones with the marginal position.