Aunty Bends Over Backwards

Vinny Burgoo, in a comment on the previous post,  mentioned a BBC Radio4 programme, The Human Zoo, about the psychology of attitudes to climate change.

You can listen to it here

for a limited period.

I said I’d transcribe it, but I won’t. It’s too depressing. It’s worth listening to, for interviews with Tamsin Edwards and Daniel Kahan, who are significant people in the debate, but who are not allowed to say anything interesting here.

It’s called: “Climate Change – Is your view unbiased?”

Here’s an extract by presenter Michael Blastland. There’s a long quote from Hard Times:  the famous speech of Gradgrind on facts: after which Blastland, in conversation with professor of psychology Nick Chater, says:

“…Facts on our side? And in contrast, the other side, whichever it is, well, fast and loose with the evidence, obviously. That’s what Ed Davey the Environment Secretary said the other week about climate change scepticism: ‘Born of vested interest, nimbyism, publiicity seeking controversialism or sheer blinkered dogmatic political bloody-mindedness’. Ouch. Still, Im sure they’re equally nice about him. Nick, all this makes psychology sound like an accusation, an insult: ‘Me, I do facts. You you’re all full of biases and other perceptual tosh’. Is that… how do you respond to that as a psychologist?”

Nick Chater: “Well I think we should be more respectful in a way of… “

[Here my ears pricked up. An academic was going to stick up for respecting the opinions of others – in this case, us climate sceptics so gratuitously insulted by a government minister. But Nick continued:]

…of the miracle that is the human brain”.

*             *             *

That’s the problem you see. We sceptics have these miraculous things called human brains that permit us to think a dozen mad thoughts before breakfast. And you can’t stop us, because this is the BBC and you have to be respectful of all sides of the question, whatever Professor Steve Jones says.

Chater didn’t actually mention the Kunning-Bugger Effect, but you feel it was on the tip of his tongue.

*             *             *

This following section was entitled on the Radio 4 website:

Michael Blastland conducts an experiment which shows how people’s prior knowledge of climate change can influence the way they interpret climate change data.

MB: Nick, we promised another experiment. What tricks have you been playing to discover how people tick about climate change?

NC: Yes, this week we thought we’d have a go at trying to understand how people’s views about climate change affect how they look at climate data. So this was based on an experiment by Stephen (sic) Lewandowsky at Bristol University, and we thought we’d give it a try with the Warwick students:

NC: (to students):So what you’ll see in front of you is a wiggly line, and we want you just to continue the wiggly line in the way that seems the most natural. There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, it’s just a wiggly line.

Question from student: Do you have any indication what this might be?

NC: No. No, no, just an abstract task.

NC: Now after they’ve done this we’re going to get them to do some other experiments, just to distract them a bit, and then we’ll give them another wiggly line, but this time we’ll tell them what the wiggly line is really about.

NC: (to students) .. wiggly line, as you’ll see. And this wiggly line is real data, it is in fact average global temperatures from 1880 to 2010, so this is a climate change prediction task now. So you need to make your guess about how that graph is going to continue.

NC: ..then a final little question..

NC: (to students)..just says, “on a scale of 1 to 7, “How worried are you about climate change?”

NC: (to students, after the experiment): ..climate change graph, what made you complete it in the way that you did?

Student: The temperature can’t go up at the same rate for ever.

NC: Right

Student: So I tried to slow down the rate a bit

NC: Yes

Student: …it was still increasing

2nd Student: Mine was a bit apocalyptic actually. I thought of , while you know obviously it’s been rising a lot since the industrial revolution and things like that, there’s a definite pattern of like, plateaux and then going up, so I assumed there would still be sort of a plateau around now when the graph ended, and then it would go up more, and I don’t know if it’s going to make the earth explode or whatever, but..

NC: You’ve got a pretty serious, serious..

2nd Student: That’s what I thought

NC: ..scenario heading our way

MB: So, Nick, what were the results, and what do they tell us?

NC: If somebody thinks that climate change is real and present, then they tend to extrapolate upwards in temperature more than people who have the opposite view, and that’s true when they think of the data as about climate, but of course it isn’t true when they just see this very same wiggly pattern as mere random noise. What it seems to indicate is that it’s very hard for us to look at data in a dispassionate way. And in a way, quite rationally, when we’re considering how a set of data are going to continue, we think both about what the data show so far, but also we think about what our general knowledge or general beliefs tell us. But there is a danger to this, because it can mean that the data itself, as it were, seems different, looks different, depending on your perspective. So if I am a climate sceptic, I might look at the same data as a non-climate sceptic, and I might think: “That doesn’t really show much of a trend upwards, it  might show a little trend upwards”. Someone who’s got great faith in the reality of climate change might look at that very same data and see in the data a much more alarming trend.

*             *             *

Why do I hate this kind of programme? It’s the BBC leaning over backwards to be fair to all sides of the question. It’s right-on Guardian-reading lefty academics explaining that even climate sceptics, however repellent their views, have their reasons for thinking as they do. (There’s a surrealist interview with a couple of journalists at the end where a young (?) Australian woman hints heavily at the fact that sceptics might be – you know – dare I say it? (No, she doesn’t dare – but hints heavily, like some Southern Belle unable to pronounce the word “negro”) – older white males).

The BBC is a caste. Everything the elderly white right-wing males at Bishop Hill say about it is true; but it’s still better than any other media in the world. I’ve seen and listened to a fair amount of TV and radio in France, Italy, and Germany. The BBC is better in ways I can’t even begin to explain to a Frenchman.

But still, this is the BBC, and climate sceptics are a bit like, you know, a bit like Jews in a prewar poem by T.S.Eliot or a novel by Wyndham Lewis – frightfully clever chaps and all that, but, you know …what?

I may change this post tomorrow when I’m sober, but at the moment I despise Michael Blastland and Professor Nick Chater more than I can say.

*             *             *

In the sidebar of the page linking to the podcast there’s a list of links to the blogs of the participants, and also this one:

An article about a controversial psychological study into climate change beliefs. (

which goes here

Which as you can see, is an article about Lewandowsky’s research into us sceptics. Lewandowsky is mentioned as the source of the “experiment” quoted above. His toehold in Auntie’s door so soon after arriving in the country is interesting, I think. Closing the door firmly on his foot is my current quixotic project.

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7 Responses to Aunty Bends Over Backwards

  1. graeme says:

    Gradgrind was actually in Hard Times…so I hope it was not the BBC presenter making that error…:;)

    But seriously, it does not seem as if it were a seriously-meant p0rogram at all: it was just another attempt by the Barmies to shore up their beliefs in catastrophic srming. On one newspaper comment the other day, someone seriously wrote that you shouldn’t build nuclear reactors on the seacoast because they will be underwater in 30 years time. It is impossible to argue against such stupidity.

  2. Paul Matthews says:

    Here’s my brief summary of some of what was said in the programme.
    * Today’s weather influences how people think about climate change
    * Tamsin- Science is complicated, not just a list of facts, science can’t tell us what to do.
    * Dan Kahan- both sides in a debate are convinced that their own view is consistent with that of the experts (because we decided who counts as an expert).
    * People who think climate change is a serious problem will extend the curve upwards (wow)
    * A lot of decisions and opinions are based on gut instinct.

    The only thing I learnt from the programme was how to pronounce Kahan (assuming the BBC presenter got it right. He said Kuh-harn)

  3. Thanks graeme. The Dickens misquote was mine, not the Beeb’s. My apologies.
    I’ve seen some pretty insignificant experiments, but this one is tautological. People who believe in global warming think the temperature’s going up.
    It would take a very subtle social scientist to analyse the programme. I was continually asking myself: What’s it for? Who are these bright young things? They were like P.G.Wodehouse characters for the 21st century, flapping round playing jolly charade-like games while waiting for a cheque from Aunty.
    They share with Adam Corner and Alice Bell the strange idea that you can discuss belief in climate change without discussing climate change. Try substituting belief in God, or belief in capital punishment, and see how far you can take the discussion without bringing in the Deity or the rope.

  4. artwest says:

    This reminds me of a passing reference in Richard Wiseman’s book Rip It Up. Disappointingly, because he has done good sceptical work in the Randi vein, he suggests that if a climate change skeptic went to a seminar given by a climate expert even after being given all the “facts” they still wouldn’t be convinced of CAGW. This, of course, demonstrates how stubbornly climate sceptics ignore facts.
    Well, Prof if you went to a seminar given by an expert in the paranormal you still wouldn’t believe in it either, would you? You’d know that the expert was biased, you would have heard most of the “facts” before and seen them refuted. Even if there was some superficially convincing argument or study you hadn’t heard before, it wouldn’t make you suddenly change the opinions you’ve taken years to form. You’d sceptically examine this new information and certainly wouldn’t walk out of the seminar a convinced believer in woo..
    Guess what prof, we aren’t skeptical because we don’t know most of the arguments bandied about by experts, we’re skeptical because we’ve found those arguments to be at least inadequate if not completely bogus. Not only that but we’ve heard arguments by skeptical scientists which fit the facts better.
    Patronising us is not going to win you any friends.

  5. alexjc38 says:

    One thing that Michael Blastland got wrong was calling Ed Davey the Environment Secretary!

  6. Sorry for not being more interesting! I don’t think any, or much, of my interview was cut. It was carried out by my friend and fellow public engagement enthusiast Timandra Harkness just before I went on stage at Cheltenham with Jonathan Jones and Claire Craig. Perhaps she didn’t ask me very tough questions – possibly our preparation chat on the phone a while before had been more interesting – but maybe that’s what having a Radio 4 microphone in your face (for only the second time ever) does to you🙂 As you know I usually tend towards being diplomatic – not that I don’t say what I think, but that I try to understand all points of view – and I can see how that might come across as bland, if you like fire and brimstone…


  7. alexjc38 says:

    @ Tamsin, although fire and brimstone is usually very entertaining (!), it’s also good to be presented with sensible and thoughtful points of view, such as yours. Basically what you were saying, if I’m correct, was that policy does not automatically flow from science but must come from human beings with their (our) inbuilt values and priorities and emotions, which I think few would disagree with.

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