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Attitudes to climate change -

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HideRobyn Williams: In September New Scientist magazine complained editorially about the gross distortions politicians came out with in the American election. They said, and I quote, 'For those who care about truth, politics has become a depressing spectacle. Politicians have always bent and spun the facts, but the barefaced lying of recent years is especially difficult to swallow.'

Hello, this is Robyn Williams with The Science Show.

What if I told you that paedophilia is good for children, or that asbestos is an excellent inhalant for those with asthma? Or that smoking crack is a normal part and a healthy one of teenage life, to be encouraged? You'd rightly find it outrageous. But there have been similar statements coming out of inexpert mouths again and again in recent times, distorting the science. This is what The Economist magazine said last week about the election in America.

Reading: Republican pessimism is more than a PR headache. Put simply, it is hard for a party to win national elections in a country that it seems to dislike. Mr Romney's campaign slogan was 'Believe in America'. But too many on his side believe in a version of America from which displeasing facts or arguments are ruthlessly excluded. Todd Akin did not implode as a Senate candidate because of his stern opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest: many Republicans in Congress share those views. His downfall came because in trying to deny that his principles involved a trade-off with compassion for rape victims he came up with the unscientific myth that the bodies of women subjected to rape can shut down a pregnancy.

It was a telling moment of denial, much like the comforting myth that there is no such thing as climate change or, if there is, that humans are not involved. Ensconced in a parallel world of conservative news sources and conservative arguments, all manner of comforting alternative visions of reality surfaced during the 2012 election. Many, like Mr Akin's outburst, involved avoiding having to think about unwelcome things (often basic science or economics).

Robyn Williams: That from The Economist magazine last week. These distortions of science are far from trivial. Our neglect of what may be clear and urgent problems could be catastrophic. And now a professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia has shown what he says is the basis of this unrelenting debauchery of the facts.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, I became interested in scepticism generally a couple of years ago in the context of the Iraq War, and I discovered people who were sceptical of the reasons underlying the war processed information more accurately. And so I thought, hmm, that's interesting. A couple of years ago in 2009 when there was this eruption of so-called scepticism with regard to climate change I thought, well, let's look at this and see if these people are really sceptics. And I then did have a look at the scientific literature and at what these so-called sceptics were saying, and I discovered that in actual fact those people weren't sceptical at all, they were rejecting the science on the basis not of evidence about some other factor.

And so I became interested in finding out what that other factor might be. And together with a couple of other people around the world I start doing research on that, and what we basically found is that the driving motivating factor behind the rejection of climate science is people's ideology or personal worldview, their fundamental attitudes towards how a society should be structured. That is what determines whether or not they accept the scientific evidence. And specifically what we find is that people who are endorsing an extreme version of free-market fundamentalism are likely to reject climate science.

Robyn Williams: That's Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia. His findings and those of Iain Walker of CSIRO show that the rejection of science goes beyond climate.

Stephan Lewandowsky: They are also rejecting the link between smoking and lung cancer, they are rejecting the link between HIV and AIDS. So there seems to be something about an extremist free-market ideology that prevents people from accepting scientific evidence.

Robyn Williams: However, there is also a left-wing component, because I know of a number of Marxists or ex-Marxists who would infer that the greenies who are keen on climate science are trying to deprive the poor of the world, the Third World et cetera, of the benefits that we have had in developing civilisation to our own Western choices. Have you come across that kind of left-wing component of this as well?

Stephan Lewandowsky: It's interesting question. I've been doing some research for the past year or so chasing people on the left side of politics who are rejecting scientific findings, and it turns out that that search has been extremely difficult. I've done a number of studies, including one most recently that involved a representative sample of Americans, a very large sample, and I looked at attitudes towards GM foods and towards vaccinations. And it turns out that statistically you cannot detect much of an effect from the political left.

Robyn Williams: It must have been a couple of people like Alexander Cockburn, who has just died, and the producer of The Great Global Warming Swindle, who at one stage was a Marxist, I don't know whether it still has that, but that was the case made in that film, that these middle-class lefties are simply trying to deprive the poor people of the world of the benefits.

Stephan Lewandowsky: I think that's true, I think there are some spokespeople out there for anti-scientific positions who claim to have a left-wing Marxist background. But when you look at the population at large, if you look at a large sample of people, then you don't find them. And that probably means one of two things. Either the number of these people are so small that you just have to be extremely lucky to find one in 100,000 or something, or that their claimed political affiliation is in fact not as left-wing as they make it out.

Robyn Williams: There have been some extraordinary statements, I'm thinking of a couple of bankers whom I've met who have sat through a learned lecture by one of the most famous scientists in the world, and come out the other end and said, 'Well, of course it's not proven.' And I don't know how much more evidence you'd want. And the former chairman of the ABC, Maurice Newman, who had been head of the stock exchange, came out with some drivel in The Australian newspaper a couple of weeks ago about how climate science is a religion.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, I think if you're driven by ideology rather than evidence then by an act of projection you have to accuse scientists of being religious in order to justify your own denial I think.

Robyn Williams: But let me ask you that question; if you're using such easy debating techniques, you're just insulting 97% of the climate scientists who agree that there is a problem, and you're doing so even though you are the kind of person who is used to talking to Cabinet ministers and the highest-grade clever experts in a field, but you would have a discount factor in this regard. That's amazing.

Stephan Lewandowsky: It's absolutely amazing, and in fact they are not just insulting 97 out of 100 climate scientists, I think they are also insulting basically the Enlightenment and everything that we've worked on for the last couple of hundred years, which is to go from a dogmatic and religious approach to life to an evidence-based approach. So I think that the dismissal of science by people who are interacting with Cabinet ministers, as you just said, I think that is actually a very critical issue that is facing our society and we have to understand what motivates those people.

And one of the intriguing results is that neither education nor intelligence is overcoming the influence of ideology. There are some American data on this which show that among Republicans the greater their level of education, the more likely they are to reject climate science. So in other words, educating Republicans drives them more towards denial, whereas if you educate Democrats and you look at the effect of education on Democrats then you find that the more educated they are, the more they accept the scientific findings.

So you get this increase in polarisation with education between Democrats and Republicans. And the same thing is true if you ask people about their rated self-professed knowledge of climate science, then people who are politically conservative, the more they think they understand the science, the more they will reject it. So ideology is the overriding variable in this.

Robyn Williams: Well, there's the problem. Whether the scientists are ultimately right, and scientists can be wrong, nonetheless it has prevented climate science and the possible dire consequences of what we are facing to be discussed in the election in the United States. That's a serious problem, is it not?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Absolutely, I think it is a serious problem, which is one of the reasons why I'm working on it, because we have to understand what motivates these people and how one can deal with that. And one of the things that one can do is to underscore the consensus among climate scientists about the fundamentals of climate science. You mentioned earlier that 97% of climate scientists agree on the fundamentals, and that number is roughly right, it's in the 90s, 90% or more. It turns out, and one of my recent studies showed this, that if you tell people about this consensus and the strength of the consensus, and if you just show them a graph that shows 97 people who agree on one thing and then there are three who don't, that consensus information does shift people's attitudes.

And what I found in one of my studies is that that shift in attitudes is particularly pronounced among people who would otherwise reject climate science based on their personal ideology. So that is one of the things that I think is a successful strategy, is just to keep underscoring the consensus, the fact that the scientists agree, the fact that every single major scientific organisation in the world is endorsing the basics of climate science, and so on. I think that is a very important thing to underscore over and over.

Robyn Williams: And what about the number of people who are, if you like, denying it? A paper published by one of your colleagues this week suggests the number is fewer than one would have thought.

Stephan Lewandowsky: Absolutely, and that has been shown over and over again. In Australia in this survey you just mentioned by Iain Walker the number of people who deny that climate change is happening is around 5% or 6% of the population. But those 5%, if you then ask them how many people they think are sharing their opinion, their response is, oh, about 50%. So what we have here is a fringe opinion that is held by a very, very few Australians, but they have convinced themselves that half the population agrees with them. And this phenomenon is called a false consensus effect technically, and that phenomenon is usually indicative of a distortion in the media landscape.

Other research has shown that in other instances, that if people develop this sort of self-inflation where they are inflating their self-importance, that usually is indicative of the media not doing their job properly. And there's no question in my mind that in Australia the media have done a terrible job in representing the science. And there have been a lot of analyses recently pointing out that in particular certain publications out of the Murdoch empire are systematically misrepresenting the science, distorting it, representing things that are simply not true. That happens over and over again and is difficult to explain by any sort of random process. There must be something else going on there. And I think one of the consequences is that this fringe opinion has taken hold in public discourse.

Robyn Williams: You're a psychologist and I think there is no great difficulty in trying to understand that if you're being told that the entire globe is threatened in a way that is pretty dire, you'd rather think otherwise. So isn't there a component of wishful thinking about this as well?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Absolutely, totally, I think that is absolutely true. And what is very interesting about this is that there are some data to suggest that a lot of the people who deny at first glance that human beings are responsible for climate change, they actually do know that we are responsible, and it's a very funny result. This is, again, in Iain Walker's research. What he's done is to ask people, you know, well, if the globe is warming, are people responsible or not? And then it turns out that about 40% to 45% of the people will acknowledge the fact that the globe is warming, but they will say, no, people have nothing to do with it, it's all natural fluctuation. Then, a minute later if you ask them who was responsible for global warming, pick a few of the following from this list, then even the people who just said it was all natural pick 'polluting corporations', 'large industrialised countries', et cetera, and assign the responsibility for warming to them.

That tells us that these people actually know who is responsible. And so their 'denial' is only skin deep, and I think what's happening there is this is just a tool for people to exercise their wishful thinking, to say no, it's all natural fluctuation, and then they can go on driving their big trucks or whatever it is they're doing. I think there is that.

I think there's a larger implication of this, and that is that one of the problems we've been having is that climate change has always been communicated in a doom and gloom fashion. And obviously that turns people off, and it's totally understandable why it would do that. So what we have to find is a different way of talking about climate change and a way that is underscoring the opportunities that come along with it when it comes to the development of clean energy, underscoring the fact that the problem is solvable, with considerable effort and money, but it is a solvable problem. And I think we have to highlight those solutions, and we have to try and highlight the fact that there are new entrepreneurial opportunities out there in dealing with the problem.

Robyn Williams: You're not part of a Marxist/Leninist cell hidden away in Western Australia, are you?

Stephan Lewandowsky: Well, that depends on who you ask. I don't think so. But since I publishe in the peer-reviewed literature, a lot of people think therefore I must be a Communist, yes.

Robyn Williams: The distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia, Dr Stephan Lewandowsky. And those conclusions in a week when two organisations, one the World Bank, warned that we may be heading towards a 4°C warming, with all that entails.