States have certified the electoral votes. There has been a bipartisan rebuke by judges of fantasy stories about election fraud. The Biden-Harris team continues forward with its transition operations. While I understand that some readers may see things differently, these are the facts as we move towards Inauguration Day. As a climate scientist watching this all play out, three lessons emerge from climate change narratives and innuendo that I have observed over the years.
Climate scientists spend a great deal of time refuting what I have often called zombie theories. Statements about climate change that live on (like zombies) through social media posts, blogs, and opinion editorials though scientists have long killed them off with peer-reviewed science, studies, and so forth. It seems that the political world struggles with zombie theories too. Every election official in all 50 states, irrespective of political affiliations, has affirmed no election of mass voter fraud. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) issued a statement saying, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” However, debunked claims continue to feed a dangerous undercurrent.
The first lesson from the climate change world comes from the “Six Americas” study conducted each year by the Yale Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication. In their annual survey they find, according to their website, “six unique audiences within the American public that each responds to the issue (climate change) in their own distinct way.” The graphic below shows that about 7% of the country is dismissive, and there is basically nothing you can say to change their minds. They are likely the ones embracing the most fundamentally ridiculous, politically biased, and factually-weak narratives about climate change. In other words, there is no need to frustrate you arguing with them on Twitter or at Thanksgiving dinner. It is likely that a similar group of people exists with the election discussion.
Another lesson, which I have spoken about in a recent Ted talk, is that biases shape the way people consume information. I like to use the concept of a “marinade” to make this point. We marinate or soak vegetables and meats in seasonings to give them a particular flavor or texture. A longer soak imparts more flavor. People come from a wide variety of political, ideological, cultural, and economic marinades that shape how they see climate change, politics, and even racial issues. These marinades influence the sources from which they receive information (confirmation bias) and how they see an outcome. In the climate science world, we often see distracting techniques like:
- Undermining of credible scientists or the data.
- Spewing of conspiracy theories.
- Citing questionable scientists or experts outside of the discipline.
To be clear, science is a process of questioning and healthy skepticism, and there are mechanisms to exercise them. However, these tactics preserve narratives to maintain the status quo or construct a reality consistent with a person’s need, ideology, or fear tolerance. It looks eerily familiar to what is playing out right now with the election challenges.
A 1977 study at Temple University and Villanova University first sniffed out what has become known as the Illusory Truth Effect or Reiteration Effect. This effect is the tendency for people to believe that something is true just because it is repeated over and over. Given the 24-hour cycle of certain media sources and social media, it becomes easier to see how the combination of confirmation bias and the Reiteration Effect can lead to perspectives on climate change or the election outcome that seem odd to many of us.
People also exhibit belief bias, which means they will rationalize anything that supports an existing belief. There is science behind this too. A 2015 study found that viral misinformation often spreads because of the toxic combination of belief bias, gullibility, lack of desire to verify, and spreading rate. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Personality found that people also generally struggle with the ability to reject weak claims associated with fake news. The authors referred to that tendency as “reflexive open‐mindedness.”
This brings me to the final lesson taken from my experiences navigating the climate change space. Once you sift through all of the “noise”, the signal of facts ultimately does prevail. The graphic below illustrates trends in global land-ocean temperatures. Clearly, the climate is warming. I remember the “Zombie Theory” that got around several years ago saying that the climate stopped warming in 1998. Of course, that narrative was based upon cherry-picking of the dataset. In fact, it is likely that 2020 will be in the top 3 warmest years on record when all is said and done.