The mass psychology of climate change - scientists need 'attitude'

The media storm over the hacked CRU e-mails shows that staying above the mud fight is a forlorn hope

I am sure that there are a good few scientists who have got into studying climate change, thinking, as one CRU academic put it, that "the science speaks for itself" and really wanting to stay out of the increasingly bitter dog fight with all the rubbish repetitively thrown at them by climate change denier. The CRU storm and the dirty tricks used shows, if it wasn't clear enough already, that staying outside and above the mud fight is a forlorn hope.

Whatever the scientists want they cannot avoid that the science is deeply unsettling in its implications for everyone on planet earth, for every parent of a child because of what it says about their future, for every business whose production involves a huge amount of carbon energy in its input and particularly for businesses which sell carbon energy. It is patently obvious that millions, perhaps billions of people would prefer not to believe the climate science - and for these people climate scientists appear to be the bringers of thoroughly bad news.

Does not everyone knows what happens to people who bring bad news? If they don't they are lacking something in their education.

Ibsen's play

According to the Guardian, staff at the CRU have now received personal threats. The police have been asked to investigate. Ibsen pictured an almost identical situation just over a hundred years ago in his play An Enemy of the People. The chief character, Dr Stockmann, is dismayed to find that when he identifies that contaminated water from the towns tannery threatens the health of visiting tourists who might go to recently developed spa baths he is attacked by all and sundry - because of the financial ruin that closing the spa baths will bring upon the town.

While climate scientists get the police to defend their personal safety perhaps it is worth thinking about how they are going to defend themselves intellectually. For it is too innocent to believe that they can just "let the science speak for itself"  against the thunderous clamour of a carbon-money based PR machine which bases itself on the wish of a large part of the public to look away from the reality of an exceedingly unpleasant future.

In this regard let us start with the observation, which ought to be obvious but clearly isn't, that the science can only "speak for itself" fully to other scientists operating in the same peer group. To the overwhelming majority of the population  the science doesn't speak to them at all - they can't make head nor tail of it.

Indeed we can go further. This very unwelcome set of messages is probably perceived by many as coming from those kind of people who they think they remember from school - who rather than caring about enjoying themselves, who instead of being normal and caring most about sex, drugs, rock and roll, football and fashion, spent all their times in their bedrooms swotting and thought rather too highly of themselves for being clever - geeks and anoraks in fact, kill-joys. To this group of people the science says these people are still kill-joys.

Let me give a deeper explanation of where some of these kind of intense emotions come from. Every one of us has the experience when we grow up of "feeling small" when we are small - and particularly when in the presence of somebody who " knows what is in our best interest ". All the way through life we put ourselves in the hands of people who have an expertise and knowledge that we do not have - because it is quite impossible to know everything. Frequently, moreover the fact that other people have knowledge that we do not have puts us in the position of having to follow their advice, or even their direct instructions or orders. For a lot of people this is problematic emotionally when it re-awakens the feeling of being made to feel small. It triggers an exaggerated sensitivity about their social status and powerlessness.  It is out of this that being patronised and condescended to is so emotionally tricky. There are situations where we have to act on advice where we feel unqualified to evaluate it and this leaves us uneasy - even worse if "the expert" pronounces in an insensitive fashion. This can easily reawaken our childhood feelings of humiliation, condescention, inferiority and powerlessness.

Now it is true that when scientists tell us "what we have to do" in regard to climate, they are, of course, not telling us what they personally want us to do but what nature, as shown in the science, requires us to do. This is completely impersonal. But that is not how it may feel at the emotional level for some people.

The traffic warden may also be telling us completely accurately what the parking regulations say - and that makes it particularly galling for some people. After all, compared to the exceedingly important person that I am, this person, this parking enforcer, otherwise has no status at all and certainly would not normally be the sort of person telling me what I can do.... (I'm trying to get into the attitude here, dear reader - in fact I don't own a car and have never had a parking warden hassling me about where I lock up my bike.)

Now let us think about this in relation to climate science. Time was when the important people  who set the big agendas were entrepreneurs, economists, senior officials, senior politicians  - then along come these people from the universities backing up what the eccentric greenies were saying. And what these climate scientists say is not only a nuisance and an inconvenience to business as usual - suddenly the economists and politicians and business people are being told that they need to dance to another groups agenda, to make radical adaptations to how economics works, to set up new policy frameworks, adopt ideas that cramp the previous freedom of action newly won by the free marketeers - so does it surprise that this creates resentment? Does it surprise that these scientists are felt to be on the make - to be after influence, power, research grants... their right to tell "us" what we should be doing.

To many people the fact that scientists - belonging as they do to the social group I identified earlier - are telling us what is required of us is not something that they are going to accept just like that! It's not just the elite that might start to get pissed off by all these green tips that the tree huggers want  when they tell us how we should start living differently.

This thought was sparked in my mind when an acquaintance wanted to recruit me to what I personally think of as an odd medical idea and described her motives partly as being "subversive " in relation to the medical establishment. The idea that one might come across some very simple notion which has not occurred to all the medical scientists is appealing - despite all their clever knowledge and training ordinary people "with common sense" can make up their own cures - this would certainly "put all those clever doctors in their place".

Now the point about these resentments and emotions is that while climate scientists are playing cricket and "letting the science speak for itself" the PR and advertising agencies, the spin experts and many politicians understand these issues of mass psychology intuitively and play them very skillfully.

When they do so they also connect up to may people's money worries. We live in a society where the mass media constantly tells us that success is to be measured by how much we are able to buy, to consume. At the same time it is usually stressful and difficult for most people to actually earn the money to buy and consume at the level people are told they should aspire to. Parallel to all this the people running businesses are trying to make as much money as possible. Then along come these scientists, wearing wooly jumpers and camping in fields near power stations and the governments starts to accomodate the ideas of these wierdos - in order to tax away all our hard earned money.

Of course the idea that climate change is a scam for governments to tax people more is rubbish - but what this oft repeated mantra shows is what is uppermost in many peoples minds - money. This is part of climate change denial too.

Climate change denial thus contains a good dollop of bloody-mindedness against the "know whats best for yous" - including not only those clever scientists but the governments who think they have the right to take "our" money away from us and "think they know better than we do" how it should be spent - in this case on that "climate mitigation nonsense" that scientists gabble on about.

I suspect then that many climate change deniers are deliberately hooking into this notion of "the common sense of the ordinary man and woman" which trumps head-in-the-clouds science - as well as their prevalent monetary worries. There is a deeply rooted anti-intellectualism here, created by the emotional dynamics that arise in a society in which both knowledge and money are power. In this case the fact that we are dealing with science that is not even addressing a clearly visible current problem but something that scientists and politicians say will happen decades in the future adds a further twist. Climate change becomes an ideal target for rabble-rousing journalists and fringe politicians to whip up and play on a particular mass emotional complex. This is not just denial pure and simple, it is contrarianism - where "to be contrary" is both an intellectual and an emotional response of rejection. This is a topic which many people understand in a way which is emotionally structured by a toxic mixture of inferiority complexes and money worries.

So, what is to be done about this? Well, for a start we can notice that there is more at work here than just denial. We are also dealing here with some complex psychology, giving rise to some rather nasty emotions: a compensatory hatred which allows people to feel secretly that there are, in fact, superior to these scientists in their understanding - even though they, the scientists, have spent years studying the issues while the deniers have read two articles about grapes growing in the medieval warm period, seen three television programmes and have become instant experts.

Almost all of these amateur experts when confronted with real expertise and authority in their lives - for example when they go to their doctors - wouldn't say boo to them, but will do exactly as they are told. The flip-side of an inferiority complex is that people are actually very sensitive to being made aware that they hardly know a thing - so the correct approach for climate science is to rub the noses of the sceptics in their own ignorance.

So climate scientists have to stop thinking that the science will speak for itself. They have to stop playing cricket. If we want to use a sporting metaphor, they have to start playing rugby. This is well expressed in a recent posting at the GreenFyre blog that followed the CRU revelations which called on the scientists to go on the offensive by aggressive questioning of the sceptics. The aim of this exercise is to reveal the shallowness of their attack:

Which studies were compromised, how? be specific. Cite papers and data sets. What is the evidence? where is it? what work is affected? how? show me the evidence that says so.

This supposed scandal involves perhaps a half dozen people, how does it affect the work of the 3,000+ others who’s work makes up climate science?

How does it affect the work that was done before the alleged culprits graduated from university? the work from before they were born?

Of the 30,000(ish) studies that make up climate science, which ones are undone? where is the evidence? be specific … show us exactly how and why?

You are certain it topples climate science? how? where? which studies? what evidence? You don’t know? then how are you certain?

Please run through a list of the studies you believe are affected? Hockey stick? what’s that? please refer to specific papers and studies.You don’t know? then how can you be certain?

Ahhh, Soandso 2004? so just how is it compromised? what part of the work? I thought you were certain?

This suggestion puts it very well: climate scientists have got to learn "attitude". Otherwise the PR industry, funded by carbon's vested interests, will continue to make mincemeat of them.

About the author

Brian Davey is a freelance ecological economist who lives in Nottingham and  works closely with Feasta, the Dublin-based think tank for Sustainable  Economics, on climate and energy issues. He is also co-ordinator of the cap and share campaign.