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Global Warming: Real, Or Groupthink?

Andrew Forster, Transport Xtra

Policy-makers gain plenty of kudos from the fight against climate change. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to contribute to “saving the planet”? But history will judge them a lot less kindly, according to a report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which was set up in 2009 to challenge “misinformation” surrounding the science of man-made climate change and the policy responses to it.

The report authors do not mince their words. “How do otherwise intelligent people come to believe such arrant nonsense despite its implausibility, internal contradictions, contradictory data, evident corruption and ludicrous policy implications?” asks Professor Richard Lindzen, in the foreword. Lindzen was professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until retiring in 2013.

The answer, says report author and journalist Christopher Booker, lies in groupthink – the tendency for members of groups of like-minded people to bolster their collective view and ignore or rubbish alternative views. Professor Irving Janis pioneered work on groupthink in the 1970s, identifying eight characteristics of groupthink behaviour: an illusion of invulnerability shared by most group members; collective rationalising to discount warnings; unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality; stereotyped views of rivals and enemies as evil; direct pressure on any group members with differing views; self-censorship of individuals’ own thoughts so as to water down doubts; a shared illusion of unanimity; and self-appointed ‘mindguards’ who protect the group from adverse information.

Groupthink can potentially explain a lot of public policy failures. The DfT has recognised its significance: groupthink being one of the impairments explored in the Behavioural Insights Team’s report, An exploration of potential behavioural biases in project delivery in the DfT, released last summer (LTT21 Jul 17).

Booker, who has written extensively on climate change in The Sunday Telegraph and books such as The real global warming disaster, believes groupthink provides a powerful explanation for the man-made global warming paradigm. He summarises the characteristics of groupthink into three ‘rules’:

• A group of people come to share a particular view or belief without a proper appraisal of the evidence

• This leads them to insist that their belief is shared by a ‘consensus’ of all right-minded opinion

• Because their belief is ultimately only subjective, resting on shaky foundations, they then defend it only by displaying an irrational, dismissive hostility towards anyone daring to question it

“Future generations may look back on the late-20th and early 21st-century panic over man-made warming as one of the strangest episodes in the history of either science or politics,” says Booker. “But they will only be able to understand how such an extraordinary flight from reality could have taken place by reference to the peculiarities of collective human psychology, and in particular to the rules defining the nature of groupthink.”

The world has seen triumphs of groupthink before, he says, pointing to religion and Marxism. “In crucial respects the ideology of global warming has much in common with these examples. Like them, it originated with only a very small group of people, who had become gripped by a visionary idea. Like them, it was based on predictions of a hypothetical future – or prophecies – which could not be definitively proved right or wrong. Like them it therefore became important to insist that this belief-system must be subscribed to by a ‘consensus’ of all right-thinking people, and using every kind of social, political and psychological pressure to enforce conformity with it. And like them this inevitably shaped the response to anyone who would not be a part of it, who therefore had to be condemned as a ‘heretic’, a ‘subversive’ or a ‘denier’, and whose dissent had to be more or less ruthlessly suppressed.”

Richard Lindzen says the UK leads the world in climate groupthink. “Booker’s emphasis on the situation in the UK is helpful insofar as there is nowhere that the irrationality of the response to this issue has been more evident, but the problem exists throughout the developed world,” he says.

Booker recounts how concern about man-made global warming grew from the late-1980s. He believes scientists failed to conduct due diligence on the theory that rising carbon dioxide levels would dramatically warm the planet. “Almost the entire Western scientific community had been so carried away by the simplicity of the theory [more carbon dioxide equals global warming] that they never subjected it to proper three-dimensional scientific questioning. They programmed their computer models accordingly. And the only response considered necessary to an argument suggesting that the theory might in some way be flawed was just to ignore or ridicule it.”

Acceptance of the theory snowballed through “second-hand thinking”. “Academics, politicians, the media, teachers, business executives, indeed public opinion in general – all these people only got carried along by the belief that man-made global warming was real and dangerous because they had been told it was so by others. They accepted as true what they had heard, read or just seen on television without questioning it. And this meant that they didn’t really know why they thought why they did. Their heads were filled with a ragbag of mantras and gobbets of misinformation (such as that vanishing Arctic ice was threatening the survival of polar bears), which were so often demonstrably the very reverse of the truth.”

Temperature rises in the 1990s initially gave the theory support, Booker concedes. “But increasingly after 1998 the predictions and the real-world evidence began to diverge. And the response of those within the groupthink was not, as the principles of proper science should have dictated, to ask whether the theory itself might therefore be in some way flawed.” Instead, scientists tried to accommodate the new evidence within the framework of their overarching theory. “Around 2007, with a startling drop in global temperatures, they [scientists] for the first time began to wonder whether ‘natural factors’, such as shifts in the world’s major ocean currents might not be having more influence on shaping the climate than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) computer models had allowed for. Eventually even the IPCC and the UK Met Office acknowledged that there had been a temperature ‘pause’ in the years after 1998. But they too tried to explain this away by suggesting that these natural factors were merely ‘masking the underlying warming trend’, which in due course would re-emerge. Or they suggested that the heat created by man-made warming was only no longer visible because it was ‘hiding in the oceans’.”

Booker notes that this type of behaviour was identified by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The structure of scientific revolutions. “Long before a paradigm finally comes to be superseded, awkward ‘anomalies’ often come to light, which those within it try to explain without abandoning their belief in the established consensus,” says Booker.

The difficulty with overturning the groupthink position on global warming is that “no new theory has yet emerged comprehensive enough to replace it”, he says. “The reason for this is frustratingly simple. We have now learned enough to know that what really shapes the climate is far more complex than any one theoretical framework can yet hope to accommodate.” But overturning it is all the more difficult because so many people have a vested interest in the groupthink continuing. “So many different players in the drama have become academically, financially and ideologically dependent on it. With so many careers and reputations now wholly identified with the ‘consensus’, it is almost impossible to imagine how so many of those involved could ever change their minds. They are part of what has become known as ‘the climate industry’.”

We don’t suffer groupthink, says scientist

A climate change scientist this week rubbished the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s report, saying scientists always reject theories if the evidence does not support them.

LTT asked the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London what it thought of Booker’s report.

Professor Martin Siegert, co-director of the institute, said: “The idea that academics follow the line of the group is nonsense. Academics are always looking for the paradigm-changing research. Most don’t achieve it, but if there is evidence that changes the consensus, the scientific method compels us to publish it.

“The problem alluded to isn’t one of group thinking, rather that evidence against the consensus simply doesn’t exist. If it did, it would be published by now.

“Maybe group thinking is more common in politics, but at least in my areas of work, I don’t recognise it.”

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