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Is So-Called Climate ‘Consensus’ A Post-Modern Meme Construct?

Andy West, Climate Etc

Lewandowsky and Oreskes raise the prospect that via the agency of memes, the climate Consensus with its high certainty of danger, could be a socially generated artifact and not a scientific fact.


At the beginning of May, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky brought out a new paper continuing his theme of highly eccentric challenges to climate skeptics and skeptical positions. Previous works include ‘Moon hoax’ and the (later withdrawn) ‘Recursive Fury’, dismantled here, here, and here. Naomi Oreskes is one of the co-authors of the new paper (L2015), which focuses upon the social psychology surrounding the concept of ‘The Pause’ in Global Warming. L2015 claims that a ‘seepage’ of contrarian / skeptical / denialist ‘pause’ memes into the scientific process has introduced unwarranted uncertainty, and even that the physical phenomena of the pause does not actually exist.

However despite being highly implausible, L2015 contains a profound admission which is critical to the climate debate. This post explores that admission and also the interesting role of ‘pause’ memes.

The admission

While L2015 is yet another strenuous attempt to attack skepticism by any means to hand, it reveals some knowledge of a key process via which the climate Consensus arose in the first place. Namely, narrative competition. In L2015 Lewandowsky rather surprisingly admits both that this process is in play, and that it can trump science.

As some commenters (e.g. hidethedecline) have pointed out, terms like ‘the pause’ and ‘the hiatus’ are changing the climate conversation, are impacting the perceptions of Consensus scientists. Lewandowsky is right in this regard; he understands enough about narrative competition to recognize this issue and is attempting to fight back in kind. Hence he is seeking to stigmatize ‘pause’ memes, in order to halt or to significantly reduce their advance against orthodox anthropogenic global warming memes.

Yet whether they realize it or not, in opening this front Lewandowsky and Oreskes and their co-authors are taking a huge gamble. L2015 essentially states that the entire mainstream climate science community has been significantly impacted by [arbitrary] memes. And not only that, they have a great case; over the last couple of years ‘pause’ memes have indeed spread through the Consensus and caused many adherents to make an accommodation of some kind. Hence L2015 exposes the fact that climate science is not by any means a purely factual domain, that social factors as expressed by popular memes can change the perceptions of climate scientists, and so can alter the very nature of the consensus they contribute to. In turn this places front and centre the possibility that the original, ‘unsullied’ consensus on CAGW might also be a product of memetic influence, and is not after all an objective and unquestionable truth.

Of course Lewandowsky and Oreskes would argue that CAGW memes conform to reality and ‘pause’ memes do not. But do either fully conform to reality anyhow? And if not, what determines their relative success? I.e. the replication and spread rates of each of the competing memes? (and hence the narrative frameworks in which they are grouped).

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