We don't know what we think about a lot of issues – hardly a novel finding, dating back to Converse. What's even more problematic is how badly we misjudge what others think, which is a fundamental component of how we form our own opinions and orient ourselves toward society.

A real psychologist might disagree here, but political psychology evaluates judgment and decision-making under the assumption that much of human cognition is "hard wired" for basic survival functions and is quite poorly adapted to understanding abstractions like politics (see Kuklinski & Quirk, Reconsidering the Rational Public: Cognition, Heuristics, and Mass Opinion). In other words, our thought processes are geared toward self-preservation, including bolstering our self-image. This is part of the reason why having a low self-image is recognized as a medical condition. The "normal" mind excels at convincing itself that it is correct even when it is very, very wrong.

One of the tricks our minds use to make us feel better about the decisions we make is to convince us that others share our opinions. It is common in the absence of other information (and perhaps even despite it) to believe that the majority of our fellow citizens believe the same things we do. If I am against capital punishment and don't know anything about public opinion on that subject, I will guess that a majority of the public is also against it.

This, I believe, is one of the main culprits explaining survey results like these:

Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey. May 12-18, 2010. N=1,001 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.7
"From what you’ve heard or read, do you think the evidence on global warming is widely accepted within the scientific community, or do many scientists have serious doubts about it?"

  • Widely accepted: 37%
  • Many have serious doubts: 49%
  • Unsure: 14%
  • ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Dec. 10-13, 2009. N=1,003 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.5
    "Do you think most scientists agree with one another about whether or not global warming is happening, or do you think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on this issue?"

  • Most agree: 36%
  • A lot of disagreement: 62%
  • Unsure: 2%
  • Your gut reaction is probably that this is the media's fault – too much Glenn Beck, too many effective disinformation campaigns by denialist groups and professional "skeptics." But these are objective questions, namely about the scientific consensus. A five-second google search would reveal that 90%+ of climate researchers subscribe to the climate change hypothesis. Even denialist arguments on Fox News don't have the audacity to claim that a majority of scientists have serious doubts; in fact, the small minority status of the Skeptics is often played up to fuel the right's latent martyr complex. If we had the information we would probably answer the question accordingly. Lacking that information we just assume that everybody else probably believes what we believe, namely that global warmin' is nothing but a big pinko conspiracy to take away our Dodge Durango.

    It is regrettable that we use our own opinions as a proxy for the majority so often given how sorely misinformed we are most of the time. But if I feel that it's regrettable, then surely most people do. A collective solution may be just around the corner.

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    • A real psychologist might disagree here, but political psychology evaluates judgment and decision-making under the assumption that much of human cognition is "hard wired" for basic survival functions…

      Funny you should mention this. I'm a "real" psychologist, and I'm in the midst of putting together a paper that shows that prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky; more or less the gold standard for models of decision-making for the past 30-ish years – dude got a Nobel prize) can essentially be derived from the basic assumption that a person makes decisions based on whatever option allows them to live longer. McDermott et al (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1008034) said it first, but I'm saying it better.

    • I think some of these results are skewed by the vagueness of the questions: how many scientists are considered "many scientists"? 100? what's a 'scientist'? if you include high school science teachers, maybe even community college teachers, you could easily find a hundred 'scientists' that believe global warming is a pinko hoax… what does 'serious disagreement' mean? not a disagreement among serious people, but rather serious describes the gulf between the two opposing positions: in this case sane people who believe in the long run our environment may be endangered by our lifestyle, and the people who believe that global warming is a hoax, a deceit, or at best false-alarmism. That's a SERIOUS difference in point of view… Also notice the phrase 'from what you've heard' = this directs the subject's attention away from their own personal opinions and asks them to recollect whether they've seen Global Warming presented as 'controversial'… which it usually is. I'll even bet they use the word 'controversial' once or twice in Al Gore's documentary…

      Not that humans beings, especially Americans, aren't incredibly stupid, both individually and collectively, but I wonder how the results for the questions below would differ from the ones you cite:

      Do you think Global Warming is:

      A: a problem mankind will have to deal with
      B:not a problem, 'scientists are overestimating effect'
      C: a politically-motivated hoax

      Which side in the Global Warming Debate has more credible evidence:
      A: Global Warming believers
      B: Global Warming deniers
      C: about the same

    • I am curious as to how much of this is the direct result of media attempts to present 'balanced' coverage of climate change 'controversy,' how much of it is misunderstanding the scientific debate, and how much is flat-out cognitive bias (presumably coming from people who don't entirely believe in climate change themselves).

      I'm with Valis that there's some room for the less-than-bright to misinterpret the question, especially given the tendency to trump up deniers as equally valid talk show guests.

      But some of the blame rests with scientists, too. Sure, there's 'a lot of disagreement among scientists'. For instance, there's the raging debate as to whether we are irretrievably fucked, or just profoundly fucked. In what exact ways are we fucked? How sure can we be that shit will totally go to hell in the fashion our models predict, and not in some totally unforeseen new clusterfuck?

      Scientists are trained into having a strong distaste for making firm, declarative, overly-simplifying statements. But until we learn to say, very slowly, 'There is no doubt about it. This is going to be very, very bad, and anyone who says it's not is either willfully stupid or lying for money' every single time someone with a camera asks anything about scientific controversy, this shit is going to keep happening. It'll be a step up when nothing but consensus bias leads people to guess that scientists would touch their Inhofe-approved bullshit with a UV-protected pole.

    • Will:

      "prospect theory … can essentially be derived from the basic assumption that a person makes decisions based on whatever option allows them to live longer."

      That's very interesting. Based on that, how do you explain smoking?

    • On one hand the general public has a massive misunderstanding of what scientific "debate" is about…I put it in quotations because the term has lost its meaning in contemporary society. Asking Joe Public his understanding of such a thing is a pointless thing to do. It's like asking if umpires disagree about plays in baseball…and him saying "Well, that must mean that all them baseball rules they made up are wrong!". Nooo! Everyone understands how baseball works.

      On the other hand the press plays up this as a "story" and I put that in quotations because we all know what that now consists of…

      I think what you are saying, though, is that humans have to be insane to stay sane…which is a valid theory. Humans have all sorts of defense mechanisms to help cope with their ever-changing environment. Smoking is one thing humans do to cope…it may have short term survival benefits.

    • "Despite previous discoveries to the contrary (ED. -Pasteur and Lister), a prevailing belief persisted that wound infection was due to tissue exposed to stinking 'miasma' in air, and it was still considered unnecessary for a surgeon to wash his hands before seeing a patient."

      That "belief" would be the medical scientific community consensus until the 1860s -70s – "We know how wound infection arises. Those who propose other theories are in the minority and are 'Miasma' deniers"


      Read more at Suite101: Late Germ Theory of Disease: Microbiology Contributions of Pasteur, Lister, Koch & Fleming http://microbiology.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_germ_theory_of_disease#ixzz0rUFS4dSo

    • anotherbozo says:

      My own assumptions were fascinating here. Your first paragraph was abstract and gave no indication of where you were going, Ed. So I thought you were going to explain Joe Barton's first apology, suggesting his assumption that there would be a lot of sympathy for BP out in TV land.

      Of course there are a number of directions you could have taken this…

    • jimcat:

      Answer 1: smoking (or, more generally, drug addiction) is what happens when neural mechanisms adapted for basic survival come into contact with concentrations of a chemical that simply don't exist naturally.

      Answer 2: smoking is really, really satisfying. Flavor country. Yeah.

    • Elder Futhark says:

      I'm wondering how many have the intellectual honesty to wonder if Ed is talking about them?

      "Is it me that is stupid? Or are there others that are not so stupid?" – Chuang Tsu

      Consensus in the scientific community is not how it works. It's about looking at things and thinking about things in a slightly less than stupid way. That's why experiments are made that challenge "settled" science – especially by the youngsters who might make a name for themselves.

      Believe it or not, bb almost got it, but as usual he fucked it up a bit. It's not about "4 out of 5 dentist's recommend"… it's about smelling the poo on your plate, realizing it ain't steak, and writing a paper aobut it.

    • Elder:

      How did I mess it up? I'm a lttle slow this AM (and u would say every :-))

      I agree with everyting you just said. I believe that science is about presenting the best model to explain the existing data and to be the real deal your theory has to have predictive ability that is eventually verified by others.


    • It's hard for me to see a question beginning with the phrase "do you think most scientists…" and think the results are going to be meaningful. Does that really count as an objective question? One of the reasons I dropped my psych major was the over-reliance on poorly conceived and executed questionnaires. You can't draw hard conclusions from soft data, period.

    • Elder Futhark says:


      Flip it so that the stodgy, plodding, old orthodox thinkers, defenders of the status quo are the Germ theory deniers.

    • Ed, what hard data can be mined by an opinion interview, particularly one with multiple choice answer options? This is not a rhetorical question, and I'm not assuming they're pointless, but I was exposed to a lot of crap questionnaires during my psych major and I'm very disillusioned. I understand that you're not basing a Unified Field Theory on the results, but what meaningful conclusions MAY be drawn from questions such as these?

      People who design surveys make mistakes in phrasing and sometimes deliberately offer options that don't fit. Psych particularly tends to over-conclude based on results that are imprecise or focused on trivial elements.

      Another problem: if the question is off / wrong / skewed, or if the multiple choice answers don't express the position of the respondent, he or she may:
      1. ditch the test and provide no data;
      2. pick the closest answer and provide inexact data;
      3. have a Screw It moment and pick the least appropriate answer, since none really applies anyway.

      What is learned when the results are at best based on "If I Had to Choose, I Guess I'd Pick 'X'"?

    • Elder:

      Got it! Thank you.

      However, (I don't know the reality here) the East Anglia gang and that Phd from Penn State (?) sure have been made to look like the "stodgy, plodding, etc." in the email leak/hack story. They appear to have been making attempts to muzzle their opposition.

      That is process, not substance. When you dissemble and well nigh lie about stuff in the process it makes the dumb masses (relative to the substance) wonder why.


    • I think in this case, we have to take "scientists" as people who are trained in the general art and have studied the problem enough to make a judgement on some subset of observed, measured, and/or published facts (i.e., not just what they think their friends think). Otherwise, a survey about a consensus gets really meta.

    • Grumpygradstudent says:

      @bb in Georgia

      The argument that it's legitimate to doubt the global warming consensus because scientific consensus has been wrong in the passed is weak at best.

      Yes, science can and does get things wrong. But when we're making policy, and we need to rely on a scientific opinion, what's the alternative? If 90+ percent of the people whose lives are dedicated to understanding subject say one thing about it, AND we have to listen to SOMEBODY, because inaction is just as much of a policy decision as action, then we should listen to the experts.

      Skeptical arguments are fun…yes, if I'm sitting on an isolated mountain pass during a blizzard, I can use skeptical philosophical arguments to say that it's possible I won't freeze to death. I certainly have that right, epistemologically speaking. I can doubt the scientific consensus that says that extreme cold will cause hypothermia and death. That doesn't make it a good idea.

    • GG_stud:

      I believe that you are correct, fo' sure.

      How old are you? Grad students generally are in their 20s I know you are quite capable of being well read in recent history and I am not being condescending.

      I remember vividly in the 1970s that the same climate science community was fervently warning of us of imminent global cooling and perhaps even an ICE AGE. I remember the newsmagazines of the day (Time and Newsweek in particular) had scary cover stories.

      Now when I say "climate science community" it is somewhat of a black box presented to me by the media. I don't know the qualifications (secret hand shake, decoder ring, etc.) to be a member. My guess is Phd in a relevant discipline or peer reviewed published work.

      Should we have made policy then based on the experts? What is a member of the "dumb masses" like me, relative to climate science, to believe (and maybe more important) – who should I support politically relative to the policy making?


    • It is dangerous to talk about belief and science in the same breath. That isn't what science is about, then or now.

    • Entomologista says:

      Shorter BB:
      Fucking magnets, how do they work?
      And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
      Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

    • I'm surprised that Ed's got a denier that is a faithful reader. This place generally seems of an academic tilt that values the scientific process.

      Having wasted way too much time in the past debunking tired and oft repeated crap like "but there was going to be an ice age in the 70's!", I'll just point offenders to this website: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/05/start-here/

      Pretty much covers basic climate science (which really, an understanding of the greenhouse effect is all you need to understand global warming), and provides links to many other sources that debunk myths.

    • Also, even if some scientists did predict global cooling 40 years ago, that simply illustrates the nature of the scientific method. Science bases its hypotheses on the best available data at the time. It was possible for some scientists to interpret the evidence in the 1970's to point towards cooling. But science is also willing to admit that it is wrong when new and better evidence presents itself.

      We have better tools, four more decades' worth of data, and most importantly, 40 years of well-documented rising temperatures since 1970. What was accepted as "possibly true" back then is much less credible now.

    • @hoosier – "It's official: bb is a troll of the first caliber. I will henceforth ignore."

      Harsh. He's here, he's willing to engage, and that's half the battle. Fuck, it's probably about 3/4. Now, Party With Tina on the other hand – That is one bridge dwellin', goat quizzin' motherfucker.

      @bb – now follow Zach's link, and read it good. Don't make me look like a dink.

    • Not believing in something doesn't mean it ceases to exist. There is virtually no doubt in the scientific community that the world is warming. However, there are differences in HOW that is occurring. There are few dissenters who believe that people are not the cause, but rather other factors such as the sun, water vapor, the gays, etc. Because there is a controversy, the media thinks they should get the same if not MORE media coverage than the 90% who believe that we are responsible for global climate change. They do this for ratings, and it destroys public discourse.

      The scientific evidence just isn't getting enough exposure. This is mostly because it is statistical at this point in time, but when people begin becoming refugees because of natural disasters, then it will be too late. The media, especially the conservative media does not want to show linear regression or time series graphs.

    • Entomologista says:

      @bugboy: No, it's the latest masterpiece from the Insane Clown Posse, entitled "Miracles".

    • beau:

      Followed the link and you’re no dink.

      First, I am aware of Climate Change literature but I have received most of my exposure from tendentious sources. I am a mechanical engineer by education (MSME, PE) and have had a multi decade career.

      I have a background that provided study in many of the same academic subjects of Climate Sci (Thermodynamics, Heat and Mass Transfer, Psychrometry) and can follow some of the tech arguments from source material.

      Because I have some experience in the technical area, I spent my time looking for reasonableness from an M.E. perspective. Here is an example.

      Overview, p6 “The Wedges – to get us from 2005 – 2055 – Stabilizing and Reducing Global Emissions” –

      “Build two million 1-megawatt wind turbines to displace coal power”

      Conclusions: This project is ambitious but technically possible, but I don’t see the capital resources being there. The most difficult challenges I see are:

      1.) The commitment of all levels of government globally to sustain a 50 year project that is productive.
      2.) The financial stand-off between wind farm construction and infra-structure (transmission) upgrade that is particularly a problem in the U.S.
      3.) Costs on the order of $4 to 5 Trillion over that period by my estimate.
      4.) This project is just one of the Seven Wedges that are proposed to get us to 2055. I have not examined the other six, but a simple equivalence would call for another $20 – 30 Trillion.
      5.) Because of Stimulus packages globally, 2009-2011 are banner years for global capital spending: US plus China 2010 spending on ALL renewables is about $55 billion. Globally, We need to spend $80 billion/yr on WIND ALONE for this ‘wedge’. Europe won’t bring us across the finish line. Cap investment will drop off after stimulus finishes.
      6.) The documented negative effects of wind farming on humans (and probably animals) necessitating the geographic isolation of this power production mode and driving up the infrastructure costs.

      The IAEA projection (2004) for global electrical energy consumption

      2030 – 31,524 Twh Gross Gen

      1731 " All renewables

      Continuing on with the average annual growth rate of 1.5% (assuming some slowdown from conservation) thru 2055 we have:

      2040 – 37,000 Twh (Tera watt hrs) or 3.7E10 Mwh
      2050 – 43,000 4.3E10
      2055 – 46,000 4.6E10

      Utility grade wind turbines have a “Capacity Factor” between 20 and 40% (the rotor is spinning but the wind speed produces less than 1 Mw) and let’s assume 40% and an “Availability” of 95%

      Our 1Mw wind turbine – (1Mw x 8760 hrs/yr x (0.40) x (0.95)) = 3.3E03 Mwh/yr
      2 million of these 1Mw turbines => (2E06) x (3.3E03) Mwh = 6.6E09 Mwh/yr

      Therefore, by 2055 the 2E06 turbines will be installed and will produce: (6.6E09/4.6E10) = 0.143 or 14% of the projected global demand.

      The global pace of installation (Tzero = 2005) needs to be 40,000 1 Mw turbines (or the Mw equivalent in various rated machines) per year for 50 years. That is 800 per week for the 50 year period. During 2007, there were 15,000 Mw installed in the US which more than doubled 2005 and 2006 (both about 6500 Mw.) The 1 Mw equivalent (since not all were that size) turbines would equal 300 per week. If this pace can be increased in the US and can be matched worldwide for the 50 year period the 2 million can be reached. But understand the projects underway now are likely the “low hanging fruit” where there is the best chance for profit. Also, worldwide stimulus money runs out by the end of 2011.

      Notice that the IAEA projects that in 2030 that ALL renewables (H2 fuel cells plus “other”) only amount 5.5% of the total. If we assume that this number was wind power alone, it would require about 40% or 800,000 of the turbines to be installed which amounts to 32,000 per year. That is roughly (considering this is a long term forecast) on track for wind power, but argues that the IAEA forecast is low for renewables or the wind program is aggressive.

      Blade sets for a 1 Mw turbine cost about $200K today and that represents 15 to 20% of the turbine cost. That means in current dollars our 2E06 turbines will cost about $2 Trillion. The current installed cost in the US (2008 – US DOE Report) is $2K/Kw which translates to $2E06/Mw which means that 2E06 1Mw turbines would have a current installed cost in the US of about $4 Trillion. So it looks like about 50% for the install if global costs match the US. The installed cost linearized over 50 years would be the equivalent of $1.6 Trillion set aside at 5% interest.

      Another important cost is the grid infrastructure to get the electricity from where the wind blows to the consumer. Unfortunately, the utilities have a much more difficult task of raising the capital, fighting the environmental battle, and constructing the transmission facilities. A wind farm can be built in about 18 months to 2 years. The transmission project is easily double or triple that. It is a circular problem – the utilities do not want to commit to the transmission lines before they know the wind farm is a “go” and the wind farmers don’t want to commit their capital until they know the infrastructure will be there for the “turn up.”

      Operation and Maintenance Costs: For <5Mw turbines we can expect $10 to $30/Mwh/year. For our 1Mw turbines this extends out to (3.3E03 Mwh x $20 ) = ~ $65K/yr or $130 billion for 2E06 turbines.

      Power prices: Today, wind power in favorable locations in the US would cost the consumer about $0.12 / Kwh (this includes back-up traditional “spinning reserve” for when the wind quits) or almost double the best rate of fossil fuel (ff) produced electricity. In some parts of the country the ff energy is priced close to the best wind energy deal. Wind is the most competitive of the renewables. Globally, the differential is smaller and in some places the relationship flips because of government action (Cap and Trade, etc).

      Environmental: Low frequency vibrations produced by the rotors have proven to be annoying to humans who live near and work at wind farms. Vibro-Acoustic Disease (VAD) is well established in the clinical literature. It has been amply documented and is readily detected by a variety of diagnostic tests. (See for ex. Dr. Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD) This argues for isolating the farms from populated areas as much as possible.


    • On some level it has to be the denialists' and medias' fault. Most people wouldn't have any opinion at all on global warming if they weren't told what to think.

    • You might find this interesting…

      The Dunning-Kruger effect
      The Dunning-Kruger effect. Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge (Charles Darwin)
      dunningkruger.com – Cached

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