John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky (together with Ulrich Ecker) have released a new paper at the beginning of May 2017. It is called Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence.
The paper is about (skeptical) “misconceptions” and how to “neutralize” them by means of the inoculation theory. It is a topic that I recognize. John Cook wrote about this several times in the past. I was rather weary hearing his argumentation back then and this time it is no different.
The paper is certainly more thoughtfully written than the Alice-in-Wonderland paper (from two of the authors), but reading it, it is my impression that this is not the work of neutral researchers. I noticed that already in the beginning when I read the abstract. This is how it starts:
Misinformation can undermine a well-functioning democracy. For example, public misconceptions about climate science can lead to lowered acceptance of the reality of climate change and lowered support for mitigation policies.
Apparently they see “lowered acceptance of the reality of climate change” and “lowered support for mitigation policies” as examples for something that can “undermine” a democracy… Not just a democracy, even a “well-functioning” democracy. That is a bit over the top. With all respect, but I think one will need much more than the attitude of the public towards climate change that to undermine a “well-functioning” democracy.
Another head scratcher is the term “reality of climate change”, which was not defined in the paper and is rather ambiguous. It can mean many things, it depends on the background of the person who is using it.
Reading further in the paper, I realized that this was not the only thing that was not defined. The paper was based on the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) worldview. Personally, I understand AGW as the worldview in which humans have an influence on the warming of the planet and when looking at how they defended this AGW worldview (by means of the 97% consensus on human caused global warming), then that seems to fit this definition. Unsurprisingly, they referenced to the papers of Oreskes, Doran, Anderegg and Cook.
But these references don’t fit this definition. The consensus on human caused global warming, as surveyed in these papers, is rather neutral (there is a consensus that the atmosphere is warming and that human emissions have an influence on this). But this is not how the authors used the term AGW in their paper. If I understand their example, then apparently the public should accept the “reality of climate change” and “support mitigation policies”, otherwise it could have some kind of disruptive effects on democracy. There is no way that this could be concluded from a neutral definition of AGW (as in their references).
Then it dawned on me: their definition of AGW probably goes well beyond AGW and is wandering into the domain of CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, meaning the warming caused by human emissions that has catastrophic consequences). In that case, if we assume that the science is settled by means of the consensus (which is on AGW) and the authors start from the assumption that we are likely to head for a rough future (based on a CAGW worldview) and combined with the assumption that the solution is well known, then I surely could understand that these misconceptions could become very dangerous things in a democracy. It could polarize politics and obstruct the necessary mitigation policies. But as far as I know, there is no consensus on the catastrophic nature of global warming.
If I read the paper with the definition of CAGW in my mind in stead of AGW, then their paper makes perfect sense, just as their example does. Also the other example of “significant societal consequences” they gave in the introduction now made sense (misinformation about HIV not causing AIDS and was estimated to have contributed to 330,000 excess deaths).
This lack of clear definitions is not exactly unusual. It happens a lot in climate communication. Some use the term Global Warming (the rise in temperatures over the last x decades) when they in fact mean Anthropogenic Global Warming or even Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. Or, as in this case, they use Anthropogenic Global Warming when they mean Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. This makes communication difficult. Using the same words, but with a different meaning. That is the basis of a lot of confusion and misunderstanding between alarmists and skeptics.