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Mindfulness and sustainable behavior: how to find a correlation where none might exist

Since recently I discovered that there is a whole field of what is called ecopsychology. A couple days ago I started reading a paper by Amel, Manning, Scott and Koger (probably more about that later) and I wondered whether those four had previous papers as well on the subject. Apparently they had. Members of this group produced a bunch of papers with (an)other member(s). One of the those papers had the intriguing title “Mindfulness and Sustainable Behavior: Pondering Attention and Awareness as Means for Increasing Green Behavior” by Amel et al (2009). It was quite an intriguing read, hence this post.

The authors started from the observation that our rushed lifestyle separates us from nature and this let us fall back on automatic behaviors which are not necessarily sustainable. They investigated two aspects of mindfulness: acting with awareness (paying attention) and being in the here-and-now (observing sensations). The authors hypothesized that paying attention is necessary for making sustainable choices and their goal is to break through this automatic behavior with mindfulness, so people could adopt a more sustainable behavior.

The conclusion of the paper was that, indeed, “acting with awareness is significantly positively correlated with self-reported sustainable behavior”. They arrived at this conclusion by means of a survey. Participants completed two questionaires. One to test their level of mindfulness (they investigated two aspects: “acting with awareness” and “observing sensations”) and the other to test their level of how “green” they were. Greenness was measured on a scale of 7: 0 being “not green” (meaning: never choose the most sustainable option available if it’s more costly in terms of time, money, convenience, or personal preference) to 7 being “dark green” (meaning: always choose the most sustainable option available, even if it’s more costly in terms of time, money, convenience, or personal preference).

According to the authors, there was no correlation between “observing sensations” and the “self-reported Green Scale ratings”, but when they put “acting with awareness” against the “self-reported Green Scale ratings” in a graph, this was the result:

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The signal given by switching from gray to green. What signal?

The counter of the We close Doel”-campaign is currently at 3,295,737 kWh. The counter didn’t move much in the last week and stood at the same number for the last four days. Time to contemplate about the significance of this number.

Wij sluiten doel counter: 3295737 kWh

To recapitulate: the Flemish Green Party started a campaign to “close Doel 1 and 2” [the two smallest nuclear power reactors]. On their website, people could indicate that they were willing to change electricity provider and by calculating how many kilowatt hours can become green, they want to show that the nuclear reactors of Doel 1 and 2 could indeed be closed. This would be a “clear signal to the government”.

The number seems impressive, at least according to Flemish standards, but my question would rather be: what is the meaning of that number and, more importantly, can it be related to what the Flemish Green Party is trying to achieve? Looking at the campaign, it is not really clear what this switching from gray to green energy has to do with the closure of the two reactors, so how relevant is that number when it comes to the closure of Doel 1 and 2?

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High concern, but low priority

A question that I have been asking myself over the last posts was how it was possible that the climate change topic could get such high scores. In almost half of the countries surveyed, more than 50% of the respondents were very concerned about Climate Change and some countries even had a score as high as 79% on climate change worries. It gives the impression that climate change is high at the list of worries of the public.

This in stark contrast with what other polls show, for example the MY World global survey 2015:

MY World 2015 overview

It shows action on climate change dead last. So what is the catch?

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Are we smart if we agree with others?

When looking for information to be used in a previous post, I came across this article: Pew: Americans the least concerned about climate change at the Washington Examiner. The thing that initially caught my attention was the first sentence:

Despite the heavy media and political pressure to make global warming and climate change the top issue in the nation, it is more of a concern to citizens in 36 of 40 other industrialized nations than in the United States, according to Pew Research Center.

I can imagine the frustation. The media and politicians did their very best to promote the global warming and climate change scare in the US, yet it was more of a concern in other countries… The irony.

But that is not what this post will be about. The most remarkable in that article was the screenshot of this tweet, just below that statement:

pew research twitter

So the challenge was to see how smart we are and how we compare to others. Not sure how smartness and agreement with others are linked. Does it mean that we are smart if we agree with others? Or vice versa? My guess is that he means that agreeing with the majority is the smartest thing to do. I can see where that comes from, but I think there are many reasons why majorities exists and those reasons are not necessarily good ones.

Anyhow, I became really curious about how I would do in that survey, so I went to the Climate Change Quiz page. These were the three questions:

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It is okay to be skeptical (but apparently not about the AGW consensus)

During the holidays, while zapping from one channel to another on television, I came across a documentary about the life of James Randi. While I have never been much interested in magicians or escape artists, I found this nevertheless an interesting program to watch. I didn’t really know much about Randi until that point. I vaguely remembered that he had something to do with the debunking of Uri Geller back in the 1970s. The part where I landed into the program was when he made a list of points to take into consideration when Geller wanted to do his tricks, effectively stopping one of Geller’s performances in its tracks. He also revealed a number of charlatans and tried to educate the public about critical thinking. What I remember from the documentary is a man in search of the truth with a scientific approach. A researcher who didn’t just believe in everything he has been told, but relied on the facts.

After I saw the documentary, I became curious: he didn’t seem to be the person to mindlessly agree with a consensus, so how would he think about the global warming controversy? Would he “believe” in it or not? So I found myself googling and it didn’t take long before I landed at his article AGW revisited at the James Randi Educational Foundation site (if you haven’t read it yet, recommended). The article dates from December 2009. Quite some time ago, back then my skepticism was only a year old and this blog wasn’t even a thought in my mind. In that article he displayed a nuanced an humble view. He agrees that our Earth is warming, he agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that we increasingly emit it in our atmosphere, that the issue is however very complex, that there is not much historical data, that science is not done by consensus, that we should occupy us with current problems and so on. That is the critical thinking Randi I saw in the documentary.

To me it didn’t look controversial at all. On the contrary, it seems more or less in line with how I think about it. He just asked whether we currently have the means of knowing with any certainty that global warming is caused by humans. He didn’t even claim that global warming didn’t exist or that humans couldn’t have some effect in it, yet apparently he got labeled a “denier” by the very people that celebrate him. He got such strong negative reactions that he wrote a follow-up: I am not denying anything (if you haven’t read it yet, also recommended to do it now).

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The “climate risk denial” label

CR_denier_label

The surge in views of a couple days ago came from both sides of the debate. The post was apparently shared by skeptics as well as alarmists, but of course different things were emphasized. The skeptical side linked the post itself. The alarmist side picked just one of the things that Tol said (agreed, it was not smart thing to say), ignoring all the rest.

When following a link from the WordPress Dashboard, I landed on an alarmist blog and found the link to my post in the comments section. There was also a interesting reaction: the question why someone found it necessary to put a link to a “climate risk denial” article? That “climate risk denial” article being my post of course.

I must admit that I am really amazed with the many ridiculous ways “denial” is being labeled. I heard many of those before, like “climate denier” (how can one deny climate!?!?), “science denier” (as far as I know, skeptics don’t deny science), “climate change denier” (strange, skeptics believe in climate change, not in the way that alarmists believe though) or “global warming denier” (most skeptics believe that temperatures have risen). The current “climate risk denier” label was however new to me.

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No conspiracy theories necessary

In the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation the emphasis was on the consensus: there are so many scientists and organizations that agree, so why would these few deni… euh, skeptics be right and the rest of the world wrong? Last post described already two reasons why I think this is a meaningless argument anyway. The third reason is that a consensus can have it wrong and that is not that unusual. There have been many examples before where everyone agreed and in the end everyone was wrong.

There are of course the most known examples like Galileo (against the theological consensus that the Earth was the center of the Universe), Albert Einstein (against the consensus against the theory of relativity), Harlan Bretz (against the consensus geological changes were always gradual and slow), Alfred Wegerer (against the consensus that continents were unmovable), Barry Marshall and Robin Warren (against the consensus that stomach ulcers were caused by for example stress or spicy foods) and probably many others who are less known or didn’t get into the history books. They all struggled against the consensus of their time and their assertions, although correct, were rejected. There is however a consensus that very recently collapsed and even has more similarities with the global warming/climate change story.

Since the 1980s there was a consensus about the link between fat intake and coronary artery disease. Reduce one and the other will also reduce. Guidelines were issued and low-fat diets were seen as a means of combating obesity and heart disease. This gave rise to a whole industry producing low-fat products that were assumed “healthy” in the of face the guideline. This consensus was challenged by a minority group, that gradually became larger.

In the beginning of 2015 a study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in which researchers pooled 72 studies and clinical trials and found that total saturated fatty acid was not linked to coronary disease risk or that a lower intake of fats is beneficial for the heart.

This does of course not mean that a high fat intake would be entirely harmless, but it’s not the major culprit that the experts led us to believe until last year. There are even those who suspect that the directive to eat less fat even had harmful effects. Healthy high-fat products, such as nuts, olive oil and fish oil, were given a bad image and dietitians lost sight of the risks of a higher sugar intake (more sugars were added to low-fat products to compensate for the loss of flavor brought by the fats).

Now that is something very interesting. Here is a consensus that held from the 1980s until now, pinpointing one factor (even lacking evidence) and that the media, the public as well as the professionals bought firmly into it. Yet no conspiracy and no large-scale misinformation campaigns were needed. There was no group of people who wanted to fool anyone, nor was there any intentional deceit. This information was put out in good faith and although it was unjustified by the science, the consensus survived until last year.

There are several similarities with climate science. Both sciences study a complex, coupled system (human body and the climate system). There is however a difference in experience (thousand versus decades).

Both sciences also have their limitation in studying their subject (there are ethical objections to put people in standardized experiments versus there only be one patient and in fact it is not sure whether it is a patient or not, because of scarce reliable historical data).

This means that there is a huge uncertainty regarding the outcome of dietary studies. People are complex organisms and live in a complex interaction with their environment. There are thousands of variables and they all can influence each other. There are things like age, physical health, fitness, genetic predestination, food preferences/availability, personal habits, background and so on. dietary fat is only one of those.
The same in climate science. There are also thousands of variables and they can all influence each other. The sun, clouds, the ocean circulations, water vapor and other greenhouse gases, the biosphere, carbon cycle, and so on. CO2 is only one of those.

In such observational studies, it is not possible to pinpoint one variable as THE cause. There is no way to know whether the real cause(s) were among the tested variables.

The current medical researchers didn’t point to just another factor to replace one cause of coronary disease with another, they just showed that the consensus was not based on good scientific evidence. The dietary guideline was not put in place because the data said there was a link between dietary fats and coronary diseases, but for other considerations.

What are the chances that in 30-40 years we will be told that the current guidelines to limit CO2 emissions lacked any solid evidence and that our focus on this mirage even had harmful effects 😉

To me this example shows again that a consensus can be wrong and that is not unusual. It doesn’t mean we must dismiss every consensus, but we clearly can’t rely on it without verification. We have to keep a healthy dose of skepticism, especially in a science dealing with loads of uncertainty like dietary studies or climate studies. It is this skepticism what I think is missing in climate related issues.