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Straight Thinking and the Paris Climate Negotiations

04/10/2015 20:15 BST | Updated 04/10/2016 10:12 BST

In eight weeks time 195 nations will meet in Paris to agree on a course of action to respond to climate change. The aim is to prevent 'dangerous' human interference in the climate system. The decisions taken will affect us all. The need for straight thinking will be paramount.

By straight thinking I mean the reasoned evaluation of information, risks and options, free from prejudice, emotion and deception. Unfortunately, the public discourse on climate change is replete with these. Dan Kahan, the Yale psychologist, describes the discussion environment as 'polluted'. This undermines the ability of decision-makers and citizens to arrive at well-informed and wise conclusions.

To help address the problem, a group of climate scientists from around the world has set up an operation called 'Climate Feedback' (see http://climatefeedback.org). The objective is to hold journalists and commentators to the highest standards of scientific accuracy. Volunteer experts assess the credibility of climate change stories, annotating the text with notes highlighting and correcting factual and interpretative errors. They complete their critique by assigning an overall 'scientific credibility' rating, ranging from +2 (very high) to -2 (very low).

Subjected to this scrutiny, an article by Brad Plumer in Vox, was rated +1.7 and described as "... a great article on the current El Niño, and (helpful) explainer on how El Niños often affect global climate, as well as regional climates around the world...".

Most articles assessed to date have fared less well. Bottom of the pile, and rated -2, are a piece on climate variability by Betsy McCaughy in the New York Post summarized as "... willfully ignoring the data, ... facts, and ... conclusions", and an article on Arctic sea ice by the UK Sunday Telegraph correspondent Christopher Booker, characterised as "... highly inaccurate and totally misleading" (The annotated articles can be found at http://climatefeedback.org/feedbacks/).

The Climate Feedback initiative provides a valuable service - making the insights and knowledge of scientists at the forefront of their respective fields available to us all, and allowing us to judge for ourselves whether or not scientific information has been reported accurately. It is already improving journalistic standards. A few days after an uncomplimentary analysis of a Daily Telegraph article by Dan Hyde was posted, the author made substantive modifications to the on-line content, and the paper issued a correction.

Yet by focusing on the scientific facts, the initiative misses an essential point - that information is only one factor - and generally a weak one - in influencing thoughts and convictions. It is the accompanying rhetoric - the skillful exploitation of language - that shapes the messages received and drives audience reaction.

This shortcoming of public discourse has been a topic of concern since the time of Aristotle. His insights into the manipulation of thought by means of ethos (influence via the character and authority of the proponent and the world view and values they represent), pathos (appeals to the feelings and emotions of the audience), and logos (arguments based on supposed evidence and logic) are as relevant today as ever.

Various attempts have been made to draw attention to the methods and dangers of rhetoric. Between 1937 and 1941, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis sought to educate the US public about propaganda, and to help them recognise and deal with it. Its 'Seven basic propaganda devices' can be found at the website http://www.propagandacritic.com/articles/intro.ipa.html. The book Straight and Crooked Thinking, by Thouless and Thouless, now in it's fifth edition, describes the "Thirty-seven tricks commonly used in argument, with methods of overcoming them". These range from the use of emotionally charged words, through appeals to authority and special pleading, to a variety of forms of logical fallacy. An Internet search using the keyword 'fallacy', delivers millions of hits, including documents such as "42 Fallacies - For Free" and "Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of over 300 Logical Fallacies".

Given this rich body of insight, and given the importance of the issue, we might expect methodologies on the detection and countering of crooked thinking to be well-established, and that training in the necessary skills would be commonplace - as fundamental as basic literacy and numeracy.

But this is not the case.

So what can we do in the run up to Paris (and beyond) to ensure that straight thinking prevails?

For one thing, we can practice casting a critical eye over published pieces and speeches on climate change, searching out crooked devices such as the 'Thirty seven tricks ...to judge for ourselves their truthfulness and reliability.

In so doing, it is important to reflect on our reaction and attitude to the author and source, and to control our emotions accordingly. This is to reduce bias in the strength and nature of our scrutiny. It takes conscious effort to apply the same level of skepticism to material from correspondents held in different degrees of respect and trust. Similarly, we need to compensate for 'myside bias' - our tendency to be sympathetic towards propositions with which we already agree, and hostile towards those with which we do not.

The next step is to remove from the text emotionally charged language, and wording aimed to activate pre-existing prejudices and false beliefs, replacing it with equivalent factual statements. This achieves two ends; it reveals the potential persuasive power of the emotional language, and it allows the evidence and bare logic of the argumentation to be examined and evaluated.

Examples drawn from the media pieces assessed by Climate Feedback are instructive:

McCaughey's headline "Wake up Obama, climate change has been happening forever" translates to "Mr President, be aware that natural climate variations have occurred throughout Earth's long history". Setting aside the doubtful possibility that the US President is unaware of this, the headline alludes to - and activates a response to - the incorrect belief that the existence of natural climate variability falsifies the reality and risks of human-induced climate change. The disrespectful "Wake up Obama", creates the impression of confidence, and hence authority, as well as triggering the 'my side' bias of those who dislike the President and what he stands for.

Booker's headline "How Arctic ice has made fools of those poor warmists" translates to "A new observation about Arctic ice disproves the conclusions and predictions of climate scientists". The analysis by Climate Feedback demonstrates how this is absolutely not the case.

The final steps in an analysis are to draw conclusions, to summarise these, and to rate the piece, assigning a 'straight thinking' value based on the number of crooked devices encountered. This can be combined with the Climate Feedback 'scientific credibility' rating (assuming one has been produced) to arrive at an overall 'truthfulness' index.

In the longer term, by establishing a network of collaborators working together to develop and apply a standard methodology to assess the extent to which media pieces depart from 'straight thinking', and by posting the annotated results in a manner similar to Climate Feedback, correspondents could be provided with deeper analyses of their work. It would also give interested readers a tool to judge both the reliability and truthfulness of articles and their authors, and of those carrying out the evaluation.

Furthermore, average values and time histories of the 'truthfulness' indeces of individual authors could be built up. Arranged in a ranking, these could be widely publicized, providing a strong inducement to 'cleanse' the discussion environment, and to raise the quality of public discourse and decision-making on climate change.

The author thanks Kris De Meyer for helpful comments.

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