Posted by Curt on 22 May, 2017 at 4:45 pm. 3 comments already!


Iain Aitken:

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the whole ‘climate change debate’ is the way that the (non-sceptical) public consciousness has been captured by two very simple, easy-to-understand and certain ‘scientific facts’:

  1. Climate change has (with absolute certainty, because the science is settled) occurred because of man-made carbon dioxide emissions (and it has occurred only because of man-made carbon dioxide emissions – nature had nothing to do with it)
  2. Climate change catastrophe will (with absolute certainty, because the science is settled) result if we do not drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

In Tweets/soundbites, we often see:

‘There is a man-made climate change crisis’ or ‘Climate change is real, man-made and dangerous’.

To question these ‘scientific facts’ is to be a ‘climate science denier’.

Despite the fact that both these ‘scientific facts’, as stated, are (with absolute certainty) scientific hogwash and despite the fact that I doubt it would be possible to find a single climate scientist in the world who would endorse either ‘scientific fact’ (even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the ‘world authority on climate change’, and most alarmist of scientific bodies, would certainly not endorse either statement) these two beliefs (because that is all they are) seem to have become memes (beliefs that spread by cultural acquisition, e.g. peers, media). It is what the (non-sceptical) public think the scientific authorities are saying.

These beliefs have become memes in that, when questioned, members of the general public who claim to hold these beliefs may say they do so because ‘their Facebook friends say they are true’, or ‘newspapers say they are true’, or ‘politicians say they are true’, or ‘scientists say they are true’, i.e. it is ‘received opinion’. In this case they have not arrived at these beliefs through their own reasoning or even been argued into them by the reasoning of others; instead they ‘just know’ they must be true because ‘everyone else’ ‘just knows’ they must be true. After all, it is what all intelligent, responsible, rational and reasonable people believe. Isn’t it? Only the stupid, irresponsible, irrational and unreasonable climate science deniers question it.

This process has been characterised by psychologists as an ‘availability cascade’. Paraphrasing Wikipedia, this is a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of a collective belief (or meme) in a man-made climate change crisis. The idea that a great many phenomena (whether they be melting icecaps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, floods, droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms, heatwaves, shark attacks or the rise of Islamic State) that actually have unrelated and complex causes can be explained by one, simple, easily understood cause, gains rapid currency in the popular discourse by its very simplicity and by its apparent insightfulness. Its rising popularity triggers a chain reaction within the social network: individuals adopt the new insight that we are experiencing a man-made climate change crisis because other people within their social network have adopted it, and on face value it sounds plausible (after all, we have been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and it is a greenhouse gas and so it must cause global warming). The reason for this increased use and popularity of the ‘man-made climate change crisis’ idea involves both the ‘availability’ of this idea in the media (it’s hard to go through a day without someone on the radio, on TV or in a newspaper mentioning it as though it is simply a ‘fact’ in one form or another), and the need of individuals to conform with this idea, regardless of whether they in fact fully believe it.

Their need for social acceptance and political correctness, coupled with the apparent sophistication of the new insight, overwhelm their critical thinking. Imitation and conformity, rather than critical analysis and independent thinking, are at the heart of a meme. The public concern then puts pressure on political policymakers to make policies to address the public concern. The public then see confirmation that their concern over the man-made climate change crisis must be valid – after all, the politicians are enacting policies to address it. It is a self-reinforcing loop of irrationality based on a very poor understanding of what the science actually says – in fact even a very poor understanding of what the scientific authorities actually say.

The availability cascade around the ‘man-made climate change crisis’ idea has been so extreme that, despite the fact that common sense alone should tell us that the idea is fantastical (that after 4.5 billion years of having no material effect on the Earth’s climate at all we humans have, in the last few decades, taken control of it) it nevertheless is regarded as a fact by many.

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