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False Consensus and Pluralistic Ignorance: This is Good News!

Have I got a couple of good ones for you tonight(?!) From the Australian National Institute of Science (CSIRO–Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) and the Dresden University of Technology in Germany; One’s opinion on climate change is not as common as one thinks. We tend to overestimate how many people have the same opinion as we do, in this case, whether it be “belief” or disbelief” in climate change.

Underestimating others opinion is the “false consensus,” but it is “pluralistic ignorance” that is the important concept. 

Now, just so I can understand what I am talking about, I need to rename these physiological mind benders: False consensus is undying over optimism, and pluralistic ignorance is that scum at the bottom of the gene pool. No, that’s not fair. Pluralistic ignorance is our own inability to think deeply, to think for ourselves and find our own answers. Pluralistic ignorance comes for peers and one’s immediate sphere of social influence.

This false consensus undying optimism thing works both ways deniers and delayers and “believers” both overestimated.The good news here is that “believers” overestimated less (right at 50 percent overestimated) than the deniers and delayers (60 to 70 percent overestimated). Could this mean that the deniers and delayers are truly more delusional? Whatever it means, climate science “believers” have a tighter grip on reality.

The really good news in this study comes from the “pluralistic ignorance” thing. What did I call it? Group think? Peer pressure? Inability to think deeply"? The authors tell us it is the phenomena “in which most group members privately reject an opinion but assume incorrectly that most others accept it.”  The good news here is that pluralistic ignorance is generally limited to cases where a minority position is misperceived as being the majority position.

In the case of climate change, “believers” do not suffer too terribly from peer pressure, but “deniers and delayers” do because they erceive their minority position to be the majority position.

More good news: The authors tell us that “people generally and grossly overestimate doubt among the community that climate change is occurring.” And the second part: “Those with high initial levels of false consensus (the deniers and delayers with 60 to 70 percent levels of overestimation of others oppositions) are “less likely to change their opinions about the causes of climate change than those with low false consensus.”

So good. More folks out there believe than we think. Now the takeaway from the second part: no need to continue to try and change the hard core deniers and delayers—they are not going to change their minds.

Now, to what is causing this trouble. The media.  But again, that is not fair. the authors tell us: “systematic biases in media reporting can lead to collective distortions about the popularity of certain opinions.” This is in reference to the high proportion of vested interest statements about climate change vs. those from academic institutions. So it’s not really the media. they just want to present both sides of the story. But when statements from vested interests reflect the best interests of those vested interests and not society at large, trouble arises. The academic institutions represent the vast majority (97 to 98 percent) of actively publishing climate scientists. In general, vested interests statements about climate change come from that 2 to 3 percent of actively publishing climate scientists, or in many cases from climate scientists that are not actively publishing or prominent at all in their fields of specialty.

Let me reprint another quote from this paper that might clarify a little more. or at least show you that the authors are speaking in a similar tone in their peer reviewed work to what I am saying in my editorial comments: “ Media research suggests that the journalistic tradition of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, and the influence of big industry opinion, have led the community to overestimate the number of people who doubt climate change is occurring, and have undermined the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.”

There has been a lot of discussion in the environmental leadership community lately about how to best advocate for faster and more appropriate action to control and mitigate for climate pollution. The predominant position is one of passive-aggressive environmentalism. This is where environmental advocates suggest it prudent to stop generating energy with coal because of the smog forming pollutants emitted from coal and their negative relationship with so many different human and environmental systems, the great amount of fresh water resources that coal generation consumes, the massive devastation that comes from mountaintop removal and big wall mining to supply coal plants fuel and etc..   The passive-aggressive environmentalism implicitly ignores the concept and physical reality of climate change as well as the  very specific words “climate change” and “global warming.”   It’s not really a bait and switch because everything the advocates say about not using coal is true and valid. Coal is all of the nasty things that they tell us it is and clean energy is a much better alternative—especially now that there are other alternatives to coal. 

But educators tell us something different. They tell us that accurate facts are what we need to make good decisions. The debate rages: facts vs. deflected environmentalism (that passive-aggressive thing). The authors of this paper have weighed in on this discussion now with more. The false perceptions created by presenting inaccurate information about climate change significantly undermines efforts to advance efforts to actually do something about it. It can even make things worse as in the case of the media presenting a fair and balanced versions of 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists ‘opinions vs. 2 to 3 percent of climate scientists’ positions.

The authors concluding remarks are: “our results highlight the importance of presenting people with accurate information about `actual levels of consensus, not just with regards to the scientific community, but throughout the broader community itself. Leaving perceived estimates of doubt about climate change unchallenged risks perpetuating the myth of widespread skepticism, entrenching skeptical orientations and
undermining adaptive responses to climate change.”


Leviston et al., Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think, Nature Climate Change, November 2012.