Guest Post – Label the behaviour, not the person – Professor Richard Betts (Met Office)

This is a guest post by Professor Richard Betts, re-posted (with permission of the author) to enable everybody anybody, including myself, who are unable to comment at the other blog, to comment  and discuss it here.

As it appeared originally at AndThentTheresPhysics blog:

This is a guest post by Richard Betts who is Chair of Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter and Head of Climate Impacts in the Met Office Hadley Centre. The post is about the use of the terms denier and denial and how they influence the dialogue about climate science. Since it is Saturday afternoon and I could do without moderating a contentious comment thread, maybe we call all think about what we might choose to say. Richard’s post starts now:

Here what I think about the D* word(s) – the personal label ‘denier’ and the behaviour descriptor ‘in denial’.

I think the phrase ‘being in denial’ can be appropriately applied to a dogmatic insistence* that anthropogenic climate change is not an issue**. [NB see below for definitions before succumbing to knee-jerk reactions!] ‘In denial’ is quite a common phrase in use for other situations, eg. someone who is unable to acknowledge a problem with their health, relationship, business or whatever. A period of being in denial can be quite a natural reaction to very bad news.

However, the use of ‘denier’ is different, and the offence and distraction that it causes makes it difficult to use the former phrase now.

The reason that ‘in denial’ and ‘denier’ are different is that the former labels the behaviour while the latter labels the person. Most training in education, communications, management, negotiation etc, advises that when dealing with conflict situations, it is important to address difficulties but to focus on what is being done/said and not the person themselves. Labelling the person makes things more emotive and distracts from discussing the real issue. Anyone who’s done teacher training in the UK the last couple of decades will recognise this.

The situation is even worse for the label ‘denier’, because it been used by some in connection with holocaust denial, eg. So not only is this making the mistake of giving someone a label as a person, but the label is associated in people’s minds with something horrific. They will understandably find it deeply insulting. If labelling the person rather than the behaviour is poor communications practice, then giving them an extremely insulting label (whether intended or not) is clearly even worse.

The trouble is, it’s now hard to go back to just describing behaviour as ‘being in denial’. With things having been taken too far with ‘denier’, this has built an association in public consciousness and makes it more difficult to go back to using language that might actually be more appropriate. ‘Being in denial about anthropogenic climate change’ might well have been OK as a descriptor of certain behaviour if it wasn’t now linked with the offensive name-calling of ‘denier’.

I think the whole climate conversation would be better off with the word ‘denier’ being dropped completely, and with ‘being in denial’ only being used very judiciously, when it really is appropriate.

Label the behaviour, not the person, and even then take care to do so only when justified.

*NB I specifically say ‘a dogmatic insistence that anthropogenic climate change is not an issue’ as distinct from questioning whether it is an issue – these are different. Questioning is fine, and indeed this is another reason why both ‘denier’ and ‘denial’ are problematic – they are sometimes very widely applied, to include questioning whether there is an issue and not just insisting that there definitely isn’t. If anyone thinks I am saying they are ‘in denial’, please reflect on whether you are questioning or insisting – if you’re questioning then I don’t have a problem with that, but if you are insisting, then I think you are dismissing large swathes of scientific research. We are not 100% certain that climate change will definitely cause huge negative impacts, but there’s enough reason to think that there is a major risk.

**Also, when I say it’s ‘an issue’, I mean it’s something that we probably need to respond to in some way, through some mix of mitigation and adaptation – I’m not pre-judging opinions about the balance of these potential responses, I’m just talking about recognition of the issue.

Disclaimer: this is my personal opinion, not necessarily that of the blog host, my employers nor any organisations I am associated with.

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Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson of the University of Western Australia refused my request for Professor Lewandowsky’s data – my response

I had written to Prof Maybery (Head of the School of Psychology) for an academic request for data from Prof. Lewandowsky’s paper – NASA faked the Moon Landings, therefore [climate] science is a hoax. An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science.

I had contacted Professor Lewandowsky (and co-authors) and I had had a reply from him referring all my requests/concerns regarding this paper to the University of Western Australia. (see here)

Instead of a response from the School of Psychology I  received an email from Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson, which copied UWA’s legal counsel.. (here)

so here is my reply to Paul Johnson Continue reading

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I requested data from the University of Western Australia……..

I requested data from the University of Western Australia……..

…so that I could submit a comment to the journal of Psychological Science. I wrote to Professor Maybery (email below) but instead I received this  stunning response from the Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson, (my bold) I have been trying to resolve this very specific issue through the ‘proper channels’ for a considerable length of time now.

This email response has also been discussed at Climate Audit and Watts Up With That

From: Paul Johnson

Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 8:08 AM

To: barry woods Cc: Murray Maybery ; Kimberley Heitman

Subject: request for access to data

Mr B. Woods

Dear Mr Woods,

I refer to your emails of the 11th and 25th March directed to Professor Maybery, which repeat a request you made by email dated the 5th September 2013 to Professor Lewandowsky (copied to numerous recipients) in which you request access to Professor Lewandowsky’s data for the purpose of submitting a comment to the Journal of Psychological Science.

It is not the University’s practice to accede to such requests.

Yours faithfully,

Professor Paul Johnson,



Continue reading

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The Science Was Settled Enough

NarrativesI was invited several months ago, to contribute to a collection of essays and narratives about what sort of story is climate change. The book – Culture and Climate Change: Narratives – edited by Joe Smith, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler, was launched on the 24th June 2014. I originally submitted a rather long essay, and with some careful editing reduced it to the ~ 800 word limit (a big thank you to Hannah/Casper for their patience and help) .

The complete book is available as a free PDF here,

please take a look at all the contributions, some here might consider mine a rather lone voice, but I am glad to be included, and it is probably all the better for being tightly edited.  Looking back now, I may have been experiencing mild ‘Climate Burnout’ when I wrote it.

An extended version of my contribution is below, I called it:

The Science Was Settled Enough Continue reading

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An Inconvenient Tweet

The observant may have noticed I haven’t blogged for quite a while, nearly a year in fact.

This is for a number of reasons (a prime one here) but I have been microblogging, ok, just chatting on twitter, and exploring and commenting at, other blogs on the web.

So I’m only back for a brief announcement that I’m appearing at an Open University Workshop on Wednesday 12th February, details below.

Mediating Change workshop

An Inconvenient Tweet: How social media is transforming the communication of, and engagement with, climate change

The next Mediating Change workshop explores how social and other online media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging have altered the landscape of communication and engagement around climate change science and policy in recent years.

The workshop will feature:

They will join media and environment researcher Joe Smith (OU geography, @citizenjoesmith) and director of the Making Science Public programme Brigitte Nerlich (University of Nottingham, @bnehrlich) who will bring their experience to bear on a question that is of relevance to all researchers engaged in complex or contentious issues: How are these now well established media platforms influencing public debates, and how can researchers best make use of them?
The workshop will be chaired by Melissa Butcher (OU geography), former radio producer who is currently leading two projects, Hackney as Home ( and Creating the ‘New’ Asian Woman.
Wednesday, 12 February 2014, 10:30 – 12:00

The event will be recorded, but there will also be a live feed that can be accessed at:

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The perils of science by press release, to get a headline, with data and publication following months later

(for the pedantic, I just don’t care about typos, grammar, it’s Easter holiday, time I should be spending with my family, may sort out obvious howlers later)

So, I read an article in a national UK newspaper  and was sufficiently interested in it to enquire further,  I contacted the author to check data for myself – (it was  available, ie had passed peer review, therefore presumably the supplementary data, will also have been finalized  for the peer reviewers to ask for it (did they? I don’t think they can have looked very closely)

Yet, when I asked for the names of the 5 sceptic blogs, this was not made available to me, despite the paper being widely circulated – Wide press attention and headline, but only now 8 months later, was the supplementary data put online with the publication of the paper.  And we find that the names of the 8 ‘pro’ (sic) and 5 sceptics blogs there all along in the data. If the paper can generate headlines around the world, why not include the supporting data

Climate Audit has published my email exchanges, very polite, in good faith, never having heard of the author, as far as I remember, so why withhold the 5 blog names, because perhaps it raises a few questions?

Were the peer reviewers asleep, where was the scepticism amongst journalists! A survey of sceptics, nice dramatic headline, not ONE, seemed to have thought ask, hang on no sceptic blogs posted the surveys!

I think the practice of new scientific papers being given press release and wide media attention, before the paper and supplementary data is available, or the paper actually available to read in the journal (or especially not possible to respond to) should stop.

(by all means chat amongst yourself if a paper is in press within your  field, where no doubt you would send the data to a colleague if asked?)

Being in press does not cut it, no one can respond formally, yet a media headline has been grabbed, perhaps a new grant achieved them months later, who knows what the formal response might find wrong with it, buried away in a journal where no journalist or politician will ever see. it.. just the headline remains.. a soundbite to denigrate..

The example of LOG12 I think demonstrates what can go wrong with science by press release.

NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science

Lewandowsky et al

Wide media coverage, activist tweeting sceptics are as nutty as moon conspiracy theorists, all happened. (will add later)

Yet because the paper was still in press, NOBODY could put a formal response forward to the journal, because (whilst it was still in press, it was not published, no one could check

Log12 spawned the Recursive Fury Paper Lewandowsky et, which were looking at examples of conspiracy ideation amongst the blog critics of the paper (oops sorry, sceptics)…

Citing LOG12, still in press at the time  of the published  Recursive Fury paper!)

On reflection now, this gives the huge risk to this field of scientist being perceived as using academic papers,  to attack their critics, before their critics of the former (in press paper) could respond formally to the peer-reviewed journals.. or even Punative Psychology

I do think the journals were blindsided here, science operates by the all actors operating in good faith

On August the 2nd 2012 I made this comment below, in response to the Guardian article (linked within) about sceptics, moon conspiracy theorists..

I think I was the first to find 6 surveyed links, out of the 8 anti-sceptic blogs:

( also posted these at Bishop Hill, in discussion threads about the same time)

I after reading the Guardian article,I thought to email Prof Lewandowsky, to ask for blog name (as the sceptic blog names are in the sup data, I bought the statement that because they did not run the survey he could not disclose them)

Steve has put this full email exchange into his comments at Climate Audit..

Reproduced from here:

(you might notice a number of sceptics names, that popped up in the Recursive Fury paper (not Richard Betts, that would have been really funny) Paul, Foxgoose, Geoff, myself and others)

Barry Woods August 2, 2012 at 10:51 am
How many ‘actual’ scep­tics will have seen these survey, or answered them..

as this paper based its research only from 8 ‘anti-sceptic’ blogs.

They asked 5 skep­tical blogs to post a link…
Who refused. [we now know some unaware, some spoke to Hanich](sus­pecting motives?, like those that com­mented below did)

The 8 blogs actu­ally sur­veyed were so called ‘pro-science’ blogs ! (who are all very anti-sceptic, with a lot of very derog­atory lan­guage & rhet­oric about deniers.
The blogs who posted the links are claimed to be:

even the locals didn’t think the ‘den­iers’ would fall for such a trans­parent survey…

“Yeah, those con­spiracy theory ques­tions were pretty funny, but does anyone think that hard­core den­iers are going to be fooled by such a trans­parent attempt to paint them as paranoids?”

Actual links to the ori­ginal art­icles.. these were the links I found:

I haven’t found the links yet to:

where even the locals thought it was a trans­parent and poor survey, an attempt to try to describe scep­tics as para­noids or nut.. ie. very likely, by the com­ments that the ‘anti-sceptic’ locals had some fun with it..

As no data is avail­able yet, it would be very inter­esting to see a break­down based on refer­ring URL’s as the blogs men­tioned some are MUCH more high traffic than others, which begs the ques­tion. did most of the survey res­ults come from just a few of these blogs (who detest sceptics) —
The per­centage of actual scep­tics taking this survey must be tiny…

making the Guardain art­icle con­clu­sions and claims rather laughable.


you would think Psychology as a field would be the first (and best equipped) to spot Lewandowky’s , Cook’s etc, conflicts.

I’, on the side of science, I asked for the data to check for myself, it was not forthcoming, despite we now find in the journals..

yet I find myself named in a psychological journal,  in a perp, where researchers hostile to their research subjects – one who had written on a blog, that my writing was DISINFORMATION, I’m a DENIER, or tagged BULLSHIT. with an adulterated graphic of my Watts Up With That article, red rubber stamped ‘Verified Bullshit” somehow makes me a rejector of science, cherry picker, anti-science or a climate denialist.

And I found Skeptical Science (John Cook) endorsed this blog article,  John Cook, M Marriott  were the supposed uninvolved researcher for the Recursive Fury paper, Lewnadowsky the lead author.  Yet Skeptical Science is in partnership with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project – Realty Drops.. But as far as SkS and Climate Reality Project, a debunking by random blogger – Watching the Deniers – with a red ‘rubber stamped ‘Verified Bullshit’ across a graphic of my named article, is good enough for Skeptical Science, and presumably Al Gore.. I think not

There latest project is Reality Drop, cut and paste ‘science quotes’ to rebut sceptics, by dropping these into comments of media article.. How many people doing this even read the article or understand the soundbite they’ve been given.

I notice Reality Drop as a user ranked Lieutenant, called Watchingthedeniers (same guy, saw it on his twitter feed)

but he researches me!

I have a number of friends and acquaintances in the climate science community (not a single one, would call me a denier, denialist or spreading disinformation, etc,etc, they are always happy to talk,.discuss thinks robustly as rational professional adults.

The names of both the 8 ‘pro-science‘ (sic) and the 5 sceptic blogs were in the supplementary data, it had passed peer review.

Are not psychologists the people most able to protect people from labels like denier, crank, etc . political rhetoric to alienate people, shut people thought down. What happened here. Recursive Fury, had phrases like ‘climate denialists’ in it, what is a climate denialist, exactly!, pure (political? environmental?) activist rhetoric?

I asked for the data, I had other questions, how many referrals from each blog (key question for this online survey) just like every climate scientist I know would have done (if an article in a paper sufficiently aroused their curiosity.

Lets ask Skeptical Science,etc who is anti-science again exactly?

graphic ‘thanks’ to Mike Marriot (co-author Recursive Fury)

wtd verified




(is this article my ‘Reality Drop’ – a truly awful idea – by Al Gore, Skeptical Science,

unlike SkS, I suggest you read it all, make up your own mind and check everything for yourself)

I/we all asked for the data.

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Dr Adam Corner talks with Geoff Chambers – Discussion 2

In this second exchange  (1st here) between Adam Corner (Talking Climate blog) and Geoff Chambers – (a reg­ular and prom­inent com­menter at sev­eral cli­mate sceptic blogs), they continue to dis­cuss research on the psy­cho­logy of scepticism.

Comments are very wel­come – but please be aware they will be tightly mod­er­ated for civility to ensure all com­ments are on-topic (some leeway on topic if interesting/relevant).

Is this kind of ini­ti­ative useful? Should it happen more often? We look for­ward to hearing your thoughts. (Talking Climate)


In your paper (Corner, Whitmarsh & Xenias, 2012) which set off our discussion, I noted that you administered a battery of questions called the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP) to your respondents. It didn’t affect your research, but it got me interested in the whole question of how you assess environmental attitudes.

The NEP has its origins in a  2000 paper by Dunlap et al. It updates a previous set of questions called the New Environmental Paradigm developed by Dunlap and van Liere in 1978. The paper, with a list of the questions and analysis of a pilot test can be found at [here] The NEP seems to me to raise the kind of questions about environmentalism, and in particular research into attitudes to the environment, which Ben has been examining at Climate Resistance. What’s your take on it, and why did you include it in your research?



We included it in our research in order to have a well validated scale (i.e., used lots of times and found to have good internal consistency between the items) for measuring people’s beliefs about the environment. We wanted to know how they related to people’s beliefs about climate change (which we measured using Lorraine Whitmarsh’s scale for ‘climate scepticism’), and in turn, how NEP scores might determine people’s ratings of the newspaper editorials.

As you might expect, people’s score on the NEP scale was a significant predictor of their scores on the scepticism scale – the more ‘pro-environmental’ they were (as measured by the NEP), the less sceptical about climate change they were, over and above who they voted for, and whether they were a member of an environmental organisation.

We did not do a great deal with this analysis, but I think it helps to set the scene for what is going into a sceptical judgment about climate change: in part, it is coming from disagreeing with the NEP scale. So, in part, scepticism about climate change is coming from disagreeing with items that measure ‘pro-environmental’ beliefs (and measured them long before climate change was known about by the public.

The NEP is described as measuring whether people have an ‘ecological worldview’ and a ‘pro-environmental orientation’. I don’t see any major issues with this as a description, but you could throw various criticisms at it. These are a couple of the pros and cons as I see it:

Pros: It is internally reliable and has been tested lots of times before, and so therefore has a degree of consistency that another (perhaps more directly relevant to climate change scale) would not. The vast majority of the items seem to tap into something fairly timeless and fundamental: the way that humans relate to nature. It is quite difficult to find questions that do that without asking about very time/culture specific things.

Cons: There is something a bit unsatisfying about saying ‘this one is good because its been good before’ but it quite often does come down to that in the business of trying to measure slippery things like attitudes/beliefs etc. I think it is because psychology wants to move closer to the physical sciences in terms of methodology, and so making ‘one tweak at a time’ is seen as good practice (rather than inventing new scales of measurement each time).

I personally do not think that psychology – or at least the kind I am interested in – necessarily benefits from becoming overly obsessed with aping the harder sciences, because you sometimes end up being a bit hamstrung and having less explanatory power than you might otherwise have. I would favour a bit more room for tinkering with scales to make them more relevant to the research question at hand – although that would come at the expense of their proven reliability. I think some of the items are a bit unnecessarily abstract and vague – but then again if they were not, they would quickly go out of date. So what do you make of it…I am guessing you don’t think it’s a useful scale??



I’ve got no quarrel with the concept of measuring attitudes to the environment in this way, as long as we’re clear what we’re measuring.

What struck me about the NEP questions was 1)  their complexity and level of abstraction and 2) the very high level of  endorsement of the environmental position in the responses to the public opinion survey.

For example: 79% agree that “the balance of nature is very delicate and  easily upset”, 74% agree that “the earth is like a spaceship with very limited room and resources” etc. I’d suggest that a large number of people would find concepts like “balance of nature” and “spaceship earth” pretty foreign to their experience; that these people are probably largely represented among the 41% of non-respondents to the postal survey; and that therefore the “don’t know category” should be closer to 50-60% than the 10-20% recorded.

This was a postal survey, and those who were either opposed to environmental ideas, or who found the questions daunting, would be more likely to bin the questionnaire. Add the fact that the survey was conducted among citizens of Washington State, (the “greenest” state of the USA) and you have a couple of strong reasons for doubting if the survey correctly measures public endorsement of the environmental position.



I don’t know if the reason they get high approval ratings is because its an unrepresentatively green sample – I’d say it is because they are phrased in a way that makes disagreeing with them feel a bit odd. You get the same effect when you ask about ‘environmental values’ (this is a different line of research associated with a big body of publications by people like Shalom Schwarz, and Paul Stern) Who really wants to disagree with the ‘value’ of nature? The problem is that people are probably putting very different ideas into that concept of ‘nature’ – and so they then endorse protecting the version in their head.

So yes, the more abstract questions are, the less you can unpick the detail of what people are responding to. Here’s an interesting thought though: before the NEP etc came along – and this goes alongside a turn towards ‘objective’ scales for measuring all sorts of perceptions/beliefs in psychology – the idea that ‘nature’ was something ‘out there’ to be perceived and measured did not have so much intellectual weight.

There is a great book called ‘Contested Natures’ that argues that the clean lines we like to draw between ‘human’ (read: artificial) and ‘natural’ (read: flowers and stuff) are illusory. We shape and are shaped by our environment: a spiderweb is no more ‘natural’ than a guitar. So there are limits – practical and philosophical – to what survey data and questionnaires can do.

This post [here] by a researcher, Stuart Capstick, who is also at Cardiff and did his PhD on reviewing qualitative data on climate change over a long period of time, is interesting, because it suggests that the survey story about attitudes to climate change ‘collapsing’ or ‘rising’ is actually underpinned by some pretty consistent trends.

So I’d like to throw this back to you Geoff – if things like the NEP are flawed, and if you see our scales for measuring climate change scepticism and its relationship to ideology as not capturing the essence of why people are sceptical about climate change, how should social science seek to understand people’s beliefs about the environment and climate change?



To answer your last question first: I’m happy with social scientists asking any questions they like. It’s the quality of the analysis of the answers that bothers me. I find the answers to the NEP questions fascinating, largely because of the large proportion of the sample (even if I’m right that Dunlap’s original Washington State sample might not be entirely representative)  who endorse statements that no-one would have thought of  formulating sixty years ago.  Dunlap and his colleagues are clearly measuring something fascinating –  the spread of ideas which have come from nowhere to being majority opinions in roughly half a century.

Take the “Spaceship Earth” concept: Wiki attributes it to the 19th century political thinker Henry George, used by Adlai Stevenson in a speech in 1965 and as the title of a book by Barbara Ward in 1966. I would guess that not 1% of the population have heard of these three people, yet  74% of Dunlap’s sample agree that “the earth is like a spaceship”. This kind of statistic is used, quite naturally, by Greens as evidence of public endorsement of sustainability. Now, if you look at people’s behaviour in our western societies, I’d suggest that “the earth is like a shopping mall” or “the earth is like a crappy theme park” comes nearer to most people’s real opinion. But try proposing those statements in an opinion survey! They correspond to nothing in our conceptual stock.

Dunlap is clearly measuring something important, but what? He and his colleagues clearly believe that they are measuring agreement with a political programme. The NEP has its origins in a book by Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich – “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives” (1974) in which it is proposed as an alternative to what they call the Dominant Social Paradigm. A quick Google search suggests that the latter idea hasn’t really caught on, but one understands what it means, and it’s clear that the NEP is expected to replace it in a paradigm shift. Dunlap says that the scale questions “tap primitive beliefs about humanity’s relationship with the Earth”. But he clearly endorses the environmental position as being scientifically attested fact, since he goes on to say:

“we suspect that the never-ending emergence of new scientific evidence concerning the deleterious impacts of human activities on environmental quality and the subsequent threats these pose to humans (and other species) will generate continual pressure for adoption of a more ecological world-view. “

So my concern is not that the NEP is flawed. Nor am I bothered that Dunlap is clearly a committed “green” who believes that the ideas he is exploring as a social scientist are destined to triumph. My concern is that the cultural particularity – the ideological origins if you like – of the concepts used need exploring before the findings of this sort of survey  are accepted as neutral objective “fact”.

I’m all for sociological studies of this kind – particularly longitudinal ones which measure changes in public opinion over time – but I believe social scientists are failing in their duty when they fail (or refuse) to interpret data whose meaning is far from clear.

Comments are open for discussion:

Note – ( If need to snip anything as too off topic, I will pass onto Geoff and/or Adam for opinion to see  if I’m too heavy handed with the scissors)

Update: added Geoff’s comment to the bulk of the article

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