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)

GEOFF:

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?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

ADAM:

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??

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

GEOFF:

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.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

ADAM:

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?

>>>>>>>>>>>

GEOFF:

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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20 Responses to Dr Adam Corner talks with Geoff Chambers – Discussion 2

  1. geoffchambers says:

    Thanks Barry. Here’s my final response to Adam, which got left off:
    GEOFF
    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.

  2. alexjc38 says:

    “Dunlap is clearly measuring something important, but what?” This is a good question, and feeds into a much wider debate, i.e., what do psychologists measure, anyway? Looking at the history of the measurement of IQ, for example, you can see some of the kinds of pitfalls there are, e.g., the tendency to presuppose one racial group must be more intelligent than another. When the terms of reference are vague, this loads the dice in favour of the tester’s own agenda, or that’s how it can seem. Agreeing vaguely that “the earth is like a spaceship”, as an indicator of whether that person is susceptible to “a more ecological world-view”, with all that entails, could thus be about as useful as the angle of a person’s forehead being an indicator of that person’s intelligence or stupidity. A test designed to find out whether most people think like us finds that indeed, most people think like us – it’s tempting to invoke E.G. Boring’s definition of intelligence as “whatever intelligence tests measure”, as there’s more than a hint of circularity implied.

  3. omnologos says:

    I don’t think Adam has grasped the complexity of Geoff’s point, and I don’t believe he ever will. It’s as if GC is asking about the meaning of Pi, and AC believes it a discussion about the Greek alphabet.

    As for where the discussion will lead, I am still convinced it will become a paper where Dr Corner will _demonstrate_ what a bunch of evil sociopaths skeptics like Geoff are.

    • Barry Woods says:

      and it may not… lets give it a chance please…

      Note to everyone, the tone I would like to strike, is as if you are all guests at my house and behave accordingly to each other.

      • fjpickett says:

        You haven’t been to a party at my house, then.. :-)

        I’m still curious to know why AC doesn’t want to discuss the science. Clearly it’s out of his comfort zone, but if he really wants to know why sceptics are sceptical, he needs to appreciate that the problem is not political or a failure to communicate; it’s the conspicuous absence of evidence that the warming of the last 150 years is anything but natural. The social science is a red herring, albeit a long-term source of income for a few fortunate academics.

      • Barry Woods says:

        The social sciences response is appropriate, given the ‘weight’ of the IPCC, etc institutions, etc response. They must take that science on trust. (as we should be able to) Steve Mcintyre has said soemthing similar, about politicians having a responsiblity to listen to the IPCC, etc

        So lets stay on topic of the social science. However, I would love to see some research on the motivated reasoning, etc of the environmentalist, and the activist scientists who focus on catastrophy (and see ‘deniers’ everywhere) and seem to hype this up, which does seem to have proved to be very counterproductive.

  4. omnologos says:

    As an example of what I am talking about…there is still no evidence Adam has understood the difference between being “environmentalist” (in the sense of the touchy-feely movement of the past 40 years) and being “pro-environment” (in the sense of taking care of one’s surroundings, avoiding littering mountains and seas, supporting sewage treatment systems, etc).

    The idea of NEP-negative respondents being classified as “anti-environment” is too naive to cause offense, and likely one of the most cretin collective memes this side of Fascism.

    • Paul Matthews says:

      Yes, the NEP questions pick out the woolly ‘save the planet’ ‘the end is nigh’ type of environmentalism.

      “One of the distressing features of the present debate about the environment is the way in which it is supposed to be an argument between far-sighted people with the interests of humanity at heart and others who care not a tuppence for the future. Those who are not ardently for the preservation of the environment are thought to be against it. This false dichotomy conceals a host of important issues.”

      – John Maddox, The Doomsday Syndrome, 1972.

      • geoffchambersg says:

        Paul
        The John Maddox quote from 1972 shows how far back the misunderstanding goes.

        Here are the questions in the revised NEP scale, so we all know what we’re talking about. Even-numbered ones have to have the sign reversed to measure pro-environmentalism.

        1 We are appproaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support
        2. Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs (-)
        3. When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences
        4. Human ingenuity will insure that we do NOT make the earth unlivable (-)
        5. Humans are severely abusing the environment
        6. The earth has plenty of natural resources if we just learn how to develop them(-)
        7. Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist
        8. The balance of nature is strong enough to cope with the impacts of modern industrial nations (-)
        9. Despite our special abilities humans are still subject to the laws of nature
        10. The so-called “ecological crisis” facing humankind has been greatly exaggerated (-)
        11. The earth is like a space ship with very little room and resources
        12. Humans were meant to rule over the rest of nature (-)
        13. The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset
        14. Humans will eventually learn enough about how nature works to be able to control it (-)
        15. If things continue on their present course, we will soon experience a major ecological catastrophe

        Some of them (4, 8, 12, 14) seem highly artificial. There’s an air of unreality about them, like extracts from an imaginary dialogue – the kind of literary exercise that dates back to Lucian. Corner explains that above by the need to have equal numbers of positive and negative statements.
        I’m wondering whether part of the frustration of warmists doesn’t come from their taking the wide agreement with these kinds of statements at face value, and their incomprehension that people won’t act in accordance with what environmentalists believe to be their “primitive beliefs”. The statements are formulated a statements of fact, yet are clearly not facts in any Popperian sense. They’re the answers people give to a questionnaire, no more and no less. They tell us something about ideas that are “in the air” at a certain time, and that’s all.

      • geoffchambersg says:

        Paul
        The John Maddox quote from 1972 shows how far back the misunderstanding goes.

        Here are the questions in the revised NEP scale, so we all know what we’re talking about. Even-numbered ones have to have the sign reversed to measure pro-environmentalism.

        1 We are appproaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support
        2. Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs (-)
        3. When humans interfere with nature it often produces disastrous consequences
        4. Human ingenuity will insure that we do NOT make the earth unlivable (-)
        5. Humans are severely abusing the environment
        6. The earth has plenty of natural resources if we just learn how to develop them(-)
        7. Plants and animals have as much right as humans to exist
        8. The balance of nature is strong enough to cope with the impacts of modern industrial nations (-)
        9. Despite our special abilities humans are still subject to the laws of nature
        10. The so-called “ecological crisis” facing humankind has been greatly exaggerated (-)
        11. The earth is like a space ship with very little room and resources
        12. Humans were meant to rule over the rest of nature (-)
        13. The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset
        14. Humans will eventually learn enough about how nature works to be able to control it (-)
        15. If things continue on their present course, we will soon experience a major ecological catastrophe

        Some of them (4, 8, 12, 14) seem highly artificial. There’s an air of unreality about them, like extracts from an imaginary dialogue – the kind of literary exercise that dates back to Lucian. Corner explains that above by the need to have equal numbers of positive and negative statements.
        I’m wondering whether part of the frustration of warmists doesn’t come from their taking the wide agreement with these kinds of statements at face value, and their incomprehension that people won’t act in accordance with what environmentalists believe to be their “primitive beliefs”. The statements are formulated a statements of fact, yet are clearly not facts in any Popperian sense. They’re the answers people give to a questionnaire, no more and no less. They tell us something about ideas that are “in the air” at a certain time, and that’s all.

  5. Mike Jackson says:

    I’m interested in “the never-ending emergence of new scientific evidence concerning the deleterious impacts of human activities on environmental quality” and would dearly love to see some.
    I think it’s long been fairly well understood that what keeps “the environment” as fit and healthy as it is is that mankind can afford to give of his time and excess substance to keep it that way. Examples already quoted at length in recent months include the detrimental effect on land use that would follow from a ban on chemical fertilisers and — very germane at the moment — the lunatic practice of devoting up to 40% (in the US) of available land to growing motor fuel.
    I am never quite sure where Dunlap and his fellow-environmentalists are starting from but the end result always appears to be that mankind is the problem and the fewer there are of us the better. There is no point in arguing with the concept inherent in that sentence I quoted above; Dunlap would almost certainly not understand why you could not see it as self-evident.
    I think omnologos has a point and one which Adam may develop later. I consider myself to be “pro-environment” but I am first and foremost “pro-human”. The modern environmentalist is anti-human in the sense that he sees the development of civilisation as being inherently contrary to the welfare of the planet.
    I challenge this view for the reasons I outlined above. The question is: does Adam understand why?

  6. omnologos says:

    BTW…my score is -3.

    Barry – what is the point of a social scientist who wouldn’t want to understand how and why? For Corner I am _against_ the environment at -3 like at -15. Even if even a person at -15 is not necessarily “against” anything.

  7. Barry Woods says:

    the scale does seem extremely simplistic.
    I care about the ‘environment’ but would score negatively. yet some of the assumptions and statements are just highly questionable, or just vague to the point of meaningless. to be interpreted in a million different ways.. (ie the last question)
    ie what ‘things’ – extrmemly vague open to interpretation…

  8. Paul Matthews says:

    Yes, the questions are vague and meaningless – they give the impression that they were dreamt up by a bunch of hippies on LSD in about 1970. Perhaps they were. It’s amazing that the psychology community still seems to think they are useful. The only ones I can answer with any confidence are 10 and 15. In addition to the columns SA – SD, I suggest another column WTF is needed. It’s no surprise that a positive answer to these questions corresponds to high concern about climate change.

  9. Mike Thornhill says:

    I agree with others about the meaninglessness of the questionnaire. if I am forced to give yes or no answers, I might well come out negative. However, to many of the questions I couldn’t reasonably give such an answer – a problem I find with most questionnaires. Perhaps this is just a reflection of my considered (sceptical?) approach to issues generally.

  10. Ben Pile says:

    Paul – “It’s amazing that the psychology community still seems to think they are useful. ”

    Indeed, it would seem to be a mistake that can only be made by any academic discipline extending itself into climate change politics. Assuming a role in ‘saving the planet’ allows researchers to cast any existing ‘ethics’ or methodology to one side. Anthropologists and sociologists recognised long ago that culture is seen through culture, and that it is therefore easy for the observer to mistake his own prejudices for the objects of his study. The relationship between culture and cognition is surely vastly complicated, but Corner seems to think that complexity can be simply and easily ruled out with just a single questionnaire, and the results taken at face value.

  11. Ben Pile:
    “Corner seems to think that complexity can be simply and easily ruled out with just a single questionnaire, and the results taken at face value”.
    It’s not just Corner, but the whole community of environmental social scientists, starting with Dunlap, who took his cue from Ehrlich, Barbara Ward, the Club of Rome etc.

    The problems with the questionnaire noted by Paul Matthews, omnologos, and Mike Thornhill go further than their particular difficulty in deciding which box to tick. The questions mix supposedly factual statements with quasi-mystical atttitudes. The one thing the statements have in common is that they are the sorts of ideas that an English-speaking university-educated person might have been reading about in Time Magazine or the Guardian circa 1970-2012. Our modern mass media ensure a continuous leakage of ideas from Hampstead and Washington State out into the wider world, so ideas discussed by a liberal élite at their dinner parties get adopted by the great unwashed – who nonetheless continue to take cheap flights and eat carbon-intensive Big Macs.

    How dare they? Or rather, why dare they? That’s the question Corner et al are trying to answer. Are they brainwashed by consumerism / Big Oil? Or are they hard-wired to think in a certain way by their politico-cultural “primitive beliefs”? The answer Corner et al are looking for is clearly more sophisticated than the brainwashing theory favoured by Ehrlich and his epigones, like Monbiot and the treehuggers. It’s also potentially less critical of the capitalist world in which we live and move and have our salaries.

  12. Pingback: Discussion with Adam Corner – Round 3 | Geoffchambers's Blog

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  14. Geoff Sherrington says:

    I do not know the ages of the participants here, but I’m over 70. When someone my age reads “I consider myself to be “pro-environment” but I am first and foremost “pro-human” … then eyes start to roll.
    I doubt if I have ever met anyone under 55 or so who, under a little pressure, will NOT admit to being a greenie at heart. Conversely, those of my age tend to say “Why bother with greenie thoughts? They are artificial constructs that are not needed because the common purpose of mankind is a stronger driving force.”
    Those of my vintage that I have met in adequately deep conversation would mostly attribute younger green tendencies to a defective, off-centre educational system, perhaps one conditioned by the arts group with time on their hands, dominating the agendas of education while the hard scientists can’t be much bothered by such diverting trivia while they get the real jobs done.
    Few of us (and not many are left) would even comprehend writing a NEP check list like you have given, therefore would scarcely participate in answering one – too much a waste of time with no useful purpose. As we say down under “Dreamin’.”

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