Monday, December 16, 2013

New paper says learning about climate change is like having a colonoscopy

A paper published today in the journal Earth's Future likens learning about climate change to having a colonoscopy, since, according to the author, people fear and avoid the "unpleasant consequences" of both.

Personally, I've done both and greatly prefer colonoscopies to listening to the unjustified scaremongering of climate change alarmists.

Is Learning about Climate Change like Having a Colonoscopy?
Richard C. J. Somerville*

DOI: 10.1002/2013EF000169

Key Points:

Many people avoid having valuable medical tests from fear of the results.
People resist learning about climate change, fearing unpleasant consequences.
Research suggests addressing these concerns early aids communication.


It turns out that millions of people are reluctant to take standard medical tests which potentially could be very valuable, by helping to determine whether or not an individual is at risk for certain diseases. Psychologists call this phenomenon "health information avoidance.” It is part of the reason why many people refuse to get common diagnostic tests such as Pap smears, mammograms, HIV tests, or colonoscopies. In fact, many people who do get these medical tests simply do not return later to learn the results. 
Hoffman (2013), writing in The New York Times about the research of Howell and Shepperd, states that, “When researchers ask people why they resist getting tested, reasons like cost, ignorance of the disease’s facts and intrusiveness of the procedure are often cited. But one of the most common barriers to being tested — or finding out the test results — is fear.” In brief, it is surely true that many people will think, “I feel fine, and I don’t want to buy into the hype that I have to do all these tests.” 
In other words, why take a medical test, if the expected result could be bad news? This finding suggests a parallel to why some people resist learning about human-caused climate change. They may simply fear the logical consequences. They may fear what might be done if climate change caused by human activities were to turn out to be real and serious. For example, consider those people who are strongly opposed to certain kinds of government actions, such as imposition of new taxes (e. g., carbon taxes) and interference in free markets (e. g., cap-and-trade systems). If those people were to find out that these are exactly the government actions that might well be undertaken, then perhaps they would just rather not know about climate change. 
My colleague Denali Hussin of Climate Communication concurs. Hussin says, “Not only is ‘buying into the hype’ a common phrase one hears about global warming skepticism, but it also can be linked to what we know about people denying climate change for ideological reasons. Accepting it as reality would shake the foundation of their beliefs: beliefs in the infallibility of capitalism, or of America, or it might even just threaten their choice to drive an SUV. People don't like to accept things that might result in a fundamental lifestyle change, because lifestyle and identity are so closely linked. ‘If I change what I do because of this information, isn't that changing who I am?’” (Hussin, 2013). ...

The parallel with climate change suggests to me that many people might be much more receptive to learning about the scientific findings of climate change, if they first had a chance to think about it in the abstract, hypothetically, to mull over what the implications might be, to learn about possible actions to take for mitigation or adaptation, and in short to do what the University of Florida psychologists call "contemplation." However, this is only a conjecture on my part, and an appealing scientific way to test it rigorously might well be to conduct an experiment analogous to that of Howell and Shepperd, in order to learn whether advance consideration or contemplation and ranking of climate change information increases the likelihood of accepting it. 
Such an experiment ought to be designed sensitively and thoughtfully, bearing in mind that climate change is quite different from medical issues in important ways. For example, climate change is a general risk that may well affect almost everyone, not a specific disease that affects only some individuals. Also, the severe climate change that may well occur, if global emissions of heat-trapping gases continue unabated, might easily be more frightening than colon cancer or cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, an individual can often take steps to reduce that person’s risk of specific diseases, while reducing the likelihood of climate change requires global actions and is far beyond the capability of any one individual. Thus, for several reasons, the temptation for information avoidance may be even stronger for climate change information than for medical information. 
Those of us in the climate science community who have chosen to work toward communicating science more clearly and effectively to broad audiences have already learned much about what does and does not work. We have already benefited greatly by learning from experts in communication and in the relevant social sciences (Bowman et al., 2009, 2010; Somerville, 2008a, 2008b, 2011, 2012; Somerville and Hassol, 2011). Yet the fundamental findings of climate change science are not yet widely accepted in many sectors of our society, and thus our task is far from complete. Confronting what we might call “climate change information avoidance” is a real challenge in climate communication, one that deserves our attention. 

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