Preference Cascades

This article is eight years old, but it was just called to my attention.  It does not once mention climate, and it is in fact about people flying flags after 9/11.  But those involved with climate issues may well recognize the situation immediately:

The muting of open patriotism after the Vietnam era may have been a case of what social scientists call “preference falsification”: One in which social pressures cause people to express sentiments that differ from those they really feel. As social scientist Timur Kuran noted in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies, there are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, that lead people not to show how they truly feel. People tend to read social signals about what is approved and what is disapproved behavior and, in general, to modify their conduct accordingly. Others then rely on this behavior to draw wrong conclusions about what people think, and allow those conclusions to shape their own actions.

Oh, not always – and there are always rebels (though often social “rebels” are really just conforming to a different standard). But when patriotism began to be treated as uncool, people who wanted to be cool, or at least to seem cool, stopped demonstrating patriotism, even if they felt it.

When this happened, other people were influenced by the example. In what’s known as a “preference cascade,” the vanishing of flags and other signs of patriotism from the homes, cars and businesses of the style-setters caused a lot of other people to go along with the trend, perhaps without even fully realizing it, a trend that only strengthened with the politicization of flag displays in several 1980s political campaigns.

The result was a situation in which a lot of people’s behavior didn’t really match their beliefs, but merely their beliefs about what was considered acceptable. Such situations are unstable, since a variety of shocks can cause people to realize the difference and to suddenly feel comfortable about closing the gap.

That’s what the September 11 attacks did. This time last year, you didn’t see many American flags on cars in my faculty parking garage. The people who didn’t have them on their cars weren’t necessarily unpatriotic – but displaying a flag on one’s car was associated with particular political and social categories that aren’t especially popular on campuses. After 9/11,enough people started flying flags to make other people feel safe about doing it too. Now you can see a lot of flags on the cars in that garage. Have people become more patriotic? Maybe. But more likely they’ve just become more willing to show it.

Though it does not mention climate at all, it is the best explanation I have yet seen on why Climategate got so much run.  After all, the actual science addressed in the Climategate emails mostly was about the hockey stick, which even if you ignore how bad the science is in the analysis, really does not prove anything about the effects of anthropogenic CO2 even if it were correct.  And few of the things that were revealed in the emails about alarmist scientific practices and resistance to replication came as much as a surprise to those of us who have been following climate issues for a while.  So at the time, I thought it was no big deal.

In retrospect, what Climategate did was to give the media a story that it was socially OK to run with.  The social pressures against running an article about problems with alarmist science were enormous, but a scandal allowed them to make an end run around these social norms.  Scandals and meat and potatoes for the news media, and they could run with the scandal story without feeling like they were getting a huge social black mark from their peers.  And once the scandal story ran, it was the shock that allowed many silent doubters to see that in fact they were not alone and marginalized (as they have been told time and time again in the media) but actually a sizeable population.

To this end, the Hal Lewis letter may be even more important.

Of course, none of this solves the problem of determining the Earth’s true temperature sensitivity to CO2 concentration, but it has opened the door for a freer debate.

17 thoughts on “Preference Cascades”

  1. Michael Crichton tells a story about a professor who read a study on nuclear winter which had an equation for expected deaths D = P*Q*R*S*T where all terms are unknown even to 3 orders of magnitude.

    The professor said “The science is abominable but if I say so I appear to be in favor of nuclear war. “

    I think that is what the reasonable climate scientists think when reading the climate Astrology of the wacko’s.

    They would amend it to:

    The professor said “The science is abominable but if I say so I appear to be in the pocket of big oil. “

  2. Okay netdr:

    1) How many times do you intend to post this dumb excerpt?

    2) Not only was Crichton an MD, and not a climate science, but you are quoting a fiction.

  3. I will post it wherever and whenever I chose to. [Thanks for asking.]

    Do you think it isn’t applicable ? I think it is very germane.

    Crichton was an intelligent man who recognized sloppy science when he saw it.

    When goofy science like CO2 causing Peruvians to freeze to death is bruited about by Al Gore they probably grimace in pain and say nothing because they don’t want to appear to be in the pocket of big oil.

    When all abnormal weather is ascribed to CO2 as climate disruption [or weirding weather] they are probably too smart to be duped so easily but afraid to speak up.

  4. Freezing to death? Well I must assume you are simply using hyperbole and don’t actually believe that. Guess it would be irritating to find someone who’s actually witnessing climate change rather than, say, a science fiction writer, no matter how brilliant a person he is, making things up.

    And actually, netdr, you and the tribe are perfect example of the kinds of people who start preference cascades (if such a thing exists)–you simply don’t realize the term could apply to you too.

  5. I was witnessing climate change just the other day. It went from 70F to 32 F in about 12 hours. It went from shirtsleeve weather to heavy coat weather in practically no time. If this keeps up the predictions from 1975 of an ice age could come true.

    But if the CO2 boys are right it could keep us out of the next ice age. Which is a pretty good idea I think. Most crops do not grow well under ice.

  6. Interesting piece. The phenomenon is all too familiar in the UK. Thanks for the link to the book, which I had not encountered before.

  7. From Al Gore’s website.

    “Last Monday, women whose lives had been impacted by the climate crisis came to Capitol Hill to tell their powerful stories. For example, Marisa Marcavillaca of Peru told members of Congress:

    “Nature is disrupted. It rains when it shouldn’t rain.” Marisa Marcavillaca of Peru said through a translator. “We have freezing temperatures when we shouldn’t have freezing temperatures. Because our yields are down, it is difficult to feed our children.”

    “Warmer temperatures in her farming area have spurred plant diseases, and the quality of agricultural seeds has degenerated, cutting into local women’s ability to earn a living, she said.” ”

    You say “Al Gore isn’t a climate scientist” and you would be right but where are the real climate scientists ?

    Huddling beneath their desks like boneless chickens and hoping no one will ask them how CO2 causes warming cooling wetness and dryness in short the devil gas produces whatever Al wants it to produce. Climate ASTROLOGY at work ?

    Real climate scientists must cringe at such foolishness but they are too spineless to speak up.

  8. Very insightful post — but I’d say the cascade generated by Climategate is much wider. It has now become possible to criticize anything green. That includes organic farming, Greenpeace, biofuels, you name it.

  9. Well, netdr, your post simply quotes the article I posted above via Al Gore. No one freezing to death, simply a witness who claims to see climate change. Is there a scientific backing to what she thinks she observes? I don’t know, and neither do you.

    Instead, you posted that climate scientists “huddling under their desks.” That is perhaps the most immature, irrational thing you’ve posted yet.

  10. Schiller,
    Since the green movement adopted the CO2 obsession as a way to money and power, the criticism is entirely justified.
    Biofuels deserved their condemnation several years before climategate.
    Greenpeace is earning its own destruction.
    Organic farming will likely continue because people like tasty food.
    Now if we get the plug pulled on public subsidy of windmills, and charge windmill companies for the incredible environmental impact of a windmill farm, we might be getting someplace.

    Since Gore’s trained ‘witness’ is not a climate scientist, and since the traditional definition of ‘climate’ is something that takes longer than your lifetime to see, I think it is safe, as always, to dismiss any stunts Gore offers.
    As in most things Waldotroll offers as fact, it is always good to check a bit deeper. Chrichton was an ‘MD’ is a fascinating example of Waldotroll’s lying by omission:
    So who do I believe? A worldclass highly accomplished renaissance man or a miserable name shifting troll who never tells the full story?
    By the way, Dr. Curry has a question for you at her blog, Waldotroll.

  11. I fail to see, hunter, what I omitted that is pertinent to anything. Chrichton was a brilliant guy, no doubt.

    But his scientific training was in the pathologies and cures of the human body, not in climate science. He is famous for being a somewhat overhyped pulp novelist, not a climate scientist.

    The simpletons among the denialist tribe seem to flock to Chrichton because, I believe, he appears so brilliant as to be authoritative–and he wrote “Jurassic Park,” a movie you probably saw and believed was real, huh hunter? I mean, after all, Michael Chrichton, worldclass highly accomplished renaissance man, wrote it, right? Therefore there must be dinosaurs running around South American islands.

    And, what question does Curry have for little old me? (I had no idea I was so famous)

  12. Waldotroll,
    Read Chrichton’s cv, which I thoughtfully provided and get back to us on your fallacies.
    IRT to Jurassic Park, I unlike AGW true believers, recognize fiction when I see it.
    I will leave it to you to link over to Climate, Etc. and see what the question may be.

  13. Yeah, read the webpage. He was a novelist who dabbled in science. Again, a brilliant guy. But the fallacy is in thinking that he did any serious work in climate science. He wrote a book, hunter, that’s all.

    From his “cv”:

    “Crichton’s 2004 bestseller, State of Fear, acknowledged the world was growing warmer, but challenged extreme anthropogenic warming scenarios. He predicted future warming at 0.8 degrees C. (His conclusions have been widely misstated.)”

    These “conclusion” are misstated by people like you, hunter.

    And I thought Dr. Curry had a great definition of tribal mentality when she wrote: “Tribalism is defined here as a strong identity that separates one’s group from members of another group, characterized by strong in-group loyalty and regarding other groups differing from the tribe’s defining characteristics as inferior.”

    This is one of the best definitions of the denialist mentality I’ve read yet.

  14. Denialism IS group-think, as every other pseudo-religious ideology.

    The difference is that environmentalism has both science and experience on its side.

  15. I continue to marvel at the lack of our ability to discuss scientific and technical matters in a reasoned and civil manner. Science and technology absolutely depend on a free discussion of scientific issues. To argue that “I am right” and anyone who has a different point of view is a horrible person who (pick one: wants to destroy the earth, wants to poison mankind, is in the pay of some nefarious group) or who is a scientific fraud pretty much precludes any progress toward the truth. As my father used to say, with reference to evolution “the smart monkeys stayed in the trees. We are surely demonstrating that he was right!

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