Truths from Grayson Perry at the PSA Awards

Last week, I attended the Political Studies Association annual awards ceremony (I was there to receive the W.J.M. Mackenzie book prize for the book I wrote with Christopher Hood 🙂 ). The final award of the evening was to Grayson Perry, for his contribution to Art and Culture.

Grayson Perry at the PSA Awards. Hilary Benn MP, who presented the award, is also pictured. (Photo: Ruth Dixon)

Grayson Perry at the PSA Awards. Hilary Benn MP, who presented the award, is also pictured. (Photo: Ruth Dixon)

Grayson Perry’s acceptance speech was remarkable, pointing out to the assembled politicians, journalists, pundits, and academics that for all their intellectual knowledge, they may be missing something important (the following extract is transcribed with minor edits from BBC iplayer starting at about 27 min):

“I think the word ‘truth’ is interesting. Because we’ve often talked about truth in terms of academic truth, statistical truth, empirical truth, scientific truth, but we talk very little about emotional truth. And I think that one thing that all of the experts here need to zhoosh up a bit is their emotional literacy. The liberal academic elite have let us down because they are not emotionally literate enough to really understand what fifty-two per cent of the population were thinking, or feeling, should I say.

“There’s a whole world out there that we need to have more empathy with, even if we don’t like the results those kind of feelings bring about. But I thank you for this award from the experts – and I hope that next year you are giving an award for ‘most empathetic’ politician of the year.”

Grayson Perry’s plea for empathy struck a chord with me. Terms such as ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘post-truth’ are often used by academics and commentators to belittle those with whom the author disagrees. It is all too easy to raise a laugh in a seminar by saying something that disparages Brexiters or Trump voters. Although I voted ‘Remain,’ I feel very uncomfortable when such partisan attitudes are displayed by publicly-funded academics particularly when the targets of their derision are (directly or indirectly) among the subjects of their research.

Some academics have taken a more thoughtful approach. Bo Rothstein and Lennart Levi suggest that teaching ethics should be a priority for universities in order to improve the behaviour of university-educated elites. And Will Jennings and Martin Lodge argue that political scientists should seek a much deeper engagement with society to protect the ‘foundations of liberal democracy.’ While these approaches have much to recommend them, these articles give a somewhat de haut en bas impression, that if only academics communicated certain ‘truths’ better, public attitudes and policymakers’ behaviour would change accordingly.

This attitude has parallels with the ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of science (that increasing public understanding of science will increase public acceptance of scientific advances such as GM foods or nuclear power). There is much research that suggests that this model is too simplistic, and that emotions and identity play an important part. So I suggest that political scientists need to question, with some humility, their own ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of politics.

[update 12-12-16] While I have not seen the phrase ‘deficit model’ applied to public understanding of politics, there is of course plenty of relevant research. For example, greater factual knowledge about the EU does not correlate with positive feelings about it. And Bo Rothstein’s own research shows that ethical concepts such as corruption are understood in very similar ways across different cultures (the differences in levels of corruption are attributed not “to different moral understandings of the problem of corruption but to how different societies come to understand and value the difference between public and private goods and also what most people expect that most other people in their society will do when faced with opportunities for bribery.”)

Finally, and on a lighter note, if you would like to see the UK ‘elite’ at play, the PSA’s flickr album contains 250 photos of the award ceremony. Photos of Christopher Hood and me collecting our award are on p.2. We also wrote an article on government costs (updating the themes of our book) to accompany the announcement of our award. As well as the PSA itself, Sage and OUP also cover the awards.

[Update 20-12-2016] This post, with minor edits, was reposted on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog.

My Review of Nicholas Stern’s Book ‘Why Are We Waiting?’

Earlier this year I was invited to review Nicholas Stern’s new book, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change (MIT Press, 2015), for the Journal of Economic Psychology.

The published version of my book review is here (you can email me for a pdf), and a manuscript version is here.

In Why Are We Waiting? (a follow-up to his well known Review of 2006), Nicholas Stern assembles scientific, moral and economic arguments that rapid and radical reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are needed to limit global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, and wonders why progress is so slow.

Stern book cover

In my review, as I summarise in this post, I criticise Stern’s book for selective use of evidence, over-optimism regarding the co-benefits of climate policy (for instance for public health), and no discussion of the risks of climate policy (as opposed to the risks of climate change itself). Continue reading

Commentary in Psychological Science

This is a joint post by Ruth Dixon and Jonathan Jones about our Commentary entitled ‘Conspiracist Ideation as a Predictor of Climate Science Rejection: An Alternative Analysis.’. [The link is now to the version of record, published in May 2015].

After nearly a year, two journals, and four rounds of review, our Commentary on two studies by Stephan Lewandowsky was published in Psychological Science on 26 March 2015. This post describes our findings in more detail than the tight word-limit in Psychological Science allowed.

In two papers published in 2013, Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues Gilles Gignac and Klaus Oberauer suggested that ‘conspiracist ideation’ (the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories) predicted scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. In our reanalyses of the data from both studies, we found that there was a curved relationship between these variables. Both climate-change sceptics and the ‘climate-convinced’ tended to disbelieve in conspiracy theories. The linear models used by Lewandowsky and colleagues were therefore not appropriate descriptions of the data. Both datasets show this effect, although they resulted from very different survey types (the first surveyed readers of ‘climate blogs’ (LOG13-blogs, published in Psychological Science) and the second surveyed a panel representative of the US population (LGO13-panel, published in PLoS)), so we are confident that our findings are robust.

As we describe in more detail later in this post, our main finding was that there is a curved relationship between belief in anthropogenic climate change (CLIM) and belief in conspiracy theories (CY). This curvilinear relationship is most clearly seen in the LGO13-panel dataset (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The curved relationship between belief in anthropogenic climate change (CLIM) and in conspiracy theories (CY) (Loess plot, 95% confidence intervals). Higher values correspond to higher levels of belief or endorsement.

Figure 1. The curved relationship between belief in anthropogenic climate change (CLIM) and in conspiracy theories (CY) (Loess plot, 95% confidence intervals). Higher values correspond to higher levels of belief or endorsement.

As we argue below, all this really shows is that people who are undecided about one fairly technical matter (conspiracy theories) also have no firm opinion about another (climate change). The complex statistical models used by Lewandowsky et al. mask this rather obvious and uninteresting finding.

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The Oceans are Not More Acidic Now Than in the Past 300 Million Years [UPDATED]

…despite what the Guardian says. Update: …as the Guardian now agrees.

[Update: 9 Oct 2013 13.01 pm: The headline and first paragraph of the article have now been changed following email correspondence between Fiona Harvey and me. Credit to Fiona and the Guardian for this response. The links now lead to the updated version which can be compared with the screenshot below. Further update: See also for a side-by-side comparison.]

Fiona Harvey’s article in the Guardian on 3 October 2013 Ocean acidification due to carbon emissions is at highest for 300m years misrepresents the scientific literature. This error has propagated across the Twittersphere.

(H/T Latimer Alder for the tweet that alerted me to this article)

Harvey wrote (my emphasis)

‘The oceans are more acidic now than they have been for at least 300m years, due to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and a mass extinction of key species may already be almost inevitable as a result, leading marine scientists warned on Thursday.

In the starkest warning yet of the threat to ocean health, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) said: “This [acidification] is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.” It published its findings in the State of the Oceans report, collated every two years from global monitoring and other research studies.’

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Gender Bias in Science: What’s in a Name?

Male and female faculty members show distinct gender bias when they assess applications from male and female students, a new study from Yale University has shown. This is an important (if depressing) study, carefully carried out and clearly reported. But how exactly did the researchers choose the names of their ‘applicants’, Jennifer and John? I’m still trying to find out.

There has been much online discussion of the new study from Yale entitled ‘Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students’. The paper can be read here (open access – I’m happy to say):

Updated 1 Oct 2012, see end of post.

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