Global Warming and Cognitive Avoidance

I don’t know whether cognitive avoidance is a real thing, but I’m going to invent the term and explain what I mean by it in the context of this statement from Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) about global warming. He has a convenient explanation for why the overwhelming consensus of scientists in the field should be ignored:

One thing that I certainly read in, from, viable sources is that a lot of the research that’s being done, if you don’t, when you put your application in to get a grant, if you don’t submit to the, you know, orthodoxy of climate change by the radical environmentalists you’re not going to get a grant.

What do I mean by cognitive avoidance? I mean that he is inventing an excuse for not even attempting to engage the question of global warming on a substantive level. He isn’t making any statement at all about whether the evidence supports global warming because, frankly, he can’t. He almost certainly knows next to nothing about the subject. It’s very unlikely that he’s ever read a single thing on the subject other than similar attempts at cognitive avoidance, certainly no studies that look at the data. And if he did read such a study, he’d almost certainly be unable to understand it (this is a specialized field of science and it requires real training).

But remember, his political position depends on the entire idea of global warming not only being false, but being a vast conspiracy, probably a communist one at that. So he casually throws out this attempt to dismiss the science behind global warming rather than engage it. He has no evidence for it, of course, only these vague, unspecified “viable sources.” But that doesn’t really matter to those his argument is aimed at, which is people just like him — people who are completely ignorant on the subject but nonetheless want to convince themselves that they have good reason to dismiss the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.

This is, quite literally, an irrational argument. It actively seeks to avoid having to consider evidence and use reason to analyze it. And it does so because it is a convenient way to maintain one’s baseless beliefs and immunize the target audience from having to ever give any actual thought to the subject.

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  • gshelley

    I don’t know if the term is in existence, but if not it should be. Carol Tavris gives a lot of examples in her excellent book “Mistakes were made but not by me” about the lengths people will go to to hold on to their beliefs rather than accept they are wrong. I don’t know if there are conflicting views here that he is trying to resolve, or if he just doesn’t like what he thinks the consequences of global warming being real would be (presumably that some sort of political action would be needed to control emissions or use), but the same general principal holds.

  • Doug Little

    One thing that I certainly read in, from, viable sources is that a lot of the research that’s being done, if you don’t, when you put your application in to get a grant, if you don’t submit to the, you know, orthodoxy of climate change by the radical environmentalists you’re not going to get a grant.

    But wouldn’t this assume that the person handing out the grants would have to know the outcome of the study before it was actually performed. Last time I checked science isn’t done this way in the real world, Fundieland on the other hand… where you start with your conclusion and work backward is a valid approach. I also want to know what a viable source of information is?

  • alanb

    Well, it’s true that there is a conspiracy about which grants get funded. For instance, my grant to study lizard people was rejected because there is a conspiracy to maintain the lizard-people-don’t-exist orthodoxy.

  • Abby Normal

    I don’t know whether cognitive avoidance is a real thing

    In psychology there is something called avoidance. But it means something different than what you’re describing here. I think denial is the term you’re looking for.

  • Doug Little

    Lets call it.

    Elephantis in cubiculo syndrome.

  • unbound

    I guess I read the senator’s statement as a rather stumbling attempt to voice out the usual conservative clap-trap that global warming is a bunch of hooey that scientists invented to get rich, rich, rich off the research grants.

    You know all those scientists rolling down the road in their $200k cars and living in their $5 million homes.

  • Well, we already have “cognitive dissonance”. It’s prolly not too much of a stretch to get to “Cognition Deficit Disorder”. The cure for that syndrome would be addition by subtraction: stop listening to FuckTheNew’sCorpse and pinheadpundits, stop reading the bible and stop voting in asshats and charlatans to make law and public policy.

    Maybe those so afflicted (even it’s self-inflicted) can have a catch group name like “Jerry’s Kids”? Something like “Duane(Gish)’s Dumbfucks” or “Koch’s KKKlownposse”?

  • colnago80

    This has to be the funniest claim ever. Researchers in climate science could make a lot more money shilling for the Koch brothers. In fact, in the Berkeley Climate Change study spearheaded by Prof. Muller, the Koch brothers, who financed it in part, thought that Muller was as corrupt as Pat Michaels and Richard Lindzen. They got an unpleasant surprise when Muller turned out to be a real scientist instead of a shill. Muller, of course was then subjected to a smear attack by phony expert Anthony Watts and his acolytes.

    Of course, the Koch brothers, if they had an ounce of sense should have been suspicious if they had bothered to find out who else was on Muller’s team. In particular, physics Prof. Arthur Rosenfeld, former Commissioner of the California Energy Commission and senior adviser to the US Department of Energy during the Clinton Administration and long time proponent of energy conservation.

    Personal note: my first course in physics at Berkeley was taught by a then Assistant Professor Rosenfeld.

  • Larry

    Its time we stood up to those fat cat, so-called, scientists who roll around in that sweet, sweet grant money like Scrooge McDuck in his vault. Its bad enough that we have to watch them speeding up and down the strip in their Ferraris and Bugatis and snapping up all the hotties with their smooth pick-up lines (Hey, baby, you wanna come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab? Yeah, I know. Killer!), we don’t need them dictating how much carbon monoxide our manufacturing plants can spew. Why? Because FREEDOM!

  • jaybee

    This is a very powerful idea. Let me see if I understand it. We can discount anything scientists say that we might disagree with because they are getting paid to do the work. Mike Coffman is getting paid to do his work, therefore I can ignore anything he says. My boss gets paid, so I can ignore what he says, but I get paid too, so that leaves me in a quandary. I guess since my boss gets paid more than me, I can ignore him even more than I ignore myself.

  • abb3w

    The “viable sources” sounds like “social validation”; and “cognitive avoidance” sounds a subset of persuasion resistance.

    Social validation involves resisting the message by bringing to mind important others who share one’s original attitude (Festinger, 1950, 1954, 1957; Festinger, Gerard, Hymovitch, Kelley, & Raven, 1952). Source derogation involves insulting the source, dismissing his or her expertise or trustworthiness, or otherwise rejecting his or her validity (Buller, 1986; Festinger, 1957; Festinger & Maccoby, 1964; Wright, 1975). Social validation and source derogation are responses that do not require message scrutiny, although both are likely to be coded as unfavorable thoughts in the general cognitive response approach. – (doi:10.1207/S15324834BASP2502_5)

    You probably want to track down that Jacks and Cameron paper, if can and have any spare time for “light” technical reading.

  • gingerbaker

    You can call it “cognitive avoidance”. I call it criminal negligence, and I would like to see him arrested for it.

  • colnago80

    Incidentally, the attached link gives sound bite responses to a number of the denialist claims.

  • caseloweraz

    According to thesaurus-dot-com, synonyms for “viable” include usable and workable. I therefore think it’s reasonable to conclude that Rep. Coffman is referring to those sources which permit him to maintain his preferred viewpoint.

  • Doug Little

    Larry @9,

    scientists who roll around in that sweet, sweet grant money like Scrooge McDuck in his vault.

    Like this

  • He’s right. When I put in my proposal, “Winter: Proof so-called ‘Global’ so-called ‘Warming’ is a Hoax. Also, Algore is Fat”, asking for a jillion dollars, they turned me down.

  • caseloweraz

    So Rep. Coffman buys into the idea that the only climate-change research which gets funded is that which buttresses the “orthodoxy.”

    As I’ve done repeatedly, I’ll point out that if someone had actual, real, (dare I say “viable”?) evidence that the so-called orthodoxy on climate change was wrong, wheelbarrows full of money would be showing up at his or her door.

    The only reason we don’t see some climate contrarian raking in the big buck and winning the Nobel Prize is because there is no such evidence.

  • Doug Little

    Orthodoxy would be incorrectly applied when it comes to the current consensus on the earths climate as it is based on facts not belief or opinion. Just another reason why this douche nozzle has no idea about the science and is spouting the company line to keep the base energized.

  • keithb

    Barbara Tuchmann did pretty good with “woodenheadedness” in _The March of Folly_

  • Blondin

    I’ll second the endorsement of Tavris & Aronson’s “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”.

    I don’t think you need to invent a new term. I think denial, ad hominem attacks, poisoning the well, deference to authority, and many other tactics, are simply forms of dissonance reduction. It’s fascinating what mental gymnastics some humans will go through to justify their position rather than simply admit they chose the wrong side or jumped to the wrong conclusion.

    Sometimes I think the biggest impediment to rational thinking is equating being mistaken with being stupid, incompetent or evil. We all make mistakes but refusing to admit you might be wrong (even to yourself) is surely the biggest indication of incompetence or malice.

  • caseloweraz

    Further to the question of scientists getting rich, here’s the comment of one scientist:

    Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!


    Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

    His essay is at

  • raven

    This guy is from a state that has been heavily impacted by climate change. Colorado.***

    Forests are dying in parts of the west due to changing climate. The trees get stressed, bark beetles move in, kill them, and then they burn quite nicely.

    Colorado has had it’s share of massive forest fires. The one in Colorado Springs this year destroyed a lot of homes and killed a few people.

    In fact, there are now 50 forest fires burning throughout the west. The federal budget for fire fighting is a billion USD and it’s already been spent.

    New York City is spending 20 billion dollars to build up its coastal defenses. That is just a start.

    It’s estimated that the US will have to spend a trillion dollars by 2100 to adapt to climate change. This isn’t voluntary, it is mandatory. You spend it adapting or spend it cleaning up from disasters.

    ***No one event can be blamed on climate change. But everyone has noticed that the weather is becoming more extreme. And the scientific consensus is overwhelming at 97% of climatologists.

  • raven

    In a sense Mike Coffman, the Koch’s, and the petroleum industry have won.

    The stunning achievement in the USA to fight CO2 rising, is to…invent fracking!!! So we can produce and burn more hydrocarbons and become a leading world energy producer again. It’s working really well.

    We aren’t going to stop burning hydorcarbons until evey last ton has been dug out of the earth. The consensus among climatologists is that we will adapt or else. When they advocated for limiting CO2, all they got were witchhunts, insults, and death threats.

    It’s not obvious that we could have stopped anyway. Our entire modern civilization runs on fossil fuels.

    At this point, we are all on a giant spaceship embarked on a new adventure.

  • colnago80

    Re raven @ #23

    Actually, when the natural gas that is produced by fracking is used to generate electricity, it produces 1/2 the CO(2) that burning coal doesper BTU produced. Thus, replacing coal burning power plants with natural gas burning plants reduces CO(2) emissions.

  • colnago80

    Re raven @ #23

    In addition to reducing CO(2) relative to coal, it also eliminates tha mercury that burning coal produces.

    This is a good thing.

  • Chiroptera

    Coffman represents Colorado?

    Good going, Coffman. I hope whatever petroleum industry that exists in Colorado will be able to make up for the lost tourist revenue when the ski slopes no longer have snow.

  • raven

    Major beetle outbreaks affect 30 million acres in the western United States and British Columbia, Canada. Hicke’s team analyzed data from the United States and Canadian forest services, and estimated that since 1997, bark beetles have killed 6 billion trees. The culprit in 63 percent of the cases was the mountain pine beetle.

    His efforts contribute to a wide collaboration of universities and are supported by the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service and United States Geological Survey. (My note, according to Coffman, a bunch of commies.)

    Hicke’s work and the work of others point to climate as a major driver of the outbreaks.

    Cold winters kill the mountain pine and other bark beetles and warmer winters help them survive. Because they allow beetles to complete life cycles within one year instead of two or more

    Colorado is one of the states hit hard by dying pine and aspen forests. It’s a consequence of global warming that anyone can see, dead forests and massive forest fires. And it costs lots of money to deal with it.

    Coffman must wear a blindfold or take drugs to be able to not see it.

  • scienceavenger

    This is, quite literally, an irrational argument. It actively seeks to avoid having to consider evidence and use reason to analyze it. And it does so because it is a convenient way to maintain one’s baseless beliefs and immunize the target audience from having to ever give any actual thought to the subject.

    Dead on, and it applies to a wide range of rightwing epistemological tricks. You’ve identified one: assume anyone doing research whose conclusiosn you don’t like has an agenda (or is incompetent). Another very common one is to assume any study that threatens your views has flaws in it. Example: Study shows women discriminated against, earn less money than men. Pat response: that’s because women make different career choices than men, if the study had been done right, that gap would disappear.

    Of course, they key to these tactics is to never ever actually go through said study to confirm that the flaw/bias exists. Simply assume it is so, and you are epistemologically walled off from any contrary evidence to whatever you currently believe. The GOP says its the party of facts, but its really the party of speculation pretending to be facts.

  • Doug Little

    colnago80 @24,

    Unfortunately methane is a better greenhouse gas than CO2 is. Until they can contain the leaks and losses in the collection and distribution systems natural gas is similar to coal in terms of warming.

    Preliminary Assessment of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Natural Gas obtained by Hydraulic Fracturing

  • Yeah, the world’s climate scientists have rigged the grant application process to allow only pro-global warming research — an obvious clue that they don’t really believe it.

    By the way, what the hell is a “viable source”? The opposite of a long-dead one?

  • colnago80

    Re Doug Little @ #28

    Fracking is controversial. However, what the author of the paper neglected to mention is that methane’s persistence in the atmosphere is a few years, CO(2) is some 80 years.

  • gingerbaker

    “It’s estimated that the US will have to spend a trillion dollars by 2100 to adapt to climate change. “

    You are off by more than 3 orders of magnitude. According to articles posted by Joe Romm, the best available figure is $1240 Trillion by 2100.

    5 years of U.S. spending for fossil fuels currently is about 7 trillion dollars. For 7 trillion dollars the government could build enough renewable energy infrastructure to completely replace all fossil fuel use, upgrade to a smart grid, retrofit all appliances to electric, rip the electric meters off our homes and businesses, and probably have enough left over to provide electrical induction charging for our roads and then toss in a free Nissan Leaf for every driveway.

    Even if we spent 17 times that much, or $124 trillion dollars, it would still be nearly a eightfold return on investment.

  • Doug Little

    colnago80 @31

    This from the EPA says methane lasts 12 years in the atmosphere. Of course if the natural gas companies can upgrade their equipment to mitigate leaks from all facets of their process it might eventually be better for the environment but as it stands at the moment the benefits have been exaggerated somewhat.

  • raven

    Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must

    By Joe Romm on September 8, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    [The authors of this study framed their results incorrectly, I think, causing many in the media to miscover or ignore the story.]

    Scientists led by a former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [warn] that the UN negotiations aimed at tackling climate change are based on substantial underestimates of what it will cost to adapt to its impacts.

    The real costs of adaptation are likely to be 2-3 times greater than estimates made by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), say Professor Martin Parry and colleagues in a new report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development [IIED].

    And as the IIED reported, the study Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change: a review of the UNFCCC and other recent estimates concludes costs will be even more when the full range of climate impacts on human activities is considered.

    The study finds that the mean “Net present value of climate change impacts” in the A2 scenario is $1240 TRILLION with no adaptation, but “only” $890 trillion with adaptation.

    The mean [annual] impacts in 2060 are about $1.5 trillion…. As usual, there is a long right tail, with a small probability of impacts as large as $20 trillion….

    Indeed. The cost could be as much as 1240 trillion without adaptation.

    But that is a world estimate whereas I just gave a US estimate.

    Right now these estimates are based on a small knowledge base and are more guesses than anything else. But there is no doubt it is going to cost a lot of money. It already is costing a lot of money. The forest service has spent a billion dollars fighting fires this year and fire season is ony half over.

    As Romm says, we have three choices, mitigation, adaptation, or suffering. And we will do a lot of all three, the choice being how much of one over the other.

  • coffeehound

    @ # 31, IDK, isn’t one of the degradation products of methane CO2 ? So the real comparison would be the life of methane plus the life of whatever amount of CO2 it degrades to….

  • colnago80:

    Fracking has another “downside” issue, drilling effluent. Billions of gallons of process water being pumped into the fracture zones and winding up who the hell knows where. This water is, btw, full of chemical cocktails which current legislation allows the drillers to use without letting us know WTF is in the cocktail. Think of it as the ultimate daterape drug.

    The state of NY is currently prohibiting fracking in the Finger Lakes Watershed.

    It is notable that Skaneateles Lake, one of the cleanest lakes in the U.S. (Syracuse and other upstate communities use its water without filtration or treatment) is located about 20 miles west of Onondaga Lake which was rendered a dead zone by Allied Chemical and other industrial polluters.

    The polluters are running ads about how swell it is to allow hydrofracking, cuz, y’know, JOBS. What they seem loathe to mention is that they had ZERO interest in PA, once they had stripped out its coal, UNTIL they found out that they could come back and take some more sweet, sweet money outta them thar hills!

    “Indeed. The cost could be as much as 1240 trillion without adaptation.”

    In the real world, adaptation = using science and policy to effect beneficial changes to what is currently a problem and will become a worse one.

    In Wingnut-O-Sphere, adaptation = having your “scientists” jigger the results and gin up the hatred of genuine science so the Kochsuckers can make MORE money.

    “As Romm says, we have three choices, mitigation, adaptation, or suffering.”

    Actually, we will probably do some adapting, some mitigation and a fuckton of suffering (suffering which is just plain unavoidable).

  • gingerbaker

    “But that is a world estimate whereas I just gave a US estimate.”

    It still doesn’t calculate. The U.S. would be responsible for a lot more than < 1/1000th of the total adaptation bill when it comes due. $1 trillion is just too low. It has to be – because if it is not, my economic ROI argument would be in the toilet! 😀