Dear APA, We Need to Talk…

September 4, 2008 by Shawn Smith

liberal bias in the american psychological associationThis entry is not about global warming. That topic is incidental. It is about respect for diversity of opinion and the American Psychological Association’s hostility toward those with whom they disagree.

The APA leans left – sometimes way left – to the exclusion of divergent viewpoints. (It’s an interesting contrast to their incessant preaching about diversity. [1]) That means that my membership dues frequently support political agendas with which I disagree. The APA’s latest crusade concerns global warming. Their aim seems to be to silence those with whom they disagree, and to change your behavior whether you like it or not.

Your Behavior Is Our Business

A recent USA Today article outlined the most recent political agenda of the American Psychological Association. The lead paragraph summed it up:

“Those who make human behavior their business aim to make living ‘green’ your business.”

The APA has turned its eye toward curing global warming and wants to make sure that you are living your life correctly. Are you turning off your lights? Caulking your windows? Upgrading your furnace and your car? If not, the APA is out to make sure that you do. USA Today quotes APA president, Dr. Alan Kazdin:

“We know how to change behavior and attitudes. That is what we do.”

I’ve long admired Dr. Kazdin but those words are chilling. Let’s see a show of hands out there: how many of you asked the APA to modify your behavior? I surely did not.

As always, let me reveal my biases before we proceed. I’m all for clean technologies and conservation. I do what I can to minimize my impact on the planet. Yay Earth. However, I have long been a skeptic of anthropogenic global warming.

And you know what? My opinion on the matter should not matter a whit to you. I am not an earth scientist. For all I know, global temperature is regulated by a system of ropes and pulleys.

The APA’s CEO, on the other hand, seems remarkably confidence about his knowledge of meteorology:

“By taking on climate change as [psychologists’] responsibility—rather than leaving it to politicians and earth scientists—we can drive home the point that our discipline has real, practical relevance toward addressing society’s great challenges. And as experts on behavior change, learning and motivation, we will be a key part of stemming catastrophic damage to the environment” (Anderson, 2008).

Indeed, why leave the topic of global warming the experts? Psychologists can save the planet! As long as we’re switching roles, maybe the American Meteorological Society can find a cure for agoraphobia.

How to Silence the Opposition

Nothing is free; actions have consequences and tradeoffs. We could (and will, by legal mandate) replace all of our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, but only in exchange for an increased number of migraines and seizures, exposure to toxic mercury gas each time we break one, and various other tradeoffs.

As the father of a two-year-old, I’m not excited about those prospects. This is why we should collect data and debate topics like global warming before making important decisions, like banning the sale of incandescent bulbs. Like it or not, man-made global warming is fair game for debate because the data are incomplete and there are tradeoffs involved in changing our lifestyles.

For psychologists, however, the debate is over. In fact, the APA seems to believe that the topic should not be debated at all. Yet another APA global warming article (this time in Monitor on Psychology) tells us so:

“Global warming is not something scientists can debate anymore, says psychologist Rep. Brian Baird, PhD (D-Wash.), who in January traveled to Antarctica, the Great Barrier Reef and an Australian rainforest to witness firsthand the effects of climate change” (Price, 2008).

If you think the APA is speaking metaphorically about ending the debate, think again. I get the distinct impression that they would like to end the free exchange of ideas and shut down the opposing viewpoint.

The APA’s champion in this regard is Stanford social psychologist Jon Krosnick, who has extensively studied attitude formation and has formed some opinions of his own about global warming skepticism. The original USA Today article described one of his experiments:

“News stories that provided a balanced view of climate change reduced people’s beliefs that humans are at fault and also reduced the number of people who thought climate change would be bad…”

Dr. Krosnick seems to believe that there is scientific consensus about man-made climate change, and wondered why there is any debate at all when the public should be listening to scientists (who, you’ll recall, are all in agreement). To that end, he examined the effects of presenting both sides of the story:

“By editing CNN and PBS news stories so that some saw a[n anthropogenic global warming] skeptic included in the report, others saw a story in which the skeptic was edited out and another group saw no video, Krosnick found that adding 45 seconds of a skeptic to one news story caused 11% of Americans to shift their opinions about the scientific consensus. Rather than 58% believing a perceived scientific agreement, inclusion of the skeptic caused the perceived amount of agreement to drop to 47%.”

Krosnick discovered that diverse viewpoints lead to diverse opinions among news-watchers. Surprise! And therefore what? He has established a solid premise – hearing both sides of the debate causes some people to form an opinion that Krosnick dislikes – but there is no conclusion stated here. I want to know what Krosnick and the APA intend to do about the problem of distasteful opinions. How are they going to use this research to modify our behavior? For that, I had to dig deeper into Krosnick’s writings.

Skepticism is a Dangerous Thing

In an article printed in the journal Climatic Change, Krosnick et al. (2006) cited the famous 1995 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as evidence that there is scientific consensus about man-made global warming. Given the strength of the report and the unanimity of its authors, how could anyone debate the anthropogenic nature of global warming?

To answer that question, the authors examined 46 global warming news stories issued between September and December, 1995. During that news cycle, they found differences between television and newspaper coverage:

“The television news stories appeared primarily in September and October and consistently focused only on the assertion that global warming existed; the newspaper stories’ content varied over time. Initial newspaper stories in September and October primarily asserted the existence of global warming, whereas later stories focused on skepticism and uncertainty about its existence.”

The authors suggested that the difference in coverage between television and newspapers was unique, but anyone who reads newspapers can attest to the fact that the stories contain more information than their counterparts on TV.

Personally, I regard newspapers as a more respectable way of gathering information about the world than watching television, and I believe most informed people would agree. Reading a newspaper simply requires more mental effort than passively absorbing the limited information offered by TV news.

Krosnick and company disagree. Because global warming skepticism appeared later in the news cycle, and only in newspapers, the authors concluded that those who relied on newspapers for their information, and being of “low cognitive skills,” had forgotten the non-skeptical global warming messages they had encountered earlier. (“Cognitive skill,” incidentally, was measured via number of years of formal education, which is an absurd method of estimating overall intelligence. Some of the most incapable people I have ever met were in graduate school; some of the most clever and resourceful were wearing blue collars.)

Let’s recap. Krosnick et al. examined a news cycle in which global warming skepticism appeared only in newspapers; TV news stories stated that the earth was heating up and that humans were to blame. Those who read newspapers, and were therefore more likely to be skeptical of the dominant global warming message, were found to possess “low cognitive skills” according to a questionable measure.

Why, and how, were television watchers deemed to be more intelligent? In Krosnick’s words:

“Greater television exposure was indeed associated with an increase in belief in the existence of global warming but only among people who trusted scientists and who were highly educated (and would therefore have retained television message over time…)”

According to Krosnick, only the highly educated are capable of retaining information. Here’s another possible explanation: highly educated people have been trained to agree with authority. The overwhelming number of news stories to date, especially the simplistic reports that appear on TV, authoritatively assert man-made global warming. More importantly, TV watchers were not exposed to the opposing view.

Let’s get to the point. Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming are likely to tell you that the data is inconclusive, that there is a body of evidence suggesting that man has little, if any, impact on global temperature, and that those who assert man-made global warming frequently have an agenda to increase the size of government and control the lives of private citizens.

But why listen to a person’s honest explanation when there is a more convoluted explanation that suits your purpose: people who question man’s effect on global temperature are too damned dumb to remember what Katie Couric told them last week.

Once again, we see the message that stupidity is the only explanation for disagreeing with a psychologist.

“Balance as Bias”

Throughout their paper, Krosnick and company lament the fact that global warming skepticism has been given any media attention at all:

“Our findings suggest that such ‘balance’ may be consequential, because the more people with limited cognitive skills were exposed to the views of these skeptics, the more skeptical they themselves were about the existence of global warming. Perhaps a change in the news media’s approach in this regard would yield increases in public concern about this issue.”

Their solution, while impeccably euphemistic, is clear: a “change in the news media’s approach” means silencing the opposition.

The original USA Today article reported that the APA is seeking congressional funding to change your behavior, using research like Krosnick’s as their guide. Which brings me back to my main point: why I’m leaving the APA.

Their preoccupation with pet causes leaves diminishing resources for clinically relevant topics. [2] And frankly, their methods are becoming Orwellian in nature. Fortunately, there are other professional organizations that limit their attention to the business of psychology. I will be paying them a visit.

There are no hard feelings on my end. The APA is a private organization and they are free to pursue any agenda they wish – just as I am free to take my dollars elsewhere.

-IS

Footnotes
1. For example, the APA journal American Psychologist contains more than three times the number of articles related to multiculturalism as there are for depression and anxiety combined. A PsychInfo database search for the terms “diversity OR culture” yielded 454 American Psychologist titles – 145 for “diversity” alone. A search for the terms “depression” and “anxiety” yielded on 75 titles each.

2. This trend is unlikely to change. In a recent interview, five APA presidential candidates were asked this question: “Some of our members believe that the association should avoid political and moral stands on pressing social issues. What relationship(s) do you see as desirable among psychology, the association and social justice issues?” Four out of the five candidates indicated that they would continue to use the APA to push social and political agendas, especially social justice (read: socialism and the redistribution of wealth). Only one of the candidates suggested that the APA should stick to the topic of psychology (APA, 2008).

References
Anderson, N.B. (2008). Going green. Monitor on Psychology, 39(3), 9.

APA (2008). Candidates share their views. Monitor on Psychology, 39(8), 62-63.

Jayson, S. (2008). Psychologists determine what it means to think ‘green’. USA Today. Downloaded July 28, 2008 from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/environment/2008-08-13-green-psychology_N.htm.

Krosnick, J.A., Holbrook, A.L., Lowe, L., & Visser, P.S. (2006). The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agenda: a study of popular concern about global warming. Climatic Change, 77, 7-43.

Price, M. (2008). Changing behaviors by degrees. Monitor on Psychology, 39(3), 48.

Vestel, L.B. (March 27, 2009). Do new bulbs save energy if they don’t work? New York Times. Downloaded on March 31, 2009 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/business/energy-environment/28bulbs.html?ref=business.