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How Leonardo DiCaprio Can Persuade Me on Climate Change

Note: If you came here from Twitter, I use “kittens” as my code for climate science to thwart Twitter’s shadowban on my tweets.

You probably know that actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a climate activist, and he is trying to persuade the world that climate change is both real and serious. Someone asked me on Twitter what it would take for DiCaprio (for example) to persuade a person like me.

I’ll take a swing at that.

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For starters, you must separate the questions of real and serious. The real part refers to the climate models. The serious part refers to economic models. Those are different topics.

If you want to convince me that climate change is real, the best approach is to abandon the current method that packages climate models in a fashion that is identical to well-known scams. (Or hoaxes, if you prefer.)

Let me say this doubly-clear. When I say climate models are packaged in a fashion that is identical to known scams, I am not saying they are scams. I’m saying they are packaged to look exactly like scams. There is no hope for credibility with that communication plan.

To make my point visual, imagine walking into your kitchen and finding an intruder wearing a ski mask and holding a gun. You assume this person is not your friendly neighbor because he is packaged exactly like an armed burglar. If you shoot that intruder, and it turns out to be your neighbor playing a prank, you probably won’t go to jail because it isn’t your fault. The problem was that your neighbor packaged himself to look exactly like an armed burglar.

Climate scientists tell us that there are hundreds of climate models, all somewhat different. I assume that most of them do a good job predicting the past (hindcasting) because otherwise they would not be models at all. Hindcasting is one minimum requirement for being a model in this field, I would assume.

Then science ignores the models that are too far off from observed temperatures as we proceed into the future and check the predictions against reality. Sometimes scientists also “tune” the models to hindcast better, meaning tweaking assumptions. As a non-scientists, I can’t judge whether or not the tuning and tweaking are valid from a scientific perspective. But I can judge that this pattern is identical to known scams. I described the known scams in this post.

And to my skeptical mind, it sounds fishy that there are dozens or more different climate models that are getting tuned to match observations. That doesn’t sound credible, even if it is logically and scientifically sound. I am not qualified to judge the logic or science. But I am left wondering why it has to sound exactly like a hoax if it isn’t one. Was there not a credible-sounding way to make the case?

Personally, I would find it compelling if science settled on one climate model (not dozens) and reported that it was accurate (enough), based on temperature observations, for the next five years. If they pull that off, they have my attention. But they will never convince me with multiple models. That just isn’t possible.

If climate scientists want their climate predictions to be believed, they need to vote on the best model, and stick with it for a few years. If they can’t do that, all I will see is lots of blind squirrels in a field of nuts. Some squirrels will accidentally find some nuts. But it won’t look like science to me because of the way it is packaged.

I do realize that picking one model as the “best” is not something science can do with comfort. It would feel dishonest, I assume, since they don’t know which one will perform best. But if science wants to be persuasive, they need to pick one model. And it needs to be accurate(ish) for the next five years. Nothing else would be persuasive to me.

On the second point, about how serious the alleged problem of climate change is, we have to rely not on scientists but on economists. And economists have zero credibility for long-term forecasts of that type. So the serious part is beyond the reach of persuasion. You can’t get there from here because economic models are no more credible than astrology.

By the way, my educational background is in economics and business. And for years, my corporate jobs involved making complex financial projections about budgets. In other words, I was perpetuating financial fraud within the company, by order of my boss. He told me to pretend my financial projections were real, and I did. But they were not real. My predictions were in line with whatever my boss told me they would be. I “tuned” my assumptions until I got my boss’s answer. 

When I tell you it would be hard to convince me that a stranger’s economic model is credible, keep my experience in mind. I’ve seen lots of economic models. I’ve built economic models. In my experience, they are nothing but guesses, bias, and outright fraud.

The only way to convince me that climate change is bad for the economy is to wait until it starts breaking things. If I see it, and scientists agree I am seeing it, I might believe it. But long-term economic predictions can’t get me there.

I remind you that my topic is about persuasion, not the underlying truth of climate change. I don’t have access to the underlying truth because I am not a scientist working in the field. My information comes from strangers that tell me their interpretation of what the scientists are saying. I am as far from science as you can get.

The people who are hallucinating the hardest on this topic are the non-scientists who believe they have done a deep dive into the scientific papers and the climate models and arrived at a rational conclusion. The illusion here is that getting information from other humans is the same as “science.” 

Another group of hallucinators believe that they can determine the scientific truth of climate change by counting the number of scientists on each side. But that ignores the fact that science often has the majority on the wrong side. That happens every time a new idea is starting to replace an old one. Darwin did not agree with the consensus when he introduced evolution. Einstein’s ideas were slow to catch on, etc.

When the majority of scientists are on one side, what matters most is the flow rate from one side to the other, not the raw numbers. I need to know which direction the scientists are moving. Are more climate scientists moving toward climate skepticism or away from it? Give me that data and I’ll have something useful. But counting the number on each side during one slice of time is meaningless for persuasion.

My point is that Leonardo DiCaprio would have a tough time persuading me that climate science is both real and serious. But it isn’t his fault, because science has packaged climate science to look like a hoax, and sent him out to sell it. I respect and admire DiCaprio for his heart on this matter, and his effort on behalf of the planet. But science has failed him by giving him hoax-looking sales collateral.

You might love my book because of reasons and other good things.

The Persuasion Advantage and Climate Science

As I have often said in this blog, I don’t have the tools to evaluate the basic science about climate change, and neither do you. The difference is that you might be under the illusion that you do have those tools. 

However, I do have a good eye for effective communication, and good persuasion, and most of that talent seems to be bunched on one side of the debate. The non-alarmists simply have more persuasive arguments than do those in the scientific consensus. That doesn’t mean the persuasive side is also the correct side. Persuasion is often divorced from facts. But I think the persuasion gap goes a long way in explaining why we can’t agree on climate science. 

Here’s a link to a persuasive geologist who tells us not to worry about climate change. Again, I can’t evaluate his scientific claims. But his persuasion is nearly perfect. The only problem with his persuasion is that he appears to have ties to the energy industry. That means his credibility is low while his persuasion is excellent. Strange combination. Most viewers of this clip won’t notice, or won’t care, about his industry connections, so the persuasion still works.

Obviously the climate scientists working in the field have strong arguments that make sense to other scientists. That’s what makes it a consensus. But that side does a terrible job of selling their point of view to the public. Mostly we’re asked to trust the experts. And we don’t trust experts who would be drummed out of their chosen field if they got out of step. And we trust them less when they say they aren’t influenced by that sort of thing. It’s hard to trust a scientist who acts as if the field of cognitive science doesn’t apply to scientists.

If history is our guide, it will take 30 seconds for one of you to produce a debunking link for the link I provided. And I will look at that debunking link and have no way to evaluate its credibility. 

On the left, the prevailing notion is that the folks on the right are ignorant of science, and that’s the problem. There are plenty of anecdotal examples that support that worldview.

On the right, the prevailing notion is that the left are gullible, and only half-informed because their news sources filter out the skeptics. If you are on the left, and haven’t seen the clip I provided, that supports this view.

My view is that the left has more climate science experts and the right has more persuasive arguments. My usual bias is to side with the consensus of scientists. But it’s hard to understand why their side is so unpersuasive. The side that has the scientific consensus behind it usually has an enormous persuasion advantage. Why is it different this time?

If I ever figure that out, I’ll let you know.

Scott Adams

Co-founder of WhenHub, because you will love it.

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, because you need a book for your upcoming trip.

The Persuasion Filter Looks at Torture. Does it Work?

If I ever get captured and threatened with torture it will take about five seconds for me to give up every secret I have. That’s because I know I would break eventually, so why put up with unnecessary torture?

I assume the same is true for the lightly-trained ISIS fighters. Some are just teenagers. Once the bravery-inducing drugs in their system wear off, I have to assume that at least some of them – if not most – would become quite flexible under the threat of torture, not to mention the torture itself.

But won’t they lie?

Well, in many cases the secrets they reveal under torture can be easily checked. If they tell you ISIS has a munitions storage area somewhere, you can go check it out. If they tell you there are ISIS troops massing somewhere, you can fly a drone over and take a look. 

And if you learn that the prisoner lied? More torture, I assume, and probably worse than the first time. So lying about things that can be verified is a bad strategy for a captive.

Some things can’t be verified. But sometimes you have two prisoners. See if their stories match up. That would help.

My point is that common sense, combined with everything you know about human beings, tells you that torture works, at least in some cases. It would work on me. It would work on you. It would certainly work on under-trained ISIS prisoners. 

So why do the experts say torture doesn’t work? 

The answer can be found in the Persuasion Filter. Torture is persuasion, but so is the way you talk about it. If you promote me to the rank of General, put me on television, and ask me if torture works, do you know what I’ll say?

I’ll say it doesn’t work. 

I’ll say I can get more cooperation by being nice. I will look you in the eye and lie my ass off. Because that’s my job.

As a military General, my job is to keep my troops safe. So I will lie about the effectiveness of torture for several reasons: 

1) An enemy might someday capture my troops. I don’t want the enemy to think torture is a practical option.

2) I don’t want the enemy to know their captured soldiers will be giving up their secrets to my side in under five seconds.

3) I don’t want to tarnish the brand of the United States or the military by associating it with torture.

4) I don’t want to go to jail. Torture is illegal.

So the ideal approach for an “expert” on torture is to say in public that it never works while finding ways to skirt the law and use it anyway when needed. Waterboarding, for example, was an attempt to stay legal while still “torturing.” 

Keep in mind that for every “expert” on television that says torture never works, there are lots of “experts” around the world using the method every day. I doubt they would use if it it NEVER worked. After all, they are the experts.

This brings us to President Trump. He says with surprising candor that he believes torture works but will follow the recommendation of his generals who say it doesn’t.

Interpretation: Torture works. The generals know it. We’ll find a way to do it if necessary to keep the country safe. You don’t want to know the details.

We like to believe that experts are more credible than non-experts. And President Trump is no expert on torture. But keep in mind that President Trump is a Master Persuader who can detect bullshit faster than normal people. 

You might even call him an expert at detecting bullshit. 

When President Trump presents something as fact, the odds are high that it is hyperbole or just persuasion. You don’t want to assume his facts are literally true, although they are usually emotionally or directionally true.

But if President Trump – The Master Persuader – tells you someone else’s facts are bullshit, you can usually take that to the bank. The man knows bullshit when he sees it. And with his skillset he can also smell it coming from miles away.

On an unrelated topic, when you see President Trump disagreeing with the experts on climate change, you assume he has no credibility. He’s not an expert in the field. But he does know bullshit when he sees it. And I think he believes the prediction models are unlikely to be accurate. (As do I.) The prediction models are not science, per se. They are persuasion disguised as science via the process of conflation and association. And Trump knows persuasion.

Trump could be completely wrong about climate change. So could I. But when the Master Persuader calls bullshit on something, be cautious about betting against him. 

Scott Adams

Co-founder of WhenHub

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Best Arguments For and Against Climate Model Credibility

Below are competing links on the credibility of climate change models. One makes the case that the models do a good job. The other makes a case that the models are not credible. See which one you find more persuasive.

As I have been saying all along, I can’t tell which argument is right. I’m not smart enough to evaluate this sort of topic. But if we are looking at the persuasion dimension alone, one of these is far stronger persuasion than the other.

Argument in favor of climate models being credible (video)

Argument against climate models being credible (article)

By the way, I’m being attacked on Twitter for being an alleged “climate denier.” For the record, I side with the consensus of climate scientists for the sake of my career and reputation. My blogging is about the persuasiveness of the claims, not the underlying facts.

Persuasion-wise, and based on what I have seen, the folks who say the climate models are not credible are far more persuasive than the people who believe the models are reliable. But persuasion is not always connected to truth. The truth of climate change isn’t fully available to me, given my lack of knowledge and training in the relevant fields. For now I’m siding with the consensus view of scientists, which puts me on the weak side of the persuasion game in this debate. My side really needs help.

One way to help the climate is to drive less. The WhenHub app (my startup) might help with that. It’s like the Uber app without the Uber car. Watch your friends or business associates approach on a common map so no one gets lost on the way to meeting. People are loving it.

WhenHub app for Apple: http://apple.co/2eLL3Oh

WhenHub app for Android: http://bit.ly/2fIb6L7

Climate Change and Trump

I realize a number of my blog readers don’t think climate change is a problem. Hold that objection until the end.

Let’s say you think climate change is the biggest threat to humanity, and you also think Trump believes climate change to be a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, because he actually said that in the past. That’s a big problem, right?

Let’s put it in context and see if doing so changes your mind.

For starters, Trump has over fifty years of business experience, and according to all reports, he is a rational person in his private dealings. In public, however, he says all sorts of crazy, provocative, and untrue things. That is worrisome.

But at the same time, he tells us in public that he acts this way for effect, and we observe that his approach works. Trump secured the Republican nomination doing exactly what everyone in the world – except for a handful of trained persuaders – said he should NOT do. 

You might understand why Trump’s approach worked in the Republican Primary, where things can get crazy, but you’re probably thinking the same approach will fail in the general election. And you’d be right. That’s why you already see Trump evolving. He’s moderated from super-provocative to simply provocative. And we have observed him acting presidential during victory speeches, and other times when it suits him to do so. Evidently he has control over turning on and off the provocative stuff.

We know Trump deals in hyperbole, and he bends the truth when that is the approach that is most persuasive. But he does it right in front of us, while explaining that he does it because it works. In an odd way, he is the most transparent candidate we have ever seen. He tells us that hyperbole (bullshit) and provocation get good results, and we observe that to be true. At least so far.

Given that Trump is light on policy details, and prefers provocation over facts, we can expect Trump’s real opinion on climate change is more along the lines of haven’t really looked into it yet. At least not in any detail.

Should you worry that the probable next President of the United States is not well-informed about one of the most important issues of our time?

No.

If you hired a CEO for a major corporation, and she wasn’t scheduled to start the job for six months, would you expect her to have a detailed plan for the company today?

No, you would not expect that. 

You would expect that the CEO would learn about each issue in detail, using the latest information and the best advisors, once on the job. For climate change, it might take advisors about three hours to bring a leader up to speed on the latest science. It isn’t a big deal. Trump is treating the presidency like any other job that you learn once you get there. That’s what Obama did. That’s what all presidents do.

Now for the fun part.

Imagine a Democratic President trying to persuade Republicans that they need to do something expensive to deal with climate change. That’s nearly impossible.

Now imagine a President Trump trying to deal with climate change. The Democrats are pre-sold. He doesn’t need to convince them of anything. But to change the minds of Republicans, you need to so something hypnotists call pacing and leading.

Trump is already pacing. That means acting like the people you plan to later persuade. In one-on-one situations, pacing might include matching the subject’s breathing, posture, and choice of words. In the public context it means saying what people are already thinking. Many Republicans believe climate change is not real. Trump said it. He paced them. Now they trust him, because he thinks the same way they do.

And that means Donald Trump is – literally – the only human being on Earth who can persuade Republicans that climate change is real. Some of you might recognize this technique as “Nixon goes to China.” Richard Nixon paced Republicans by being a commie-hater, just like them. When Nixon decided to get friendly with China, his supporters trusted him because they knew he thought the same way they did. When Nixon changed his mind on China, his supporters figured they could be flexible too. That’s pacing and leading.

Trump doesn’t need to change the minds of any Democrats to believe in climate change. They already believe it. But if Trump someday needs to change Republican minds, he’s in a position to do it. And easily.

Here’s how.

I’m going to put this in the form of a citizen request. I’d like to see Trump offer to bring the climate change debate to the public. Make it part of the show, like Celebrity Apprentice, with advocates of both sides presenting to Trump on camera. Maybe bring in some experts on communication to help each side do the best job of making their cases. (Scientists are terrible at communicating.)

Trump isn’t claiming to know as much as a climate change scientist. He is staking out his brand as some sort of “common sense conservative.” Common sense says we should let the smart people on climate change present their arguments and see who has the best case. And it needs to be public.

If you think climate change is real, you probably love that idea of proving it in public. You want the world to know what you know. And if you think climate change is a hoax, you want a chance to show the world that you are right. And news organizations would eat it up. It would be a spectacle, and in the end, the public would be better-informed.

Does Trump really believe climate change is a hoax? Let me tell you the answer to that question in the clearest possible terms, based on everything I know about the field of persuasion.

Answer: No

But he might have doubts about the predictive ability of models. That’s a separate question.

Cows: Our Greatest Enemies

I hate cows.

My uncle owned a dairy farm. My siblings and I often worked on that farm. My chores included shoveling cow manure, cleaning the milk storage tanks, and herding the cows. One time I befriended a calf and gave it a cute name. A few weeks later my grandmother served it to me for dinner. It wasn’t the best way to hear the news. 

I will always remember the day my brother and I were invited to watch the hog slaughter. My uncle slit each hog’s necks in front of us and we watched the hogs scream and bleed out.

I’m a vegetarian now (mostly) but not because of that childhood farming horror. I don’t digest meat well. I tell you this background so you understand my bias.

I recently watched a documentary called Cowspiracy. Leonardo DiCaprio executive produced it. The filmmakers are vegans, so take their point of view with the usual skepticism. The film’s claim is that science supports their notion that perhaps half of the problem with climate change is caused by livestock flatulence and the decimation of the rain forest for livestock farming.

The more interesting claim is that the cow-fart portion of climate change is the type that can be quickly reversed. Once the cows are gone, the gases dissipate relatively quickly. The film claims that even if we stopped using all carbon fuels for transportation, the chemistry of the atmosphere is such that we would not get a meaningful improvement in a short time frame. But getting rid of livestock has a quick benefit, they say.

According to the documentary, it’s either the cows (and other livestock) or us. If we keep eating animals, and the animals keep turbo-charging climate change, we’re all deeply screwed.

The movie suggests that Big Meat might kill people for mentioning this topic. So if I die under suspicious circumstances, please reduce your meat consumption. Karma demands it.

One assumes the Cowspiracy film has some bias. And I expect that critics are questioning the science and assumptions in the film. I’ll let you rip the documentary apart in the comments. But I think the basic premise that livestock is a big contributor to climate change is true. Fact-check me on that. 

This week we heard that cured meats cause cancer. Sheesh.

Now add the economics of using a zillion acres of land to feed cows instead of humans. That can’t be a good use of resources in a crowded world. 

I would like to avoid a debate on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, as I find that unproductive in this sort of forum. But I am interested to know if any of you are meat-eaters and also climate change worriers. I don’t see how you can be both, assuming the Cowspiracy folks are right, or somewhat right.

Is there anyone reading this blog who is both worried about climate change and also a meat-eater? If so, how do you rationalize it?

P.S. It was nice knowing you.