Cheat-Seeking Missles

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Availability Cascades Hype Global Warming

New York Times readers will get an eye-full of global warming skepticism this New Years day, as science columnist John Tierney tees off on availability cascades and availability entrepreneurs.

Both concepts are are the offspring of Timur Kuran, econ prof at USC, and Cass R. Sunstein, law prof at the University of Chicago. Before getting back to Tierney, here's Kuran's and Sunstein's abstract:
An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.
In other words, if news editors get the idea that hurricane Katrina is a harbinger of global warming, then they will scamper to cover every hurricane that blows, so the public will perceive hurricanes to be a greater threat than they really are.
The driving mechanism involves a combination of informational and reputational motives: Individuals endorse the perception partly by learning from the apparent beliefs of others and partly by distorting their public responses in the interest of maintaining social acceptance.
In other words, if you were to say the global warming debate isn't over, you'd be going against the apparent beliefs of others and your social acceptance would drop.

Darn, another year of unpopularity.
Availability entrepreneurs - activists who manipulate the content of public discourse - strive to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their agendas.
Think Al Gore, who is the penultimate availability entrepreneur, greatly enriching himself in the process.
Their availability campaigns may yield social benefits, but sometimes they bring harm, which suggests a need for safeguards.
A straightforward example of this is how availability entrepreneurs have made AIDS and HIV a much bigger problem than it really is, since malaria, heart disease and many other diseases kill more people annually than AIDS. On the "social benefits" side, funding for AIDS research soared and fewer people are medical advances followed. On the social harm side, researchers in other fields are suffering as a larger amount of available funds goes to AIDS.

This morning, Tierney looks at global warming through the lens of availability cascades and entrepreneurs. Tierney is a global warming believer, but:
Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade ...”
He then shows how this works in the real world of editors and reporters:
Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory — and image of Katrina — presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

It was, of course, the paper in the more obscure journal, which suggested that global warming is creating more hurricanes. The paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes.
That's not what availability entrepreneur Al Gore and his Warmie Legions would have you believe, so they take advantage of the news sensation-hungry media and fire the availability cascade engines to influence public perception and policy.

Once a cascade starts, availability entrepreneurs in the media and the Warmie movement will do all they can to keep it cascading, so expect 2008 to be a year of sensationalistic stories tying any bad weather event to global warming.

hat-tip: memeorandum

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