The legend of the Titanic

It’s 100 years since the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, and it’s still remembered today. It was one of those landmark events that make a deep impression on people. It also fits a pattern of how we respond to different conditions, according to a recent book about the impact of environmental science on the society (Gudmund Hernes Hot Topic – Cold Comfort): major events are the stimulus and the change of mind is the response.

Hernes suggests that one of those turning moments that made us realize our true position in the universe was when we for the first time saw our own planet from space.

NASA Earth rise

He observes that

[t]he change in mindset has not so much been the result of meticulous information dissemination, scientific discourse and everyday reasoning as driven by occurrences that in a striking way has disclosed what was not previously realized or only obscurely seen.

Does he make a valid point? If the scientific information looks anything like the situation in a funny animation made by Alister Doyle (Dummiez: climate change and electric cars), then it is understandable.

Moreover, he is not the only person arguing that our minds are steered by big events – the importance of big events was even acknowledged in the fiction ‘State of Fear‘.

A recent paper by Brulle et al (2012) also suggests that the provision of information has less impact than what opinion leaders (top politicians) say.

However, if the notion that information makes little impact is correct, one may wonder what the point would be in having a debate about climate change, and why certain organisations would put so much efforts into denial, as described in books such as Heat is on, Climate Cover-up, Republican war on science, Merchants of doubt, and The Hockeystick and Climate Wars. Why then, would there be such things as ‘the Heartland Institute’, ‘NIPCC’, climateaudit, WUWT, climatedepot, and FoS, if they had no effect? And indeed, the IPCC reports and the reports from the National Academy of Sciences? One could even ask whether the effort that we have put into RealClimate has been in vain.

Then again, could the analysis presented in Brulle et al. be misguided because the covariates used in their study did not provide a sufficiently good representation of important factors? Or could the results be contaminated by disinformation campaigns?

Their results and Hernes assertion may furthermore suggest that there are different rules for different groups of people: What works for scientists doesn’t work for lay people. It is clear from the IPCC and international scientific academies that climate scientists in general are impressed by the increasing information (Oreskes, 2004).

Hernes does, however, acknowledge that a background knowledge is present and may play a role in interpreting events, which means that most of us no longer blame the gods for calamities (in the time before the enlightenment, there were witch hunts and sacrifices to the gods). The presence of the knowledge now provides a rational background, which sometimes seems to be taken for granted.

Maybe it should be no surprise that the situation is as described by Hernes and Brulle et al., because historically science communication hasn’t really been appreciated by the science community (according to ‘Don’t be such a scientist‘) and has not been enthusiastically embraced by the media. There is a barrier to information flow, and Somerville and Hassol (2011) observe that a rational voice of scientists is sorely needed.

The rational of Hernes’ argument, however, is that swaying people does not only concern rational and intellectual ideas, but also an emotional dimension. The mindset influences a person’s identity and character, and is bundeled together with their social network. Hence, people who change their views on the world, may also distance themselves from some friends and connect with new people. A new standpoint will involve a change in their social connections in addition to a change in rational views. Events, such as the Titanic, Earth rise, 911, and Hurricane Katrina influence many people both through rational thought and emotions, where people’s frame of mind shifts together with their friends’.

What do I think? Public opinion is changed not by big events as such, but by the public interpretation of those events. Whether a major event like hurricane Katrina or the Moscow heat wave changes attitudes towards climate change is determined by people’s interpretation of this event, and whether they draw a connection to climate change – though not necessarily directly. I see this as a major reason why organisations such as the Heartland are fighting their PR battle by claiming that such events are all natural and have nothing to do with emissions.

The similarity between these organisations and the Titanic legend is that there was a widespread misconception that it could not sink (and hence its fame) and now organisations like the Heartland make dismissive claims about any connection between big events and climate change. However, new and emerging science is suggesting that there may indeed be some connections between global warming and heat waves and between trends in mean precipitation and more extreme rainfall.


  1. R.J. Brulle, J. Carmichael, and J.C. Jenkins, "Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010", Climatic Change. DOI.
  2. N. Oreskes, "BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change", Science, vol. 306, 2004, pp. 1686-1686. DOI.
  3. R.C.J. Somerville, and S.J. Hassol, "Communicating the science of climate change", Physics Today, vol. 64, 2011, pp. 48-. DOI.

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