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Posted on: December 27, 2020

The everyday magic of superstition | The Psychologist


Effects | Facts – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet


The invocation of the precautionary principle in the climate change issue derives from its acceptance and its use in environmentalism where the greater harm argument has been used to legitimize the precautionary principle. The Martin etal 1997 paper in the bibliography below lays out the case for its use in climate change by describing climate change as an environmental issue where fossil fuel emissions are the pollution and climate action is the remedy. There are two significant issues in this logic.

First, that fossil fuel emissions are a form of air pollution and an environmental issue has already been established back in the 1970s and strict air quality regulations were established and enforced by the newly formed EPA that was itself a creation of this issue. The fossil fuel industry and the internal combustion engine industry responded and at great cost to the consumer, they were able to meet the new EPA emissions standards in terms of both the smog issue and the acid rain issue.

Climate change was not invoked as an issue in the matter of the environmental impact of fossil fuels. It should be noted that the history of climate change research linked to fossil fuels goes back to 1938 when the first research paper on fossil fueled climate change was published by the Royal Society in England. It was more than 20 years after the clean air laws were passed, enforced by the EPA, and complied with by the fossil fuel industry, that climate science environmentalism proposed climate change as a further environmental issue for fossil fuels. This was in the form of the Hansen 1988 research paper and Congressional Testimony in which climate science demanded not just clean air but the elimination of fossil fuels altogether.

The world was told and is still being told that we must stop using fossil fuels because the combustion of fossil fuels no matter how clean causes carbon dioxide that is millions of years old and not part of the current account of the carbon cycle to enter the atmosphere and that causes atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to go up. The environmental harm of that change is proposed as rising surface temperature because surface temperature is a logarithmic function of atmospheric CO2 concentration. The warming of the earth since the end of the Little Ice Age, a 500-year cold period that ended at sometime in the 18th century when a 500-year cooling trend had reverted to a warming trend. This change coincided roughly with the Industrial Revolution when humans had begun to use fossil fuels in a sharply rising trend in its production and consumption. It was on this basis that the causal connection from fossil fuels to warming was proposed in Callendar 1938 and then 30 years later in Hansen 1988. The further assessment of the desctructiveness of climate change in terms of collapse of civilizations, mass extinctions, and the destruction of the planet itself led to the invocation of the precautionary principle which implied that that the rigorous and scientific evidence of the harm must not be demanded because of the greater harm of being wrong if the harm cannot be proven. Here we argue that the invocation of the precautionary principle facilitates the use of supersition and confirmation bias in climate change and the demand for climate action. That in turn weakens the credibility of the claimed harm of climate change and the demand for climate action.

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Ono, Koichi. “Superstitious behavior in humans.” Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior 47.3 (1987): 261-271. Twenty undergraduate students were exposed to single response‐independent schedules of reinforcer presentation, fixed‐time or variable‐time, each with values of 30 and 60 s. The reinforcer was a point on a counter accompanied by a red lamp and a brief buzzer. Three color signals were presented, without consistent relation to reinforcer or to the subjects’ behavior. Three large levers were available, but the subjects were not asked to perform any particular behavior. Three of the 20 subjects developed persistent superstitious behavior. One engaged in a pattern of lever‐pulling responses that consisted of long pulls after a few short pulls; the second touched many things in the experimental booth; the third showed biased responding called sensory superstition. However, most subjects did not show consistent superstitious behavior. Reinforcers can operate effectively on human behavior even in the absence of a response‐reinforcer contingency and can, in some cases, shape stable superstitious patterns. However, superstitious behavior is not a consistent outcome of exposure of human subjects to response‐independent reinforcer deliveries.

Martin, Philippe H. “” If You Don’t Know How to Fix it, Please Stop Breaking it!” The Precautionary Principle and Climate Change.” Foundations of Science 2.2 (1997): 263-292. Taking precautions to prevent harm. Whether principe de précaution, Vorsorgeprinzip, føre-var prinsippet, or försiktighetsprincip, etc., the precautionary principle embodies the idea that public and private interests should act to prevent harm. Furthermore, the precautionary principle suggests that action should be taken to limit, regulate, or prevent potentially dangerous undertakings even in the absence of scientific proof. Such measures also naturally entail taking economic costs into account. With the environmental disasters of the 1980s, the precautionary principle established itself as an operational concept. On the eve of the 1997 Climate Summit in Kyoto, precaution, as the precautionary principle is often referred to, has now become a key legal principle in environmental law, in general, and in current international climate negotiations, in particular, attempts to understand why. It examines in turn the natural affinity between the precautionary principle and climate change, reviews a series of issues which the principle raises, and discusses avenues which it opens paper, climate change fulfills the theoretical requirements set for the application of the precautionary principle. It comes as no surprise that the actual application of the precautionary principle in the context of climate change raises high political stakes. As a result, climate change science, in particular, and science, in general, is under the fire of politically-motivated scientific skeptics. Thus, by way of the counter-measures which must be put into effect, the precautionary principle calls for a greater sense of responsibility on the part of scientists and the public at large. Specifically, from scientists, it demands perseverance in rigor, excellence in communication, and committment to education. However, even if special efforts are made to implement the precautionary principle in the context of climate change, the success of climate change mitigation will constitute no test of the validity, the usefulness, or the efficiency of the precautionary principle. Indeed, the degree to which climate change mitigation succeeds only provides a measure of our kind’s ability to manage responsibly the global commons which we inherited from our ancestors and which our generation enjoys, the global commons which we will pass on to today’s children and to generations to come.

Endfield, Georgina H., and David J. Nash. “Drought, desiccation and discourse: missionary correspondence and nineteenth‐century climate change in central southern Africa.” Geographical Journal 168.1 (2002): 33-47. This paper examines the role that representatives of the London Missionary Society in central southern Africa during the nineteenth century may have played in the development of geographical debates concerning the long‐term desiccation of the African continent. Observations on climate included within missionary documents are used to reconstruct a chronology of intra‐decadal climatic variability for the period 1815–1900. This reveals six drought periods and seven wet phases that affected large areas of the region, but identifies no evidence for progressive desiccation. The chronology is then used as a framework within which to view missionary perspectives on drought and desiccation. Major influences upon the development of desiccationist theory appear to include the prevalence of contemporary moral economic explanations of climatic variability, as well as the uptake and acceptance of indigenous understanding of climate change. Significantly, many of the key observations by eminent missionaries used as supporting evidence for progressive desiccation are identified as having been made during periods of severe drought. This is used to suggest that the most widely propagated evidence for desiccation may, therefore, simply be the end‐product of periods of short‐term drought rather than long‐term climatic deterioration.

Gosselin, Frédéric, and Philippe G. Schyns. “Superstitious perceptions reveal properties of internal representations.” Psychological science 14.5 (2003): 505-509. Everyone has seen a human face in a cloud, a pebble, or blots on a wall. Evidence of superstitious perceptions has been documented since classical antiquity, but has received little scientific attention. In the study reported here, we used superstitious perceptions in a new principled method to reveal the properties of unobservable object representations in memory. We stimulated the visual system with unstructured white noise. Observers firmly believed that they perceived the letter S in Experiment 1 and a smile on a face in Experiment 2. Using reverse correlation and computational analyses, we rendered the memory representations underlying these superstitious perceptions.

Case, Trevor I., et al. “Coping With Uncertainty: Superstitious Strategies and Secondary Control 1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34.4 (2004): 848-871. The aim of the present studies was to investigate the relationship between primary and secondary control and the use of superstitious strategies under conditions of uncertainty and stress. In the first study, 78 participants completed a chance‐determined card‐guessing task in which they were permitted to use a psychic’s card selections instead of making their own card selections. Participants’ use of a superstitious strategy (a psychic’s selections) increased significantly with the perceived likelihood of failure, regardless of belief in psychic ability. A second study (N= 102) replicated these findings using a skill task. Overall, these data suggest that as the need to control outcomes becomes increasingly salient, the use of superstitious strategies may represent attempts at secondary control.

Beck, Jan, and Wolfgang Forstmeier. “Superstition and belief as inevitable by-products of an adaptive learning strategy.” Human Nature 18.1 (2007): 35-46. The existence of superstition and religious beliefs in most, if not all, human societies is puzzling for behavioral ecology. These phenomena bring about various fitness costs ranging from burial objects to celibacy, and these costs are not outweighed by any obvious benefits. In an attempt to resolve this problem, we present a verbal model describing how humans and other organisms learn from the observation of coincidence (associative learning). As in statistical analysis, learning organisms need rules to distinguish between real patterns and randomness. These rules, which we argue are equivalent to setting the level of α for rejection of the null hypothesis in statistics, are governed by risk management as well as by comparison to previous experiences. Risk management means that the cost of a possible type I error (superstition) has to be traded off against the cost of a possible type II error (ignorance). This trade-off implies that the occurrence of superstitious beliefs is an inevitable consequence of an organism’s ability to learn from observation of coincidence. Comparison with previous experiences (as in Bayesian statistics) improves the chances of making the right decision. While this Bayesian approach is found in most learning organisms, humans have evolved a unique ability to judge from experiences whether a candidate subject has the power to mechanistically cause the observed effect. Such “strong” causal thinking evolved because it allowed humans to understand and manipulate their environment. Strong causal thinking, however, involves the generation of hypotheses about underlying mechanisms (i.e., beliefs). Assuming that natural selection has favored individuals that learn quicker and more successfully than others owing to (1) active search to detect patterns and (2) the desire to explain these patterns mechanistically, we suggest that superstition has evolved as a by-product of the first, and that belief has evolved as a by-product of the second.

MacLean, Jason. “Principle 5–Precautionary Principle.” Jason MacLean (2009): 347-416. An absence of conclusive scientific evidence that serious and irreversible environmental harm will occur within their sphere of influence must not deter corporations from taking cost-effective precautionary measures. Furthermore, corporations bear the burden of proof of socially acceptable safety when they advocate potentially harmful projects.

LaFollette, Marcel Chotkowski. “Track Conditions: Upon Revisiting How Superstition Won and Science Lost.” Isis 110.4 (2019): 755-757. John Burnham’s decision in How Superstition Won and Science Lost to frame science popularization as a cultural competition with winners and losersrather than as an organic process responding to external forces and evolving over time—reflected both his high regard for science and his disdain for those who promoted magic and superstition over scientific authority and authenticity. To Burnham, the outcome of such rivalry mattered, for reasons beyond whether popular culture offered transitory distraction or fact-based enlightenment. Medical and health knowledge could save lives, discoveries in physics and chemistry fueled social progress, while pseudoscientists and fakers peddled false hopes and cures, manipulating their auditors’ emotions for the sake of profit or power rather than the greater good. By abdicating responsibility for communicating to the public, and eventually abandoning center stage to professional popularizers and journalists, the scientific community had also, Burnham believed, left audiences vulnerable to superstition’s seductive attractions. It was a compelling argument, buttressed by daunting arrays of evidence, and persuasive within the context of the 1980s.

Ungar, Sheldon. “Knowledge, ignorance and the popular culture: climate change versus the ozone hole.” Public Understanding of Science 9.3 (2000): 297-312. This paper begins with the “knowledge-ignorance paradox”—the process by which the growth of specialized knowledge results in a simultaneous increase in ignorance. It then outlines the roles of personal and social motivations, institutional decisions, the public culture, and technology in establishing consensual guidelines for ignorance. The upshot is a sociological model of how the “knowledge society” militates against the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Given the assumption of widespread scientific illiteracy, the paper tries to show why the ozone hole was capable of engendering some public understanding and concern, while climate change failed to do so. The ozone threat encouraged the acquisition of knowledge because it was allied and resonated with easy-to-understand bridging metaphors derived from the popular culture. It also engendered a “hot crisis.” That is, it provided a sense of immediate and concrete risk with everyday relevance. Climate change fails at both of these criteria and remains in a public limbo.

Cruikshank, Julie. “Glaciers and climate change: perspectives from oral tradition.” Arctic (2001): 377-393. In northwestern North America, glaciers figure prominently in both indigenous oral traditions and narratives of geophysical sciences. These perspectives intersect in discussions about global warming, predicted to be extreme at Arctic and Subarctic latitudes and an area of concern for both local people and scientists. Indigenous people in northwestern North America have experienced climate variability associated with the latter phases of the Little Ice Age (approximately 1550-1850). This paper draws on oral traditions passed down from that period, some recorded between 1900 and the early 1950s in coastal Alaska Tlingit communities and others recorded more recently with elders from Yukon First Nations. The narratives concern human travel to the Gulf of Alaska foreshore at the end of the Little Ice Age from the Copper River, from the Alaska panhandle, and from the upper Alsek-Tatshenshini drainage, as well as observations about glacier advances, retreats, and surges. The paper addresses two large policy debates. One concerns the incorporation of local knowledge into scientific research. The second addresses the way in which oral tradition contributes another variety of historical understanding in areas of the world where written documents are relatively recent. Academic debates, whether in science or in history, too often evaluate local expertise as data or evidence, rather than as knowledge or theory that might contribute different perspectives to academic questions.

Hanekamp, Jaap C., and S. Wybren Verstegen. “The problem of the precautionary principle: The paternalism of the precautionary coalition.” Science vs Superstition. The Case for a New Scientific Enlightenment. (2006). In recent years, the traditional wisdom that ‘one can never be too careful’ has been formalized as a dominant legal doctrine, enshrined in international law as the Precautionary Principle. The first international endorsement of the precautionary principle was the acceptance in 1982 by the United Nations General Assembly of The World Charter for Nature, and it first appeared in an international treaty in the 1987 Montreal Protocol. It can now be found in a host of diverse national and international legislative treaties.1 In terms of international policy-making, the most influential enshrinement of the precautionary principle was its insertion into the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Although the principle has been defined in a host of different ways, leading to a variety of interpretations , its essence is expressed quite clearly in the Rio Declaration, which states that in relation to a given action or state of affairs:
“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In other words, the precautionary principle suggests that if the result of a given action may be to cause irreversible damage of some sort, in the absence of scientific consensus that such harm will not ensue, we must proceed as if there is evidence that such harm will indeed ensue. The result is that the burden of proof falls not on the regulator, but on those who advocate taking the action.

Demeritt, David. “Science studies, climate change and the prospects for constructivist critique.” Economy and society 35.3 (2006): 453-479. Starting from the debates over the ‘reality’ of global warming and the politics of science studies, I seek to clarify what is at stake politically in constructivist understandings of science and nature. These two separate but related debates point to the centrality of modern science in political discussions of the environment and to the difficulties, simultaneously technical and political, in warranting political action in the face of inevitably partial and uncertain scientific knowledge. The case of climate change then provides an experimental test case with which to explore the various responses to these challenges offered by Ulrich Beck’s reflexive modernization, the normative theory of expertise advanced by Harry Collins and Robert Evans, and Bruno Latour’s utopian vision for decision-making by the ‘collective’ in which traditional epistemic and institutional distinctions between science and politics are entirely superseded.

*Foster, Kevin R., and Hanna Kokko. “The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276.1654 (2009): 31-37. Superstitious behaviours, which arise through the incorrect assignment of cause and effect, receive considerable attention in psychology and popular culture. Perhaps owing to their seeming irrationality, however, they receive little attention in evolutionary biology. Here we develop a simple model to define the condition under which natural selection will favour assigning causality between two events. This leads to an intuitive inequality—akin to an amalgam of Hamilton’s rule and Pascal’s wager—-that shows that natural selection can favour strategies that lead to frequent errors in assessment as long as the occasional correct response carries a large fitness benefit. It follows that incorrect responses are the most common when the probability that two events are really associated is low to moderate: very strong associations are rarely incorrect, while natural selection will rarely favour making very weak associations. Extending the model to include multiple events identifies conditions under which natural selection can favour associating events that are never causally related. Specifically, limitations on assigning causal probabilities to pairs of events can favour strategies that lump non-causal associations with causal ones. We conclude that behaviours which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behaviour in all organisms, including ourselves.

Fforde, Adam. “Confirmation bias: methodological causes and a palliative response.” Quality & Quantity 51.5 (2017): 2319-2335. The paper advocates for changes to normative aspects of belief management in applied research. The central push is to argue for methodologically-required choice to include the possibility of adopting the view that a given dataset contains insufficient regularities for predictive theorising. This is argued to be related to how we should understand differences between predictive and non-predictive knowledges, contrasting Crombie and Nisbet. The proposed direction may also support management practices under conditions of uncertainty.

Druckman, James N., and Mary C. McGrath. “The evidence for motivated reasoning in climate change preference formation.” Nature Climate Change 9.2 (2019): 111-119. Despite a scientific consensus, citizens are divided when it comes to climate change — often along political lines. Democrats or liberals tend to believe that human activity is a primary cause of climate change, whereas Republicans or conservatives are much less likely to hold this belief. A prominent explanation for this divide is that it stems from directional motivated reasoning: individuals reject new information that contradicts their standing beliefs. In this Review, we suggest that the empirical evidence is not so clear, and is equally consistent with a theory in which citizens strive to form accurate beliefs but vary in what they consider to be credible evidence. This suggests a new research agenda on climate change preference formation, and has implications for effective communication.

Rivera-Ramírez, José Domingo. “Precautionary Principle of Science: Guideline of Ethics in Chemistry.” Open Journal of Philosophy 10.03 (2020): 374. 2020: ABSTRACT: Considering the two most applied ethical ideologies in science, the Value Neutrality and the Precautionary Principle, the latter is the ethical criterion that best fits the way in which chemistry has been developed and is currently executed. This work begins with a historical description of each ideology and a comparison of their fundamental statutes. After an analysis of the main problems that humanity has experienced through the chemical sciences—massive accidents, environmental pollution and public health problems—an evaluation is made of how chemistry has applied the Precautionary Principle to evaluate every scientific and technological development and thus reestablish new criteria for the remediation and prevention of harmful scenarios to humanity and the environment. The work concludes that chemistry has established a basis for ethical exercise applying the Precautionary Principle, and this is reflected in pragmatic and objective developments as Green Chemistry, remediation and substitution technologies, and in Sanitary and Environmental Regulation.


Signficant evidence is found in the literature survey that (1) human beings, whether or not they are scientists, are subject to supersition. This supersitious tendency likely derives from the survival criteria for early humans where there is harm for the absence of supersition and no harm for supersitious beliefs that turn out to be wrong.

The supersitious nature of humans is the likely source of confirmation bias in climate change research particularly so for the idenfiicaiton of all bad weather events as creations of climate change. Yet, the application of the precautionary principle is not possible because the principle assumes a zero cost of being wrong whereas the climate change movement demands an extremely costly oveerhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure based on the climate change hypothesis.

The cost of a wrong supersition assessment in climate change is not zero but stagerringly large. The rationalization of confirmation bias and supersition is not possible under these conditions. A further analysis of the human traits of confirmation bias and supersition in their assessment of climate change with the precautionary principle is presented in a related post on this site. LINK:

Entangled Minds: Witch burning

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