An Anatomy of Denialism, Part 1

Look around you. According to climate anthropologists, 1 in every 2 people you see* is a denialist.

That’s almost half of all people.

But which half? And how can you be sure it’s not you?

You can’t.

There’s only one way to know, scientifically, whether you’re a denialist: by reading the following post, in which I reveal the telltale characteristics of denialism.


*How many are deniers are truly unique, and how many are just aliases of a small handful of individuals—created, funded and coached by vested-interest lobbies to give an exaggerated appearance of disagreement—is a fascinating question. But it’s been explored elsewhere by researchers like John Mashey and Steve Lewandowsky, who pioneered the fields of climate paranoia and conspiracy ideation. So we’ll leave it aside for now.


Demographics

Given that denialists make up 50% of the world’s people, they can obviously be found in all shapes and sizes.

Notwithstanding this, deniers are almost always white males aged 60+.

Politics

Wait a minute, I hear you ask: wasn’t this supposed to be a scientific debate? Is it really any of our business how the other side votes?

Yes.

Those of us who accept the science are now openly, if belatedly, explaining that for us the issue has always been more political than scientific.

So it stands to reason that the people who most adamantly oppose all our ideas feel the same way. (As in any other subject, projection is an incredibly powerful heuristic that almost never leads to bad assumptions.)

Politically speaking, then, what makes the other “side” tick?

At the risk of stereotyping slightly, all denialists—being of the far Right—are hawkish free-market fundamentalists who still haven’t got the memo that the Cold War is over.

So whenever science points to a problem—any problem—that requires a supranational one-world government, it’s hardly surprising that they’re paralyzed by a mixture of cognitive dissonance and complete disinterest.

Initial science suggested that denialists rejected climatology in its entirety. But thanks to better, larger blog polls we’re now beginning to learn just how open-minded they can be on the science—until, that is, the facts start limiting their personal, civil and national freedoms.

The moment a scientist concludes that the only hope for our species is to immediately entrust a borderless global regulating body with the power to recalibrate the industrial metabolisms of its subject nations by legislating any and all aspects of public and private life (as well as the power to transfer wealth between countries as and when necessary to justly reflect the historical culpabilities of developed versus developing worlds), deniers suddenly grow suspicious.

Isn’t it obvious, they wail: the science has been politicized somehow! It’s some sort of disguised grab for power!

As paranoid as such “reasoning” seems to us, it’s crucial to remember that not everyone is politically progressive. A lot of people really do ideate like this.

It’s only by understanding the irrational distrust that underlies climate denial that science can find ways to disarm it. And only by disarming it can we begin the total reordering of human society that the science demands.

The fetishization of debate

A common denialist behavior is to vocally and shrill-ly call for “False Balance.”

What do they mean by this catchphrase? In English, it would be something like:

“We might only make up 50% of the population, but we deserve equal time!”

The problem is, science isn’t some eternal, intractable conundrum like religion, aesthetics or the safety of GMO foods. In science, there simply aren’t “two sides to the story.” The demand for equal time is therefore absurdly arrogant on its face.

Indeed, it can only be understood by recalling one of the major obsessions of denialism: debate.

In the denier mind, everything—even science—is up for debate. Naturally, then, if the mainstream half of the population would just agree to a public contest of ideas, deniers believe this would magically solve all our climate-change disagreements.

And so, year after year, they demand a fresh debate. Then, like clockwork, they refuse to accept the verdict of science: that there wouldn’t be any point debating, because it would only give denialism credibility.

The death of expertise

Picture a scenario we’ve all experienced at some point: sudden-onset, crushing chest pain associated with nausea, palpitations and diaphoresis.

Now suppose your HMO lets you see a hundred doctors. 97 of them say you urgently need a heart transplant; the other 3 recommend their brother-in-law (who happens to be a dog astrologer) to perform the procedure. Who would you go with? Of course not—you’d demand a real heart surgeon.

If your child had postural or gait problems, who would you take them to: a plumber, or a dog astrologer?

Of course not. You’d take them to a paediatrist.

Yet you’re also aware that paediatrists aren’t the right experts for every problem. Let’s say it turned out that your kid’s feet were fine, and the real problem was that you had a chronic stomach ulcer. Who would you consult? A qualified dietician! (That’s a no-brainer.) And if that didn’t help, you’d seek a counsellor with credentials in stress management.

And if all else failed? You’d consult a recognized gastropyloric surgeon.

Likewise, science is like life: expertise is everything. In fact science has been described as ‘the belief in the knowledge of experts.’

How would a person like you or me, without the qualifications and domain knowledge to think for ourselves, gain a better understanding of (say) estimated climate sensitivity [ECS] or the strength of the scientific consensus?

We’d ask a climate scientist.

How would a school teacher stay up-to-date with best practice for overcoming denial?

She’d ask a climate psychologist.

How would a government economist find out the optimal starting rate for a carbon tax scheme?

He’d ask a climate scientist.

That, after all, is what experts are for.

Self-explanatory stuff, right? Yet social research shows that half the population doesn’t see this in the normal way. It turns out that, within the rejectionist community, there’s now a culture of indifference, even cynicism, towards expertise.

Deniers of the science are just as likely to get the science they deny from astrophysicists, dog astrologers, geologists and even atmospheric physicists!

Just to be clear, it’s not that these professions don’t do important work—in their own way—but let’s be realistic: not all sciences are created equal. Such fields simply don’t involve the many years of study, postgraduate research and publication needed to credibly understand the science.

Because the science is inherently multidisciplinary, only climate scientists are qualified to comment on it.

This leaves denialists in a bit of a pickle. Fewer and fewer legitimate climate scientists reject the scientific consensus. Off the top of my head, I’d be hard pressed to name a hundred who’ve published evidence that fatally refutes the mainstream view.

And “legitimate” is a generous word!

Dig deep enough, and you find that many of these “scientists” actually have links to industry, centrist political beliefs or right-wing political beliefs. (Thankfully, grassroots science-defense organisations like Greenpeace and DeSmogBlog have already done this detective work—literally!—for you. You should always verify the credibility of a scientific source by making sure they’re not listed on either of those websites.)

Where, then, do denialists increasingly turn for their climate information? Blogs!

As the SkepticalScience* blog puts it, they

vigorously criticise any evidence that supports man-made global warming and yet embrace any argument, op-ed, blog or study that purports to refute global warming.

But as everybody knows, the blogosphere has no credibility at all. A blog represents nothing but an end run around the peer-review system (or ‘modern scientific method’). Bottom line: any idea you read on a blog may be good enough for denialists, but it wasn’t good enough for the scholarly community!


*SkepticalScience, a blog that describes itself as “getting [denialistic] about global warming [denialism],” was the source for much of the information about denialism used in this series. It’s so credible that it’s one of the most-cited blogs among legitimate climate scientists (along with Tim Lambert’s blog Deltoid).


Facile language

Scientists express themselves in measured, nuanced terms.

For example, a climate scientist is unlikely to talk about “catastrophe” or to write, “We’re all going to die!!”

Instead she’d rephrase the idea in more scholarly terms, like “Climate change is real!,” or even “Climate change is happening now!” (provided, of course, that it’s happening at the time of writing).

By comparison, the discourse of denialism sounds almost childish.

Despite climate scholar John Cook’s best attempts to sum up their arguments, you can’t help but get the impression that deniers struggle to think in more than one syllable.

“It’s the sun!” says Cook, paraphrasing one of their top myths.

It’s not bad. It’s not us. It’s cooling. Al Gore got it wrong!

If you thought nobody could actually sound so cartoonish, subject yourself to a couple of minutes reading SkepticalScience. (It’s probably Cook’s diverse, Renaissance career—he was a cartoonist for many years before going back to university for his PhD in anti-skepticism—that gives him an uncanny ear for the kind of facile commentary he receives hundreds of times a day at his blog.)

It’s land use, it’s cosmic rays, et hoc genus omne! Such verbal facility is a sure sign you’re not dealing with an acceptor of the science.

Lack of inflexibility

What makes science so special, and so successful, is its robustness.

It isn’t perfect yet, of course: we still don’t know absolutely everything there is to know about the climate, among other phenomena. In fact it’s not unheard-of—and it’s not necessarily a bad thing—for mainstream scientists to find and correct mistakes they’ve made, or fill in missing gaps in their knowledge.

Climate science might even be updated as often as two or three times a year in this way.

But mistakes are a bit like illegally-stolen emails: no matter how many we discover, or what we learn from them, they can never undermine scientists’ basic understanding of the science, because that goes back a century and a half.

In the denialist mind, however, there is no such thing as an immutable scientific truth. Except, of course, the convenient ones that can be used to justify inaction (hence their odd reluctance to budge on the laws of thermodynamics, information theory, physics in general and a few other borderline-religious convictions).

To the denialist, all scientific knowledge is provisional! If you’ve ever tried to overcome such a Weltanschauung with facts you’ll know how frustrating it is. When the facts change, deniers simply change their minds!

And it’s this lack of rigor, perhaps more than anything else, which sets denier scientists apart from normal scientists. While a denier’s denial is a moving target, a real scientist’s beliefs are as rigid as humanly possible.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

8 thoughts on “An Anatomy of Denialism, Part 1

  1. Ed Hadcock

    Hi Brad – thanks very much for your succinct and extensive scrutiny of deniers. Denier-tactics are becoming increasingly obvious, and your documenting of them – I’ve no doubt – will be a seminal oeuvre in our children’s future education. Surely this article would be fitting material for Lewandowsky, the soit-disant foremost authority on the mindset of deniers, and a man who is gratefully unsullied by any direct contact with these antagonists (which has on occasion been known to engender doubts about the science in even the most formidable minds!).

    I’m grateful for sites like SkS and DeSmogBlog who are fighting the good fight, particularly their commitment to finding out who the subversive, seditious, shadowy yet influential denier-elite are, and then exposing their crazy conspiracy-theorising.

    If I may add: Deniers focus intensively on minor points – irrelevancies such as the weighting of real-world observations vs model output, or the usefulness of certain proxies. Or they use vicious ad-hominem attacks that cast doubt on the statistical rigour of climate scientists – such ad-homs take the form of requests for data or – get this – clarification of statistical methods. Insinuating that somehow the Science is wrong because the methods and data that led us there aren’t unambiguous?! To draw from your own pool of angst: Science doesn’t work like that! It can’t!! How can we achieve more and increasing consensii with obfuscation such as requests for further clarification?

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  2. Ed Hadcock

    By the way, Brad, and sorry if I speak out of line – I’m not sure how much your analogy reflects your own experience – but if your child has gait or postural problems you might consider speaking, not to a ‘paediatrist’, but to a climate scientist. Your child may be suffering the adverse consequences of being born into an environment that is now heavy with human emissions and there’s little knowing what effect this might have on our children. I look into the future and I see horrific problems; gait and gaiety being the least of our worries. If your child is not yet maimed thank your lucky stars as they are probably the last generation that will not be shrivelled, stunted homo-non-erectus hobbit-vermin. Imagine Tyrion from GoT opening the bathroom door while you are indisposed but instead of a crossbow he’s got an RPG and a far more sarcastic and vengeful personality.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/geoffreylean/100197484/could-climate-change-turn-humans-into-hobbits/

    I urge you to seek expert advice from the climate community.

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    Reply
    1. Brad Keyes Post author

      You make a good point, Ed—and I’d encourage the rest of the Nuremberg community to start trying to do the same (ahem)!

      I’m planning a post about the underlying question at which you’re none-too-subtly hinting: the overreach of the bloated medical profession. How many kinds of doctor do we really need, and which specialties could be far better subsumed within climate science?

      However: Tyrion Lannister… role-playing games? Eugh. How do I erase that combination of ideas from my imagination?

      Now there’s nothing wrong with dwarf kinkiness, of course, but no more Season 4 spoilers please, Ed. As a climate blogger I’m strongly opposed in principle to censoring anybody’s comments for any reason—but please don’t take too much advantage of the right to be heard.

      Finally, there’s no need to get childishly podantic about isolated typos—let’s leave that kind of thing to the denialati, OK?

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      1. Ed Hadcock

        Apologies, Brad, and to any of the initiated who read my previous comment and recognised that I did indeed reveal an upcoming moment of the GoT narrative – albeit one that has a certain twang to it.

        But we are very much on-topic! Lear-esque unnatural acts are just around the corner, and may even be afflicting us now. Shakespeare, first ‘discovered’ as an enviro-predica-mentalist on this very blog, foresaw it:

        “…knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence…”

        That quote is a real cherry, picked ripe from Act One Scene Two.

        …Sorry…modern translation: Act One *Season* Two.

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  3. Pingback: An Anatomy of Denialism, Part 2 | Climate Nuremberg

  4. Pingback: Climate Thought for the Day | CLIMATE NUREMBERG

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