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Q and A with Dr Haydn Washington, co-author of Climate Change Denial

Posted on 7 May 2011 by John Cook

Climate Change Denial by Haydn Washington and John CookOur publisher Earthscan recently published a Q & A with my co-author Haydn Washington about our book Climate Change Denial which I've reproduced in full below:

1)      Why did you think this book was needed?

Well I have been an environmental scientist for more than three decades, and I became fascinated with the fact the science around climate change was becoming more and more certain, yet the number of people believing in it was decreasing. As journalist George Monbiot has noted ‘we are losing’ in terms of climate change action. What was going on? I couldn’t find a book that showed this. There were books about the denial industry funded by the fossil fuel lobby, but not a book that covered denial in all its forms, including within government and within ‘we the people’. Climate change denial is holding back effective action to solve the world’s most serious environmental problem. A book dealing with denial in detail was definitely needed.

2)      How do you distinguish between skepticism and denial?

They are actually opposites. Skepticism is about looking for the truth, denial is about hiding from it. All scientists should be skeptics, but when you get an overwhelming ‘preponderance of evidence’ from many different types of research, a true scientist will accept it – a denier won’t. Many climate change deniers call themselves ‘skeptics’ and say the word ‘denier’ is an insult, as if they are ‘holocaust deniers’. However, people can deny anything, but when people deny the fact that every Academy of Science and 97% of practicing climate scientists say human-caused climate change is happening and very serious – it is important to call these people by their true name. They are deniers.

 3)      You discuss probability and uncertainty. Isn't the climate science settled?

Yes - but with a qualifier! This is where deniers love to confuse the issue. In science nothing is 100% settled. Science doesn’t ‘prove’ anything, it provides the most probable explanation for observations. However, when something is more than 95% likely it is generally accepted as true. There is always something scientists don’t understand completely in any field of science. However, a consensus does build up and becomes the mainstream view. This has happened with climate science over the last few decades. Each year brings more evidence to confirm this consensus. It is important to understand that the 10% of a field we don’t fully understand does not refute the 90% of the field that we do. That is the case with climate science. We know we are warming the Earth and this will have huge impacts. We know enough to act, yet denial is holding us back from doing this.

 4)      You mentioned the science has become more certain, yet the percentage of people believing in human-caused climate change has gone down. What is going on?

Yes, this is counter intuitive. The problem is people are not 100% rational, and in a battle between science and beliefs, ideologies, self-image and fear – science will often lose out. Denial is a delusion and as far as we know humans are the only species that denies reality. People used to think it was because people ‘didn’t have enough information’. However, a fascinating study in Norway showed people did accept climate change, but did not turn it into action. It is useful to divide psychological denial into three areas – literal (such as the denial industry), interpretive (such as government spin) and implicatory (denial in ‘we the people’). It is this last type we focus on, as this explains why belief in climate change has declined.

 5)      So why do you think people deny environmental problems such as climate change?

We discuss many causes. They include fear of change, failure in values, fixation on economics, ignorance of ecology, gambling on the future, the media, and despair and apathy. We also discuss the denial within our governments, which pretend to take action, but in reality little happens. The problem with climate change action has always been lack of political will. Collectively, we can change that if we roll back denial.

A large percentage of us have the capacity to believe what we want to believe, to delude ourselves. I describe it as a sort of ‘self-interested sloth’. Some of us want to amble along in the same old way and ignore reality. Fear of change is a major part of this, yet climate change is happening so to deny it has major consequences. If people are afraid, if they think they may be ‘bad’ people, if something conflicts with their self image, then they have the capacity to go into denial. The media is another problem, as it loves controversy but demonstrates ‘balance as bias’. It is not balance to put all of climate science on one side and have a denier from a conservative think tank on the other. In fact often it is even worse as some media will only feature deniers.

 6)    How did you break down the different forms of climate change denial arguments?

We list several ways people have categorised denial arguments. One of the most useful is to list them under ‘conspiracy theories’, ‘fake experts’, ‘impossible expectations’, ‘misrepresentations/logical fallacies’ and ‘cherry picking’. ‘Climategate’ was the hacking of emails from the Uni of East Anglia, where it was claimed there was a conspiracy to ‘hide the decline’ of global temperatures. In fact the email was about the decline of tree ring growth correlating with temperature, and 8 seperate inquiries have cleared these scientists. There are many fake experts who claim there is no consensus, yet surveys show 97% of practicing climate scientists agree we cause current warming. That is as good as you get in science. There are logical fallacies, such as ‘global warming happened in the past’. Yes it did, but this time we are the cause, forcing climate faster than in the past. After all, bushfires happened in the past, yet we know arson is not a good idea! Cherry picking is a common denial argument, such as ‘global warming stopped in 1998’, which picked one particular data set. Comprehensive data shows warming hasn’t stopped, and that most of the warming is going into the oceans. The full list of denial arguments is shown on my co-author’s website

7)      Are there any solutions, can we roll back denial?

Yes there are, which is the frustrating part. Denial is a delusion that has become a pathology that will cause huge impacts on ecosystems and the societies that rely on them. Yet we can break free of denial and accept reality - and we have to. We can roll back denial by examining our worldview and ethics, our ideologies, by accepting related problems such as population, by moving to a steady state economy, by focusing on ecological sustainability, by getting the message across better, and by using multiple strategies that work. The technological solutions exist, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, and we discuss these. We also discuss ‘false’ solutions such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which involve their own denial of problems.

8)   Do you think it is it too late to solve climate change?

No, it’s never too late. Any action is better than none. These problems can be solved, and not just climate change, but all the other environmental problems the world faces. Humanity is inventive and creative and when we accept reality, we can do amazing things. It is time for us to accept that we have problems that we must solve. To do that we must abandon denial.

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Comments 1 to 32:

  1. Nice piece. Question: Apparently I'm missing a "Climategate" inquiry. Dr. Washington mentioned that there have been eight inquiries, but I'm only aware of seven: - UK Parliament - Oxburgh - Russell - Penn State (two inquiries) - UK Government - US Commerce Dept What inquiry am I missing?
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  2. What a load of rubbish- true science comes to proof- not absolute proof with some uncertainly- relative high percentage not the vague qualitive evidence (they put numbers but those only really descriptors) that many climate scientist put as evidence. Nearly every science (chemistry, physics, medicine, material science) has to be checked all the line- only so-called climate scientist accept such rubbery evidence as some of proof. They are so not skeptical. The socalled global climate science is not mature enough to come up with anything like certainty.
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  3. "What a load of rubbish- true science comes to proof" No science comes to absolute proof. Proof is for mathematics and whiskey.
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  4. chrisd3 @#1 - the EPA looked into the issue as well.
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  5. There is also the "Climategate CRU emails suggest conspiracy" argument, which covers this topic too and gives links to the inquiries or reports.
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  6. I suggest cloa513 may benefit from looking at "scientific method" and "hypothesis testing" on wikipedia or elsewhere, to understand the role of hypothesis testing, statisitics, and uncertainty in the development of scientific "knowledge".
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  7. @cloa513- You offer the thin veneer of a mere appearance of being scientific. But in reality, your entire 'analysis' here is extremely unscientfic. It is not true that "global climate science is not mature enough", it is not true that their evidence is 'rubbery'. The detailed proofs of these two assertions are all over this website, so I will not recapitulate them here.
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  8. Some form of engineered carbon capture and storage - organic or otherwise - will need to be instituted at some point in the future even if we manage to slow the accelerating rate of GHG emissions. To ignore this reality is folly. Yes, the concept most commonly talked about is in connection with "clean coal" - an overstatement to be sure, but one that at least recognises ordinary coal is dirty! The magnitude of warming "in the pipeline" is extremely serious and getting more so every day.
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  9. Hayden, when you say:
    The technological solutions exist, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, and we discuss these. We also discuss ‘false’ solutions such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which involve their own denial of problems.
    ... are you trying to be ironic, or insulting, or are you simply misinformed?
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  10. An article in my local paper claimed that over 40% of people in the USA believe that Christ will come and the world will end before 2050. Why should we take action to protect the Earth if it is going to end so soon anyway? How can you argue with that?
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    [DB] You should tell them that the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences has just issued a report, citing the moral imperative before society to properly address climate change.  News release here.  The report itself is here.

    Declaration by the Working Group

    We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses.

    We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home.

    By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

    We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.

  11. @ michael sweet Interesting dilemma. I would tell them: 1. They will not know the day nor the hour of His return, but are commanded to be vigilant 2. Likewise, they are to be good stewards, as the Earth has been given into their care as a trust. Since the poor and the weak (a population segment specifically given into their care) are most likely to suffer under the impacts of rising GHGs, any mitigation of release of those gases will also help mitigate their effects. HTH, The Yooper
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  12. michael sweet - Here in my area we have a large group of people (complete with decorated RV's) touring the capital, handing out pamphlets, claiming that the end of the world will be at 6PM, May 21st (local time, rolling apocalypse). To balance that, there's a group of atheists (blasphemy required as a hiring condition) spread across the USA, that for a fee and continuing subscription - promise to come by, collect your pets, and take care of them if you are swept up in the Rapture. It takes all kinds...
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  13. There are some great quotable lines. Skepticism is about looking for the truth, denial is about hiding from it. ‘global warming happened in the past’. Yes it did, but bushfires happened in the past, yet we know arson is not a good idea
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  14. Barry Brook said:
    are you trying to be ironic, or insulting, or are you simply misinformed?
    He is being honest, think about it for a few minutes.
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  15. I guess two points: 1) Re probability and certainty, Cloa seeks to argue that 'true science' comes with 'proof' while climate science is rubbery. This is a common denial argument which paints mainstream climate science as 'junk science'. The reality is that the coherence of evidence in regard to human-caused climate change is overwhelming. It comes from many sources and almost all show that warming is worse than it was orignally projected to be. In regard to the statement about scientific method in general, this is just mistaken, as any book on the history and philosophy of science will explain to you. 2)Barry Brooks seeks to make an ad hominem attack that since I doubt the usefulness of nuclear power I am either ironic, insulting or misinformed. Well sorry Barry I am not being ironic, nuclear is too little too late, too expensive and too dangerous. You dont solve one major problem with another. You might consider it if it was the only alternative - but it isnt. As was shown in your debate with Dr Mark Diesendorf at UNSW, renewable energy is a far better alternative to put our development money into than nuclear. Issues such as baseload power are now solved. Spain is spending $20 billion on installing Concentrated Solar Thermal. It is time for Australia to make use of our fantastic renewable resources, not follow some Cornucopian nuclear fantasy. Renewable are both feasible and sustainable. Its time to accept reality and move rapidly to a renewables future. Both Mark Diesendorf and Barry Pittock in their books (plus Beyond Zero Emissions in their Stationary Energy Study)show this can be done.
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  16. Bravo Haydn, well said. The push for nuclear is both cynical and frightening. The problem, as I wrote about 2 years ago on ABC Unleashed (to a massive response, people are really concerned about this),is that no matter what improvements in technology occur, the chance of human error is always there, and the consequences, as seen in Japan most recently, are extreme and widespread.
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  17. An Interesting looking book. It should fit in well on my shelf next to 'Hubbert's Peak', 'The Boswick Report' & 'None Dare Call It Treason'.
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  18. Michael Sweet @ 10 I welcome this timely book by John and Hayden, and look forward to reading it. In relation to the argument you put, I agree that it helps explain why some Christians are apathetic about climate change. However, I don’t believe they are unreachable. Another new book, co-authored by a climate scientist and an evangelical Christian, respectfully puts the case for climate action in the context of a Christian world-view: Kathrine Hayhoe aned Andrew Farley, A Climate For Change: global warming facts for faith-based decisions, Faith Words, New York 2011 Suppose for a moment that the Christians you refer to are right and that the creator comes back to wrap up the show 25, 50, 100 or 200 years from now (before we totally destroy ourselves). Does that mean that we should go on trashing his creation until he returns? I put it to you that displeases him. It may even be, if you see bible prophecy the way I do, that some of the calamities prophesied are consequences of our environmental vandalism. Two of my own publications that may interest you are a Bible study guide Christians and the Environment, and my paper Shaping a Sustainable World, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, which argues the need for climate action from a Judeo-Christian perspective.
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  19. Hayden Washington, I cannot see how my comment would be construed as an ad homenim. To do this, I would have to disparage your character, and use that as a basis for dismissing your arguments. Instead, I saw in your comments a number of things: 1) Ironic: "using multiple strategies that work. The technological solutions exist, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency" Multiple strategies that apparently do not include nuclear energy, which we know WORKS and has been the only low-carbon energy technology, excepting large hydropower dams, that has been successful to date at displacing coal, or in running an electricity system at high penetration (France). The best non-hydro renewables have done is 19% (Denmark). 2) Insulting: "We also discuss ‘false’ solutions such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which involve their own denial of problems." You are disparaging me, as well as other climate scientists such as Jim Hansen and Tom Wigley, and other prominent thinkers like David Mackay, James Lovelock, Mark Lynas, George Monbiot, Chris Goodall, and many others, who have evaluated the situation logically and cannot see a viable solution without a significant role for nuclear (along with renewables and energy efficiency). Instead, you accuse us of denial and offering 'false' solutions, as though we were trying to hide from some truth or deliberately dissemble. As I said, this is insulting. 3) Misinformed: That applies to both 1 and 2 above. Further, if you would become better informed about nuclear power, then you might not be so ready to dismiss it. If you are as concerned about the extremely serious consequences of climate change, as you profess, you should judge nuclear power's benefits alongside its faults (real and perceived) and make a prudent decision that is explicit about this very serious trade off. If you did indeed listen to the UNSW debate and took nothing from it but MD's unsubstantiated opinion (i.e. real-world experience), and ignored everything I said, then I'm frankly staggered. I support renewable energy and any other practical solutions to displacing fossil fuels. I have set up a research project (Open Science) called Oz Energy Analysis ( to assess how Australia might reach as much as 50% renewables by 2030. However, I also subject renewable energy to the same scrutiny as I subject any scientific hypothesis, and that is why I am surprised and disappointed that the two critiques of the BZE 2020 plan has received exactly zero responses: and We must face up to reality if we are to solve these extremely difficult problems. Your approach seems cavalier at best and grossly irresponsible at worst. "not follow some Cornucopian nuclear fantasy" Throwing such straw men at me serves no purpose other than to undermine your credibility. Since when did I claim this? Indeed, my guest post on Skeptical Science, Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?, shows my research focus - ecology, evolution and extinction, and the impacts of human activity on the biosphere. I understand the concept of ecological limits better than most, so I'd ask that you do a little more background research in future before throwing around such aspersions. In short, if the above arguments you presented are in any way indicative of the quality of writing in the book, then I'm unlikely to purchase a copy or recommend it. Which is a shame, because I have a great deal of respect for the work that John Cook does on this site.
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  20. Just in terms of balance, there would also seem to be a need for studies on those psychologists, sociologists and scientists etc. who base their analysis of denial on the assumption that CO2 theory is proven, and hence is undeniable.
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    [DB] I don't speak for psychologists or sociologists, but scientists in general do not:

    base their analysis of denial on the assumption that CO2 theory is proven, and hence is undeniable.

    The current level of Scientific Consensus on climate change was expressed most recently by the National Academy of Science in their publication Advancing the Science of Climate Change.  In it they specify (p. 17): 

    A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems….
    Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small.

    Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts.

    This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

    Very likely” means a greater than 90% likelihood of probability; i.e., pretty certain.

    All that being so, there is still an element that would have us debate the existence of gravity...

  21. Barry Brook @19, it seems to me that you are being too precious. You want, at the same time, to consider Dr Washington's calling nuclear a "false solution" an insult, but decree that calling Dr Washington "misinformed" is not ad hominen. Saying that something is a false solution says no more than that something appears to be a solution, but is not one. Any insult you read into what amounts to a simple statement of an opinion you disagree with is entirely your own problem. I have to say that while I am open to the use of Nuclear power as probably being necessary to avoid excessive global warming, advocates of that view have not covered themselves with glory lately. In particular, at the start of the Fukushima accident, a number of blog posts where published completely dismissive of what are now seen to have been genuine concerns. Your own claim that, " There is no credible risk of a serious accident" shows in hindsight that you have rose coloured glasses when it comes to nuclear issues. I have no problem with that. Without enthusiasms or concerns, nobody would take the effort to become reasonably informed on any topic. But when you couple that with an attitude which sees any critique as necessarily insulting and uninformed, nothing is suggested as much as a closed mind.
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  22. Tom, I think more broadly, we're all being too precious. That will be obvious to the grandchildren when they look back at this stuff, if they do. If they do their question will be: "Why couldn't they have pulled _together_?" > a number of blog posts [were] published completely > dismissive of what are now seen to have been genuine > concerns. Yeah, that happens. Don't feed the trolls. Barry didn't abase himself; he did say he was wrong. Monbiot didn't abase himself; he did say he was wrong. Sure, we've got the "CO2 is Life" and "Radiation is Life" gang actively working the blogs. That stuff happens. Think about the vector sum; if we can't pull together, we can at do better than being diametrically opposed to one another. The best answer to critics nowadays, from experience: "You may very well be right about that ...."
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  23. Talk about cherry picking he is using the 97% number which is based on one study of 77 scientist. Only 77 people and he talks like that is 97%
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  24. 23, JimJim, Don't be silly. The questionnaire went out to over 10,000 people. Of those, a little over 3,000 responded. Of those, they belonged to various sciences, so about 150 were climate scientists. Of those, only 79 were actively publishing in the field in the last five years. You expect them to have worked with 100,000 questionnaire's? 1,000,000? There is nothing whatsoever wrong with a survey of that sort. Especially when the result was an overwhelming 97%.
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  25. JimJim@23, Please also note the Anderegg 2010 paper which found that out of the top 200 climate researchers (out of 1,372, ranked by number of climate publications) 97% agreed with the conclusions of the IPCC.
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  26. It is well known that scientific publications and the scientists who referee climate science papers are strongly pro-CAGW. It is, therefore, not surprising that the number of skeptical publications is small. If the standard for being included in the survey is pulications then it is no surprise that the results are strongly in support of CAGW. The general public seems to understand, rather intuitively, what the the pro-CAGW science community generally denies, that conflicting/confounding data (of which there is substantial) means a theory is flawed. If we were to execute another study which included only those climate scientists that had been in their field for 20+ years, I would imagine the results would look substantially different.
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    [DB] You should perhaps learn to differentiate between a theory and a hypothesis.  While you're at it, please study this site's Comment Policy.  Most readers here understand rather intuitively that the use of "pro-CAGW" is a major red flag, and tells the reader much indeed about those who freely bandy the term about.

  27. E So in your world you think there is no bias with climate sciences that live off grant money saying that 97% of them think it's real?
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    [DB] Next ye'll be sayin' that climate scientists hate Christmas...

  28. JimJim You can make just as much or more money saying its not real. If money were the real issue there would be no consensus.
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  29. Yes, JimJim, all those very smart scientists who are so determined to falsely report their results in the full knowledge that any of their colleagues (and any reasonably educated lay person) can show they where falsely reported and blow the whistle, all to secure a job on 50 thousand a year and a life time supply of abusive emails and death threats from global warming deniers. Meanwhile, in other news, JimJim proves that 911 was a CIA conspiracy and that mankind has never walked on the moon ...
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  30. Jimjim, sounds like comment policy violation to me, but for your interest, climate scientists get grants to investigate what we do not know about climate with no predetermined result in mind. All that money on climate science is largely spent on satellites. If you want to make money, then take a proposal to Koch or Cato, or Heartland for some anti-theory instead. If you can dream up something plausible, then I'll bet you can get more money personally than you would ever get through research grant channels. PS know any rich climate scientists?
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  31. 30, scaddenp, Not to mention the fame. All those minutes spent on speaking tours and talk shows and Fox News. Oh, wait, that's the skeptics. And then there are the huge bucks from the book sales. Oh, wait, skeptics again. And then there are the babes. You know, those loose, buxom science groupies that faint at the sight of a pen protector and horn rimmed glasses. Just say the words "general circulation model" and they melt. There's nothing hotter than a climate scientist (T-shirt possibilities!). Of course, they're few and far between when you are spending most of your time hauling your butt around the Arctic or the Amazon or some other god-forsaken place a gazillion miles from civilization. But if you were near civilization, there'd be climate babes aplenty.
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  32. The Shadow #26 "the scientists who referee climate science papers are strongly pro-CAGW." What surprises so much The Shadow and many other fellow skeptics is what happens when a theory is widely accepted. Should I complain if I find the referees being strongly pro Catastrophic Quantum Mechanics or Catastrophic Evolution or Catastrophic Plate Tectonics? Yes, I know, they should be open to new ideas, but not any new idea. It's upon me to have a good one.
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