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A history of FLICC: the 5 techniques of science denial

Posted on 31 March 2020 by John Cook

In 2007, Mark Hoofnagle suggested on his Science Blog Denialism that denialists across a range of topics such as climate change, evolution, & HIV/AIDS all employed the same rhetorical tactics to sow confusion. The five general tactics were conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.

Two years later, Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee published an article in the scientific journal European Journal of Public Health titled Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? They further fleshed out Hoofnagle’s five denialist tactics and argued that we should expose to public scrutiny the tactics of denial, identifying them for what they are. I took this advice to heart and began including the five denialist tactics in my own talks about climate misinformation.

In 2013, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition invited me to give a workshop about climate misinformation at their annual summit. As I prepared my presentation, I mused on whether the five denial techniques could be adapted into a sticky, easy-to-remember acronym. I vividly remember my first attempt: beginning with Fake Experts, Unrealistic Expectations, Cherry Picking… realizing I was going in a problematic direction for a workshop for young participants. I started over and settled on FLICC: Fake experts, Logical fallacies, Impossible expectations, Cherry picking, and Conspiracy theories.

When I led a 2015 collaboration between the University of Queensland and Skeptical Science to develop the free online course Denial101x: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, we made FLICC the underlying framework of the entire course. An important component of our debunking of the most common myths about climate change was identifying the denial techniques in each myth. A common comment we received from students was how much they appreciated learning about FLICC.

Since moving to the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, I’ve continued to build the FLICC taxonomy. In my collaboration with critical thinking philosophers Peter Ellerton and David Kinkead, I was introduced to reasoning fallacies that we hadn’t included in Denial101x. As I begun developing the Cranky Uncle game, I began a series of fallacy quizzes where I gradually built the taxonomy up as I introduced people to an ever-growing collection of denial techniques (note the differing difficulty levels between quiz #1 and quiz #8). When Stephan Lewandowsky and I published The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, we added seven traits of conspiratorial thinking. Here is the latest version of the FLICC taxonomy (with all the icons freely available and shareable on Wikimedia):

When I visited Brisbane in December 2019, I asked the University of Queensland if I could record a video explaining the updated FLICC taxonomy. They agreed but once they saw my script, including explanations and definitions of each denial technique, they suggested I divide the video into a three-parter. Always a sucker for a trilogy, I agreed – here are the three videos:

As well as the videos, this post includes written definitions and examples of each denial technique. I will continue to update this table as the taxonomy evolves in the future.

Ad Hominem Attacking a person/group instead of addressing their arguments. “Climate science can’t be trusted because climate scientists are biased.”
Ambiguity Using ambiguous language in order to lead to a misleading conclusion. “Thermometer readings have uncertainty which means we don’t know whether global warming is happening.”
Anecdote Using personal experience or isolated examples instead of sound arguments or compelling evidence. “The weather is cold today—whatever happened to global warming?”
Blowfish Focusing on an inconsequential aspect of scientific research, blowing it out of proportion in order to distract from or cast doubt on the main conclusions of the research. “The hockey stick graph is invalid because it contains statistical errors.”
Bulk Fake Experts Citing large numbers of seeming experts to argue that there is no scientific consensus on a topic. “There is no expert consensus because 31,487 Americans with a science degree signed a petition saying humans aren’t disrupting climate.”
Cherry Picking Carefully selecting data that appear to confirm one position while ignoring other data that contradicts that position. “Global warming stopped in 1998.”
Contradictory Simultaneously believing in ideas that are mutually contradictory.  “The temperature record is fabricated by scientists… the temperature record shows cooling.”
Conspiracy Theory Proposing that a secret plan exists to implement a nefarious scheme such as hiding a truth. “The climategate emails prove that climate scientists have engaged in a conspiracy to deceive the public.”
Fake Debate Presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format to give the false impression of an ongoing scientific debate. “Climate deniers should get equal coverage with climate scientists, providing a more balanced presentation of views.”
Fake Experts Presenting an unqualified person or institution as a source of credible information. “A retired physicist argues against the climate consensus, claiming the current weather change is just a natural occurrence.”
False Analogy Assuming that because two things are alike in some ways, they are alike in some other respect. “Climate skeptics are like Galileo who overturned the scientific consensus about geocentrism.”
False Choice Presenting two options as the only possibilities, when other possibilities exist. “CO2 lags temperature in the ice core record, proving that temperature drives CO2, not the other way around.”
False Equivalence
(apples vs. oranges)
Incorrectly claiming that two things are equivalent, despite the fact that there are notable differences between them. “Why all the fuss about COVID when thousands die from the flu every year.”
Immune to evidence Re-interpreting any evidence that counters a conspiracy theory as originating from the conspiracy. “Those investigations finding climate scientists aren’t conspiring were part of the conspiracy.”
Impossible Expectations Demanding unrealistic standards of certainty before acting on the science. “Scientists can’t even predict the weather next week. How can they predict the climate in 100 years?”
Logical Fallacies Arguments where the conclusion doesn’t logically follow from the premises. Also known as a non sequitur. “Climate has changed naturally in the past so what’s happening now must be natural.”
Magnified Minority Magnifying the significance of a handful of dissenting scientists to cast doubt on an overwhelming scientific consensus. “Sure, there’s 97% consensus but Professor Smith disagrees with the consensus position.”
Misrepresentation Misrepresenting a situation or an opponent’s position in such a way as to distort understanding. “They changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ because global warming stopped happening.”
Moving Goalposts Demanding higher levels of evidence after receiving requested evidence. “Sea levels may be rising but they’re not accelerating.”
Nefarious intent Assuming that the motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are nefarious. “Climate scientists promote the climate hoax because they’re in it for the money.”
Overriding suspicion  Having a nihilistic degree of skepticism towards the official account, preventing belief in anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory.  “Show me one line of evidence for climate change… oh, that evidence is faked!”
Oversimplification Simplifying a situation in such a way as to distort understanding, leading to erroneous conclusions. “CO2 is plant food so burning fossil fuels will be good for plants.”
Persecuted victim Perceiving and presenting themselves as the victim of organized persecution. “Climate scientists are trying to take away our freedom.”
Quote Mining Taking a person’s words out-of-context in order to misrepresent their position. “Mike’s trick… to hide the decline.”
Re-interpreting randomness Believing that nothing occurs by accident, so that random events are re-interpreted as being caused by the conspiracy. “NASA’s satellite exploded? They must be trying to hide inconvenient data!”
Red Herring Deliberately diverting attention to an irrelevant point to distract from a more important point. “CO2 is a trace gas so it’s warming effect is minimal.”
Single Cause Assuming a single cause or reason when there might be multiple causes or reasons. “Climate has changed naturally in the past so what’s happening now must be natural.”
Slippery Slope Suggesting that taking a minor action will inevitably lead to major consequences. “If we implement even a modest climate policy, it will start us down the slippery slope to socialism and taking away our freedom.”
Slothful Induction Ignoring relevant evidence when coming to a conclusion. “There is no empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming.”
Something must be wrong Maintaining that “something must be wrong” and the official account is based on deception, even when specific parts of a conspiracy theory become untenable. “Ok, fine, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, but that’s just because they’re toeing the party line.”
Straw Man Misrepresenting or exaggerating an opponent’s position to make it easier to attack. “In the 1970s, climate scientists were predicting an ice age.”

And lastly, a bit of fun. Every year, Inside the Greenhouse hold a competition inviting people to submit climate comedy videos. In 2019, I submitted Giving Climate Denial the FLICC, which received an honorable mention.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. These categories are convincing and  endlessly fascinating. As someone who did a bit of psychology at university (college to you Americans) I identify immediately. But as someone who likes to also rebut the denialists and explain the issues to other people, I find the categories complicated. They look like the neural map of a denialists brain.

    Does it not all boil down to the denialists just being intellectually dishonest? (I wont say liars because its forbidden by moderation rules) . Almost all the logical fallacies, cherry picking, fake experts etc are essentially forms of intellectual dishonesty. If thats the case, why not just say so?

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  2. The following new published research may be relevant : Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit. (This is for real)

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  3. nigelj:

    Does it not all boil down to the denialists just being intellectually dishonest? (I wont say liars because its forbidden by moderation rules) . Almost all the logical fallacies, cherry picking, fake experts etc are essentially forms of intellectual dishonesty. If thats the case, why not just say so?

    Well, because as you know, while the professional disinformers are dishonest, the volunteer AGW-deniers are fooling themselves first and foremost. In the US, standing before a crowd of Trump voters and calling them liars or fools is unlikely to sway any of them; it's more likely to reinforce their determination to fool themselves. Cultural identity is a powerful cognitive motivator for them!

    Admittedly, I have little direct insight into the Trumpist mind-set. For that I turn to genuine experts, namely Republican politicians who recognize the need for collective action against AGW. Here I will praise John's employer, the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, located just outside the Capitol beltway in Northern Virginia. They're developing tools for climate realists to work the levers of power. I was linked from there to an item at Energy News Network last year, about former GOP Congressman Bob Inglis, who continues to work them despite losing his seat to a denier:

    After his loss, Inglis formed RepublicEn to try to win over members of his party from outside the Beltway. He aims to persuade and activate 200 conservative voters in a set of target districts around the country. Mobilizing volunteers in those places should convert 25 Republicans in the House and 12 to 15 in the Senate, Inglis said. “And then we win.”

    He approaches his goal like any seasoned retail politician, with a focus on how to find common ground with potential activists. Rather than start his conversation with voters in North and South Carolina about the local problem of rising sea levels and more intense storms, for instance, he first talks about free market tools to lower carbon emissions.

    I'm assuming Inglis's membership in the GOP helps him with Trumpists. In any case, I suspect few of them would change parties even if they accept the need for collective mitigation. John's direct attack on denialist rhetoric may be better directed at Repubican politicians, who at least know what rhetoric is.

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  4. Mal Adapted @3, I guess you are right. It just amazes me how people can fool themselves that much. I have many failings but I just dont fool myself all that much.

    And yes calling people liars and fools will just harden their attitude, it won't win hearts and minds. However the term intellectually dishonest is a bit less inflammatory and of course it is 'true' in reference to the denialists rhetoric. 

    And well done to the centre for climate change communication.

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  5. It might be useful to distinguish between deniers and skeptics.

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  6. All the above is relevant to what we might call "professional" debaters - the Monctons, Delingpoles, chat show hostd etc.

    What most of us encounter though is the thousands of deniers in the comments columns of the likes of the UK Daily Telegraph. The problem here - in addition to the list above - is the aptly named gish-gallop. Since we are dealing here with an arms-length, non simultaneous "debate", what always happens is that refuting some false argument leads inevitably either to the lack of any counter-rebuttal (so they think they've won) or a change to some other (well worn) false argument.

    Ninety nine times out of a hundred the denier and his followers imagine they have "won" and therefore their argument is proven true. Since any reply might be hours old it's actually impossible to hold any meaningful exchange such as one might in say a radio chat show.

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  7. I still believe that there are a lot of people that are seeking information on the entire concept of AGW.I like to watch a lot of debates on both sides and it is complicated.We have deniers and skeptics can I suggest a new group called middle earthers that are us layman that have an interest in this subject and are still on the fence.

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  8. JoeZ @5,

    I believe it is more important to distinguish between:

    • People who are less aware, with a related lack of understanding, who are interested and willing to learn.
    • People who are less aware, with a related lack of understanding, who are unwilling to learn - including people who have a lack of interest in learning - especially people who sense that learning would require them to change their mind about things they have developed a liking for.

    All skeptics are in the first group. And every scientist has to be a skeptic to be a successful scientist.

    Given the depth and breadth of expanded awareness and improved understanding that is summarized in the IPCC Reports (since the very first IPCC Report), it is unlikely anyone today has a basis to be Skeptical of the Generally Understood Conclusions of the IPCC Reports.

    Many people claim to be skeptical of some specific details of the science that is the basis of the IPCC Reports. But because of the massive diversity of investigations with consistent findings there is not likely to be a new validated learning that changes the Generally Understood Conclusions. If those people claim that their skepticism of a detail in the IPCC Report justifies dismissing the Generally Understood Conclusions of the IPCC Reports, they are clearly in the second category of people.

    Some people even continue to try to claim that things like "already admitted typos in an IPCC Report" or "A few carefully selected Excerpts from a massive packet of stolen emails from climate scientists that are presented out of context" prove that the entire IPCC process and every bit of research that is referenced in the IPCC Reports of the Compilation of constantly improving understanding justifies being skeptical of the entirety of the IPCC. Those people are Conspiracy Theorists - Outright Deniers. And the people who arranged for the stealing of the emails, and organized the sifting through to find a few nuggets, and directed the development and dissemination of the misrepresentations are worse than Deniers.

    So there are:

    • Skeptics who would all accept the Generally Understood Conclusions of the IPCC Reports. Some of them just need to do more learning.
    • Deniers who resist learning.
    • Misleaders who know better but want to encourage Denial. They are the worst. And many of them are very wealthy, or have very powerful positions, or are both (the worst of the worst).
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  9. duncan61 @7: You wrote:

    I like to watch a lot of debates on both sides and it is complicated.

    What "debates" do you watch. Please provide some links to them. 

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  10. Well duncan61, so which do you trust most? Information derived from a consensus of peer-reviewed scientific literature, even it is an unwelcome point of view; or information coming from non-climate scientists, non-scientists even, but which conform to what you would like to beleive?

    The difficulty for laymen is, that unless they are willing to delve into the science (and learn it from impeccable sources), then you are having to decide what sources to trust.

    A good start for critical thinking, is to decide what information/data would change your gut (value-driven) point of view. Scientists have no trouble telling you what measurements would change their mind on AGW. A pseudo-skeptic is more inclined to require the impossible, something science predicts cant be true (eg linear rise of temp with CO2), or the unmeasurable.

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  11. "I like to watch a lot of debates on both sides and it is complicated"

    Actually, it's not very complicated at all.  The scientific debate-train left the station, decades ago.

    In the discussions around global warming and its anthropogenic causation, there are those who focus on the science using the scientific method and logic, seeking reproducible evidence that best explains what we can empirically measure.

    Then there is everyone in the extreme minority, those who ignore the above in favor of slander, innuendo, unsupported assertion and character assassination in favor of promulgating false equivalence to support the ephemeral facade of "debate" and "sides".

    But it is not about the science, the bulk of the science was settled, decades ago. Deniers posing as skeptics set up a charade tableau of false equivalence to poison the well of public acceptance of that science.

    A parsimonious harping at the font of stolen, out-of-context and context-less emails proven not germane to the science is continuing on in the prosecution of the agenda of denial.

    Truth, science and reputable journalism all sacrificed to the unholy alter of false equivalence under the guise of promulgating a fallacious "debate".

    There is no debate. All that remains is the informed and the uninformed.

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  12. Heh. Here's a comment by one "derpmochump", on a Carbon Brief interview with climate experts titled "Coronavirus: What could lifestyle changes mean for tackling climate change?" He's all in for nefarious intent:

    Evil old gits of the technocracy, wielding political power using a hoax virus to launch a terrorist attack on the first world's standard of living. By the time you've empoverished the western way of life and stolen the future of all children not comprised of the ruling class, you bastards will be dead and in your graves and will have escaped justice.

    Your crimes are endless along with the abuse of the slave classes minds, damaged by social engineering and the brainwashing of mythologised 'facts'. Truly disgusting and evil, you have no right to wield such power over the entire world, you are the great satan, liars and murderers all.

    Sounds like derpmochump is a contender for the "World's Crankiest Uncle" title 8^D!

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  13. I suspect most "fence sitters " are really denialists that just don't want to be labelled denialists. In my experience that turns out to be the case because when pushed they tend to start attacking the agw consensus more than they reinforce it.

    Perhaps some young people are legitimate fence sitters and need more information and I dont disagree with OPOFs categories, but the older generation has more than enough information to have made up their minds unless they have been living under a rock.

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  14. I made a translation to Spanish that needs some "cultural translation" since we don't have a straight translation to concepts like Straw Man which I translated as a negative Stereotype. I would like to colaborate to do a badly needed translation to Spanish of the whole page. I hope you don't mind I added the logos of some of my Science and Cultural causes.

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  15. Alvaro @14

    Could you please get in touch via our contact form and selecting "Enquiry about translations" from the dropdown? I'll then send you some hopefully helpful pointers regarding a Spanish translation of FLICC and translations on Skeptical Science in general. Thanks!

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