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A journey into the weird and wacky world of climate change denial

Posted on 26 June 2011 by Stephan Lewandowsky

Reposted from The Conversation. This is the twelfth part in a two-week series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professors Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley step into the twilight zone of climate change scepticism: where the sun is made of iron and the royals are out to get you.

Science, like much human endeavour, thrives on debate.

Climate deniers want to participate in this debate as equal partners, and feel that they are entitled to be heard and to be taken seriously. This is quite understandable, but by itself does not create an entitlement.

In science, to actually contribute at the forefront of a field one has to earn credibility, not demand it. Being taken seriously is a privilege, not a right.

In science, this privilege is earned by not only following conventional norms of honesty and transparency but by supporting one’s opinions with evidence and reasoned argument in the peer-reviewed literature.

This is what makes science self-correcting. If arguments turn out to be wrong, in time they are caught and corrected by other scientists. It is virtually impossible to publish long-refuted nonsense in good peer-reviewed journals.

Climate deniers, by contrast, seem to avoid the peer-reviewed literature or publish by sometimes abusing the system. Nor do the deniers turn up and present their ideas at any of the many international scientific conferences, open to anyone, where these issues have been explored for decades.

Deniers simply keep restating nonsensical arguments that the scientific community has known to be wrong for a long time.

The illusion of debate

So why do deniers continue to make their loud, and egregiously mistaken, claims? And what explains the tiny handful of deniers with verifiable academic credentials?

Many are (generally former) Professors, albeit usually with tenuous unpaid Adjunct or Emeritus associations with universities.

Are these individuals indicative of a scientific debate, after all? And if not, what motivates them?

Today, denial of the link between HIV and AIDS would be laughable, if the consequences of that denial hadn’t been so serious.

It is thus important to remember that twenty years ago a tiny handful of people in the medical community, including senior academics at reputable universities, rejected the consensus that HIV causes AIDS.

It is illuminating that just as in climate science, the contrarian publications on HIV were accompanied by an unusual context that made headlines and raised eyebrows for the same ethical reasons that arise from climate deniers’ subversion of peer review.

An example from astronomy is also prescient. The consensus of astronomers is that the sun consists largely of hydrogen and helium, and is powered by fusion at its core.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, and supported by multiple independent lines of investigation.

Like climate change, there are contrarian academics who argue against the consensus. O. Manuel, unpaid Emeritus of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has claimed for decades that the sun is mostly composed of iron.

Manuel has recently published his bizarre theories in the bottom-tier journal Energy & Environment, also a favorite of climate deniers due to its, to put it mildly, unusual review processes.

There is an important lesson here: an overwhelming scientific consensus does not imply the absence of contrarian voices even within the scientific community.

Over time, those contrarian voices simply fade away because no one takes them seriously, despite their shouts of “censorship” and accusations of bias.

This is not to say that a scientific consensus is never overturned.

There are well-known examples such as the Helicobacter pylori discovery in medicine, and continental drift in geology. But in both cases the arguments were won and lost in the peer-reviewed literature, not by contrarians sitting on the side-lines writing opinion pieces about how they were being oppressed.

Manipulating the media

Normally the underbelly of obsessed contrarians that strangely afflicts many areas of science would go unnoticed.

With climate change, however, we are in the extraordinary situation where the deniers have had almost free reign in media outlets such as The Australian, while scientists are given short shrift.

The editors there claim to be providing balanced commentary for their readers to make informed decisions. In reality they are doing a great disservice to the community by publishing junk science.

Providing a platform for deniers, thereby enabling political leaders to mistake contrarian cranks for real science, can have horrendous consequences, as we have seen in the case of HIV, where perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have needlessly died.

There is an ethical imperative to hold deniers accountable for their actions.

But the question remains: what motivates deniers?

With very few exceptions, academic climate deniers are male and either retired or close to retirement.

The climate deniers’ champion, MIT’s 71-year old Richard Lindzen, has had a distinguished career, but 30 years after his major contributions, he appears to struggle to respond to devastating peer reviews when he attempts to publish his contrarian views in a major journal.

More commonly, the academic climate denier will have had a mediocre career that escaped public notice and left little imprint on science. Some haven’t been able to keep up with the rapid advances in science coming from its increasing complexity and the impact of computers and new technologies. Once respected, these scientists find themselves “out of the loop” and being ignored, which sometimes makes them quite grumpy.

There is much truth in the eminent physicist Max Planck’s observation, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up,” sometimes paraphrased as, “science advances one funeral at a time.”

A strong motivation for contrarians appears to be the attention that they can gain or re-gain in the public arena.

Any scientist, no matter how out of touch, can become the darling of talk shows by simply disagreeing with the consensus on climate.

89-year-old Vincent Gray was introduced recently by shock jock Alan Jones as “world acknowledged and acclaimed,” and among “some of the most eminent people in the world”.

Gray’s most recent peer-reviewed publication appears to be an article on the chemical properties of coal, from 17 years ago. Nothing at all on climate.

Jones also recently interviewed 72-year-old Tim Ball, describing him as “one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and acknowledged as such.” This is in contrast to Ball’s CV, in which he reveals he got his PhD at the age of 44 and retired from academia at the age of 57 with a very thin list of publications, most frequently in The Beaver and the Manitoba Social Science Teachers Journal.

Jones’ listeners and The Australian’s readers are being misled.

David Attenborough is watching you…

Another necessary element of denial is conspiratorial thinking. Any denier sooner or later, whether an academic or not, must resort to a global conspiracy theory to negate the overwhelming evidence arrayed against them.

One self-proclaimed “rocket scientist” who has published junk science in the opinion pages of The Australian has been quoted on a New Zealand website as saying:

“To win the political aspect of the climate debate, we have to lower the western climate establishment’s credibility with the lay person. And this paper [an accompanying picture book of thermometers] shows how you do it. It simply assembles the most easily understood points that show they are not to be entirely trusted, with lots of pictures and a minimum of text and details. It omits lots of relevant facts and is excruciatingly economical with words simply because the lay person has a very short attention span for climate arguments. The strategy of the paper is to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists. That’s all. There is nothing special science-wise.”

Undermine credibility.

That’s all.

Nothing science-wise.

Are these the people one should entrust with the welfare of future generations?

Lest one think this is an isolated case, conspiracy theories are an essential ingredient in writings of deniers.

According to a recent (not peer-reviewed) book by Bob Carter, who has an unpaid Adjunct position at James Cook University, it is “simply professional suicide for a scientist to put a questioning head above the parapet” when faced with opposition from “the BBC, commercial television, all major newspapers, the Royal Society, the Chief Scientist, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, David Attenborough, countless haloed-image organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and even Prince Charles himself.”

Just imagine the devastating rebuttal of climate change that Bob Carter could submit for peer-review if he wasn’t being oppressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles.

But seriously, why doesn’t Carter, or any of the deniers, simply write a coherent outline of their best arguments against the expert consensus and publish it in the peer-reviewed literature?

Why don’t they turn up to the relevant scientific conferences and give a talk on their theories?

The answer is simple: they don’t have any arguments that have any scientific merit.

Which is why Carter publishes in The Australian. Again, and again, and again and again.

Returning to our discussion of conspiracy theorists, O. Manuel, whose imaginative theories on the sun we discussed earlier, avidly posts to blogs and often mentions President Eisenhower’s 1961 warning against a government-funded “scientific-technological elite”.

Manuel claims that this “tax-feeding ‘elite’ has distorted experimental data to give tax-payers misinformation about the sun’s origin.”

The peer-reviewed literature on conspiratorial thinking cites several identifying attributes that are replete in the statements of climate deniers.

For example, the imaginary conspirators are at once small in number but also all powerful.

They claim on the one hand that science is based on the strength of argument, not on the consensus of experts, but on the other hand they desperately manufacture petitions and lists of “scientists” on their side.

There’s a laughable list circulating on the internet of 31,000 “scientists” — including at one point Dr. Pierce and Dr. Hunnicutt of M*A*S*H fame — who allegedly oppose the consensus on climate change. But on the other hand there’s the simultaneous claim that opposition is squashed by the world’s science academies and Prince Charles.

Deniers yelp about being oppressed, while at the same time claiming to number 31,000.

And just to be sure, Prince Phillip runs the world’s drug trade and climate change is a means by which the Royal family is culling the population for a forthcoming genocide. Or something like that, maybe you can figure it out.

Time to close the phony debate on climate science

At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?

The so-called “debate” on climate change has been over for decades in the peer-reviewed literature. It is time to accept the scientific consensus and move on, and to stop giving air-time to the cranks.

It is time for accountability.

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. You can vote this now @ reddit
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  2. People can engage in conspiracy theories -OR- just listen to the facts as expressed by the experts. Here is a 10-minute clip of NASA's James Hansen on the David Letterman show: James Hansen - Late Show With David Letterman but if you require more details then watch this 53-minute gem at Dr. James Hansen on Human-Made Climate Change
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  3. Posts like this are extremely valuable. As readers of SkepticalScience know, peer review isn't perfect, but it's the best mechanism available to ensure that the truth is eventually reached. However, the public at large is unaware of this. Worse, the deniers would have the public believe otherwise. For the past two weeks The Week That Was (newsletter of the Science and Environmental Policy Project) has been critical of the peer review process as applied to climate change research. First (19 June) they invoked a conspiracy to prevent Richard Lindzen from publishing his recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Then (26 June) they implied a flawed process allowed a paper on sea level rise to be published in PNAS. TWTW goes on to state: "As William Gray suggested in his article carried in TWTW last week, the internet blogs provide a more rigorous analysis of questionable climate science studies than the "peer review" process does." As astonishing as that seems, many citizens simply don't know how ridiculous it is to claim that blogs provide a more rigorous analysis of science than does the peer review process. This is why I want to thank Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as everyone associated with SkepticalScience, for all that they are doing to inform the public about how to discriminate between reliable versus unreliable information as well as more generally about climate change.
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  4. One aspect of climate change denial that has not been commented on as yet is that of psychological projection: projection ... is a psychological defense mechanism where a person unconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people. I, and most others here, have observed that many climate change deniers project their own disowned attributes, feelings, and thoughts onto those who disagree with them, and accuse climate scientists of their very own mis-deeds and mis-behaviors. For example: It would be interesting to have some comment from trained and experienced psychologists on this aspect of climate change denial.
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  5. Chemware, While I don't really meet your minimum requirements, one of my degrees is a masters in cognitive psychology, but I don't work in that field now. Mostly I worked on how the brain processes visual information, but I did manage to pick up some awareness of social and clinical aspects through osmosis. From what I've seen, there are aspects of projection that come into play, but mostly it appears that various aspects of denial, very aptly named, come into play. Also, a fair amount of cognitive dissonance can be observed amongst the crowd. However, I think it is important not to paint with too broad a brush; individuals can vary from those that are motivated by profit to those who are honestly not able to connect the dots between cause and effect. Of the latter, the failure can be caused by lack of skill in the physical sciences, or a psychological blockage that prevents acceptance of what is really known, or others that don't come to mind as readily. Denial is a powerful survival skill, but it does sometimes prevent dealing with the reality of the situation. IMHO, cognitive dissonance manifests itself often as the slight derailment of an otherwise coherent line of thought, when that derailment changes the line to so that it leads to conclusions that are more comfortable. Also, if plain and simple presentation of information provokes a strong emotional response, the odds are good that you are getting near that person's keystone of denial. Of course, different people have different keystones. The list of expressions of denial on the link above almost looks as though it were tailor made for the climate denier crowd. I like the Max Planck quote; still true to this day. I don't think the argument/debate will ever be completely over. As new people are made aware of the problem, the general tendency toward denial will keep some directed to that side of the debate. It is not easy to accept that you are culpable in creating a world where your children will have a more difficult life than the one you have enjoyed. I see this as an ongoing educational effort.
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  6. The emotional bias in the arguments can be seen whenever there are three conflicting lines of reasoning, but only one is engaged by the other two. For example: a) CO2 is a trace gas and can have no effect; there isn't enough of it to have any effect. b) The thermodynamic effect of CO2 is logarithmic; it's effect is on a declining slope, but that slope has no upper limit. c) CO2 is already at such high concentrations that more of it can have no effect. Proponents of (a) and (c) will argue with proponents of (b), but never with each other. If the debate were about physical reality, a and c would go after each other, possibly even attempting to recruit b as an ally. But, they don't engage each other, ever. Instead they always go after b together. Why? Because the implications of b are emotionally difficult to deal with, and the implications of a and c are not emotionally threatening to each other. This pattern belies any attempt to present the argument as one based on the technical merits of the positions.
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  7. Pedantic correction: The effect is on a curve with a declining slope, but the slope is always positive and the curve has no upper limit.
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  8. Chemware, Chris G, thanks for that discussion - quite thought-provoking. I think one class of 'deniers / sceptics' that is frequently missed, though, are the people who are intelligent, and able to connect the dots, but who have been fed incorrect information by their trusted media outlets, whether inadvertently or by design. I know several people in that category myself. One in particular is very difficult to persuade otherwise, as it also aligns with his political leanings, which is why he was exposed to mis-/dis-information in the first place - there's certainly no denying that disinformation in regard to global warming is more prevalent among the political right.
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  9. Lewandowsky and Ashley have a lot of reasons. But: 1. Among the skeptics is, however, many active researchers. Eg: Atte Korhola (are here in the photo "looks young") and says: “Unreasonable expectations are placed in the IPCC report.” 2. “... Time to close the phony debate on climate science ...” Polish Professor J. Weiner - among other things, the history of science researcher, and the scientific method - he says that scientific theory must give an answer to the most (seemingly) absurd and unscientific claims. The history of science teaches us that even the most an “innocent attempts” to "... to close the phony debate ..." may to finish the creation of "false science". ... and most eminent scientists (past and present - including Nobel Prize winners), has never been members of the National Academy of Sciences ... 3. I am still far from retirement. I am a skeptic the type d) - the current "unbalanced surplus" CO2 in the atmosphere (by us) mainly of natural origin, and absolutely all proxies of the former concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere are affected by a huge mistake - do not say truth (even in very approximate). 4. “ ... five Hiroshima bombs per second ...” - A lot but also very, very little ... depends on what this size compare.
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  10. 10 Arkadiusz - it's a hypotheses. Here's another: They are being strategically wrong and can get away with it because they're outside the core peer review world. Here's a read about being strategically wrong.
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  11. Arkadiusz Semczyszak "the current "unbalanced surplus" CO2 in the atmosphere (by us) mainly of natural origin, and absolutely all proxies of the former concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere are affected by a huge mistake." You do not need proxy data to demonstrate that position is untennable. If the rise in atmospheric CO2 were of natural origin, then the natural environment would have to be a net carbon source. If that were true, the annual rise in atmospheric CO2 would be the sum of the natural net annual source plus anthropogenic emissions. If that were the case, the observed annual rise in atmospheric CO2 would be greater than annual anthropogenic emissions. However, it isn't, it is only about half the size of annual emissions (on average), which means the natural environment must be a net carbon sink, not a source, and hence cannot be the source of the observed rise. I'd be happy to discuss that with you on a more appropriate thread, such as this one.
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  12. Bern (#8), I agree. Though, sometimes it is a chicken-egg scenario; if you are comfortable hearing what the channel saying, you tend to watch it more. There was an interesting poll study about the percentage of people who regularly watched/listened to specific channels and their belief in climate change. Something like 60% of Fox daily viewers did not believe there is a consensus among scientists, and only ~13% of NPR listeners felt the same way. CNN was somewhere in the middle. Related to "The false, the confused and the mendacious: how the media gets it wrong on climate change": Misinformation and the 2010 Election: A Study of the US Electorate page 21
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  13. gotta watch what they teach the kids! Just a general conversation with young kids, about (so called) Climate Change, will reveal that they are being fed much disinformation – be it via the media, the school curriculum or even from their parents and close relatives. It seemed to me that much of the ‘knowlege’ espoused from these children’s mouths was very biased towards the THEORY of Carbon Based Man Made Climate Change (CAGW). Please remember a theory is still unproven. My Husband remembers that in 1943 – while in the 4th grade at school, in his weekly reader, it taught that within ten years America would have used up all of its oil reserves…. never happened yet the kids were fed that information! Reading my news online I came across the following, which I believe backs up what I was thinking/experiencing. Get the children young enough, teach them what you want them to know and believe, therefore indoctrinating them, and you have the whole future society doing your bidding (perhaps?). For complete story follow the link
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    [DB] Surely as a meteorologist you can appreciate having all the facts at your disposal before going in front of the chroma key screen and going live?  Well, when it comes to things climate science, Skeptical Science is the teleprompter for you!

    Let me start off by saying "Welcome to Skeptical Science!"  There is an immense amount of reference material discussed here and it can be a bit difficult at first to find an answer to your questions.  That's why we recommend that Newcomers, Start Here and then learn The Big Picture.

    I also recommend watching this video on why CO2 is the biggest climate control knob in Earth's history.

    Further general questions can usually be be answered by first using the Search function in the upper left of every Skeptical Science page to see if there is already a post on it (odds are, there is).  If you still have questions, use the Search function located in the upper left of every page here at Skeptical Science and post your question on the most pertinent thread.

    Remember to frame your questions in compliance with the Comments Policy and lastly, to use the Preview function below the comment box to ensure that any html tags you're using work properly.

    All pages are live at SkS; many may be currently inactive, however.  Posting a question or comment on any will not be missed as regulars here follow the Recent Comments threads, which allows them to see every  new comment that gets posted here.

    Comments primarily dealing with ideologies, like yours, are frowned upon here.  SkS is on online climate science Forum in which participants can freely discuss the science of climate change and the myths promulgated by those seeking to dissemble.  All science is presented in context with links to primary sources so that the active, engaging mind can review any claims made.

  14. #13: justmeint. Please remember that gravity is also "just a theory", one which is just as well-verified by experiment, and just as well supported by physics, as the theory of climate. The theory of gravity, as it is, has its problems too, and so the current explanations may yet be superseded by something that explains all the existing evidence, as well as the current issues. However, gravity is an excellent theory, and explains nearly all the evidence very well, as does the current theory of climate and of the trapping of infrared radiation by certain molecules in Earth's atmosphere. I don't suppose you would ignore gravity because it's 'just a theory', would you? Theories represent the most well-tested, well-verified parts of science. "Proof" only exists in mathematics.
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  15. justmeint, having read your comment here and looked at your own website, I think you really need to read further on this site. Then, you wouldn't use phrases like "(so called) Climate Change" (whatever that means - don't you think climate changes ?), or "the THEORY of Carbon Based Man Made Climate Change (CAGW). Please remember a theory is still unproven" (although, skywatcher has already replied to you on that. You should also not rely on what your husband remembers in 1943 because all our memories are very fallible. Nor should you link to online articles about Nazis and the Hitler youth - people might think you are trying to compare them to "radical" "far-left" groups you don't seem to like. Anyway, to start off with the first beliefs from your website (and in addition to DB's response to you), these links on this site should help you : Carbon dioxide/pollution, and here. Rather than a scatter-gun approach, why don't you go through your beliefs, find the relevant threads here, and then post your thoughts individually.
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  16. justmeint I have left this comment on your blog. I assure you it is well intentioned, indoctrination of children's minds is not something I want to see either; but in arguing against it it is vital to avoid the rhetorical devices of indoctrination yourself. “Please remember a theory is still unproven.” No theory can ever be proven, only disproven, this is a fairly basic truism of the philosophy of science. It is rather ironic that an article on [d,m]isinformation should begin with such an error. It may be the case that some textbooks have errors, however a much better solution has been provided by the IPCC in the form of the WG1 Scientific Basis Report, which sets out the mainstream scientific position on basically all relevant issues. I would strongly recommend it as the next book you read on the topic. For a classic example of misinformation, you could do little better than “She never mentions that as a percent of the atmosphere the total increase in carbon dioxide since 1800 is .01%.”. This is a rather selective choice of measurements that makes the increase in carbon dioxide seem negligible. However, the 0.03% of carbon dioxide in the pre-industrial atmosphere was responsible for 9-26% of the natural greenhouse effect that makes the earth about 33 degrees centigrade warmer than it would otherwise be. A rise from 0.03% to 0.04% seems rather more substantial when that information (the strength of the effect) is included. If you want to avoid indoctrination of our children, I suggest you might want to start with some introspection and self-skepticism. I’m sorry to leave a rather critical comment on your blog, but I am also vary concerned about misinformation.
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  17. It appears justmeint is uninterested in critical engagement, Dikran. I think your response has been deleted from her blog. Pathetic.
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  18. Ahh - it's probably waiting moderation.
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