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Understanding climate denial

Posted on 28 September 2011 by John Cook

There are a number of areas of science where the evidence has become so overwhelming that a scientific consensus forms. For example, the consensus on the link between smoking and cancer, that HIV causes AIDS or that humans are causing global warming. Where there is a scientific consensus, there are often movements that deny the scientific evidence. All of these denialist movements have been found to share 5 common characteristics, including cherry pickingconspiracy theories and fake experts.

Understanding the denial of scientific evidence is a crucial element to putting the climate controversy into proper context. The first step is recognizing that the process of denial is to be distinguished from cases where the title 'denier' is used derogatorily. Complaining about the word 'denier' can be a form of denial itself, using concern trolling to avoid a serious discussion of the scientific evidence.

Certain defence mechanisms are tell-tale signs of denial. In one experiment, people were asked if they believed there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Those who answered yes were shown evidence that there was no such link, including a direct quote from President Bush. Despite the overwhelming evidence, only 2% of participants consciously changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied they ever believed in the link despite indicating so in the initial survey).

The most common response was attitude bolstering. This involves bringing to mind arguments that support pre-existing views while denying any counter evidence. The process is reflexive and almost sub-conscious. Attitude bolstering has an unexpected and unfortunate consequence. When one encounters threatening evidence, the cognitive process of bringing supporting arguments to the fore results in a strengthening of one's views. This is known as the backfire effect, where debunking a myth can paradoxically end up reinforcing the myth. The effect is strongest among those whose views are already quite strong.

Is it any wonder that so few who deny scientific evidence change their mind? But don't forget that 2%. The rare person who was "skeptical" about climate change but then considered the full body of evidence is the exception that proves the rule. In Confessions of a Climate Change Convert, D.R. Tucker perused all the scientific evidence, became convinced that humans are causing global warming and uttered the famous pronouncement, "I was defeated by facts".

Craig Good from Skeptoid, describes how he came to be convinced of the evidence in I, Global Warming Skeptic:

Since [Peter Gleick's] talk I have spent a lot of time on a site he recommended, There they have taken each of the most common science questions, numbered them, and carefully addressed them with the current science. The answers are even presented in basic, intermediate, and advanced formats so that there’s likely to be one matching the reader’s level of scientific knowledge.

With the caveat that a few of the questions don’t belong on their list (42, 63, 105 and 165, at least) because they are economic and/or political rather than scientific, I highly recommend the site.

So, yes, I am now persuaded that anthropogenic global warming is real. That’s because I’m a skeptic.

I recently received an email from a blogger Nathan McKaskle who informed me:

"You changed my mind about global warming. Up until today I was a big time skeptic for a number of reasons. Great site with a wealth of information that addressed most of my concerns."

Unfortunately Nathan closed his blog down (otherwise I would've linked to his blog post on this subject). Ironically, he closed down his site due to discouragement, not knowing whether he'd changed a single mind through his blogging. It's a sentiment many of us bloggers can relate to, I'm sure.

These examples of minds being changed by the evidence reaffirms Skeptical Science's key mission of presenting the many lines of evidence for man-made global warming. Another key to putting the climate controversy into proper context is understanding the phenomenon of denial. Skeptical Science will continue to examine the 5 characteristics of science denial and how they manifest in many climate myths. It is by understanding how some deny the evidence that we are able to point to the scientific evidence.

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Comments 251 to 261 out of 261:

  1. Ah, I see. Since "denier" is used to refer to those who deny climate science, "warmist" is thus used by deniers to refer to those who affirm climate science. Got it.
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  2. #235 Jonathon, debunking what you said in #214 is not diversion. I focused on something you said 'for the record', and showed it was wrong. You brought up 'catastrophic' and you brought up 'strawman' (I never mentioned the word), maybe trying to divert from your prior errors? In fact, you're now providing a nice case study for this thread. See Is there a consensus for an on-topic comment on consensus occuring in the presence of a large range of values.
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  3. warmist: A person who believes that the current global warming trend is the result of man-made factors. Among climatologists, global warming is just one scenario for the unusual atmospheric changes that have been observed throughout the world. Those who accept the global-warming theory are said to take the warmist position. ... —Howard Rheingold, "On Language; Succinctly Spoken," The New York Times, August 27, 1989 This has somehow morphed into an insult? Is that the best you've got?
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  4. "Denier" isn't an insult either. It's a basic definition straight out of a dictionary.
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  5. Let me get this straight skywatcher. You feel that if one person believes that the climate sensitivity is one, and another believes that it is five, then they are both part of a consensus that believes that the range is between the two values? I think that constitutes disagreement. That is where we differ. I believe you are the one being debunked here. For the record, death would be a catastrophic event (on a personal level) as oppose to a minor injury. It was very relevant to the example, and not a diversion as you claim. It is awfully arrogant to claim that someone who disagrees with you is in error, especially since you have failed to show how I am wrong.
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  6. If the question is "Is the value greater than zero?", then yes - they are in consensus.
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  7. Bibliovermis, quite correct. Jonathon, if three scientists say the Earth is warming at 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3C per decade, +/-0.05C, is there a consensus that the Earth is warming? Note I did not ask if there is a consensus on how much, or if the warming rates are harmful in any way. That is a different, diversionary question. In real climate science, there is not agreement on every detail, such as the exact values of climate sensitivity, but there is agreement that the climate is sensitive to forcing, and that the forcing is mostly our fault.
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  8. If that is the right question Bibliovermis, then yes. Therefore, everyone from SKS, myself, and other scientists like Roger Pielke Sr. and Richard Lindzen all agree with the consensus about AGW. Interesting perspective.
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  9. Jonathon: skywatcher has attempted to move the discussion on consensus to the appropriate thread. Might I suggest you re-post your comment there and continue the conversation on consensus where it is on topic?
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    [DB] Yes, by all means, the discussion on consensus should go there.

  10. But its not. Lindzen is saying "most likely" <2 from memory. IPCC review concluded sensitivity "most likely" 3, and between 2 and 4. Furthermore, this estimate is backed by several different estimation methods. Estimates lower than 2 depend on hope.
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  11. Steven Sherwood has a piece in this month's Physics Today comparing climate science denial with "inconvenient truths" of the past. The comment stream is, of course, filled with unevidenced silliness.
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