Understanding climate denial

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, skepticalscience.com. 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.

Posted by John Cook on Wednesday, 28 September, 2011

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.