Discussing climate change on the net

Today, many discussions about climate change happen on the internet. People interested in the topic share information and have lively discussions about the latest studies and findings. But, you'll also find many contributors voicing not just minor doubts about human-caused climate change but also those who outright deny it. In this blog post, I suggest some options which exist to deal with these dissenting voices. The suggestions are based on a presentation I prepared for the K3-conference in Salzburg in September 2017 and which I was invited to write about for the Promet journal published by the German Weatherservice (DWD).

Consensus among scientists - lack of consensus on the internet

At a guess, you'll have noticed the following more than just once: As soon as an article about climate change gets published on the internet, it usually doesn't take long for comments voicing doubt or outright denying that it's human-caused to appear. Even though there's an overwhelming consensus of well over 90 percent in scientific publications and among climate scientists that the current climate change is human-caused, you can easily get quite a different impression from what gets posted on the net.


Obvously - and as we keep pointing out - the consensus isn't proof of human-caused climate change. Instead, the consensus has emerged from the evidence collected and analysed for over 150 years by thousands of climate scientists around the globe. The evidence and results fit together like many pieces of a large puzzle coming together and falling in place to create a coherent picture. You'll however often be hard pressed to find this conensus on the internet. This is when knowing the five characteristics of science denial comes in handy to better understand and evaluate comments posted with an obvious dismissive slant. They can be summarised by the acronym FLICC:

How best to react to dismissive comments?

One option is to respond directly and to debunk misleading statements with links to relevant and reliabe sources. This, however, can become very time consuming and leaves readers with the feeling that there are still more questions than answers.

RespondDismissiveCartoon: John Cook

As it's very likely that the doubter isn't interested in the answer anyway, it can however make more sense to just use his assertions as hooks to explain the science to others actively participating in the discussion or passively reading along. For this to work, you'll need links to reliable resources which provide the information in an accessible format as well as links to the primary literature, like what we offer on Skeptical Science with our numbered list of more than 200 rebuttals. Referring to our list also drives home the point that the dismissive arguments have long and often been debunked. It also helps if you can add a graphic to your explanation and mention the characterstic(s) of science denial employed.

OnlineResponseToOthersCartoon: John Cook

Please check my earlier posts "New resource: The Fact-Myth-Fallacy slide deck" and "Handy resources when faced with a firehose of falsehoods" for some suggested and quick ways to debunk often heard misinformation.

One point to keep in mind when employing the tactic to use a dismissive's comments as hooks for factual explanations is that you most likely will not get much feedback from those who only read along but don't get actively involved in the discussions. Chances are, that you are still having an effect, especially if you manage to keep your calm even when faced with ever more insulting comments! Tone does matter after all and people can tell the difference (but I admit that it would be nice to get more than the occasional "like" for comments posted!).

To moderate or not, that is the question!

Whether or not comments are moderated has effects on a website's or Facebook page's quality. If you are the owner of a website or page you are responsible for that online presence and you can define the rules of what can get posted and what not. So you can for example state that the consensus on human-caused climate change is a given, that misinformation or conspiracy theories don't have a place, and that claims need to be accompanied by links and references to relevant and reliable sources. It comes down to "Your webpage, your rules". If commenters don't want to adhere to your rules, it's okay to delete their comments (perhaps after a final warning) and if need be ban them completely from posting. Rebukes that this constitutes censorship or infringement of their rights to free speech can be safely ignored as there are many other websites - perhaps even their very own Facebook page! - where they can post whatever they want. And if they don't get this message, you can always show them the door via XKCD's neat cartoon:


Posted by BaerbelW on Monday, 26 November, 2018

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