Climate Change and Denialism

[T]here is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems upon which we depend. Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.

An open letter to the journal Science by 250 members of the US National Academy of Sciences [bold mine]

Yet, this is still, unbelievably, a controversial issue.

One difficulty when dealing with controversy is… to know when the debate is over.

I’ve lived with climate change activists and they have obviously dealt with deniers quite a lot, so none of what Professor Jones says in the BBC Trust Review about the minorities yelling and screaming their way into the limelight to deny the scientific evidence is new to me. Trying to understand the mindset of someone who denies climate change is very like the more familiar scenario of trying to understand someone who believes in an organised religion …and they use the very same tactics to apparently get on top of the debate (except for refusing to engage in debate or getting upset if you express disagreement, which I have encountered a lot amongst christians – sorry!). It’s also something I have seen at the Oxford Union, and those who want to go into politics or debating actually practice (although in their case knowingly) in order to maim their debating opponent by giving the appearance of a convincing argument.

Professor Jones is clearly also well versed in these tactics and manages to explain and describe them with impressive detatchment:

They, with many others, practise denialism: the use of rhetoric to give the appearance of debate. This is not the same as scepticism, for a sceptic is willing to change his or her mind when provided with evidence. A denialist is not. Many among them see themselves as intellectual martyrs in a war against political correctness and as worthy successors to Galileo.

…The tale is told of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth and dissent quashed by secret forces. People with strong opinions should be given equal weight with experts… Standards of proof should be set so high as to be impossible to attain. Personal attacks (Hitler was against smoking) are acceptable and absolutism is useful (one ninety year old smoker proves that tobacco is harmless). Doubt shades into certainty:a scientist can never be sure that a vaccine is always safe – which means that it never is.

…Most important in the context of this Report, any concession by the establishment that it is less than certain of the accuracy of its claims – that there is, in other words, room for discussion – is taken as a statement of surrender.

Knowing this, realising this, it should be easy to arm people against this kind of rhetoric by helping them understand how science works, learning about the rhetoric and how to recognise it – or is this not fair game? Should we as the “winning” side, who know our argument is superior (though don’t you suppose the denialist believes the same of their argument?) and backed with evidence, make this concession, to afford them respect that the skills of such a rhetoric afford?

It sounds like a crazy question, but put it this way: is it worth “rumbling” the use of rhetoric just to win a debate that is technically already won?

I suppose it depends really how dangerous the consequences would be of allowing deniers to persist. With climate change, the cost of conceding to deniers would (undeniably) be vast. But there aren’t really that many deniers, so their impact is not going to retard the introduction of low-carbon measures and renewable technology, even if we let them have their platform.

So a conundrum.

I think most people would say just spit in their face and leave them to their delusions. But I have a different view: above all, it is important to give people information and let them make up their own minds. Which leads to only one conclusion. You tell people about rhetoric, about charisma, about how to look for a convincing argument, not a confident one. You tell people that not being 100% is actually more reassuring (because it is evidence based) than being 100% (and never changing your mind).

As Professor Jones says,

…In the furore, the crucial point that there is always doubt in science, particularly when it tries to look into the future, and that to be uncertain does not inevitably mean to be wrong, is lost.


About RowenaFW

I am a Fish. But you wouldn't know it just from looking at me.
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