What is driving climate science denial and how do I respond to it? This question has prompted me to follow Denial101x – Making Sense of Climate Science Denial – an online course offered by the University of Queensland in Australia. This article includes portions of the course content from Week 1 of the Denial 101x MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).
Democracy depends on a well informed public. People have a right to be accurately informed. But if the public is being misinformed by people who deny climate science, that has social and environmental consequences. The issue of science denial is controversial and inspires a lot of emotions. That’s why it’s imperative that we take a scientific approach in our response to science denial. We need to draw upon the empirical research into understanding what drives science denial as well as the empirical research in how to respond to science denial ~ John Cook, course developer, instructor and Climate Communication Fellow at the Global Change Institute).
Five Characteristics of Climate Science Denial
Denial is a process. What do we mean by denial? Why do people reject scientific evidence? What are the drivers of denial? Psychologically, how does denial work? Are there any tell-tale characteristics of denial? And if so, what are they? And the all important final question – how do we respond to science denial?
Denial is not skepticism. Genuine scientific skepticism is a good thing. In fact, it’s the heart of the scientific method. Genuine skeptics don’t come to a conclusion until they’ve considered the evidence. In contrast, someone who denies well-established science comes to a conclusion first, and then discounts any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. Denial and skepticism are polar opposites.
Scientists embrace skepticism. There’s a need to reclaim the word so that skepticism once again becomes associated with evidence-based critical thinking rather than the rejection of scientific evidence. Science denial results in confirmation bias – in receiving evidence in a biased way. It’s not necessarily an intentional thing. The trait of denial can come about from unconscious processes. Confirmation bias can cut both ways. Ignoring the full body of evidence can result in alarmist statements that aren’t consistent with all the data.
So what you really want to know is how to tell the difference between skepticism and denial. Over the years, there have been many different occasions when groups of people denied a scientific consensus. For example, the link between smoking and cancer, that humans evolved from lower lifeforms and more recently, human-caused global warming. All those forms of denial focus on different areas of science.
A scientific paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee found that regardless of which science is being targeted, all denial shares five characteristics. Diethelm and McKee identify them as Fake Experts, Logical Fallacies, Impossible Expectations, Cherry Picking and Conspiracy Theories – FLICC.
1. Fake Experts
Fake experts are used to create the impression of an ongoing scientific debate. The general public relies on expert opinion as a guide for their own beliefs about science. For this reason, casting doubt on a scientific consensus is a key strategy for those looking to manufacture doubt about the science. Fake experts appear to be highly qualified but don’t have actual expertise in the relevant scientific field.
People tend to attribute more expertise to those who agree with their existing beliefs and values. People are then more likely to recall experts who they agree with. This results in a distorted perception of scientific consensus. The more you disagree with a consensus position, the lower you think that consensus is.
An alternative way to portray the impression of ongoing scientific debate is to magnify those few remaining scientists who continue to disagree with the consensus position – magnified minority. There are still a handful of apparently credentialed scientists who deny that HIV causes AIDS. While their views have lost respectability in the scientific community, they still continue to create doubt in the public’s mind.
2. Logical Fallacies
Logical fallacies are logically false arguments that lead to an invalid conclusion. For example, a red herring is a logical fallacy that distracts people with an irrelevant piece of information. Someone might argue that carbon dioxide is a colourless, invisible gas so therefore it’s not a problem. But the fact that carbon dioxide is invisible is irrelevant to whether greenhouse gases affect climate. A number of logical fallacies fall under this umbrella. These include misrepresentation or over-simplifying the science. Making faulty leaps of logic is called jumping to conclusions. And presenting only two choices when other options are available is called a false dichotomy. These all appear in myths that cast doubt on climate science.
3. Impossible Expectations
The third characteristic of science denial involves impossible expectations. This demands unrealistic standards of proof before acting on the science. This strategy was pioneered by the tobacco industry which highlighted any uncertainty in order to obscure the scientific consensus linking smoking and cancer. Whenever additional evidence linked smoking to cancer, tobacco advocates would raise the standard of proof and claim insufficient evidence.
4. Cherry Picking
Cherry picking focuses on specific pieces of data, often out of context, while excluding any data that conflicts with the desired conclusion. But how do you tell when someone is cherry picking? Cherry picking happens when a conclusion from a small piece of data is different from the conclusion supported by the full body of evidence.
Cherry picking can also result from confirmation bias, putting more weight on agreeable information while downplaying disagreeable evidence. We remember the hits but tend to forget the misses. For example, in one study, people were told about a breakdown at a nuclear power plant. Pro-nuclear participants focused on the fact that the safeguards worked. In contrast, nuclear opponents focused on the fact that the breakdown happened at all. In the end, both groups strengthened their original belief.
5. Conspiracy Theories
When someone disagrees with an overwhelming scientific consensus, there is always the resort to conspiracy theories. How else would you explain that all the world’s experts, scientific organisations and journals agree on something that you disagree with? The only explanation must be that the experts are all conspiring to falsify or exaggerate the science. That’s why there were so many people who believed that AIDS was created by the U.S. government.
A number of studies have found that people who deny climate science are more likely to show conspiratorial thinking. For example, one study found that for people who denied climate change, the most common response to the mention of climate change was conspiracy theories or the belief that climate change was a hoax. About 20% of the people in America, and around 15% in the United Kingdom, to varying degrees agree with the proposition that climate change is a hoax. It might be easy to accuse someone of intentionally trying to deceive us when they present arguments that oppose the scientific consensus. But the science of science denial tells us that these same arguments can arise from unconscious psychological processes. To the outside eye, genuinely held but false beliefs, or misinformation, can be indistinguishable from intentional deception, or disinformation.
You are now more qualified to address the notion of climate science denialism. By understanding the techniques of denial, and the psychology underlying it, you’re better equipped to respond to expressions of science denial including climate skepticism.
Rolly Montpellier is the Founder and Managing Editor of BoomerWarrior.Org. He’s a Climate Reality leader, a blogger and a Climate Activist. Rolly has been published widely – Toronto Star, The Hill Times, Kingston Whig, the PEN, UnpublishedOttawa, Climate Change Guide, World Daily, Examiner, The Canadian, 350Ottawa, ClimateMama, MyEarth360, GreenDivas, The Elephant, Countercurrents, County Weekly News.
He’s a member of Climate Reality Canada, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (Ottawa) and 350.Org (Ottawa). You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.
Hope this fits Rolly, I think it does, if not sorry.
Danny – you’ve gone to great length to make the argument that debating skeptics is a waste of my time. I retain the last sentence in your article: “All’s one can do in regards to skeptics is refute their claims for the innocents sake, but do not discuss climate change with them or argue their claims, never, it’s too late for that.”
And I agree that’s it’s way too late for that.
Thanks for following my work.
With respect to global warming or climate change I have read that you and others declare that “the science is settled.”, meaning that there is no question that people, not natural processes, are responsible. What specific, unequivocal, clear-cut evidence is there that humans, and not natural processes, are responsible for the global warming allegedly occurring today? I use the word “allegedly” here because there are claims that there has been no global temperature increase in the last 17 – 18 years. Is that true or not? Again I am asking for undeniable evidence because, frankly, I don’t know.
In this article you noted the following: “Genuine scientific skepticism is a good thing. In fact, it’s the heart of the scientific method. Genuine skeptics don’t come to a conclusion until they’ve considered the evidence. In contrast, someone who denies well-established science comes to a conclusion first, and then discounts any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. Denial and skepticism are polar opposites.”
I agree wholeheartedly with that quotation, but I wonder why you do not see that as being directly applicable to people, who not only argue in favor of anthropogenic climate change, but who have managed to get governments to implement measures, and costs, to battle this possible non-problem.
There are many examples of previous ice ages and subsequent warming, all of which occurred before there were any factories or other examples of heavy industry. There are examples today of natural conditions which make it clear that the science is not settled. For now, though, in that context it would be useful to visit one site where 22 very inconvenient truths are posted. They are well worth looking at and considering seriously. The link to that site is:
Hello Joe and thank you for the comments. I like your reference to “possible non-problem”. Perhaps however, it’s an “impossible problem” to solve. I’m away for now and just quickly responding to messages. I will check the link you provided. I’ve bookmarked it and will read it
Thanks for commenting on BoomerWarrior.
I really appreciate the nature of your reply. You and I are on opposite sides of the fence, but that is fine, as long as we can discuss the issue reasonably. I am not a climatologist, but am familiar with some geological elements and my approach to whether or not humans are undeniably responsible for warming comes from that.
Let me just leave you with one fr’instance as to why i do not accept that “the science is settled”. It is claimed that ice is melting at least along the east and west coasts of Antarctica. It seems that some geoscientists, including Jamie Greenbaum from the University of Texas, are very careful not to attribute that specifically to AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming), though their wording could lead the reader to infer that AGW is the culprit. Others, however, do not hesitate to give AGW full credit.
There are volcanoes in Antarctica, some of which are considered active. Most of those seem to be in the western half of the continent, but, again uncertainty, there is the possibility of one in the vicinity of the Totten Glacier, apparently the largest in eastern Antarctica. Thus, is it the heat from subsurface volcanic activity rising and heating the glaciers from below or is it warm AGW-heated water, sinking downward in cold sea water that is responsible? For me it is far easier to attribute that melting, from below, to the earth’s internal heat.
Thank you for replying, Rolly and for not censoring my letter.
Hey Joe – You raise a good point about the volcanic activity. And certainly that would have a bearing on Antarctica ice melting. However that does not leave AGW off the hook. Thanks for your comments. I hope to see you again on other posts.
Joe, no one contests that there has been volcanic activity, warming and cooling trends in the past. Each one of those has seen its own extinction rates. The difference is that they occured over vast periods of time, allowing for animals to evolve to cope with the changes.
The current warming trend is faster and more insidious than any previous event, which is why so many scientists have devoted time to the study (no, they are not paid vast quantities of money to do so – and much of their study has been provided without renumeration).
Denial will always be an equation in most things… some people refuse to believe a relative has died when they do not see any evidence as to why they should have done so, but people do drop dead and we have to accept the facts even without the benefit of a medical degree!
Most scientists studying climate are really worried as they see little time to stop the extinctions and devastating effects that are coming soon from a rising temperature on the planet. They have no vested interest in making anyone believe them except from a purely logical view of ‘survival.’
Climate change will affect all of us, deniers and believers alike. Get used to it – our lives are going to change if we do not stop poisoning the earth!
Collette, there is volcanic activity now. To non-geoscientists “now” does not mean “this very instant”. At the present time there are documented volcanoes in Antarctica, such as Mt Erebus. Most volcanoes are found in the western part of the continent, but recently discoveries SUGGEST that there may be one in the general area of the Totten Glacier, the largest in eastern Antarctica.
As for the melting of the glaciers from below, how does warm water descend to melt the bottom of glaciers, such as is happening beneath the Totten Glacier. Warm water of a given composition is always lighter than cold water of the same composition, therefore it cannot do in Antarctica what is being attributed to it. It is much more logical to consider that melting from below would be the result of a subsurface heat source, such as one that eventually erupts and produces volcanoes.
As far as AGW is concerned I am, frankly, quite ignorant of whether or not it is occurring. I think it is reasonable to postulate its existence, and to ascertain whether or not it is really happening. What we have around the world, however, is a costly panic, which MAY prove to be incorrect, but in the meantime we have costly programs and taxes.
In my original post to this site I asked for unequivocal, undeniable evidence that it is happening and that humans are responsible. No one has given me hard, indisputable, unquestionable evidence that humans are responsible. Furthermore, there are claims that there has been no average annual global temperature increase in the last 17 to 18 years. I do not know whether or not that is true, but I do know that has to be resolved and, assuming it is true, geoscientific, meteorological, physical, chemical and climatological research must be undertaken.
If you read the scientific papers today that deal with Antarctica, I repeat the scientific papers, the authors are very careful to avoid attributing the melting there to AGW. They may believe it, or maybe not, but they are careful. In closing I have no vested inference either in accepting or denying the belief of AGW, but I do have an insatiable curiosity to know whether or not it is true.
Check these out:
You are right, there is a lot of Volcanic activity now. Things are moving below us. I have just come back from Iceland where Eyjafjallajökull volcano exploded in 2010 with quite a ferocity. Bárðarbunga volcano is a big Volcano in Iceland’s South, South East, located under a huge glacier and it been on danger alert until just recently – it was stepped down this month. Although there has been activity it has subsided for now. The fear is that this particular volcano is quite capable of melting the huge ice sheet and causing severe flooding. Icelanders in particular are very worried about global warming and its impact on them. They are making conscious efforts to recycle, and live green (80% of their electric generation from geothermal plants). Unfortunately, the big companies want to exploit the rich land resourices, oil, minerals, etc…. and turn Iceland into carbon dioxide production the same as the rest of the world. It will be their undoing!
With a warming trend, ice does melt and over land in particular, it causes the land to rise (due to the loss of weight of the ice). Once this occurs, volcanoes and molten lava in particular find easier access to the surface as the land releases (sort of like a giant squashed sponge bouncing up).
I looked at your links and the Synopsis of what they say about antartica could be summed up in this statement taken from your link to Science Daily (4)
“Researchers have discovered two seafloor gateways that could allow warm ocean water to reach the base of Totten Glacier, East Antarctica’s largest and most rapidly thinning glacier. The discovery probably explains the glacier’s extreme thinning and raises concerns about how it will affect sea level rise.”
It is a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Scientists are only just discovering some very severe feedback loops in our climate system, which can exacerbate warming and cooling trends. The papers are numerous and coming at quickening rates. This is a simple site about global warming, but many papers are listed at the bottom for full reading.
As for the last 15 to 17 years that some scientists say have not shown a warming trend, they have cherry picked studies that did not include all the data from all sources. A big problem is in tree-ring data (used for historical studies before weather records were kept). Prior to 1960, tree ring data mirrored records from other studies and reinforced the warming trend. However, the tree ring data then went askew (Scientists are still trying to find out why), and is no longer added to all the other data. One possible theory(but not the only one) is that photosynthesis can shut down in the presence of drought due to the closure of stomata (the release mechanism for moisture and how plants breathe). This means that plants do not grow as they reduce their CO2 intake and Oxygen output. https://wwwf.imperial.ac.uk/~mbegueri/Docs/Beguerisse2012a.pdf
AGW is a fairly conclusive theory based on all the scientific data, not just bits of it. We tend to think that nature is fairly good at balancing itself, and it is (eventually – even in the worst scenarios), but time is a problem. Ocean acidification, Ocean expansion (heating up so increasing sea levels), air pollution causing greenhouse gases to keep the infrared warmth in the troposphere and thinning of the stratosphere (increasing the risk of more harmful radiation in the future which is not good for living creatures), are all increasing at unprecedented rates that have never been seen in historical times…. and the evidence points to our massive contribution of human made greenhouse gasses. Nothing on the planet can evolve fast enough to prepare for the change in climate that will hit us.
I do not see a problem in finding cleaner, pollution free sources of energy. I do not see a problem in wanting a planet free of man-made poisons. Yes, the change will be more expensive than continuing down the rabbit hole looking for more oil, but at least we won’t kill ourselves in the process. If we do nothing, you can expect to see massive die offs everywhere.
Very well-researched response Colette. There is a lot of information for readers to take in. Joe Wallach’s information is also important for any reader to evaluate. The bottom line is that climate is changing at such a rapid rate that, as you point out, “Nothing on the planet can evolve fast enough to prepare for the change in climate that will hit us.” And meanwhile back at the G7, we have pledges to end fossil fuel use by 2100. It’s just too late, way too late.
Yes Rolly, the G7 summit was very disappointing. 2100 is way too late as a deadline to end our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas production from burning fossil fuels. I am truly confused as to why the fossil fuel companies, (Shell, Exxon Mobile, BP, etc., etc.) are not trying to move into the “green energy” market. The profits will be just as good for them there…. why on earth can no-one take this seriously?
t climate is going to bite humanity in the bum in a big, big way. I don’t think people can picture that this is not just about the weather getting a little warm.
Loss of coastline
Pestilence and Disease
The list reads like a sci-fi movie or Biblical prophecy. Perhaps it all sounds just too unreal, so people don’t believe it!
PS- one greenhouse gas that nobody mentions is the methane produced by people and their farm animals. Human populations and their obsession with eating vast quantities of meat are putting a strain on the planet in ways that are not sustainable.
Something is going to “give” folks!
PPS – a better study on plant stomata reactions to increased CO2
I just found this report from June 4 2015
The link title says it all, but here it is in a nutshell – I quote:
“The new analysis accounts for the changes in data collection on land and sea, and the results show that the rate of global warming between 1998 and 2012 is almost double that reported in the IPCC assessment. Adding 2013 and 2014 to the dataset increases the rate further, and the pace of warming between 2000 and 2014—0.209 degrees Fahrenheit per decade—is nearly the same as that seen in the latter half of the 20th century, the researchers note.”
My own personal observations – have seen a hotting up of places like Thailand so I can’t imagine an overall cooling trend at all. Thailand is experiencing a prolonged drought for the second year in a row. It has badly affected rice crop production (Thailand’s biggest export) and many fruit and vegetable productions . The monsoon rains haven’t arrived and are a month overdue – just a few thunderstorms are not enough to stop crop failure and depletion of underground reserves (which are dwindling fast).
I experienced temperatures as high as 43C (110F) consistently in Kanchanaburi in April of this year. In Australia, fruit bats drop down dead at 42C, unable to recover (so the same would happen in Thailand) .
The temperatures may not be creeping up in every area at the same rate, but I’ll tell you… 43C without air conditioning is pretty hard to take. With air-conditioning? Well that just racks up more greenhouse gasses. More worrying, is that we humans are ill-prepared for vast swings in weather… when the rains do finally come in Thailand, flooding will ensue because the land is too dry to absorb them!
For anyone wanting to see the latest developments, papers and news about climate change, the IPCC, companies moving to green solutions and so on, Twitter is helpful… there are lots of people to follow, but
is a good option.Dr Horton is based in Australia – calls himself the Climate Change Guy and he posts lots of current information (from himself and others following this field of research).
Thanks for the twitter lead for Anthony Horton. We’re following each other now.
I agree with Rolly’s assessment of your letter. It is good and, along with Rolly’s replies to me earlier, is encouraging in advancing our state of knowledge and willingness to cooperate even though we are not on the same side of the fence. Based on what you presented in your reply, including the references, there is good reason to believe that there is warming taking place. What is still not convincing, however, is that humans are undoubtedly responsible for that. It is clear that you are sold, but I am not.
Despite the gentle introductory paragraph, there is a lot to reply to in your letter. Suffice it to state that I am impressed by your having recognized the concept of isostasy, but you have grossly oversimplified the reasons for volcanic eruptions. As written it seems to be your thesis that global warming, which induces the melting, facilitates volcanic activity. NO! There is tremendous pressure beneath the earth AND places like Iceland are located on a diverting plate boundary, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Glacio-isostasy has nothing to do with it. Besides that the pathways, to which you alluded in acknowledging glacial melting in eastern Antarctica, could be derived from faulting or fracturing beneath the surface which would allow the internally heated fluids to escape. The science is far from settled!
Regarding your panicky outlook, you and I are thousands of kilometers apart. You have not answered the question about undeniable evidence that humans are responsible. Until that is done people like me will fight against the people like Gore, Suzuki and the political IPCC.
Fair enough Joe, we can be on opposite sides.
And yes, you are right, Iceland is active volcanically without any help from Global Warming. It sits right over the mid-Atlantic ridge responsible for the drift of North America from Europe (currently spreading at about 5cm per year). This alone creates the volcanic activity – which is why Icelanders use the thermal heat for electricity production (steam) and hot water which is piped (scalding hot) to homes, hotels and businesses. It is free energy in a sense.
What I did notice however, is like most places, the glaciers are melting away. This is not news. But what might be news is that the Geysers are finding new outlets and erupting at faster rates than advertised (one was advertised at every 5-15 minutes) but in actual fact was blowing (quite spectacularly) about every 3 minutes. Why this should happen, I don’t know. I haven’t found any reports to suggest things are hotting up more than usual. Yet, Icelanders are getting a bit worried about sea level rise, and the volacanic activity contributing to icemelt.
As far as evidence for human caused warming trends – well, I have to rely on the accuracy of reports as shown by the Nasa link I gave…on each of their pages, the supporting papers are quoted. I have to rely on what those papers indicate.
I do wonder what your explanation might be for ocean acidification, coral bleaching and such? I hasn’t happened in recent geological times, but is certainly happening now.
Am I panicky??? Well no, but scared – yes!
I have no idea what is causing acidification of the oceans, hell I don’t even know at what rate the plates are moving away from, alongside or beneath one another. The point that I am trying to make is that, regarding the allegations about human-induced climate change, as per IPCC’s emphatic statement, “the science is not settled”. That does not invalidate the claims by people who are genuinely concerned about the possibility that humans are contributing to the current wave of temperature increase (I loved your reproduction of the snows melting off Kilimanjaro). Back to an increase in acid levels in the oceans one thing that will do it will be the influx of, e.g. CO2-laden water, such as streams that flow through carbonate terrains, and empty into the oceans. Is THAT happening? I don’t know, but if I were really working on this problem, rest assured I would use multiple working hypotheses and pursue them all.
Please also look at the wording used by NASA, which is taken by many to be a declaration of fact, but is really a carefully worded opinion.
“The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.”
I like the way that is worded. It issues a warning, but it does not draw an absolute conclusion. If NASA were absolutely certain, they would state that. Good scientists are careful. They may have good evidence indicating the existence of a phenomenon that defies conventional wisdom, but they choose their words carefully. They work towards establishing the factuality of the situation.
I noticed on the NASA website the graph showing the CO2 levels for the last 650,000 years, which includes the sharp, upward spike in the last 50 years. NASA’s statements do NOT declare that all of the evidence of melting is due to human activity, which is prudent. To us humans 650,000 years is a long time, but it is a tiny fraction of the age of this planet which is about 4.6 billion years old. The latest ice age terminated in this area about 12,000 years ago, but Greenland and the polar areas are still in it. Apparently they are all experiencing melting, so maybe that is an expression of normal internal (earth) and external (sun) processes. How does anyone know that it is not?
I am not trying to convince you or anyone else that you, or they, are wrong about human-induced global warming. How do I even know that? I don’t. I am pleased, however, that I have been able to enter into written dialogue with you even though we have somewhat opposite views. I say somewhat because I cannot prove that humans are not responsible, but because the solar system and geological processes are so complicated, I am skeptical. I also wish to note that I am greatly appreciative of the opportunity to express my views on a website in the Ottawa area, thanks to Rolly, and not have them censored as they were by Unpublished Ottawa.
Well, I think that anthropogenic warming is implied due to many studies recording increases in greenhouse gases that cannot be explained by a sun that is currently in a cooling cycle, volcanic outputs that are much lower than atmospheric measurements of current greenhouse gases, and ice melt that is much faster than expected in the natural cycles.
To explicitly say a particular concentration of CO2 originated from a factory in China, was carried into the clouds by evaporation, some stays in the troposphere (contributing to a greenhouse blanket effect) and some falls into the oceans and rivers where it contributes to acidification, is a study that would be difficult – how does anyone track the individual molecules of any pollutant? I’m sure it could be done, but one study, however complicated and expensive to conduct, could neither pro
ve nor disprove cause and effect. It would take too much time and money.
The data collected suggests than an Anthropomorphic cause is likely. We know what our general outputs of greenhouse gases are, so scientists extrapolate data based on what they know.
No scientist will make theories into absolutes, because that becomes a dogma and true science always leaves room for new data.
Can we know for certain that our actions are changing the climate more than background natural events? Yes, I think we can when we look at all the signs, symptoms, and observable data. When the tobacco industry refutes claims that smoking tobacco directly causes cancer despite many smokers suffering from cancer, they also point to inconclusive studies proving it as the absolute cause. Yet the surrounding evidence has pointed pretty conclusively to smoking induced lung and throat cancers. Most people now accept this.
I wish I could give you a single resource to prove human caused global warming. I can’t, because I don’t think such a single paper exists. I guess you and I will just have to wait and see what comes next.
http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk is just one University dedicated to climate research. There are many. I think the Paris IPCC meeting in December will bring some more clarity how we will tackle the changes, regardless of cause!
Apologies, used the word Anthropomorphic instead of Anthropogenic… now if animals could talk, perhaps they could tell us a thing or too 🙂 Anthropomorphism, is of course to attribute human qualities (personification) to anything non-human. Tired, and going to bed…