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    An Excellent Study On Denialism
    By Robert Cooper | January 31st 2012 01:04 PM | 41 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Robert

    I have given up on categories. I did a BA in physics, a PhD in molecular biology, and now a postdoc in a bioengineering department. So call that...

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    The Wall Street Journal published an excellent case study in denialism on Friday, in the form of a letter from sixteen scientists seeking to perpetuate gridlock in climate policy.  While nothing they have to say raises any scientific issues about climate change, the letter is interesting to peruse simply to see what arguments they use, and what that says about their motivations.

    The letter uses several denialist tactics, including,
    1) Cherry-picked examples placed out of context,
    2) Unsupported claims
    3) Irrelevant distractions
    4) Implications of conspiracy, and
    5) Self-portrayal as stubborn heroes fighting against the odds.

    The letter opens with the cherry-picked example of an APS member who resigned in protest of the word "incontrovertible" in the society's statement on climate change.  From this single data point they somehow draw an unsupported trend line of a "large" and "growing" number of scientists who disbelieve climate change.  Never mind the context, which is that the vast majority of scientists who actually study the climate agree that CO2 raises global temperatures.  "Incontrovertible" is perhaps unfortunate verbiage – in science everything from gravity on down is subject to reinterpretation under new tests and new experiments – but the fact remains that an overwhelming majority of climate science supports global warming, and those who study it overwhelmingly agree.

    Another unsupported claim is a "lack of global warming for well over 10 years now".  This is likely based on the cherry-picked example that 1998 was particularly hot, ignoring the broader context.  Stepping back and taking a look at the longer-term trend, warming is clear.  They also claim that "computer models have greatly exaggerated how much warming additional CO2 can cause", but a look at the data shows that models have actually been fairly accurate, and certainly perform much better than the projections made by skeptics.

    The letter then moves on to irrelevant distractions, such as the arguments that we exhale high amounts of CO2, and that many plants grow more quickly with CO2.  These arguments are attractive to a layperson, but they completely miss the point of why CO2 matters.  Ok, sure, plants grow better with CO2, but plants also prefer steady rainfall and they tend to dislike floods, droughts, and extreme heat.

    Up to here we've seen the strategy used by this skeptical sixteen, but no legitimate scientific reason for doubt.  What, then, is behind their denialism?  The authors' real motives start to show through when they imply the conspiracy of an organized "multidecade international campaign" aimed at providing "a reason for government bureaucracies to grow" and "an excuse for governments to raise taxes," presumably on the fossil fuel industry that has funded about half of them.  Ah, so the skeptical sixteen can't raise serious scientific quarrels with climate science – what they take issue with is the potential political response.

    Here they may have a point: determining the appropriate political response is certainly less clear than climate change itself.  It is therefore quite unfortunate that so many conservative minds like these are refusing to contribute their points of view to solving this problem, and are focusing instead on obstructionism and public confusion.

    Beyond politics and funding ties, however, the authors' fifth tactic may reveal the most about their motivations: they see themselves as brave contrarians, and they take pride in standing up to the "international warming establishment" of the day, however accurate it may be.  Consider their hyperbolic self-comparison to courageous Soviet biologists who were "sent to the gulag" for daring to accept the evil Western belief in genes.

    In addition to the inherent appeal of being a David vs. Goliath style underdog, there is another good reason why scientists often take pride in being contrarian.  Many of the most important scientific advances have overthrown widely accepted world-views, and met fierce resistance from the consensus of the day.  Copernican heliocentrism, Einsteinian relativity, Darwinian evolution, quantum mechanics – all were heretical when first proposed, but now they are considered historical breakthroughs and their early proponents are scientific heros.  Every scientist dreams of making such a paradigm-shifting discovery, especially in this era when so much of science is ultimately an incremental advance in a specialized sub-field.

    Unfortunately, this group has allowed their political leanings and oppressed hero mentality to override their normally astute scientific instincts.  Rather than making objective evaluations of the available data, they are beginning with what they want to find and searching for an excuse to support it, regardless of the evidence.  Is anything in science "incontrovertible"?  No.  But when the overwhelming majority of data suggests danger ahead, we have a moral imperative to try and avoid it.  Those who are skeptical of government intervention would make a much greater contribution to society if they would help shape the policy response to make it acceptable to all (or, at least, to most), rather than projecting that skepticism onto the underlying science.
    Edit 2/2/12 to incorporate some points from discussion with Hank Campbell in the comments.

    Like any human, scientists have inherent biases.  Good scientists try to recognize their own biases, and constantly question their own conclusions from as many angles as possible.  That's skepticism.  When these sixteen allow their biases to predetermine their conclusions, that's denialism.  And as Hank points out, neither liberals nor conservatives have a monopoly on denialism in the public discourse.

    In the broader policy realm, it is a disservice to all when conservatives adopt climate denialism (a generalization, but largely true in Congress, at least).  Climate change is not going away, no matter how deep we bury our heads in the sand.  The longer we wait, the harder it will be to address.  So why not find a mutually agreeable response now, if only to avoid a hasty one-sided approach later?  The winds of politics are fickle, and there's no telling when liberals will regain a large majority.  If climate is still unaddressed when that happens, we are likely to see largely partisan legislation emerge.  When conservatives effectively take themselves out of the policy discussion, then the only people discussing policy are liberals.  That's truly unfortunate, because the best solutions generally lie somewhere in the middle.  Conservatives in the past have helped forge compromise policy that really worked and was satisfactory to everyone, such as the market-based cap and trade program that cut acid rain without damaging the economy.

    So my message to conservate thinkers and politicians is this: America needs you in this fight.  America needs your ideas and constructive criticism on policy options to address climate change.  Please don't let denialists like the WSJ sixteen keep you on the sidelines.


    Conservatives are completely divorced from reality. This is nothing new.

    Great link, and great display of more or less the same things you accuse the "deniers" of in the way you rejectYoto account their message...

    The point isn't that conservatives or liberals are necessarily divorced from reality one any more than the other.  We all bring our own inherent biases to what we do.  The best scientists try to recognize their biases and constantly question their own conclusions from as many directions as possible.  That's why science is a process, not an endpoint, and why we should never immediately believe one study on its own.
    But since we have such a huge body of evidence pointing to danger, and since a minority of "skeptical scientists" have been such an oversized talking point of the obstructionist movement, I think it's important for the public to understand what might motivate them.
    Right, denialism has no party.  Sure 39% of people on the right deny evolution but so do 30% of people on the left.  So it can't be that denial of evolution has to do with being conservative.  When it comes to anti-vaccine anti-science nonsense, the left is far more in denial than the right is about evolution but we don't claim that is a tenet of being liberal - well, rational people do not.  Bloggers who make a living ranting about 'conservatives' claim just that and yell 'false equivalence' when a double standard is made evident. There's no one in science media who makes a living ranting about the left, since only 6% of academia are Republicans now, so I have no similar example for that side.

    I'm not a big fan of funding arguments.  The Union of Concerned Scientists is an advocacy group that spends more in one year than Exxon spends in eight so if funding taints belief, then all science done during the Obama years is invalidated by Republicans while 8 years of science during the Bush years is invalidated by Democrats.  It's not a good argument for those reasons.

    But the key(s) of your 5 is why the WSJ and other mainstream media outlets pursue this stuff when they aren't pursuing magical berries or whatever else sells; people love stories about oppressed underdogs and Big Science blocking them out. 
    I certainly hope I don't come across as ranting, and you're right that "The Left" is associated with just as many irrationalities as "The Right."  Take e.g. genetic engineering.  I only used the term "conservative" because the real fear in the WSJ letter seemed to be big government, which is traditionally a conservative issue.
    The point I was trying to make is that when political conservatives take themselves out of the policy discussion by resorting to simple denial*, then the only people discussing policy are liberals, who traditionally have less mistrust of government and regulations.  That's a disservice to everybody, because the best solutions usually lie somewhere in the middle.  Conservatives in the past have helped forge compromise policy that really worked and was satisfactory to everyone, like the market-based cap and trade program to cut acid rain.

    And agreed, funding arguments are way overused.  You do have to admit, though, the authors themselves advised us to "cui bono? Or the modern update, Follow the money."  But you're right, there's no reason for us to stoop to their level.  If I had any idea more than 10 people were going to read this, I probably would have read it over more carefully before posting and cut that out.

    * Yes, this is a generalization and not true for everyone, but it does seem to be the trend.

    Actually it's not a right-left thing, denial of evolution is a peculiarly American thing. The American right does deny somewhat more than the left (by this I mean those that declare themselves Republican and Democrat), the polls on this are legion and go back years. It's also true the lower down the educational achievement the more likely one is to deny evolution. But when you study other developed first-world nations, denial of evolution starts to appear in religious immigrant groups (for example Muslim immigrants, which is entirely in-keeping with the rates in their home countries, be it Pakistan, Turkey, Algeria, etc.). But outside of those groups the European Conservatives are mostly likely to believe in evolution. For my money it is clear the denial of evolution in America is not the work of a conservative agenda so much as a religious agenda.

    But that's hardly a revelation - anyone stupid enough to believe in gods must by definition be stupid enough to believe in space-magic.

    Agreed. Europeans, left and right, are more inclined to believe in cancer-causing potatoes and also accept evolution whereas Americans are skeptical, or in outright denial, of those kinds of things.  Evolution controversy certainly an American phenomenon, at least as fas as press is concerned, but we have to at least consider culture on why overall biology controversy is more prevalent across the pond - Europeans take surveys and are more inclined to list what they should believe as opposed to what they really believe. That is why surveys say Europe is not racist but actual Europe is incredibly racist. So Europeans claim to accept more science but they really don't, as their actions show.
    Cancer-causing potatoes? European "biological controversy"? Europeans lie in surveys? Europeans are racist? Europeans show they don't believe in the science they profess to?

    Don't take this the wrong way but what in the hell is wrong with you?

    Nothing. Europeans think genetically modified foods will damage their immune systems, the "Frankenfod" hysteria was invented in Europe.  American sports don't need to run 'end racism' campaigns because there is no racism.  So my point was that while evolution specifically was not a controversy there, that does not mean they accept biology more.  They just check evolution on surveys because they are supposed to.

    If you are European, it is ironic that you had no problem at all calling Americans anti-science over evolution but object to Europeans being called anti-science over GMOs.  
    The Frankenfood scare and debate has, for me, primarily concerned not with damaging the immune system but with the likes of spread of GM crops to the wild, which you might not find of concern but Monsanto were talking of introducing "terminator" genes(GURT) that prevented natural reproduction. The potential consequences of that could well be ugly. The outrage over Frankenfood has wisely instigated a pause on that one. You should be thanking us.

    Perhaps a few more "end racism" campaigns in the US and perhaps Martin Trayvon would still be alive...

    Still, at least the good news is after world-wide outrage the police changed their mind and arrested the murderer...

    The Frankenfood scare and debate has, for me, primarily concerned not with damaging the immune system but with the likes of spread of GM crops to the wild, which you might not find of concern but Monsanto were talking of introducing "terminator...You should be thanking us.
    Well, see, if one group is anti-science on an issue despite any evidence, it is simply that they are anti-business, but if a different group is anti-science despite any evidence then they are anti-science. The key differentiator is that the anti-science people are always someone else and personal pet beliefs that are anti-science are rationalized as something else.  

    If you talk to those religious people, they are not anti-science, they are anti-evolution because they say they have not been convinced.  Just like anti-GM people in Europe.
    Most of this thread has been comparative sociology, which I'm not currently informed enough to comment on.  But here's some science I can address:
    The Frankenfood scare and debate has, for me, primarily concerned not with damaging the immune system but with the likes of spread of GM crops to the wild, which you might not find of concern but Monsanto were talking of introducing "terminator" genes(GURT) that prevented natural reproduction. The potential consequences of that could well be ugly. The outrage over Frankenfood has wisely instigated a pause on that one. You should be thanking us.
    If we do all believe in evolution, this doesn't really make sense.  A gene preventing its own reproduction is the definition of low fitness, and it would immediately be purged via natural selection.  In fact, terminator genes are a way to address concerns about gene transfer to wild populations.  Perhaps the argument you're looking for is that terminator genes would leave rural farmers unable to save seeds from one crop to the next, and thus beholden to Monsanto?

    What utter crap!

    I think if we agree that CO2 is the cause of global warming, it has to trap heat from being radiated into space all over the globe, correct?
    Never is a long time.
    Thor Russell
    Thats what insulation does.
    Thor Russell
    So, are you agreeing or disagreeing?
    Never is a long time.
    So now it is Conservative vs Liberals. I thought it was level headed scientists vs bible thumpers. It should be Hot or Not.

    Wherefore let me remove all doubt, global warming is fraud, farce, and fiction.

    Wherefore let me remove all doubt, global warming is fraud....
    Go ahead. I'm lending you my ears. Remove all doubt.
    Well, the author pretty much sums up his stance in the title of his little missive, doesn't he? "Denialism". I seem to recall "denialism" as a term used by those who support a "scientific concensus" (Whatever the beans that means) regarding "Climate Change". Denialism is also a very pejorative term used to describe those individuals who deny the murder of 6,000,000 in the Holocaust. The author himself exhibits traits which drives many, as myself, to decry those pushing the Climate Change political agenda as extremist activists, bent on destroying the Capitalist system. Now, were the author to use such terms as denying the Greenhouse Gas effects as ill-conceived, he would be quite correct. Of course, the ultimate end-effect of the release of Greenhouse gasses is where I deviate. Climate models aren't nearly accurate or advanced enough to predict what is going to happen. People saying that in 5 years the North Pole will be devoid of ice does their cause no good either. Well, anyway, if climate "scientists" like James Hansen want me to wear the Yellow D of Climate Denialism, I will proudly do so.

    Gerhard Adam
    The author himself exhibits traits which drives many, as myself, to decry those pushing the Climate Change political agenda as extremist activists, bent on destroying the Capitalist system.
    It's rather obvious that you aren't remotely interested in the science, either pro or con.  Anyone that claims the destruction of the Capitalistic system as an objective is clearly peddling an agenda. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Perhaps you're right. Perhaps I have absolutely no interest in seeing "science" used by a corrupt group pushing a so-called consensus. A group funded by politicians to produce a result favorable to big government politicians so they can receive more funding from those politicians, and on and on and on. I don't know, but maybe that resembles this feedback loop that some of those activists, er climate scientists keep mumblin about.

    The result "favorable to big government politicians" would be: Hey, guess what?  Turns out you don't have to worry about dealing with this hugely intractable and politically poisonous problem any more!  Imagine what a relief that would be to politicians.  And, by the way, panels of experts in their field award research grants, not politicians.
    But, James, if you would rather see a careful study done by self-proclaimed climate skeptics and funded at least in part by the fossil fuel industry, you're in luck.  After reading their conclusions, you can ask yourself: are you a skeptic, with legitimate concerns but willing to persuaded by evidence, or are you a denialist, with a predetermined position that cannot be changed no matter what the evidence?
    I think the problem is that the whole question of AGW, isn't specific enough, and that the question should be broken into smaller parts.
    1. Is there a warming trend? And as your link indicates the answer is yes.
    2. Is the warming trend unprecedented? But this isn't granular enough.
      1. Is it unprecedented over a human lifespan? IMO the answer is maybe, there was a warming trend in the 30's, but we lack sufficient data to be sure.
      2. Is it unprecedented over geological time? IMO the answer is no.
    3. Is CO2 the cause? I think the actual temperature record says it isn't.
    4. Is there any Green energy tech that can replace Fossil Fuels without disrupting modern society? No.
    5. Are humans a plague on the planet that needs exterminated? No, but there sure does seem to be a lot who think the answer is yes.

    If we agree that CO2 prevents heat from escaping, we need to look at the trend of the minimum temps, and for it to be a global problem it has to be looked at all over the globe, and as you can see for the 6.5 million records that make up this chart, minimum temps have been dropping(mn-40F), and there's no trend in the difference between daily rising and daily falling temps(diff).
    Edited to add question 5 and 6.
    Never is a long time.
    1) Ok, we agree.
    2) Irrelevant distraction.  Just because something's happened before doesn't mean it's good, or that it has a different cause this time.
    3) Irrelevant distraction.  See 2.
    4) Unsupported claim.
    5) Unsupported claim, irrelevant to the question at hand.  But renewable technology is developing, and the fact that it's not there yet is precisely why we need to a directed effort to improve it.
    6) Irrelevant distraction, unsupported claim, implications of conspiracy.

    Excel chart:  Graphs need axis labels and some explanation of the data.  If the y-axis is temperature, I humbly submit that your 10 degree drop from the 1940's to late 1950's suggests you may be a bit off. 
    X is year, The legion contains the specifics of the Y axis, for instance MN-40 is Minimum temp - 40F to improve the graph.
    As for the data it's from the National Climatic Data Center, Summary of Days data set, and has 120 million records. This chart is for all of the stations in -23 to -90 Lat (southern Hemisphere), that had at least 240 records/year for at least 60 years from 1940 to 2010. This is done to limit station that get dropped or added in the middle of the set from spoiling the averages.

    The biggest issue is that the number of sample is limited in those decades.
    Which is a big issue with all of these data sets, none of them are well sampled prior to the mid 70's or later. But the scientist who provide your the various graphs neglect to point this out.

    You can find some more specifics if you follow my name to the 2 articles I wrote.

    BTW, this supports my claim in 4. Let's see if you're willing to accept the evidence or if your mind is already made up or not.
    Never is a long time.
    Thor Russell
    I have looked at your posts and I don't follow what you are trying to prove or why you think it shows that. Do you dispute that the global average temperature is increasing each decade, the oceans are absorbing heat, and the globe as a whole is absorbing heat? 
    If your data contradicts satellite data, ocean heat data and average air temp data why do you assume all those are incorrect? 
    Can you give a detailed explanation of how you reconcile all of these? 
    Thor Russell
    I replied to your other post here.

    The short answer is it's (mostly) the same raw surface data GISS and CRU uses, I just don't "correct" it, and I show more than just average temp.

    Oh, let me also add I'll provide my sql to anyone who asks for it so they can replicate my work themselves. I have nothing to hide.
    Never is a long time.
    Thor Russell
    OK its not denialism so I will reply to your posts on your article.
    Thor Russell
    'Denialism' was the title of a pretty good book that tackled plenty of anti-science a la carte thinking, Specter just never attached political labels to the positions.  But anyone reading the book knows which side denies which positions, and there were just as many right as left. 

    The WSJ piece was about climate so, yeah, Robert had to take that approach - but most of the other pieces by science writers were the usual shrill "SEE??  REPUBLICANS SUCK" stuff and I think he did a nice job here of laying out their denialism techniques and how they were flawed. And they were flawed.  If we swap out the climate change skepticism with endorsement and similar appeal to authority fallacies in that same article, people would go nuts at how WSJ had turned into commie pinkos - yet you seem to be defending what are pretty weak arguments because they agree with your world view.
    Cybe R. Wizard
    Warming or not; I don't know.  I do know that we can't depend on t he weather prediction for next week.  How may we depend on the prediction for next century?
    Think! It ain't illegal yet.
    Gerhard Adam
    Why would you?  More importantly why would you make such a fundamental mistake as confusing the weather with climate?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Cybe R. Wizard
    Is that wrong?  I guess the reason is, like the old saw says, "climate is what we expect; weather is what we get."
    Think! It ain't illegal yet.
    Right, during the last Ice Age no one could have picked the weather for the next week either but we know the climate had changed.

    To opponents who insist no pollution can change the atmosphere, it's important to make the example of inserting 'taxes' for pollution and 'economy' for atmosphere. 
    No.  Climate is what we expect, on average, over many years.  February will be cold, August will be hot, pack a sweater if you're going to Minnesota.  Weather is a high in the 60's in NJ today (Feb 1).
    "Labelism" - the act of attaching a derogatory title to those with which you disagree, all the while implying that those being labeled are not worthy participants in the discussion. When challenged simply yell louder than they do to drown them out.
    Climates change. Earth has warmed and cooled all without the assistance from human civilization. NASA recently published a study that showed that Earth radiated more heat into space than was ever thought possible. Does that mean we now know something more about the climate system that was not accounted for in previous studies? How about the one that shows our entire solar system undulates out of the galactic plane of the Milky Way periodically exposing it to vastly higher amounts of radiation?

    My point here is that we are dealing with a scientific field that is in its infancy yet all the while trying to make political proclamations and public policy based on what has been demonstrated as an incomplete picture of what is actually occurring in the world around us. As we learn more about the many variables in the climate system I think it is fair to say that the information we have gained has taken us farther away from the result that was (and is) so vehemently defended and erroneously adhered to.

    Nobody likes a Mr Knowitall - especially a blelligerent one - this goes for both sides of the debate.

    You make two good points: 1) There are a lot of variables that affect the climate,  and we don't completely understand them all.  2) There is a lot of natural variability in the climate even without human influence.

    As for the first, just because we don't completely understand all the variables affecting the climate doesn't mean what we do understand can't have a huge impact.  Nothing we've learned has changed the basic physics that says CO2 has a greenhouse gas effect that warms the Earth.  That's been known since the 1800's.  It's important to remember that CO2-induced warming was predicted long before we could actually see it happening.  So framing the debate as scientists detecting warming and trying to find a way to explain it isn't quite right.  We've been develop this theory for centuries, and now its predictions are coming true.  We don't understand all the variables affecting the economy, but we do know that taxes at 80% would have bad effects, so we avoid doing that.  Same argument.

    As for the second point, you're right.  The Earth's climate has warmed and cooled by a lot in the past.  This shows just how unstable the system can be.  For the past several millennia the climate has been quite hospitable, so why would we want to keep poking it in the eye and risk provoking a major shift?

    I labeled the 16 letter signers as "denialists" because they insist upon using the same irrelevant and invalid talking points, no matter how many times evidence is presented to debunk them.  If they could come up with a valid scientific objection, I'd take that back.  But for now, the label fits, at least for them.  I hope this wasn't too belligerent.
    I labeled the 16 letter signers as "denialists" because they insist upon using the same irrelevant and invalid talking points, no matter how many times evidence is presented to debunk them. 
    Indeed. If people want false balance they can read mainstream media. If someone says they invented perpetual motion and physicists says it's nonsense, it is a disservice to the public to refer to the perpetual motion crank as 'boldly standing in contrast to Big Physics' when they are just a crank.

    We've said it here a million times - yes, the methodology of some studies has been shoddy and the UN can't be trusted on anything but the 100,000 climate scientists outside those two exceptions are not wrong.  Just because a moderate amount of something is good for you, like maple syrup, doesn't mean a diet of it will be okay, and that goes for emissions as well. It really is simple physics.

    In the 1980s 'the Gaia belief' - that Earth is awesome and we are insignificant specks, like gnats on the back of a living elephant, was the purview of New Age goofs.  Now it is right wing goofs who insist nothing we do can harm the planet.  Who ever imagined they would share something in common?
    No, not too belligerent at all. I really appreciate both of your takes and the manner in which you convey them. It is a breath of fresh air in a platform that offen turns to snide jabs and insults.

    I just worry that the "concensus" defense has become the lazy catch-all for use whenever you want to dismiss the counter argument. History is full of consensus arguments that have fallen flat on their face when new data came to bear. Peak oil, the hole in the ozone layer and the BPA scare are a few recent examples. The experts that are coming out against AGM are not neanderthals, but widely respected and credentialed in the very field we are discussing. How many of the 100,000+ that make up the consensus meet this standard?

    On to another question: Why is there so much focus on CO2 when CH4 is a much more effective greenhouse gas and being emitted in enormous amounts?

    Thanks again guys.

    History is full of consensus arguments that have fallen flat on their face when new data came to bear.
    True enough.  Although I do have quibbles with your examples.  Peak oil: still coming, it is a finite resource.  Ozone hole: real, we saw it, argued about it (deja vu), and eventually fixed it.  BPA: TBD, although I'll admit I haven't thoroughly looked at the latest research.

    The "experts coming out against AGM" are not generally "widely respected and credentialed in the very field we are discussing.  Only a quarter of these 16 have published anything on climate, and they represent a very small minority.
    You're right, methane definitely does deserve attention, and it actually just got some, along with black carbon (soot).  That study (Shindell et al. 2012. Science 335(6065):183:189) found that a combination of 7 policies targeting methane could delay temperature increases for around 10 years, but after that CO2 continues to push temperatures up.  Methane reduction can buy us time in the short term, but in the long term we still need to address CO2.

    Access denied to my profile and unable to sign in? Are you folks afraid of me or is it my views that threaten you?