Saturday, 12 December 2009

Paula Kirby - Believers in denial

Paula Kirby has written a very good article Believers in denial in the Washington Post. In it she describes how climate change denial and fundamentalist religion are belief systems that have a demographic with considerable overlap

But there is an aspect to the common thread between climate change denial and creationism which Paula hasn't quite picked up on.

In both cases, the people involved have a loyalty to what they regard as a higher truth than that revealed by scientific evidence. In the case of creationists, it is loyalty to the principle of biblical inerrency. In the case of the climate change deniers (particularly in the US), in many cases it is loyalty to the philosophical and political principle of rugged individualism, that if only government would butt out of people's lives as much as possible, everything would get better though people freely exercising their individual self-interest.

The problem with climate change is that if in fact it is in large part man-made, then it is not a problem that is going to be addressed by people carrying on as before in pursuit of their individual self interest. That is what has got us into our present fix. The problem is so big that governments are going to need to be involved in sorting it, and moreover internationally coordinated actions by governments.

So what we have here is an issue where rugged individualism is not the solution, but is in fact so far from being the solution that it is actually part of the problem to be solved.

Where does this leave people who have a deep and abiding belief in the fundamental goodness of rugged individualism? To acknowledge the existence of man-made climate change and the need to do something about it requires that they abandon one of the most basic aspects of their philosophy of life, which they believe has served them well for many years.

That's a very hard thing to do. It is unthinkable. So what they do is unthink it. They would rather believe that the evidence for man-made climate change is false. They believe that the scientists are in it for the research funds, they think it is all an internationalist communist plot to rob America of its independence, they think that there is no consensus in the actual science.

The details of course are different, but the overall themes and tactics used are much the same: mistrust of science, belief in global conspiracy, cherry-picking evidence. And in both cases, there are people who are perfectly prepared to encourage this. In the case of creationism it is leaders of fundamentalist churches, in the case of climate change denial it is energy companies.

So, what is to be done about this? Two things. First is to expose as far as possible the sources of funding of the climate-change denial lobbyists, so that we can tell people "they would say that, wouldn't they". Second is to acknowledge that in the case of many rugged individualists, opposition to action on climate change is not based on evidence, and so is not going to be overcome by more and better evidence. You are not going to persuade these people with evidence. Therefore, you will either have to marginalise them and bring about a position where it is possible to act despite them, or it is going to be necessary to persuade them to accept that they rugged individualism is not a principle worth holding on to in all circumstances.

The conversation is going to have to change.


  1. Silly. Are you a climatologist? Do you know how to verify the assumptions behind the models which predict global warming? In this area you are as naive as any religious believer, choosing to flock behind a particular pastor because you like the emotional implications of what he says. (And these scientists are nearly always men -- another link between faith in AGW and religious faith. Perhaps women are better at maintaining a balanced view.)

    Science is not based on 'consensus'. Science is based on evidence. A substantial amount of evidence against AGW has been put forward. You can find some of it here:

    You can choose to believe some or all or none of it as you wish, but you are in no position to assert that you know better. In asserting the truth of AGW you are simply parroting the opions you have received from others and have no way of verifying on your own.

    Please stick to writing about what you know about, or you run the risk of casting doubt on your competence in those fields too. And that also goes for Paula Kirby, who as far as I know has the same qualifications in climate science as you do.

  2. jonj
    I looked at your list. It is very partial, and it consists to a considerable extent of papers that are quite old, and have been superseded by better and more recent observations. What you are doing with that list is one of the things I described above. You are cherry-picking favourable evidence and ignoring unfavourable evidence.

    You quite correctly state that science is based on evidence. That is why the consensus of people who don't know anything of the subject doesn't matter. The evidence is not perfect, but the balance of the evidence in favour of the existence of man-made climate change is pretty conclusive - even given the cherry-picked list of contrary opinions you provided.

    It is true that neither of us is a climate scientist and therefore an expert in the field. We can't be everywhere and know everything from first-hand experience, and so of necessity we have to take certain things on trust on the word of others.

    In doing so, we have to make decisions concerning the basis on which we give that trust. Many people trust others on the basis of whether they are expressing opinions they already agree with. I try not to do that. Instead, I try as best as possible to see who is looking to find out the trust, and I trust them. For that reason, I tend to trust the professional opinions of scientists, and moreover I tend to trust the consensus of those professional opinions, because I know something about how that consensus is arrived at.

  3. "...of necessity we have to take certain things on the word of others."

    Of course we do. And when we pass those opinions along to other people, the correct way to do it is not to assert them as fact but to cite your sources and explain why you find them convincing. Otherwise you are abusing the trust your readers have in you.

    Incidentally, I'm not sure how science can be 'superseded'. Are you saying these papers are wrong, and if so, why? I don't find them so old, either -- in the first ten we have 2007, 2008, 2000, 2009, 2006...

    Given the difficulties put in the way of AGW sceptics publishing by the AGW establishment, as now revealed through the Climategate papers, it's remarkable and encouraging that this many papers have seen the light of day at all.

  4. Ah, the global conspiracy to hide the truth. You do seem to be going tough all the tactics I described above, aren't you?

  5. Of course there are the other people who agree with AGW (some UEA emails aside) and just don't really care.

    The argument that the cost to them of reducing climate change is larger than the benefit is one that is never addressed, e.g. Canada becomes a better place to live and grow crops in most models of global warming, so why wouldn't a Canadian say "screw sub-Saharan Africa and Indo-China"?