What Motivates the Scientist Deniers?

There wasn’t room in my review of James Powell’s book The Inquisition of Science to comment on one or two aspects of the book in the detail I’d have liked, and I’ll take up one in particular in this supplementary post. In a chapter titled The Anatomy of Denial he has an interesting short discussion on the motivation of the scientist deniers. The denial campaign depends on having some scientists to whom it can point in confirmation of its arguments, and they have duly been forthcoming, albeit few of them actively engaged in climate science. Powell’s analysis confirms what others have discovered, but he puts it freshly and it’s worth highlighting regularly.

Some of the scientist deniers he sees as simply contrarian by nature, revelling in being different. Every field of science has had its contrarians with provocative ideas. Most of the ideas may be wrong, but even so they can advance the science by stimulating new experiments and new questions. Contrarians may sometimes play a valuable role as devil’s advocate, but they may also simply and repeatedly be wrong. He notes wryly that if Freeman Dyson were to accept global warming no one would pay any attention to him since he would merely be one of tens of thousands contributing to the scientific consensus, almost any one of whom would know as much as he. By denying it, he lands on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and is lauded for intellectual courage. In Powell’s extended discussion of Dyson’s denial in an earlier section of the book he quotes Dyson acknowledging that Hansen, whom he accuses of consistently exaggerating the dangers of global warming, has all the credentials established by his hundreds of published papers.

“By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think that I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge. ”

So much for the contrarian by nature. Dyson’s assurance is breathtaking.

Others however fall into the category of professional science-deniers. “Find a topic that an industry opposes and for a fee these apostates will write books and articles, appear on talk shows, testify before Congress and spout the industry line.”  Powell points out that collectively the scientist-deniers who have been profiled in his book have denied science in order to oppose government regulation of acid rain, CFCs, environmental mercury, fast foods, fossil fuel combustion, pesticides, second-hand smoke, and more. What they seem to have in common is that they are economic and political libertarians, opposed to government regulation of every kind. Richard Lindzen, for example, who holds the most relevant credentials in climate science among the deniers,  sees climate advocates as wanting “to roll back industrial society” and “redistribute global wealth”.

Powell conducts an interesting exercise, producing a list to summarise the deniers’ methods. It’s familiar enough: dispute a well-established scientific consensus; cite an online petition as evidence of the absence of consensus; manufacture doubt by cherry picking; with the exception of one accomplished scientist, almost never do research or publish in peer-reviewed journals; derogate peer-review as designed to squash new ideas; portray themselves as gutsy truth-tellers denied research grants; conduct dissident conferences with all the trappings of scientific meetings; accuse scientists and the government of a global conspiracy; receive support from the media and heads of state; call scientists Nazis and murderers.

An unsurprising list to those familiar with climate change denial tactics, but in fact Powell based it on the AIDs denialists described by Seth Kalichman in his book Denying Aids: Conspiracy Theories,Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy. Powell points out that a similar list would also serve for evolution deniers, vaccine deniers and others. They all set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a sinister conspiracy.

Powell acknowledges that we can’t really know the minds of individual deniers, but it is clear that “denial begins and ends not with science but with ideology, not with facts but with belief systems”.

34 thoughts on “What Motivates the Scientist Deniers?”

  1. The term “redistribute global wealth” is enough to make any free-market idealist squirm, and libertarians break into hives. Taken at face value, it has problems.

    If you count the ability for the natural world to absorb carbon as a type of wealth, count a clean environment or a functioning ecosystem as an asset, then it is easy to see that there has been a wrongful deprivation of wealth by Western nations. The CO2 ceiling has been all but depleted, converted to material assets held by rich countries. It is therefore a matter of justice, like a court order of payment, rather than a matter of global welfare for its own sake.

    I see it as a “valuation of environmental capital” and a “historical adjustment that may lead to an imbalance on the balance sheet”. “transfer of wealth” might be a simple summary, but it’s misleading.

    1. No, but just as Spencer casts himself as defending his beloved market from all those scary regulators, it’s not hard to suspect a very palpable motivation for arriving at the conclusions they do!

      And the projection argument they use is fascinating – other people are in it for the lavish funding money (from states thet would be happier if AGW didn’t exist, but no matter!) or because of their ideological motivations!

      And when you look at the numbers pro AGW and anti, it’s clear how absurd the argument is; scientists across the world in a range of disciplines and from a range of political persuasions support the theory – and a handful of self-described Free Market ™ political actors (if not outright economic beneficiaries!) oppose it.

      It’s a true testament to the power and reach of The Golden Age of Stupid that this simple point so consistently fails to be discerned! This requires a genuine effort.

      Neither Spencer nor Lindzen is doing very well in the credibility stakes at the moment, I’d say, but one of them also has this skeleton in the closet.

      1. It is funny how environmentalists who are proposing new, efficient, and less harmful technologies and systems are accused of wanting to role back society to the stone age.

        Yet those that support, let face it, continued reliance on last century’s inefficient and dirty technologies (and with coal the century before that) are forward looking bastions of civilisation.

        Oh the irony. All I can say if we are moving back to the caves I am looking forward to the warmth, light, and other nifty features that can be delivered using a lot less energy and adverse impact on the environment and society.

    2. And this proves him wrong?

      Yes, it demonstrates that his thinking on the science of global warming is derived from his opposition to the solutions, rather than just looking at the scientific facts.

      And if he is so wrong about what the proposed solutions are – I have not heard one single “climate advocate” propose to “roll back industrial society” – then it is easy to deduce that his scientific opinions are also wrong. Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus….

  2. “denial begins and ends not with science but with ideology, not with facts but with belief systems”

    That’s blindingly obvious, and in the AGW debate the two political perspectives line up on the issue as would be expected, and both sides, when they make claims not supported by the science, make those claims for ideological reasons.

    Why do people so readily rationalize to support ideology rather than reason to understand the truth? Because in the struggle for survival, which has dictated human evolution, the social unity of a common belief is often more important to the survival of a group of humans than being right in an objective sense.

  3. “denial begins and ends not with science but with ideology, not with facts but with belief systems”

    I agree. One ardent denier I spoke with said he just didn’t believe that humans could have an impact on the earth. I said what about air pollution, water pollution, the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain? He agreed with all those being caused by human action, but he still would not accept we are to blame for global warming.

    I think one reason so many people are willing to believe that global warming is a conspiracy is because the alternative demands action – if we are to blame then we have to do something about it. And they do not want to change their way of life – even for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

    1. I’m not so sure Carol.

      When you look at things that have been successfully dealt with, you see a big difference. Water pollution, London smog, the nasty effects of acid rain – these all arouse strong visual effects. Or visceral disgust when people see the foul conditions of polluted waters.

      I often wish that carbon dioxide _was_ those huge clouds of smoke and moisture we see emitting from power stations. CO2’s biggest problem is its invisibility. (In terms of public perception rather than its effects.)

        1. I agree with this point. I used to study urban lead pollution once upon a time (before tetraethyllead was removed from petrol), and my supervisor said much the same thing – if the lead was visible, say a fluorescent dye, people would be outraged at the concentrations building up in roadside soils and on plants and so on – but it is invisible (except to us chemists of course) so people can’t easily grasp how much of a problem it is.

  4. The most comprehesive assessment I’ve read of the denial industry – and believe me, after reading the book you won’t be in any doubt of the existence of it – is David Michael’s ‘Doubt is Their Product‘. Michaels was a former Clinton energy secretary, and has direct experience of a good deal of what he writes about.

    I have never read a more infuriating account of the vile behaviour of a more cynical bunch of lowlifes! For get all those pansy serial killers and mobsters; this is the most disturbing ‘True Crime’ reading you’ll ever do.

    Never have I wanted to hurl a book across a room so often – not the author’s fault! Not only are the tactics of these bastards familar to as from the case of AGW, even after having read Merchants of Doubt I had no real idea of the extent of the pernicious influence of this dreadful lobby – or of the horrific scale of its many successes! This book opened my eyes, and not to any happy vistas…

    1. One only has to look at the present bunch of “no-hopers” vieing for the GOP (Republican) candidacy to see how pernicious this denial industry has become (they are no-hopers because none offer ANY hope for survival for humans or the planet). Every prospective candidate has abandoned logic and reason, and science has the status of a fiction from a distant land! – and (as far as one can tell) not one gasp of amazement from the potential voters.

  5. What worries me more than the Machiavellian no hopers of the GOP is the mind of their captive audience. In the end this is supposed to be a democracy and the stance of these denier morons has been tested (believe me, they spend a lot of $$ on testing the crap they pronounce with test crowds) and it is scary to see that the message they tailor make for themselves works…. It is entirely possible that a hood winked moronic and illiterate religiously infused and angry American redneckery will vote into office the very morons we discuss here. The outcome would be catastrophic. Already the US is once more in a political stalemate.

    1. I didn’t save an item I read today which said that it only takes 10% of the population to hold and express a view really strongly for that view to dominate the whole population. Depressing stuff.

      (I don’t want to track it down, but if I come across it again I’ll put a link in.)

      1. Luckily this works in our favor one would hope. If the 10% of the intelligent and scientifically literate people who clearly see the writing on the wall carry on and perhaps strengthen the effort we are making to educate the rest of the population then perhaps not all is lost.

      2. I’d understood – and it seems plausible – that it’s only ever 15% of the population that actually takes any active part in the real debates of the day; the 85% just fall in line behind these factions and take part in the amusing ritual we refer to as ‘voting’*.

        So, if 2/3rds of that 15% arrive at a single-ish/coherentish conclusion we get the 10% that carries the argument. Only the hopelessly naive and ahistoric would assume this means the right decision would almost-certainly have been made, but it’s difficult to imagine the world could be otherwise.

        The problems really arise with the disproportionate power of the moneyed faction of the 15% – these days that’s ‘grotesquely disproportionate’ – and it’s ability to simply foghorn its way to paradigmatic dominance despite being inherently marginal. As witnessed in the AGW debate, and many others…

        *(It reminds me of the weird cult of interest rates; the economy’s in a tailspin/overheating, unemployment’s up – never down – quick; let’s all breathlessly wait for the Reserve Bank to raise or lower interest rates! An economy with the one big, shiny lever – what a marvel! Similarly, in the Advanced Liberal Democracies you get a single lever choice between the bad and the really bad party – I’ll let you decide which is which…)

  6. I received my first “cease and desist” letter from a man today who was frustrated because the paper wouldn’t print his criticism of me – so he sent it to me personally. His reason I shouldn’t write about global warming? I am obviously not in submission to my husband.
    Yep, that is what he said! Ain’t never heard that one before.

    1. It’s buried in a couple of the New Testament letters from where some fundamentalists are evidently still inclined to disinter it. I’d have thought that even they would have been happy to let it lie these days.

      1. Yes, I know where it is in the Bible – although the verse says “Submit to one another …” But in regard to my writing letters about global warming? Sheesh. Actually, my husband supports my efforts. And now I’ve got Bryan Leyland on my case …all the way from Auckland.

    2. Interestingly, Carol, IIRC there was a famous SLAPP suit in the US where a law firm actually submitted a threat of prosecution to a man for “failure to control his wife”, who was a prominent activist campaigning against a landfill!

      (Oh, it’s not just me that remembers it! Talk about the definitive SLAPP!)

      Clearly they take their obscure clauses in The Bible seriously over there…

      Of course, in reality, that legal ‘threat’ is about as meaningful as the one you received… But it’s all part of the intimidation game.

      1. You know, Bill, I would like to see the editor print some of the crazies’ letters just so the general public could see what kind of opposition there really is to climate change science. I really cannot think of any other field of science (not even evolution) that provokes such an irrational response amongst laymen.

        1. Told my husband about your correspondent this morning. His response. So I suppose all those male climate scientists are single?

          Obviously it has never occurred to this clown that you just might be a ‘dutiful wife’ publicising your husband’s views. Which gives a bit of insight into ….. something. Do people like this really think that every married man shares their opinions – both on climate science and on marriage? Strange.

          1. There seems to be a sub-set of men who are convinced they know more than the experts, that women should be seen and not heard and that everything they disagree with is part of the great conspiracy. I swear, there must be an enclave of them in my part of the world. They cannot stand to be contradicted and seem to be genuinely shocked when they are, and they have no idea how foolish they look to a younger, more-educated audience. They were probably semi-important in their communities once upon a time. Now they are retired and time weighs heavily upon them. They are forever discovering things “the scientists have overlooked” – and yet, they refuse staunchly to read anything the scientists actually say.

            1. .. and these guys have so much in common with the mind set of fundamental Islamists…. they only read of a different little book … but funny that, I believe that they would readily blow up Islamists (together with scientists, feminists, intellectuals, homosexuals, socialists, greens,… ) …

            2. Ah, yes, Carol, what I think of as the ‘Bull Seals’!

              In my work for a council I see them in action all the time, particularly at public meetings. The aim of the BS is to bellow very loudly in order to establish territorial dominance over the beach; content is a secondary consideration, it’s a combination of volume and a terrifying will-to-persist that really counts.

              In fact, content is often so wide of the mark that it is, as you say, embarrassing to watch. But, as with research, your BS doesn’t do embarrassment, and unfortunately civilised people are at a considerable disadvantage in dealing with them, what with the general reluctance to say ‘will you sit down and shut-up you uninformed blowhard?’

              The problem is that the dense gravity of their Stupidity tends to hopelessly distort those discussions they come in contact with, bending them out of shape for the duration.

              (Why do the current GOP debates suddenly spring to my mind? 😉 )

            3. I think what we need is a “Grand Unified Theory of Bull Seal Demolition” (for want of any better label).
              Many issues seem to settle themselves if “the monster at hand has been named correctly” and thereby its spell defused.
              Branding is so powerful yet for a long time I have been searching for that word, that label that would do the trick.
              Redneck is perhaps one of them but its carried almost with pride now by those who do….
              Where is Sachi & Sachi if you need them?

            4. Yes, you do know the type I mean, Thomas and Bill. They are the kind who always wag their finger at you, too. GOP suits them – Grumpy Old Pharisees/People/Pie-eaters/Pretenders (take your pick).

  7. “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H. L. Mencken, 1921

    1. That was helpful, mistywindow. We have the tendency to put more weight on “evidence” that strengthens our own point-of-view. So, how do we help someone to think outside their own frame? I try to use analogies – eg. I recently compared mining lignite to digging up the remains of an ancient sewerage pond. I don’t know how well that worked, but I think analogies work better than saying, “You are wrong!”

      Any other ideas, friends?

      1. Analogies are good if they’re vivid enough and they line up with sense of humour or attitudes generally.

        According to Chris Mooney’s latest, the best approach is to avoid words and use simple, really simple, graphs and pictures. The other way is to reinforce their self-esteem before their opinions are challenged. Don’t know how that could work online.


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