How to believe in impossible things

Despite the huge number of mutually contradictory claims denialists make, there is something they all have in common: no matter how much green ink a they use in their writing, denialists never formally criticise each other.

The term cognitive dissonance was coined by Leon Festinger, a psychologist who (in 1954) infiltrated a UFO cult that had been promised a ride into space to avoid a great flood. The UFOs didn’t show. But instead of the cult imploding they turned instead to self justification and denial as they learned, via automatic writing from God, that their goodness had persuaded Him to call it all off.

Festinger established five criteria for cognitive dissonance (from the link above). The first four are unremarkable:

  • 1) A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
  • 2) The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • 3) The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • 4) Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.

The last, however, is directly relevant to the climate “debate”:

  • 5) The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselyte or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

Could it be that the need to spread the mental strain of dissonance over more minds (insert your own comments here) is the reason denialists can’t criticise each other? (Every denialist is sacred). If denialists started throwing people out for idiocy then where would it stop?

For example, in a Listener article of April 19, 2008, Bryan Leyland and Chris de Freitas said in the context of climate that “there has been no global warming since 2002 despite an increase in atmospheric CO2 of more than 4%“. Six years data and they were calling the climate? Regardless of any other consideration it is, as even HT commenter James appears to concede, invalid to use such short periods to discuss climate. But why did no denialist ever publicly put their name to saying so?

Perhaps, and I am very willing to believe this, most of the members of the NZC”S”C are not well educated enough to have picked up on the subtlety that 6 is less than 30. But there’s an even more clear cut example of NZ’s denialists reducing their collective cognitive dissonance by avoiding telling a fool they are a fool.

For many months in 2006 and 2007 the NZC”S”C site hosted a letter by Ken Ring. Ring sent the letter to all MPs and said that:

CO2 is also nearly twice as heavy as air (molecular weight 44, that of air 29) so it cannot rise anywhere beyond haze level of a couple of hundred feet. The Greenhouse cover is 20 miles up, at the top of the atmosphere, and is formed by water vapour. Any CO2 at higher levels is ejected there from volcanoes and kept aloft by upper level turbulence. Nevertheless, it is continually FALLING, not rising, which is how and why vegetation receives it, enabling plant life to grow.

Yes, he actually confused rising = increasing with rising = greater altitude. I had a lengthy correspondence with him and clarified that he really thought that CO2 collected at ground level and in mines etc and was incapable of making it into the upper atmosphere. (I seem to have missed noticing the even heavier CFC layer at ground level). Ring’s article quickly gathered more comments than most threads at the NZC”S”C site (including well over 100 comments in a separate thread about a beautiful demolition of Ring that they posted alongside the original). Plainly the NZC”S”C was aware of what Ring was saying. But none of the members (even those with real science training) ever told Ken to push off because he was embarrassingly wrong.

Consider also the beyond parody EG Beck (who is trumpeted as a genius by Bryan Leyland). Beck compiled every reported measurement of atmospheric CO2 in the last 200 years, graphed the data and reported in all seriousness that atmospheric CO2 could go up and down by a physically implausible 100 ppm in 10 years.

Beck thanked NZC”S”C scientist Bob Carter for “helpful discussions”. I am happy to accept that Beck didn’t know any better but Carter — a fellow of the Royal Society of NZ — certainly should have done. In Carter’s submission to the first ETS Select Committee in 2008 he included a copy of a 2007 presentation he gave at The AusIMM [Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy] New Leaders Conference. In that he states: “More support for decadal fluctuations of carbon dioxide comes from the compilation and summary of 90000 historical atmospheric analyses back to the mid-19th century by Beck (2007)”. Does Carter have a blind spot of dumb to avoid dissonance or is he, as Chomsky said of Lacan “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”? (Carter will be the subject of a future post.)

On the other hand, over at the sceptics dictionary they say that:

There are people who know what they are doing is wrong, but they have such contempt for the rest of us that it doesn’t make them the slightest bit uncomfortable conning us. What evidence is there that people who do bad things or believe what they should know is false are concerned about their self-image? Do mafia hit men have to deal with cognitive dissonance so they can sleep at night? I’d like to see the empirical study on that one.

It is unlikely to be so simple. More likely, some denialists are deluded or delusional, some bad, and some both. I think the bad ones are in it mainly for ego. They know action will be taken despite them. They also know that, like creationists, they can fight a long and (in some cases) lucrative rearguard action. By whacking the bad moles (fulfilling Festinger’s 4th condition) we make it harder for them to maintain their credibility and recruiting potential (ie avert the 5th condition). So grab a hammer and start pounding the bad moles.

59 thoughts on “How to believe in impossible things”

  1. Great post, Doug!
    Silly Beliefs is an interesting www I had not heard of before.
    BTW there is a small problem with the links. They all seem to include the url of the post before the url of the external link. Small glitch though.

    1. Aargh. Don’t know how that happened. Some artefact of Doug sending me a .docx file perhaps — though I thought I’d stripped all formatting and posted clean html. The WordPress post editor shows clean links, so I’m stumped (for the time being)…

    2. OK, fixed, but I had to strip all the links my off-line editor had created and re-link in the WP interface. Should be working fine now. Meanwhile, I will continue scratching my head…

  2. Easy to do! (Plus all missing the second ‘/’, but that autocorrects anyway…)

    contradictory claims

    cognitive dissonance

    Ken Ring


    Leon Festinger



    E G Beck


    sceptics dictionary

    (I was not hitherto aware of the remarkable Mr Ring, and his recent appearance on Australian TV. So I’m adding this link to Deltoid as well)

    [Thanks Bill. I’ve now fixed the links in the post (see comments above). Many thanks for the interim help. GR]

    1. Ring is a real doozy. I have had numerous run-ins with him. He has not the faintest understanding of science, climatology, mathematics or logic. A recent remark of his on a another forum was that last December had been a “spring” month! (Only the 3rd warmest on record!!). La Nina and El Nino do not exist in his world. He cheerfully smears climate scientists and plays fast and loose with weather and climate facts.

      1. That’s a shame, RW.

        I’d have thought a man with his abilities in the area of cat psychics would have mastered these trivial factual matters in a blink of an eye.

        1. Kahloo kahlay! A short jaunt to Amazon reveals that you can review a significant portion of ‘Pawmistry – how to Read Your Cats Paws’ via the ‘click to look inside’ feature in the left-hand column, discover your cat’s ‘Pad of Saturn’ and ‘Heart Mound’ and peruse the Astrological chart for your cat; surely a must for every caring pet-owner?

          And I think I’m going to have to cite this instance of the ‘it’s all made up for the funding’ meme from journalist Graeme Readfearn’s account of his post-Sunrise conversation with Ring.

          When Readfearn challenged him that he hadn’t pointed out the large La Nina to account for the Queensland floods Readfearn says Ring replied –

          It’s got nothing to do with La Nina. That’s a name that they dreamt-up in order to identify a new anomaly in the weather to get research funding for, and to issue reports on.

          While Ring* claims, in comments below the post, that ‘the Cat book’ was Penguin’s idea, and that he didn’t profit from it or write it(!), he doesn’t challenge this quote, and indeed goes on to announce –

          This has been a worldwide trend, with directives from the UN. Conspiracy theory? You betcha. The global warming deception has thus far been the biggest deception and pack of lies known to man. And that is an understatement.


          The eugenics agenda driven from the UN of the international global warmers, which is akin to the policies of Nazi Germany, which is to reduce human population by creating poverty by halting progress and discouraging economic development in underdeveloped countries is phenomenally disgusting.

          And I thought the UN (and that socialist Barack Obama) were systematically redistributing the first world’s wealth to the third world! Hard to keep up…

          Plausible, would you say, R2? Anybody? Here’s your chance to disprove Doug’s thesis, if only with regard to an, um, outlier!

          *or someone claiming to be Ring with a name link back to his website. An interesting read in itself.

    2. For more, much more, on Ken Ring and his idiosyncratic views on weather and climate, the interested might enjoy a visit to Ringworld, my analysis of his weather forecasts for 2006. He didn’t do well.

      But I should acknowledge that it was through debating with Ken (and one or two others) at the NZ CSC site Doug refers to in the post, that I became interested in writing about climate science and policy.

      Thanks Ken…

  3. Ken Ring’s performance on Aussie TV, posted over at Deltoid, is providing plenty of humour for those unfamiliar with Ring’s wisdom and insights. If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s linked in the Tweet links above. Marvellous stuff!

  4. This blog already has a mechanism that allows the majority to whack any comments that they deem to be cognitively dissonant into invisibility and this has the presumably unintended consequence of reinforcing the belief structure of the majority as required by 5). As far as I can see “mole whacking” is just another way to feed the trolls.
    Ironically, the folk who study science communication for a living argue that “whack a mole” is not an effective strategy. Here’s Dan Kahan writing in Nature:

    The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence. This reaction is substantially reinforced when, as often happens, the message is put across by public communicators who are unmistakably associated with particular cultural outlooks or styles — the more so if such advocates indulge in partisan rhetoric, ridiculing opponents as corrupt or  devoid of reason. This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and to pick sides accordingly.


    1. The idea of that properly “framing” arguments will somehow persuade morons to change their willfully ignorant views is bullshit.

      “This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and to pick sides accordingly.”

      Yep, that’s exactly what we’re engaged in – a full on culture war. We can choose a future in which society informs itself through rigorous science or one in which a powerful minority rules with the masses held powerless in the shadows of myth and magic

      Wack that mole!

    2. I shall spell it out. Denialists are deperate for scientific respectability.

      Whacking moles is best used on the ‘senior mole’ pseudoscientists like Carter and de Freitas. They usually use lies less frequently than they use misdirection. Plainly, part of cognitive dissonance for them involves satisfying their own ethics to not openly tell outright lies without weasel words.

      Taken as a whole their writings are fraudulent lies. But some (not all) of their statements in isolation are technically (or almost) correct. We have recently discussed the example of de Freitas in the Herald.

      But as an example of successful whacking I would like to cite the case of the McLean, de Freitas and Carter paper. It was shot down mercilessly. Now I’m not great frequenter of the denialosphere but I have formed the impression that this work is not often cited now that anyone can easily post links to solid refudiations.

      Closer to home, NZC”S”C quietly removed all links to Ken Ring the day after I ridiculed it all to de Freitas (in 2007 IIRC).

      And, if nothing else, Whack-a-mole is a strategy to remove the future defense of plausible deniability from the pseudoscientists like Carter, de Freitas and McLean. (A tactic exemplifed by the dancing on the shade of a single word by both Pielkes

      1. Thanks for spelling it out. I think it’s good to let the ignorant ones (like Ring) have a good run. They demonstrate for an objective, thinking person, what is wrong with the contrarian ‘movement’. Whacking them prematurely would just push them toward more ‘respectable’ contrarian positions which would, unfortunately, increase direct support for the Bob Carters of the world. Even though it’s easier to whack the most marginal moles, the focus should be applied to the ones who actually have some credentials and credibility to lose.

    3. Maybe – but the most important thing is to ensure that the casual visitor to a blog is not misled. So it’s important not to allow statements to stand uncorrected.

      The fact that participants in an exchange may not change their views or acknowledge the correctness of others’ straightening out factual errors doesn’t reduce the obligation to ensure that novices or occasional visitors are not led astray.

      1. Of course Adelady, the whole point of the climate moles/zombies is to mislead and confuse the uninformed. Allowing them to perpetrate and promote their superstitious anti-science ravings without challenge certainly hasn’t worked out too well in the past.

    1. There are forums where the general public and those with particular interests may inform MPs on issues of the day – particularly when public policy is proposed or being formulated – these are called Select Committees – and anyone is free to make a submission. Regretfully over the past 2 years these opportunities have been reduced dramatically in the NZ parliament as more and more legislation has by-passed the Committee stage under “Urgency”. A distinct attack on our democratic process.

      1. Regretfully over the past 2 years these opportunities have been reduced dramatically in the NZ parliament as more and more legislation has by-passed the Committee stage under “Urgency”. A distinct attack on our democratic process.

        Macro, if that’s true one might hope that the opposition parties do a little digging and collect some stats on it.

      2. I can’t believe that it is election year already. Perhaps the most striking policy decision by the Nats was to subsidise the big polluters, where ETS costs will be picked up by the average tax-payer. How this was achieved without stirring up indignation among the average punters is beyond me.

        Also alot of investments are being put into expanding polluting industries in this country with the blessing of the current government. This has to change. Investment capital should be towards sustainable agriculture, new technologies, clean renewable energy. I suspect that preference for polluting industries is in part due to the eager desire of investors for a quick return on the investment. The long term is too much for many to consider.

        1. I suspect the ETS was achieved so easily in its current form because of the lack of investigative journalists in mainstream media. The Southland Times, for instance, concentrated on how much the ETS was going to cost joe/joanne public and farmers, but not why.

  5. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but if you do a google search on a particular climate change topic because you heard somewhere that it may be a serious problem, the first umpteen hits you get are from the denialosphere and there are lots “hockeyshtick”, “climatedepot” to name a few. In fact some of James’ cut and paste pseudoscience can be found at these dodgy sites almost verbatim.

    The commentary of course is based on lies and misconceptions, but unless you are a scientist and/or a bit savvy to checking out sources etc. you could easily be deceived that your topic of interest is a non-issue, especially when all these credible looking denialist sites sound so scientific. They really have it down to a fine art, how to sound truthful with techno mumbo jumbo, to novices who haven’t got much of a clue, which I suspect might be the majority of internet surfers.

    Unfortunately the internet is open to all kinds of nutters with vested interests.

  6. You can whack as hard as you like, they just won’t stay down! I spent just over a year “fighting” denialists through the letters column in our regional paper. I was vastly outnumbered. It seemed clear to me that those who agreed with me left me to be spokesperson about the realities of climate change (and I did receive quite a few phone calls from people saying they supported my stance) … but to a casual observer it looked like those who accepted AGW is happening were in the minority. In the end, the paper closed the debate.

    Most correspondents adhered to the ‘conspiracy to bring in one world government’ theory. Talk about shooting themselves in the foot, as far as credibility goes!

      1. Yeh, just the sort of “framing” drivel I’d expect from Nesbit. If you like your science adjusted to taste with Mad Man sugarcoating, then read more on his blog. He manages to
        the “rapid response team”, including Scott Mandia and John Abraham, while
        the Creation Museum for building an energy cost-saving Noah’s ark theme park!

        His nemesis is Chris Mooney, coauthor of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”.

        1. Yeh, just the sort of “framing” drivel I’d expect from Nesbit.

          Seconded. On the one hand he says communicating the science and risks of global warming is fruitless, but then later suggests setting up a new communication infrastructure?. WTF?.

          Wonder what the chances of public opinion reflecting the message being drummed aloud from the mainstream media is?. Anyone know of such a comparison?. I know Joe Romm over at Climate Progress had a recent post about MSM reporting of climate change dropping off the chart in 2010.

          1. People “like” their disasters instant. An increase of a few degrees – to the uninitiated – sounds minor, and changes forcast for the coming century are just too far off to worry about. But we are already a tenth of the way into that century, and we are already seeing changes, so how do we get that message across? I think a start could be a regular weekly climate science column in the papers. Not one that is ‘said/she said’, but one that lays out the facts and what they mean for our near future.

            1. People “like” their disasters instant

              You mean the Queensland floods weren’t instant enough?. Was there any mention of the connection to global warming in any of the mainstream media reports?.

              But we are already a tenth of the way into that century, and we are already seeing changes

              Very scary changes actually, but I guess that’s a value judgement. Bryan has blogged about the threat to coral reefs, especially the work of Charlie Veron, but it is really dire. I don’t see how we’re going to avoid really tragic consequences even now.

              Not that I’m suggesting we just give up trying, quite the contrary, it’s just a shame that the greedy and ignorant are causing needless suffering.

        2. Wow, I mangled the edit of that second paragraph! Here’s what it should have read:

          A more reasonable case is made by his sometime coauthor, Chris Mooney, in “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”. Their nemesis is PZ Myers at pharyngula.

          1. PZ Myers; a nemesis for all seasons! Climate Progress appears to be down at the moment, but I recall Romm as being unimpressed by Nesbit’s argument also and running a couple of pieces on it.

            1. Bong! Should have waited ’til it was all up and running again; Romm has a recent piece on the topic of ‘overselling the message’, but nothing directly regarding Nesbit. That’s what you get for skimming Google synopses!

              Why science-based (dire) warnings are an essential part of good climate messaging

              (I seem to remember another preceding this one, but for some reason Romm’s posts seem to become randomly listed – non-sequential – about half way down the front page and I can’t be bothered wading through this scattered assortment!)

              But what I did find: following DW, here’s Romm’s post on climate reporting falling off the map in 2010.

            2. but for some reason Romm’s posts seem to become randomly listed

              Good to know I’m not the only one with that problem. It’s a pain in the ass, when you’re trying to find something but don’t know any relevant key words to use the search function.

  7. In respect of Tony’s comment at 11:25pm, Why has National managed to get away with an NZETS with large tax-payer funded subsidies in the form of free allocations of carbon credits to polluters?
    Well, its largely because they inherited an NZETS that gave large subsidies to existing polluters from the Clark Cullen Labour government. See

    Geoff Bertram has stated in Victoria University talks (as well as in ‘The Carbon Challenge’) that Labour’s NZETS was pretty flawed compared to the economics theory on emissions trading. He’s a great straight-talker. His actual words in answer to a question were “The National NZETS is a complete dog and the Labour NZETS was almost a complete dog”. Both had effectively no cap on the units that could be issued (and therefore the levels of emissions that may occur). Both involve significant and long-term gifting of carbon credits to emitters instead of auctions.

    For an idea of one his Victoria Uni talks of 2009, see this set of slides,%2520Carbon%2520Challenge.pdf

  8. Great post Doug! So glad you posted that stuff about Ken Ring. Quite hilarious! I haven’t had so many laughs in such a long time. I’d quite forgotten how heavy CO2 is – must rewrite my lectures. Wouldn’t want to be out of date.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Gareth might like to comment on Marco’s post bout Select Committees.
    (Tried a few times to post & sorry if it suddenly shows up multiple times)

    Greth was invited by Peter Dunne to give a supplementary submission to the 2nd ETS Select Committee after it was noticed how much his presentation disagreed with that of McCabe Environmental Consultants .

    They said: “Satellite data shows that the global warming trend ended in 2001”

    Gareth explained that ‘no warming since 2001’ is bullshit. In fact, Gareth covered a whole heap of the same old claims we see so often.

    Did it make any difference? NO, the
    ACT party minority report
    (pages 103-104) includes essentially every point that Gareth rebutted, including

    The surface cooled for a period in the middle of the 20th century and appears to have stopped warming during the last decade despite strong emissions growth during this period.

  10. “CO2 is also nearly twice as heavy as air (molecular weight 44, that of air 29) so it cannot rise anywhere”.

    Does this explain the ozone hole? The molecular weight of ozone is 48. 🙂

  11. What? Not a dickey bird from the named* denialists who pop in here? How can that be? Come – please give us your opinions of Beck and/or Ring.

    *unnamed sock puppets are also welcome to have a go also but you must drink a glass of water while posting.

    BTW Mike P: This is an example of the ‘wedging’ strategy I outlined to you in 2009. For the next month or three, each time one of them pops in here – or indeed writes anything anywhere, ask them about Beck and/or Ring. Keep on refusing to discuss anything with them until you get that sorted out.

    It really annoys them. It will annoy them even more to read here that that is what we intend to do.

    Best used with those that use their names; sockpuppets just transnymify.

  12. An anonymous (scnz) tone troll wants details about me? (Details freely available to anyone with even modest skills).

    Ohh goody a chance to demonstrate wedging. OK, I’ll swap ya: Decloak and give your professional opinion (see above re modest skills) of Beck, Ring and those who support them – despite the faults being pointed out (e.g. Carter and Leyland).

      1. From the above article:

        there is something they all have in common: no matter how much green ink a they use in their writing, denialists never formally criticise each other.

        R2 – don’t know anything about Beck or Ring

  13. No opinion on Beck or Ring? But you are always so full of opinions. How very odd, but long may this lack of opinion continue.

    Here is a way to kill two birds with one stone: Ask Chris de Freitas and Willem de Lange, the science advisors to NZC”S”C, what is their reaction to students who disagree. This is likely to be more interesting than me since they bravely go against the Party Line while I am just a slave to The Conspiracy*.

    Then ask them for their opinion of Beck and Ring. Since Ring and Beck invalidate most of de Freitas’ life work, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had an opinion.

    * Upon graduation all scientists, since 1896, have automatically become members of The Conspiracy. Naturally the zampolits are displeased with any who break ranks and they run the risk of forfeiting their pension benefits if they don’t cut the rest of us in on the money.

      1. From the above article:

        there is something they all have in common: no matter how much green ink a they use in their writing, denialists never formally criticise each other.

        John D – I don’t know anything about Beck or Ring either

        Thus the sacred oath is upheld.

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