a taste of denial

Denial of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) comes in a variety of flavors. While i’ve come across several taxonomies, the most elegant (and, so far as i know, the only one necessary) classifies AGW denialists into three camps:

  1. Global temperatures are not rising.
  2. Global temperatures are rising, but not because of human activity.
  3. Human activity is causing global temperatures to rise, but this is not a big problem / we can’t do anything about it.

Two clarifications are in order: First, i use the term “denialist” to refer to people who specialize in rhetorical and pseudoscientific tactics to obscure some reality, usually in defense of some ideological agenda that reality threatens. I think of people who buy into their propaganda as “deniers”, but seeing as they’re victims, too, i don’t like using the term. Second, and in keeping with this choice, those who believe that AGW is reality, but who downplay its implications or our power to mitigate them, clearly don’t deny AGW but are AGW denialists. This is because their advocacy for inaction feeds (typically by intent) into the broader AGW denialism campaign (which wouldn’t exist in anywhere near the numbers it does in the absence of powerful interests who feel threatened by the implications of AGW for policy, business, or even worldview).

The stage set, enter Roanoker Wallace Mayo, who had an opinion piece published in the RT Tuesday. Mayo is “sure that we have experienced global warming for some time now” but “equally convinced that the man-made portion is negligible”, which situates them in the second camp above, and devotes most of their piece to providing an alternative explanation for various phenomena—the shrinking ice shelf, rising sea levels, more frequent and severe extreme weather events—he seems to view as the key evidence for AGW.

It’s a good exercise in science literacy to pick a claim from Mayo’s piece and carefully investigate it. (I think he’s actually right about one or two things.) So as not to spoil the opportunity, i’ll just pluck one needle from the porcupine:

I find it interesting that there have been significant snows reported in many unusual places in the Northern Hemisphere last winter.

Now, my first thought was that Mayo was simply committing the base rate fallacy. Given that snowfall is variable, and that there are a lot of places that snow does fall, by chance alone we should expect quite a few places to receive inordinate snowfall in any given year. (This might be tempered somewhat by broad trends in weather that produce similar effects over whole continents in a given year, but i suspect that it’s still true.) Logical fallacy! Nothing more to see here.

It turns, out that my skepticism was misdirected. My go-to source for climate change controversy contextualization, John Cook’s amazing Skeptical Science website, has the following to say (with sources) about what have actually been recent record snowfalls:

To claim that record snowfall is inconsistent with a warming world betrays a lack of understanding of the link between global warming and extreme precipitation. Warming causes more moisture in the air which leads to more extreme precipitation events. This includes more heavy snowstorms in regions where snowfall conditions are favourable.

Perhaps i don’t pay enough attention to the weather. Chalk up one point for consulting the experts, and one caution against knee-jerk skepticism.

Finally, it’s illustrative that Mayo is able to say the following without irony:

I am bothered when some commentaries and letters to this paper have touted the line: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is running out-of-control and is man-caused. Yet, more than 1,000 international scientists, including many current and former United Nations IPCC scientists, strongly dispute the claim of man-caused change. Even if “climate changers” are a small majority, perhaps you’ve heard the maxim: Majority may rule, but majority is not always right.

Scientists are human, scientific conclusions are provisional, and even scientific consensus is fallible. Still, it takes an incredibly potent cultural potion to overcome the almost reflexive acceptance with which we welcome the vast majority of scientific findings. (When was the last time someone denied that exoplanets are being discovered, or that bees communicate by dancing, or that blood is mostly water?) Mayo makes the very good point that harping on the vast consensus of expert opinion is not a winning strategy, or at least not enough of one. What could be?

2 thoughts on “a taste of denial

  1. Cory, It seems to me that there is a fourth group, but since they are not strictly “deniers” you may have consciously excluded them. I’d call them skeptics; those of us who believe that the science is incomplete and that the data is inadequate to draw to prove the AGW hypotheses. We simply don’t know enough about the long term (not the decades where we have data, but over thousands of years) of effects like solar dynamics and magnetics, volcanism, and even floral evolution. We must also question the reliability of our decades-old measurements and the technology behind those measurements in drawing present-day conclusions. Our existing climate models, while the best we can produce today can also be questioned. Simply put, we don’t yet have the data to draw sufficiently accurate conclusions to drive changes to our society and economy.

    As an aside, you might want to open your group to VT freethinkers from previous classes and generations.

    Jeff, Class of ’67.

    • Hi Jeff! Welcome. We have taken some steps to open the group to alumni and nonstudents, in particular networking with local atheist, humanist, and religious organizations. You might ask our president Dan about this. I also encourage you to join our primary forum, the Facebook Group linked above, or the email listserv to keep up with announcements. A few members of previous generations have attended meetings as well—you can learn about these at the Events tab above. [Edit: If you have suggestions for how we might better reach out to alumni some generations removed, please share, or contact Dan directly!]

      You’re right that i did not discuss the denier–skeptic divide in this post, though i wouldn’t consider it a fourth group so much as a parallel approach. Like deniers, skeptics vary in what they remain unconvinced of: that global warming (meaning, long-term warming outside historical norms) is underway, that humans are the primary cause, and that we have the need or ability to mitigate it. I am myself skeptical that we have the sociological/societal means to prevent catastrophic warming, though i am fairly confident that we have the technological means.

      [The following turned out longer than i expected, so please bear with me.]

      How do we distinguish skepticism from denial? They sound about the same, from citing problems with research methodology to accusing researchers of undisclosed or unconscious biases. They even go by the same name of skepticism; no one in my experience claims to be denying AGW.

      I think that it’s appropriate to begin with the consensus of experts in the subject, if there is one. A non-expert should not be expected to provide any special justification for adopting the opinion of the expert community unless confronted with an unusually powerful counterargument. On the other hand, a non-expert who disagrees with the expert consensus in any substantial way should be expected to justify their disagreement. I’ll assume that we agree on this. Moreover—and here’s where i’ll draw a distinction—someone who disagrees with an expert consensus should (a) be able to identify the type of reasoning or evidence that would change their mind (if only in part), (b) actively seek the strongest arguments in favor of the consensus to see if their own reasons for disagreements withstand the challenge, and (c) to the extent that they voice their disagreement in the meantime, be especially clear that it is provisional. (a) is good practice generally but vital to preventing us from rationalizing denial, (b) is essential to skepticism, which (as i view it) requires establishing the strongest and most charitable version of a position before deciding whether to accept it, and (c) prevents denialists from appropriating our skepticism to their own obscurantist goals. Even (especially) if we later come to agree with the expert consensus, in my view we are being skeptical rather than denying as long as we maintain (a–c) in the disagreeable meantime.

      For example, i am skeptical of the expert consensus that an historical Jesus ever existed. This is because, as i understand things, the investigative tools used by historians to make this determination are unreliable, and that these historians themselves broadly acknowledge this. Further, the only attempt by an expert of which i am aware to make this determination resulted in the expert changing his mind. However: (a) i would abandon my position if it were shown to me that this characterization of the state of things is inaccurate, for instance that historians of the period generally view the investigative tools specific to historicity as reliable; (b) as i have time, i read what historians describe as the most important exchanges between historicists and mythicists; and (c) i don’t go around proclaiming that Jesus didn’t exist, and when i mention it at all i am careful to say that my opinion is not qualified.

      To comment on your specifics a bit: To believe that AGW is underway (and that humans are the primary cause and have the potential to prevent much of it) is not to believe that the science is “complete” (it never is) or that available data adequately predict future temperatures to, say, the nearest few degrees Celsius (which depend a lot on what humans decide to do in the meantime). But there have already been successful predictions of temperature change over decades (example), long-term solar, volcanic, and ecological effects are well-enough understood to be factored into models, and multiple measurements of temperature reaching into the distant past have validated their collective reliability (our own Lana Parker discusses this in this segment of her talk from last year).

      While it’s important to be able to identify the potential problems with climate evidence, models, and reasoning, in order to reasonably disagree with climate scientists we must also point out where their evidence is lacking, their models are unreliable, or their reasoning is faulty. So, what specific problems would you cite with the case for AGW as you see it? And what would you demand from someone for them to convince you that it’s happening?

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