home essays on science and technology Skeptics versus Deniers: Creating a Climate of 'No!'

Skeptics versus Deniers: Creating a Climate of 'No!'

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Trained as a scientist, and knowing many who research planetary atmospheres, I tend toward listening to expert advice on this complicated issue — especially since the policy endeavors that they are recommending consist of things we should be doing anyway, for other reasons (to attain energy independence, to reduce the influence of foreign petro-oligarchs, and to increase economic efficiency).

Skeptics versus Deniers

Not every person who expresses doubt or criticism toward some part of this complex issue is openly wedded to the shrill anti-intellectualism of Fox News — nor do all of them nod in agreement with absurd exaggerations, e.g., that a winter snowstorm refutes any gradual warming of Earth's atmosphere. Indeed, you are likely to know some individuals who claim not to be "global warming deniers" but rational, open-minded "AGW-skeptics."

I find this distinction attractive, at the surface, because I too find some parts of HGCC theory unclear, ill-supported or poorly explained. In such a complex field, there are sure to be gaps. For example, the oceans are evidently drawing more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than anyone can explain. Will this fortuitous extra-absorption reach a limit soon? Might some of the stored CO2... or the hydrated methane now locked in sub-sea ices or in permafrost, reach some temperature tipping point and suddenly flood forth, quickly transforming the greenhouse warming effect from sub-linear to runaway super-linear? Also, as a contrarian-modernist, I have some affinity for geoengineering proposals that are unpopular on the left.

Hence, if I meet a person who makes the "denier-skeptic" distinction, I start from a willingness to be persuaded. I have met a number of people who seem convincingly to fit into the latter category. Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by curiosity than partisan fever. One I could name is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

Alas, I have found that a much larger number use the term "skeptic" simply as a trick of re-labeling, while wallowing in the standard narratives of distraction and delay. Hence, the matter at hand:

What traits distinguish a rational, pro-science "skeptic" — who has honest questions about the AGW consensus — from members of a Denier Movement that portrays all members of a scientific community as either fools or conspirators?

After extensive discussions with many AGW doubters, I believe I have found a set of distinct characteristics that separate the two groups.

who is an expert?

Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts in the topic at hand. And that experts tend to know more than they do.

Sound obvious? Since the Neolithic, human civilizations have relied on specialists, a trend that accelerated across the 20th Century. Reasonable people begin their paradigm-dissent by stipulating respect for the decades that intelligent people invested in complex realms like radiative transfer, ocean chemistry, or microcell computer modeling.

This does not mean experts are always right! But this simple admission separates our Skeptic from the Deniers, who partake in the modern notion that vociferous opinion is worth as much as spending twenty years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.

the news I need from the weather report

Next, the Skeptic is keenly aware that, after 4,000 years of jokes about 'hapless weathermen' who could not prophesy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan three days ahead pretty well, and more tentatively as far as 14 days, based on a science that's grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

The Skeptic further avows that this rapid progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward — a rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.

Deniers also share this utter reliance on improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by... the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks.

Miraculously, they see no contradiction.

Side note: There is a distinction between weather and climate. Both deal in the same oceans, vapors, gases and sunlight, using almost identical basic equations and expertise. Both are extremely complex, and deal with that complexity with simplifying assumptions and boundary conditions. Clearly, climate modeling is more primitive, right now. Perhaps it is even rife with errors! Still, the overall tools, methods, community and eagerly-skilled people overlap greatly.

a little humility

Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting up to fight over sub-models. Hence, if an outsider perceives "something wrong" with a core scientific model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider is to ask "what mistake am I making?" — before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.

In contrast, Deniers glom onto an anecdotal "gotcha!" from a dogma-driven radio show or politically biased blog site. Whereupon they conclude that ALL of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Uniformly. At the same time.

is it really close to 100%?

At the 2008 Future in Review Conference, Harvard professor James McCarthy, former co-chair of the IPCC, was asked how many of the world's top 1000 climate experts would disagree with the basic scientific consensus that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over the last 50 years to levels not seen in 650,000 years is primarily anthropogenic and is the cause of an increase in global temperatures. He replied, "Five."

This fits with my own anecedotal experience, asking the same question of about a dozen top atmospheres people, over the years. But the smoking gun, again, is the "dog that hasn't barked in the night." Despite publicly bruited offers of jobs, publicity and lavish rewards from fossil fuel companies and neoconservative media, very few qualified experts in climate have stepped forward to object to the overall consensus on AGW, and those have couched their doubts very specifically, so as to be almost useless to the Denial Community.

the young guns of science

We cannot say too often that, just because nearly all of experts are in consensus, their paradigm might still turn out to be wrong. Still, the Skeptic admits this is rare in science history. Moreover, a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of experts are wrong. That burden is a moral, as well as intellectual geas.

The Denier, in contrast, cares little about the history of science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young Guns in any scientific field — the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors — are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel laureates and make a rep for themselves, in a manner much like Billy the Kid. (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)

This is a crucial point: For the core Denier-narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most... but every last one of them. Only that can explain why none of them have "come out." Especially given that Exxon and Fox News offer lavish rewards for any that do.

One Denier narrative claims that the experts are corrupted by "millions pouring into green technologies"... without showing how a space probe researcher, studying Venus at JPL, profits from a contract going to a windmill manufacturer in Copenhagen. But we'll return to conspiracy theories in a bit.

No, I am not proclaiming that all young scientists are noble, brave, insightful and incorruptible. On average, most scientists are propelled by adventure, curiosity and macho-competitive guts, but I've known plenty who weren't. Nevertheless, after working with folks in dozens of scientific fields, I know that the best of the Young Guns have the knowledge, tools and ambition to start screaming when they spot "holes in the consensus." If all the post-docs and junior-tenureds in atmospheric studies have timidly laid down — and this has also silenced experts in related fields like meteorology — then this is the first time it happened in any large scale field of science. Their acceptance of the AGW model means something.

Still, one is drawn to imagine why a Denier can imagine that all the Young Guns are either cowed by authority figures or suborned by greed for measly five figure grants... perhaps because that is the way things work in the Denier's own field? It is a natural human mistake, to assume that others are like yourself. Nevertheless, it remains a mistake.

The Skeptic takes the absence of Young Gun dissenters into account, adding it to the burden of proof borne by the other side.

who are the more likely conspirators?

Alas, still fizzing with questions, the Skeptic hasn't finished "admitting things" yet, in order to have her curiosity taken seriously. For example, she openly admits who the chief beneficiaries of the current status quo are: those who spent two decades delaying energy efficiency research and urging us to guzzle carbon fuels like mad. But let's have it out, in the open.

The guys who benefit from keeping us on the oil-teat are... foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon. That is where the money flows.

Our Skeptic admits that these fellows have Trillions (with a T) staked on preserving things as they are — on preventing America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence. He admits that a conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems more plausible than some convoluted cabal to "push green technologies" — a supposed conspiracy involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.

Though a comparison of relative plausibility doesn't prove anything, it does illuminate the starkly uneven way that paranoia is allocated in the Denier Movement.

the tobacco connection

While looking at this aspect of things, consider some eerie parallels in methodology with the Great Big War over Tobacco. Some of the very same consulting groups who formulated Big Tobacco's "deny, delay, and obfuscate" strategy — providing that industry with nearly four decades in which to adjust to growing societal awareness of its problems — are working on the Climate and Energy Denial Front today, with precisely the same agenda. As one analyst recently put it:

"I think that the main driver for this movement is that when you compare the US economy 'before' and 'after' acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant differences will be the value of owning particular stocks. It's impossible to dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping through the floor. But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries.

"This strategy became especially crucial for them, when their earlier gambit — investing Social Security trust funds in the stock market — fell through. This would have allowed brokers to unload half a trillion dollars in failing assets on millions of naive new stockholders. We now know retirees would have lost hundreds of billions."

This parallel with Big Tobacco is creepy in the short term, but in the longer view it actually gets puzzling. Because in the end, the tobacco industry faced severe public ire and prodigious liability judgments as punishment for these very tactics. Judgments that they escaped only through fast-footed political maneuvering. This raises a fundamental issue:

If the Denier Movement's knowing and deliberate obstruction of climate remediation can be plausibly shown to have contributed toward vast losses of real and intangible property and the displacement of millions of refugees, will the top-most Deniers then be liable for damages, under common and tort law, as well as precedents set by the tobacco judgments?

This appears to not have been discussed anywhere that I know of. But neither was the possibility of tort penalties against Big Tobacco, back when the cancer findings were new. The relevance to our Skeptic/Denier distinction becomes crucial:

Those who merely ask scientific questions while simultaneously helping push for energy independence will be safe enough. Differences of opinion over science won't be actionable, whichever side proves right.

On the other hand, those who directly and deliberately obstructed reasonable precautions and progress toward efficiency may face an angry and litigious world, if the expert forecasts prove to have been right, all along. Preventing action that, upon expert advice, might have staunched or curtailed harm, is legally culpable.

Are they so very sure that they will be able to control politics and the courts next time the chickens come home to roost? In effect, the topmost promoters of Denialism are betting everything they own that they will.

the "1% precautionary" principle

Shifting from a legalistic to a polemical point — denialism demands that "no rash measures should be taken, until there is proof of danger." That paraphrasing sums up the reasonable-sounding surface premise.

The "rash measures" to which they point are typically draconian carbon taxes, slapped as a burden across the entire economy. If one assumes that the world and American economies would be severely affected by such taxes, then the picture is of a zero sum game, a tradeoff between two grievous harms. And since the harm wrought by taxation is considered concrete and that from climate change is still abstractly nebulous, any shift to concerted AGW remediation requires extreme justification. In other words, this reasoning alone shifts the burden of proof onto the shoulders of those urging action. A burden that — as we have seen — cannot be met even with 99% scientific consensus.

But there are several logical problems with this pillar of the movement. First, economists generally have less than expected fear of diversionary taxes — levies that are applied consistently and predictably, to permanently shift markets over to a new equilibrium position, where costs that had been intangible are now made tangible and where it is deemed in society's interest to encourage a shift to alternate spending. History shows that markets adjust to such alterations of the playing field, so long as consistency is maintained. For example, "sin" taxes on alcohol, and especially tobacco, had the desired social effect of gradually shifting consumer habits, while incorporating many of the formerly intangible costs of smoking into the purchase price. Predicted devastating impacts upon whole farming regions did not materialize, as markets and producers adapted. But this portion of the argument is a bit arcane and complex. It merits a completely separate discussion.

What can be established more compactly is that carbon taxes are an extremum, a worst case bogeyman, especially since the political wing that incorporates Denialism has also blocked almost every other endeavor that might help society move toward efficiency, including even expansions in energy research. Hence, "rashness" has never been the criterion for opposition.

Indeed, were carbon taxes the core villain, conservatives who were otherwise sincere about "energy independence" would have been vigorous in promoting alternative means of remediation. They have not been.

But let's return to the basic matter of Burden of Proof.

A widely-touted notion called the Precautionary Principle holds that some kinds of danger call for preventive action, even if the peril in question has not yet been proved. This principle is not lefty nostrum. It was put forward most insistently by that icon of the neoconservative right, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who explicitly proclaimed the Precautionary Principle, over a matter far less fell and threatening than Human-generated Global Climate Change. According to Cheney's so-called "One-Percent Doctrine": "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."

Cheney went on to state that even aggressively peremptory acts of war, leading to great pain and cost, are justified if there is a small likelihood that greater pain and cost can be averted.

So, how much more compelling is it, to act on AGW, if the potential overall harm to both planet and nation is vastly worse than a couple of dirty bombs? Are we to believe that 99% of the experts are so discredited that there is less than a one-percent chance that continuing to pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic climate change?

Clearly, the Skeptic accepts that some things ought to be done, urgently and with full force of national and public will, even-though and even-while he nurses doubts about the likelihood of the full Global Warming scenario. She does not armwave vaguely against "rash actions," but actively engages in negotiation over which urgent efficiency measures to promote. Even if only as a precaution.

the role of propaganda media

Further, the Skeptic admits something pretty darned creepy and suspicious — that the main "news" outlets pushing the Denier Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls who have benefited from delayed energy independence. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch's debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own other portions.) Because of this, the Climate Skeptic has moved away from getting any of his news or sense of "reality" from propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in "culture war."

The Denier, in contrast, suckles from the Fox-Limbaugh machine. He shrugs off any notion that oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs or Exxon moguls could possibly have any agenda, or ever, ever connive together. They are pure as driven snow... compared to weather and climate scientists. Right.

Elaborating a bit: the Skeptic has noticed that the Denier Movement is directly correlated — with almost perfect predictability — with a particular "side" in America's calamitous, self-destructive Culture War. The same side that includes "Creation Science." The same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles and magical "financial instruments." The same side that promised us "energy independence" then sabotaged every single effort, including all of the energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention to than carbon credits.)

While the Denier sees this association of parallel anti-intellectual movements as a good thing, one that enhances the credibility of Denialism Movement, the Climate Skeptic has the mental courage to be embarrassed by it. Even while remaining a conservative, she is pulling herself away from all that.

(See an accompanying article "A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial" for a concise theory as to what the underlying agenda of the propaganda really is.)

why it's hard to get the scientists to answer

Having admitted all of those things, the Skeptic now feels sufficiently distanced from madmen, oiligarchs and reflex-puppets to express legitimate curiosity about a scientific matter much in the news. Moreover, he knows that this is his perfect right!

We do not live in a society where elites are gods. Not the rich or even scientists. The Skeptic refuses to get caught up in the reflex anti-intellectualism being pushed by the faux-right. But he also knows that amateurs can be smart, and that curiosity was God's greatest gift to man.

Moreover, our Skeptic feels like a smart guy! He's generally pretty well-educated and good in his own field. Above all, he is a free citizen of the greatest and most scientifically advanced republic ever! And so, by gum, having admitted all that stuff (see above), he now wants his curiosity satisfied! He wants the atmospheric experts to answer hard questions about some things that seem contradictory between the data and the model.

Fair enough.

the final milestone

Ah, but there is one more thing our poor Skeptic has to admit, if she truly is honest and ready to start peppering the experts. She needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human.

Furthermore, having tried for twenty years to use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty Denial Movement, these human beings are exhausted people. Their hackles are up. They have very, very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any more of it trying to reason with folks who:

Deny that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas
— then deny human-generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere
— then claim the increase won't affect temperatures
— then claim there is no warming
— while the US Navy is furiously making plans to traverse an "ice-free" arctic!

Claim humans have no role in the warming
— then admit we're causing it
— but claim it's already too late
— and anyway they'll have a longer growing season in Alberta!

Shout that we can't afford efforts to wean ourselves of greenhouse emissions
— even though the things that would address AGW happen to be stuff we should be doing anyway, to gain energy independence, increase productivity, reduce the leverage of hostile petro powers, and a dozen other important things.

Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, can you see how wearing it has been, dealing with a storm of such BS? Can you admit that the professionals and experts may not, at first, be able to distinguish sincere skeptics, like you, from the maniacs who have been chivvying and screaming at them (on puppet-orders from Fox and Riyadh and Moscow) for years?

AGW "Skeptics" like you are saddened to see that many of the scientists are prickly, irritable and sullen about answering an endless stream of rehashed questions, only a few of which aren't blatant nonsense. (Some have even resorted to less-than-professional tactics.) But you Skeptics — the smart and honest ones — understand what's happened. And so, you'll cooperate about helping the experts feel safe to come out and share what they know. And maybe then they will answer some of the Skeptics' inconvenient questions.

so what's a sincere and enlightened skeptic to do?

This is when the honest Climate Skeptic recites what I suggested earlier: "Okay, I'll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, prevent ocean acidification, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. If I don't like one proposed way to achieve this, then I will negotiate in good faith other methods that can help us to achieve all these things, decisively, without further delay and with urgent speed.

"Further, I accept that 'waste-not, want not' and 'a-penny-saved, a-penny-earned' and 'cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness' and 'genuine market competition' used to be good conservative attitudes. But the "side" that has been pushing the Denial Movement — propelled by petro-princes, Russsian oligarchs and Exxon — hasn't any credibility on the issue of weaning America off wasteful habits. In fact, it's not conservatism at all!

"And so, for those reasons alone, let's join together to make a big and genuine push for efficiency.

"Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in Human-caused Global Climate Change! But if I am wrong, these measures would help deal with that too.

"So there, are you happy, you blue-smartypants-eco-science types? Are you satisfied that I am a sincere Climate Skeptic and not one of the drivel-parroting Deniers? Now can some of your atmospheric scientists put on an extended teach-in and answer some inconvenient questions? (Oh, and thanks for the vastly improved weather reports; they show you're smart enough to be able to explain these things to a humble-but-curious fellow citizen like me.)"

As I said earlier, when I meet a conservative AGW skeptic who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheric scientists I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

But alas, such genuine "skeptics" are rare.

is it all for nothing?

Have I wasted my time, here? Because, while the species of sincere, conservative-but-rational AGW Skeptics does exist (I know several, and kind-of qualify as one, myself), they turn out to be rare. For the most part, those calling themselves "climate skeptics" are nothing but fully-imbibed Denialists, who wallow in anecdotes and faux-partyline talking points, participating in something that is far more insidious and devastating to our civilization than mere Energy Company Propaganda.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the real purpose of it all may be to undermine the very notion of expertise in our civilization, leaving no strong force to challenge any ruling elite. But whatever the underlying purpose, one result is clear: Tens of thousands of Denialists egotistically assume that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-rage opinion entitles them to howl "corrupt fools!" at the men and women who have actually studied and are confronting this important topic.

Historian Arnold Toynbee — one of the greatest of all experts on the rise and fall of civilizations — when asked what critical mistake seemed most often to lead to a collapse said "failure to support and believe in the society's creative minority."

In our own technological, enlightenment nation and civilization, that creative minority, in large part, is one of science. We do not have to worship their feet, or obey blindly. But we'll be fools, treading the downhill slope followed by Babylon and Rome, if we despise them.


Skeptics versus Deniers

about this article

"Skeptics versus Deniers: Creating a Climate of 'No!'" (published in full here) was originally published in Skeptic Magazine under the title "Climate Skeptics v. Climate Deniers."

Copyright © 2010 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

An Inconvenient Truth (film #ad)

David Brin, "Ostrich Politics: Can We Break the Denial-Denunciate Cycle?"

David Brin, "Perspectives and Responses to the Ritualization of Climate Change Denial"

David Brin, "Some Notes About Calamity . . . and Opportunity"

David Brin, "The Value — and Empowerment — of Common Citizens in an Age of Danger"

David Brin, "A War on Expertise: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change Denial"

Michael Le Page, "Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed"

Fred Pearce, "The Ice Age that Never Was"

Zachary Shahan, "10 Huge Lessons We've Learned from Solar Power Success in Germany"

after the levee breaks

letting others have their say

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth

Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, The Upcycle

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?


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