For some time I’ve been giving thought to why the climate denial machine is so effective in shaping public perception. We can attribute their success to many things:
- The funding of think tanks by companies such as Exxon and Koch industries
- The hallmarks of delusional thinking
- Science illiteracy amongst the general community
These points are well summed up at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego (via ABC Science Show, and hat tip to Deltoid):
Conservative think-tanks, obviously with corporate support that we’ll hear about, have greatly amplified the work of contrarian scientists. They’ve recently been joined by conservative media, Limbaugh, Fox, conservative politicians, Inhofe, most Republicans these days with the exception of Lindsey Graham, and especially the blogosphere in waging an all-out war in climate change science. We can add undermining climate change policy to the policy impacts that we started out with of conservative think-tanks
I’d strongly recommend you read or listen to this one, as the various speakers make some great points.
To all of the above, I agree. However that still does not explain “why” the climate sceptics message cuts through good science.
Punking the science: don’t explain, entertain
Bags of money and the support of right wing think tanks is not enough to guarantee success: it certainly helps, but not all public relations campaigns are successful. What the denial movement has perfected is the art of entertaining, bypassing most peoples rational or critical thinking abilities and going straight for the funny bone (or appealing to their emotions).
The recent article about one of the movement’s key figures, Mark Morano, in Esquire magazine confirmed a number of my suspicions.
Firstly, it helps address the question of why the denial movement has been so successful in shaping opinion: they don’t explain, they entertain.
Reading the article I couldn’t but help notice how much enjoyment the major figures in the denial movement get from “punking science”:
Morano has fun with it too, using goofy illustrations like a cartoon hand hammering a nail into a coffin and a Scooby Doo villain getting his mask pulled off. People tell him this is too childish for a publication that affects global policy, but it’s part of his vision for his Web site — climate entertainment, he calls it.
And suddenly it’s old-home week. Here’s the famous Steve Milloy, who turns out to be a youthful guy with a bulldog chest and an air of permanent irony. “He’s the godfather,” Morano says.
Milloy laughs: hahahaha. He has a very distinctive laugh, flat and braying. “We’ve got an event tomorrow,” he says. “We’re constructing a wall, the Copenhagen Wall, like the Berlin Wall that divided the free from the slave.”
The idea is a ten-foot cardboard wall with a picture of a modern city on one side and a primitive one on the other. To illustrate the injustice of rich nations telling poor ones to control their carbon emissions, the college kids are going to spray-paint CO2 = Life across it, Hahahahaha.
He pushes a key on his laptop and a slide appears on the screen behind him: COPENHAGEN CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS MUST FAIL.
“Let’s play a little game. Who said this? Was it Sarah Palin? Was it Senator Inhofe?”
A familiar voice calls out: “James Hansen, hahahahaha.“
“James Hansen! James Hansen said this conference must fail! So if anyone asks you this week, How can you be against this? say, We stand shoulder to shoulder with NASA’s James Hansen!”
Morano stands at the podium grinning. The joke, of course, is that Hansen opposed the conference because it didn’t go nearly far enough to solve the problem, which is the opposite of Morano’s distorted meaning.
But it’s always clear that he’d rather have fun. This is his genius, especially in a world given to screaming caps and paranoid detail. It’s another way he’s changing the narrative, showing that one side has a sense of humor.
The point is this: entertainment does not have to be factual. We live in an age of Ghost Hunters, The Secret and The Da Vinci code. When the purveyors of misinformation package their lies in slick entertainment vehicles. They tell stories, while science recounts facts. Which approach do you think appeals to our natural instinct for story telling and pattern recognition?
The implications of climate change are frightening: what better way to dispel those fears than have a good laugh? Laughing releases serotonin. It makes you feel better. Climate denial is a happiness pill, designed to make the average person think “It’s OK, really it’s kinda funny. Nothing to worry about. Hahahahahahahahaha”
Punk ethos: DIY and with lots of attitude
This is exactly what the likes of Morano are doing. They are undermining science not by argument, but by “punking scientists”. Combine this disdain for authority with a DIY attitude and you have a powerful combination:
Yes, you can be a scientist! Download that data! Make your own charts! Take down those egg-heads!
The ethos of Punk rock was very much “Do-it-yourself” and a deliberate assault on authority:
“Anyone can pick up a guitar and sing!”
“You don’t need talent as defined by corporate rock-n-roll!”
Punk was about being subversive, cheeky and deliberately provocative. Punks were the ultimate pranksters, which is why in popular parlance to “Get Punked” now means to be tricked. Bringing stuffy authority figures down to the ground is seen as great entertainment.
In addition, part of the attraction for many ordinary “climate sceptics” is the DIY science. To become a practicing scientists, and to speak with any form of authority it takes years of rigorous training. Becoming an expert in any given field is a life long commitment.
“You too can be a cheeky climate denier too!” is the message of the denial movement.
Time to “punk” the climate denial machine
So how do we counter this manufactured “climate punk” movement? Punk them right back. We need a show like “Myth Busters” that takes the DIY attitude and packages it up as entertainment. It helps that the guys over at Myth Busters blow things up.Carefully taking apart their claims is a viable and necessary strategy.
But we also need to poke fun at the absurdity of their conspiracy laden world view and their basic scientific illiteracy:
Andrew Bolt can’t read a map! Hahahahahahahahaha!
We need to entertain as much as explain.
We need to have some fun.