I’ve recently been reading “The Making of the Fittest” by biologist Sean B. Carroll, a fascinating book on the evidence that DNA provides for evolution. For anyone with an interest in science it’s well worth a read.
However, chapter 9 really caught my attention. Titled “Seeing is believing” it details how opponents of science frame their arguments in an attempt to dismiss evidence that contradicts their world view.
Carroll discusses in-depth how the anti-vaccination movement and chiropractors use similar strategies in order to challenge the medical professions consensus on the efficacy of vaccines and the fact that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments. Each movement in their own way wages a “war” against the scientific establishment in order to protect their own ideological position.
He uses these examples as a perfect point of comparisons for the creationist movement.
And so, inspired by Carroll I’ll be introducing a new feature to this blog.
New framework for categorisation: six aspects of denial
I call these strategies the “Six Aspects of Denial”.
These are the most common non-scientific objections to the science of climate change. Actually, I will be so bold as to say these six “aspects” are pretty the only arguments the denial movement has: there is no science that supports their position.
I’ll be this framework to “tag” or categorise the type of arguments used by the denial movement in all future posts. At the end of each post I’ll nominate which aspect of denial I note, and offer a brief explanation. In this I’ll be taking a leaf from the wonderful work that John Cook has done at Skeptical Science. I’m hoping such a framework helps people identify the type of arguments used by the denial movement.
I hope this framework helps people understands the flawed logic behind many of the arguments used by the denial movement.
Six aspects of denial
- Doubt the science – This is the standard tactic of all denial movements. Creationists attack evolution and geology as they contradict the belief a god/s created the world just under 10,000 years ago. Alternative health practitioners claim the science that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of their treatments is at fault. On web sites, in books and on in internet forums they attack the science by cherry picking data, misrepresenting research or making bogus claims.
- Question the motives and integrity of scientists – This is the favourite tactic of the climate change denial movement. They claim the scientists are engaged in fraud, or are being pressured by governments to make up the results. They make up vast conspiracy theories in order to cast aspersions on the motives of climate scientists, physicists and biologists whose work confirms the reality of climate change. They use the “follow the money” argument, stating scientists are making up climate change in order to get research funding. All them are simply ad hominem attacks: playing the man.
- Magnify disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies – Again, one of the favourite tactics of the denial movement. The tiny percentage of actual scientists who express scepticism (Plimer, Lindzen) are dwarfed by the thousands of scientists who agree with the consensus that climate change is happening. But the denial movement exploits the media’s tendency to present “both sides” of the argument and thus help perpetrate the myth scientists are still debating climate change, when in fact there is near unanimous agreement.
- Exaggerate potential harm – This normally takes the form of “harm” the economy if the government intervenes. This is why opposition to cap-and-trade (or emissions trading schemes) are anathema to some parts of the denial movement. They also claim a climate change is an excuse to usher in a “world government” into existence. The denial movement plays up to these fears, playing on the anxiety that they will lose their freedoms (see below).
- Appeal to personal freedom – One of the great fears of the denial movements a loss freedom. Whether economic or political, they have a paranoid fear that someone (government, scientists, greens, politicians) are going to restrict their right to unlimited consumption or their freedom of speech. But reality is not a democracy. We don’t get to choose the truth about climate change, just as a popular debate about evolution decides the scientific evidence. The denial movement loves to frame this as a “debate” when none exists, claiming they have a right to doubt the science. Of course they do. But it does not mean they are correct.
- Acceptance repudiates key philosophy – For libertarians and free market advocates, climate change is a direct challenge to their assumption of unlimited growth. Any response to climate change will involve government intervention and global governance structures (such as a binding treaty to limit CO2 emissions). To such ideologues, it is axiomatic that such responses are “bad”. And yet the “market” can’t fix climate. Caught between having to accepting the science and what it entails and rejecting it in favour of their faith in the market, they reject the science. The same could be said of religious conservatives: like evolution, climate change is a direct challenge to the idea that a god/s has a governance role and is directly responsibly for managing the day-to-day affairs of the world. That a god/s would let climate change happen and not intervene is deeply challenging to the idea that a) they would allow such “evil” and b) the god/s is omnipotent.