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Global warming denialism, part 3: The difference between skeptics and denialists

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One of the most pernicious aspects of the global warming conspiracy theorists who imply that millions of scientists, politicians, pundits, and activists are in collusion to perpetrate a global warming hoax is the way they call themselves “skeptics”. Even How To Talk To A Climate Skeptic uses this term, reinforcing the idea idea that global warming denialism has any relationship to skepticism. Why is this so damaging? Well, even though “skeptic” isn’t exactly the most popular thing in the world to be, it does imply rationality that denialists don’t actually have. We need to stop calling them “skeptics” and use the more accurate term “denialist”.

Let’s get into definitions. What is a denialist? Denialists are a very specific form of conspiracy theorist. Some conspiracy theories argue the Freemasons control the world, that Bush was behind 9/11, or that there was a plot to kill JFK. They create alternative readings of history that satisfy their allergy to the chaotic form real systems take. Denialists, however, are more interested in taking those things that are established science or history, and denying their reality or importance. They often have ulterior political motives, but sometimes they just deny because reality makes them feel small or dependent or helpless. There are a lot of denialists:

*Holocaust deniers, who promote the idea that the Holocaust was a hoax. They either flat-out deny it, or, more commonly, they try to say it wasn’t as bad as history would have you believe.
*Anti-vaxxers, who promote the idea that the great public health innovation of the modern world is actually more dangerous than helpful.
*Moon landing nutters, who deny that the U.S. put a man on the moon, and claim it was staged.
*Creationists, who deny the theory of evolution.
*HIV denialists, who deny that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, which is related to conspiracy theories about how the government is behind AIDS.

I’d probably toss in anti-feminists who deny that domestic violence and rape are significant social problems, as well. Denialists are a particularly toxic group of conspiracy theorist nutters, because they pass themselves off as skeptics. In his book Voodoo Histories, David Aaronovitch explains how denialists wear the sheep’s clothing of skeptics in order to seem reasonable, instead of being the paranoids promoting unbelievable conspiracy theories that they are:

Since 2001, a primary technique employed by more respectable conspiracists has been the advocation of the “It’s not a theory” theory. The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth, and the reader is supposedly left to make up his or her mind. The questions asked, of course, only make sense if the questioner really believes there is a secret conspiracy.

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You see this a lot with global warming denialists. They think this quote mined email here or this fishy story about a fraudulent study there is a “disturbing question”, but all they’re really doing is saying, “There’s a vast worldwide conspiracy to perpetuate this hoax, though I can’t come right out and say that without revealing that I’m a conspiracist.” You can tell they’re more devoted to their conspiracy theory than getting to the bottom of things, because they ignore it when their “questions” are answered. If they really cared about being satisfied, when their questions were answered, they would immediately drop their “skepticism” and realize that global warming is real. Their questions are also often based on incorrect premises. For instance, denialists have “questions” about the “hockey stick“. Setting aside the fact that the “questions” have been answered, and they’re ignoring the answers, the main assumption they’re working under—that one study out of hundreds being flawed brings the whole thing down—is simply wrong. Science doesn’t work that way. We’re not talking about the theory that the Bible is infallible, which is something that falls apart the first contradiction you find in the Bible. Science works on the accumulation of data to point us in a direction, not received wisdom.

Calibrating historical weather trends is tricky stuff, and there are different conclusions from different measurements. But taken together, they all show a single, compelling trend: global warming.

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Global warming denialists are using exactly the same technique as creationists: zeroing in on relatively minor, technical, inside baseball disagreements about exact data to create confusion with the public that doesn’t understand science. But that this scientist disagrees with that one about how a specific species evolved doesn’t mean the theory of evolution isn’t substantive. That one scientist disagrees with another about how a specific neuron in the brain works doesn’t disprove the theory that our brains are the center of our nervous system. The same is true of climate science.

What is a skeptic, and why aren’t denialists skeptics?

Skeptics also ask questions, but a big difference between skeptics and denialists is that skeptics listen to answers and regard evidence as paramount. Denialists tend to see the piles of evidence against their claim, and see a conspiracy theory to perpetuate a hoax. But skeptics accept good evidence. Skeptics have a lot of respect for science, and denialists are usually out to undermine scientists working in the field where they have an agenda. Denialists will wear the costume of scientific thinking, but they usually show a piss-poor understanding how how the accumulation of studies and data work. (For instance, they promote the idea that if one study can be found to be flawed, this brings down the whole theory, as if the other hundreds of studies don’t count.)

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This distinction is really important, because the role of skeptics is to dispute and even disprove outrageous conspiracy theory claims. Skeptics fight against denialists. That’s why I’m interested in skepticism—I fear that there’s a surge of denialist thinking in our culture fueled by new media (which is great at a lot of good things, but also good at spreading misinformation) and the explosion in both complications in world politics and the everyday person’s awareness of them. As science begins to dictate more and more of what we know, there’s also a cultural backlash that’s related to the overall backlash against modernism. Skepticism is becoming more and more important as the political troops to defend science. So when people who are part of the anti-science backlash call themselves “skeptics”, this confuses the issue.

Are there members of the skeptical community who are global warming denialists?

Sadly, yes. It doesn’t really make sense, initially, but what’s happened is that organized skepticism draws a lot from sci-fi geeks and magic aficionados who get into skepticism because they loathe people pass themselves off as psychics or magicians who pretend they really have magic power. Also, Ayn Rand fans often embrace her atheism, and atheists activists and skeptics have a lot of overlap. In other words, libertarians are way overrepresented in the community. Think Penn and Teller. And while libertarians have ridiculous political ideas, that’s seemed not to be a big deal when they were out working to expose the lies of psychics and homeopaths.

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But now the skeptical movement is paying in a big way for their willingness to overlook some of the kooky beliefs of libertarians, because it’s become internally a political nightmare to organize in support of climate science. Libertarians pitch a fit. And they’re impossible to deal with, because their own beliefs that they are critical thinkers are causing them to fail to see that they’re denialists when it comes to global warming, engaging in the same illogical, fallacy-laden arguments that “evolution skeptics”, i.e. creationists use. When I was at TAM, I was really sad to see that people who pride themselves on no-bullshit-ness were tip-toeing around global warming denialist bullshit for fear of pissing off libertarians and losing allies. It’s a shame to see, because it really blows a hole in the skeptical movement’s efforts to really become the political voice supporting science, even as they’re doing good work fighting anti-vaxxers and creationists.

The problem is that global warming presents a much, much, much bigger threat than people passing themselves off as homeopaths. There’s a great website that chronicles the harm created by kooks and cranks of every persuasion, but global warming denialists are left off it, even though the potential body count from their conspiracy theory goes well into the millions, easily. Every day that Americans cultivate global warming denialism is a day where the progress towards reform that can limit or even reverse the damage is stymied, and a day closer to the social fallout from increasingly erratic weather. The skeptical movement is limiting itself and its impact by coddling libertarians peddling kooky global warming denialist theories, and the sooner they’re pushed out, I’m afraid the better skepticism will be.


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