“Deniers” vs “Skeptics”

Many who call themselves “skeptics” rail at the label denialist or denier when applied to climate science, or Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Some make the specious claim that the label is a deliberate reference to Holocaust Denialism when I and others who use the term never had any intention to make the link. I believe they do so because it allows them to wear a mantle of martyr, but hey, feel free. If that’s what you want to be…

When it comes to climate denial, I think there are few legitimate skeptics remaining and ample reason that it so. That said, an honest skeptic is known by their questions and answers. They have a role to play in keeping the debate focused, but as I say, there are few honest skeptics remaining. Instead, most of those who call themselves “skeptics” at this point in time and who parrot the arguments of denialism are, for all intents and purposes, denialists.  Sorry, folks but there comes a point in time when to reject is to deny, no matter what your intentions. When you reject the findings of a science that has such overwhelming evidence backing it, you are a denialist. In this case, at this time, “skeptic = denialist”.

Speaking of denialism, I was reading over at Keith Kloor’s place as a result of a link there that Willard posted and came across this discussion by David Brin, noted SF author (a favourite of mine BTW). I have the article in Skeptic and wanted to post his comment for discussion:

“The denier movement pretends to be about asking honest questions about a scientific matter that is both complex and *possibly* fraught with systematic errors.  I believe that honest skeptics can play an important role there.  But denialism is ALSO about preventing the community consensus in atmospheric science from affecting public policy. “

Yes! This is what the famous tobacco memo noted — “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” The goal of denialism, whether about tobacco or climate, is to create an atmosphere of doubt around the scientific consensus.

The tobacco industry knew that the scientific community of the time was in agreement, that a consensus existed, that cigarette smoke caused cancer / second hand smoke was also a carcinogen. They wanted to delay policy action — temporarily or indefinitely — and the only way to do so was to affect public opinion, because that is primarily what our political system responds to, on a four year cycle.

From that memo:

In thinking over what we might do to improve the case for cigarettes, I have looked at the problem somewhat like the marketing of a new brand. Here is a chart where I have defined the basic marketing elements which I see in the smoking and health problem. Our consumer I have defined as the mass public, our product as doubt, our message as truth — well stated, and our competition as the body of anti-cigarette fact that exists in the public mind. We have chosen the mass public as our consumer for several reasons: – This is where the misinformation about smoking and health has been focused. – The Congress and federal agencies are already being dealt with–and perhaps as effectively as possible–by the Tobacco Institute. – It is a group with little exposure to the positive side of smoking and health. – It is the prime force in influencing Congress and federal agencies–without public support little effort would be given to a crusade against cigarettes.

If the tobacco deniers could influence public opinion enough by raising doubts about the scientific consensus, they could prevent policy action. We know they were largely successful through a variety of mechanisms, including publishing bogus science, finding corrupt scientists to write bogus science for them, bogus front organizations, and other tactics.

This is what the climate science deniers have learned from — in fact, many of the same groups or individuals have been involved in both denial campaigns. Fred Singer is the prime example, but there have been others, politicians and media organizations included.

The goal is to attack the legitimate scientific consensus in order to create the misperception amongst the public that the science is not settled — that there are two sides to the story, and that it is all too uncertain to act.

The “uncertainty monster” as Judith Curry calls it, is played up by the deniers and their lackeys in the dupe group who unwittingly do their bidding.

Here’s Curry:

Climate science, and particularly assessments of climate science such as the IPCC, needs to do a much better job of characterizing and reasoning about uncertainty.  The events of the past year that have challenged the credibility of climate scienceare symptoms of an enraged uncertainty monster.

Here’s Curry again, in a post titled “Lies, Damned Lies and Science” in which she throws out some bones for her denialst followers to chew. Of course, all manner of insanity follows, but does Curry step in and actually show some reason and logic? No. She links to an article on WUWT, featuring Terence Kealey on Climategate.

Here’s an excerpt:

To conclude, therefore, scientists are not disinterested, they are interested, and as a consequence science is not dispassionate or fully transparent, rather it is human and partially arcane. As I argue elsewhere, science is not the public good of modern myth, it is a collegiate and quasi-private or invisible college good.4 That means, by the way, that it requires no public subsidies. More relevantly, it means that individual scientist’s pronouncements should be seen more as advertisements than as definitive.

Peer review, too, is merely a mechanism by which scientists keep a collective control over access to their quasi-private enterprise. One the e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia included this from Professor Phil Jones, referring to two papers that apparently falsified his work:- “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

So what? Climategate tells us no more than the philosophers of science have long told us about research, and the public should be less naive.

Kealey, FYI, had the audacity to write this tripe in an essay on the seven deadly sins of the academy, in a section on lust:

The fault lies with the females. The myth is that an affair between a student and her academic lover represents an abuse of his power. What power? Thanks to the accountability imposed by the Quality Assurance Agency and other intrusive bodies, the days are gone when a scholar could trade sex for upgrades. I know of two girls who, in 1982, got firsts in biochemistry from a south-coast university in exchange for favours to a professor, but I know of no later scandals.

But girls fantasise. This was encapsulated by Beverly in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, who forces herself on to JoJo, the campus sports star, with the explanation that “all girls want sex with heroes”. On an English campus, academics can be heroes.

Normal girls – more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos – will abjure their lecturers for the company of their peers, but nonetheless, most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do?

Enjoy her! She’s a perk. She doesn’t yet know that you are only Casaubon to her Dorothea, Howard Kirk to her Felicity Phee, and she will flaunt you her curves. Which you should admire daily to spice up your sex, nightly, with the wife.

Kealey appears quite … titilated by his own imaginings about the morals and ethics of others, whether fellow academics or climate scientists.

Because she focuses on uncertainty rather than the preponderance of evidence supporting global warming, I label Curry a “climate denial dupe”. Do I think she’s in the pocket of big oil? No. Do I think she’s a raging libertarian out to prevent climate policy in order to preserve the purity of the free market? No. Do I think she denies global warming? No. I think she’s enraptured with the notion that she is like Pielke’s “honest broker” between “the public” and “skeptics” and “climate scientists”. We know what a broker does — usually, they make money for themselves, first and foremost. Her motive appears to be personal. It’s about identity.

Regardless of the reasons for Curry’s folly, a climate science denier, whether direct or dupe,  is one who takes the uncertainty that does legitimately and inevitably exist in the science and magnify it all out of proportion in order to cast doubt on the science and delay or stop the development of policy. That’s the sign of a denier and his / her lackeys — trumpeting the uncertainty and showcasing it instead of the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus among those experts who are in the position to judge.

Here’s more from Brin:

They insist on a burden of proof that 99%+ of skilled experts in a field are insufficient – and yet a slim majority of science-illiterate politicians (during the Bush Era) and now a 40% *minority* of science-clueless politicians – should have absolute power to ignore the best scientific advice of the era.

This legerdemain and sleight of hand over burden of proof is dismal, ignorant, dishonest and purely a product of left-right fixated ideology.  By any standard of logic –

1) the burden of proof falls upon those dissenting from the current standard model, especially when the percentage of experts hewing to the SM is in the high 90s and when that field has a recent track record of being very very very very smart. (Atmospheric studies of far planets, correlating perfectly with weather models that have improved reliability from three hours to four days(!) in just a generation.

Here we get back to the science-policy nexus and what role science has in the development of policy. The ideal is that, when there is a scientific consensus about the danagers of something — be it tobacco, anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, or environmental toxins and carcinogens — policy is made based on the science findings in order to protect the public interest.

One would think that this makes sense. After all,  if science is our best means to understand the world in the most objective way possible, and if science says X, policy should respond to X in order to mitigate the danger and reduce harm.

Why else do we have government but to serve our — the public’s — interest?

Of course, this isn’t the way it works in the real world. That’s the fantasy world we wish we lived in. I hate being so jaded, but there you have it.

In reality, policy is made by policy makers who are concerned primarily with getting and keeping power. In our current systems, they are open to corruption on both fronts — the getting and the keeping. They are open to the lobbying and financial support during elections and they are open to lobbying and financial support during their term between elections.

As we know, it costs lots of money to win a seat in Congress or the Senate. Here’s one estimate from 1996, which is vastly out of date: between $500,000 (Congress) to $4,600,000 (Senate). Once you have power, especially given the high cost of getting elected in the first place, you want to keep it. That means keeping your constituents happy and your political donors willing to fund your re-election campaign. You won’t, if you’re smart, do anything to screw things up, like pissing off the donors and voters. Hence, public polling is big business and a major concern for most politicians. Sure, many politicians aren’t too smart and get kicked out of office, but surprisingly few do. Congressional stagnation means that only about 5-10% of elected officials are kicked out of power each cycle.

Seriously, there is no use in getting power only to lose it so the underlying unfailing logic of our political system is for those with political aspirations to get and then keep power. So, gauging the public pulse is key and if the public is fundamentally against a policy decision — enough to get you kicked out of power — the rational politician thinks twice. If your major donors are against a policy development, you should better think twice about it. If the voters are against a policy decision — or at least, are divided — you can safely ignore the issue. And if all else fails, you can spin your wheels and study the matter endlessly in order to stall.

Thus, the goal of those interested in preventing public policy from being developed, who know that the science is “settled” or the consensus exists, is to attack that consensus, to deny the science is settled and to raise enough doubt that the public is confounded and there is then politically legitimate reason not to act.

Here’s Brin:

2) When the precautionary principal shows us a genuine (if as-yet unproved) chance of catastrophic risk, prudent measures are called for before the risk is “proved.”  Yes, there can be arguments over other tradeoffs like economic impact.  But when the denier side was responsible for (a) catastrophically bad economic management and an economic theory (supply side) that always and universally failed, and (b) deliberate obstruction of ANY climate palliation measures, even basic research…

…then that side merits very little credibility under our present conditions.

A typical cry of the deniers and the so-called skeptics who dally with them is that the science is too unsettled to follow the precautionary principle. In fact, they go so far as to question the validity of the precautionary principle, claiming it is the brainchild of leftist environmentalists with a political agenda.

Sigh. How can you debate with these people? People who reject the lessons of history and the advances of science?

Finally, from Brin:

3) Since most (admittedly not all) climate palliation measures are blatantly “things we ought to do anyway”  (TWODA), in order to seek economic success, reduce dependence upon foreign petro-lords, dominate new industries and make a safer world, this obstructionism is especially nonsensical.  Indeed, this is the smoking gun proof that koolaid-drinking deniers are parroting talking points from a conniving oligarchy that is spreading sedition purely for personal benefit.  Those who dance under such marionette strings may not be directly culpable.  But neither do we have to give credibility to puppets.“[my emphasis]

Try to argue this with deniers, whether outright deniers with direct financial interests or their unwitting dupes, and you might as well bash your head against a brick wall. When you try, you come up against the concrete wall of “unthinking libertarianism” – the kind you get from reading Ayn Rand novels in your teens. These folks don’t want “us” to do “anything” in any organized way, so suspicious and paranoid are they about “we the people” and our “government”.

Like I say, how can you argue with these people?  Just reading over at Climate Etc., WUWT and CA makes this poor brain hurt.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

15 Responses to ““Deniers” vs “Skeptics””

  1. Oh God, my brain hurts. WTF is wrong with these people!?

    Call a spade a spade. They are in denial about AGW/ACC, no need to invoke the atrocities of time past.

    Thabo Mbeki was (is?) in denial about HIV/AIDS.
    Lindzen is in denial about the dangerous affects of smoking on one’s health, and that the planet will warm by about 2-5 C for doubling CO2 (including long-term feedbacks).
    Spencer and McKitrick are in denial about evolution– more than a little awkward when talking about climate change and paleo climate.
    Watts and Morano are in denial about, well everything pertaining to AGW/ACC really.
    McIntyre is in denial that the HS-like reconstructions have survived his repeated attacks.

  2. Awesome post, shewonk. Thanks for reminding me about that Brin post. I really enjoyed it the first time around.

    MapleLeaf: McKitrick doesn’t accept evolution? I knew that Spencer was a (young Earth?) creationist, but not McKitrick. Are you sure about this?

    • Pointer,

      You might be right. I retract until McKitrick or someone else can confirm. He does certainly fit the profile:


      • Does this count?

        A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming

        According to the ExxonSecrets website:

        The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance is a coalition of religious leaders, clergy, theologians, scientists, academics, and other policy experts committed to bringing a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development. The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship forms the guiding philosophy of the ISA. As part of its recently launched “Cornwall Network,” the coalition is working with numerous churches, educational institutions, and other entities around the world to promote the principles of the Cornwall Declaration on these critical public policy issues.

        Here is a quote form the Cornwall Alliance website


        Amid mounting controversies among some evangelical Christians over the actual causes of global warming and what constitutes responsible environmental policy, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance announced today at the National Press Club an expanded program of outreach and education, as well as a new name for the organization to better reflect its principles and purpose.

        Now known as the “Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation,” the more vigorous and newly streamlined organization will continue to bring a responsible and balanced Biblical view of the earth’s stewardship to critical issues of environment and economic development. Also, through the “Cornwall Stewardship Agenda,” now under development, the reconfigured coalition will work more aggressively with churches, educational institutions, and other entities worldwide to promote the important principles of the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship.

        That Declaration is an authoritative document put forward in 2000 that has been signed by approximately 1,500 clergy, theologians, religious leaders and other people of faith. It has come to be viewed as one of the most significant expressions of belief about religion and the environment in modern times. “The Cornwall Alliance is organized and built around the principles of the Cornwall Declaration, and the new name is designed to reflect that,” explained Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, and the Alliance’s national spokesman. “The new name also brings in the very significant concept of the ‘stewardship of Creation’ which recognizes that God created this world with great wisdom and power, and has entrusted those made in His image, men and women, to exercise faithful stewardship over it,” he added.

        Beisner is co-author of “A Call to Truth, Prudence and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming.” That paper calls for climate policies that will better protect the world’s poor and promote economic development and has been endorsed by over 150 leaders drawn from the religious and scientific community. The paper presents evidence that mandatory carbon-emissions reductions to mitigate global warming would “not only fail to achieve that end but would also have the unintended consequence of serious harm to the world’s poor, delaying for decades or generations their rise from poverty and its attendant high rates of disease and premature death.”

        The alliance also announced the formation of a Cornwall Stewardship Agenda task force designed to take the broad Biblical principles of the Cornwall Declaration and translate them into specific public-policy recommendations. The first two areas the task force will undertake are those of “poverty and development” and “climate and energy.” The task force will be cochaired by Dr. Stephen Livesay, president of Bryan College, and Dr. Barrett Duke, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

        Here’s more:


        We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

        We believe abundant, affordable energy is indispensable to human flourishing, particularly to societies which are rising out of abject poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that accompany it. With present technologies, fossil and nuclear fuels are indispensable if energy is to be abundant and affordable.

        We believe mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, achievable mainly by greatly reduced use of fossil fuels, will greatly increase the price of energy and harm economies.

        We believe such policies will harm the poor more than others because the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on energy and desperately need economic growth to rise out of poverty and overcome its miseries.

        WHAT WE DENY

        We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

        We deny that alternative, renewable fuels can, with present or near-term technology, replace fossil and nuclear fuels, either wholly or in significant part, to provide the abundant, affordable energy necessary to sustain prosperous economies or overcome poverty.

        We deny that carbon dioxide—essential to all plant growth—is a pollutant. Reducing greenhouse gases cannot achieve significant reductions in future global temperatures, and the costs of the policies would far exceed the benefits.

        We deny that such policies, which amount to a regressive tax, comply with the Biblical requirement of protecting the poor from harm and oppression.

        Denialists. Using religion to deny. So what if they believe the earth is 6,000 or 6 billion years old?

        • Aha, intelligent design it is then.

          Thanks for the sleuthing SheWonk.

          • The most interesting quote from that PDF is on page 23…

            Therefore we pledge to oppose quixotic attempts to reduce global warming.

            Authored by Spencer, McKitrick, Driessen and Beisner. Who’d have thought it…

            • Ah, but J Bowers, that statement still allows them “plausible denial”. They just call any proposals “quixotic”, whenever the scientific evidence even for them gets too strong to continue denial. Result is the same: delay, delay, delay.

  3. I wasted yesterday trying to engage with that bunch. I vouch for what you say.

    Any attempt to be reasonable or acknowledge the points of the opposition is met with further attack. They are worked into a frenzy like rabid dogs. (OK, like what rabid dogs act like on TV and in bad movies; what would I know about rabid dogs?) With a few exceptions, their pleas for reason and engagement are belied by their contempt for the attempt.


    • Michael,

      A while back I received a veiled threat at JC’s from a charming character called ‘Raving after I pushed JC hard for some straight answers. They are indeed a rabid bunch, who are not interested in facts, but conspiracies and rhetoric and innuendo. And if they really get mad– they resort to threats.

      I agree that sane and reasonable voices like you are wasting their time there– although I guess it is important that you tried.

    • I felt bad that I just wasted upwards of an hour reading the comments over there. I can’t imagine an entire day spent on such discussions. Sorry you won’t get that time back.
      I honestly can’t imagine ever having a productive discussion with some of the participants over there. They ask you to demonstrate, from the ground up, seemingly every aspect of climate science and physics with every opinion you express. I suppose it’s a fun tactic for them, but an entirely useless exercise designed only to frustrate and discourage actual thoughtful dialogue and a way forward. That actually seems to be the entire point of JC’s blog.
      Your efforts are appreciated, regardless of their productivity. I find much value in your comments and your site.

      • It’s frustrating but keep in mind that denialism is my focus and so it helps to see what’s up at the contrarian/skeptic/denialist blogs and what the commenters are saying. I much prefer reading about science than reading science denialism and the pseudoscience that is spouted on those blogs but seriously, you have to know your enemy as Sun Tzu once opined.

  4. Something unearthed by Hank Roberts over at Real Climate is Pat MIchael’s reaction to the news that 2010 was a very warm year:

    Not so fast, says Pat Michaels, a climatologist with the Cato Institute in Washington. “If you draw a trend line from the data, it’s pretty flat from the 1990s. We don’t see much of a warming trend over the past 12 years.

    So “no warming since 1998, therefore climate science is a fraud” has become “not much warming since 1998, therefore climate science is a fraud”?

    It’s a bit laughable, isn’t it?

    Will it become “a whole lot of warming, therefore climate science is a fraud” a decade from now? 🙂

    • The goalposts will keep moving — soon, it will be “It’s not yet as hot as the PETM so what’s the big deal?”

    • Pat Michaels tried to warn his fellow-skeptics last year this would happen, as can be seen here and here (love that ‘woops’ at the end) and here (all fragments from one ‘1998 revisited’ of Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week-series).

      It’s a bit like that Mosher advice we discussed the other day.

  5. It’s a bit like that Mosher advice we discussed the other day.

    Yes, in that first clip, at least, he’s making a very political argument … “don’t argue something that’s so easily shot down, we’ll all just lose …” (paraphrase).

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