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Probing the Psychology of Climate Denial

Probing the Psychology of Climate Denial

America’s weird and weirdly mounting resistance to the science of climate change is a topic of growing alarm around the world. What’s behind it? No clear answers yet, but some interesting new bits of insight are surfacing.

First up, a sharply worded cri de Coeur by Chesapeake Bay-area environmental activist Mike Tidwell that appeared on the op-ed page of the Baltimore Sun just after the Durban climate conference ended in mid-December, looking at the arc of atmospheric warming and the expected impact on human society: “AIDS, poverty, war – none of them will matter if the atmosphere warms by 11 degrees in a century.”

Second, and perhaps most chilling, an investigative piece on the front page of The New York Times the other day, detailing the growing difficulty climate scientists face in studying the phenomenon because of funding cuts and political resistance to the science itself.

Third, a fascinating exploration from 2010 by an Australian philosophy professor, Clive Hamilton, of some psychological and cultural aspects to the politics of science denial. His most eye-opening insight: the way that acceptance or denial of the research becomes part of one’s personal social-political identity, so that examining someone’s voting habits and views on abortion and taxes now serve as safe predictors of their views on climate science and environmental regulation in a way that simply wasn’t true a decade ago. His other stunner: a lengthy comparison of today’s hostility to “liberal science” with the reaction against “Jewish science” touched off in Central Europe in 1920 by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Granted, the idea of psychoanalyzing people who disagree with your opinions smacks of the worst sort of intellectual arrogance, not to say closed-mindedness. In this case, however, we’re not talking about opinion but about scientific fact, and as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.

The fact of human-induced climate change has long since left the realm of opinion; it’s now accepted as established fact by the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists and affirmed by virtually every significant scientific society in America and around the world, from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to the United Nations and the European Union. Rejection of the scientific consensus is usually accompanied by strange accusations like “scientific group-think” (an unintentionally comical slur on scientific consensus).

In a sense, it’s not unlike the anti-science thinking that rejects evolution as a premise for modern science. But anti-evolution thinking stems from an understandable commitment to a religious world view that sees species as divinely crafted. Climate denial has no such underlying logic, so it makes sense to search for some other etiology.

One of the most powerful defenses of scientific consensus in recent times was the landmark 2005 federal district court ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, rejecting what he called the “breathtaking inanity” of a local school board’s decision to require the teaching of so-called intelligent design alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in biology classes. It’s telling in the current instance because, unlike climate denial, “intelligent design” may be said to have a reasonable defense in the right of its advocates to their religious views. Moreover, belief in “intelligent design” doesn’t have the potentially catastrophic impact on the larger society that climate denial implies. And yet, Judge Jones ruled against the teaching of intelligent design as an assault on science—and therefore, on the underpinnings of modern society. What’s most compelling about Jones’s ruling, as I wrote at the time in a Forward editorial, is his powerfully argued “defense of science itself, and of the empirical method of reasoning that makes science possible.” Here’s what I wrote:

Here’s Clive Hamilton on the climate deniers’ assault on empiricism and the scientific method:

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

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Probing the Psychology of Climate Denial

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