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:

Science is, as Judge John E. Jones III wrote in his ruling, “the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.” For 400 years, “since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries,” it has been the portal through which we seek to understand the world around us.Consider where it has led us. Our reliance on science, with its rigorous rules of observation and testing, has allowed us in these past centuries to conquer disease, explore the ocean floor and send messages around the globe in an instant. Each new discovery has built on the ones before it, always testing and confirming what is known in order to discover what is not yet known. Today we can transplant damaged hearts and fly from Chicago to Seattle — not because someone had a hunch or believed an unprovable insight, but because facts were observed and tested…Where science seeks to verify what can be proved, Jones writes, Intelligent Design teaches that certain things can’t be known. “ID is reliant upon forces acting outside of the natural world, forces that we cannot see, replicate, control or test, which have produced changes in this world,” he writes. “While we take no position on whether such forces exist, they are simply not testable by scientific means and therefore cannot qualify as part of the scientific process or as scientific theory.”…That is the real issue at stake in this culture war: not merely freedom of speech or religion, but the ability of our society to continue building on the structures developed through 400 years of science and innovation. We’re deciding whether we want to prepare the next generation of Americans to pick up the battle against disease and begin solving the puzzles of the ecosphere, or we’d rather train them to accept what they’re handed, secure in the faith that some puzzles aren’t for unlocking.

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

… there is something poignant about scientists who continue to adhere to the idea that people repudiate climate science because they suffer from inadequacy of information. In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information.8 Once people have made up their minds, providing contrary evidence can actually make them more resolute, a phenomenon we see at work with the upsurge of climate denial each time the IPCC [the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] publishes a report. For those who interpreted “Climategate” as confirmation of their belief that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy, the three or four reports that subsequently vindicated the scientists and the science proved only that the circle of conspirators was wider than previously suspected.In a curious twist, climate deniers now deploy the arguments first developed by the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to erode the authority of science. This was perhaps first noticed by Bruno Latour when he lamented the way climate deniers set out to explain away the evidence using a narrative about the social construction of facts.10 However, while constructivists developed an epistemological critique of science, climate deniers, adopting the heroic mantle of “sceptic”, claim to be protecting official epistemology from internal corrosion. The strategy required an attack on the system of peer-review11 and sustained attempts to “deconstruct” the motives of climate scientists. They are always on the lookout for biases and prejudices that could lie behind the claims of climate scientists, explaining away the vast accumulation of evidence by impugning the motives of those who collect it. That was the genius of the “Climategate” scandal—the emails were hard evidence that the “hard evidence” had been fabricated. The leaking of routine private exchanges between professional colleagues tarnished the public image of scientists as whitecoated experts too preoccupied with their test tubes and retorts to be political.Since the founding of modern science, matters of fact have been established through the common assent of those qualified to judge under rules laid down in the 17th century by the Royal Society. The break from the past lay in the fact that the “potency of knowledge came from nature, not from privileged persons”. “Climategate” allowed deniers to claim that climate science indeed emerged from privileged persons rather than disinterested nature. In their study of Robert Boyle’s struggle to found the new scientific method of experimentation observable by suitably qualified others, Shapin and Schaffer note that “democratic ideals and the exigencies of professional expertise form an unstable compound”. Deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise, including skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. At least in the United States and Australia, democracy has defeated science.

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Probing the Psychology of Climate Denial

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