The Ideological Armour Of ‘Climate Sceptics’


Armour by Kamal Aboul-Hosn

Trying to engage ‘climate sceptics’, or so-called sceptics as I prefer to call them, in a fact based discussion is often quite frustrating. Not because you might not convince them to your own position, but because simple basic facts are dismissed. This prevents you from having a factual discussion on how we might want to react towards the changes we are causing in our planet’s climate.

A good example of this was my recent interaction with Bob Tisdale about his interpretation on a passage from a KNMI document:

We believe that limiting the scope of the IPCC to human-induced climate change is undesirable, especially because natural climate change is a crucial part of the total understanding of the climate system, including human-induced climate change.

Tisdale interpreted this as meaning that the KNMI is saying that the IPCC is focussing too much on the human cause of global warming. Meaning they aren’t paying (enough) attention to natural causes and natural variability. But that isn’t what the KNMI wants to convey with this passage.

I already had contacted the KNMI asking them to provide some context about what they meant with this passage. Simply because the IPCC does spend a lot of attention on natural variability and natural causes for climate change; something that anyone who has read their reports should know. If the IPCC didn’t do this it wouldn’t be possible to determine our contribution to climate change. The answer I received from the KNMI confirmed this. What they were saying with this passage is that the IPCC should change the text of its mandate so that it would reflect what the IPCC already is doing in their reports.

Yet when I showed this clarification from the KNMI to Tisdale he dismissed it, refused to verify if it was legit, and he asked me if I could correct my blog post as I hadn’t provided anything that showed he had misrepresented the KNMI. He even went as far as saying that “I will ask that you end this discussion. You are wasting your time and mine.” With his last response to me being “I’m tired of having you repeat the same tired message. If you repeat it again, your comment will be deleted.”

Suffice to say I wasn’t exactly pleased with his response. It’s also a good example that shows that the public debate about global warming and climate change isn’t being held on a scientific or factual basis. Participants come to this debate already being influenced by their political positions:

The above video goes into great detail on how our ability to use maths can shape our understanding of a subject. But the most important part of the video is where they talk about gun policies and crime statistics. When for example those in favour for more gun control were presented with fictitious gun policy results that showed that these policies don’t work they scored worse than when presented with the same data framed in a different context (such as how effective a skin cream was). The same result was found when those opposing gun control were presented with fictitious data that showed that gun control reduced crime (using the same numbers, just different framing).

This is what I call ideological armour: if evidence contradicts what you believe there’s a good chance that you will reject it outright.

Evidence doesn’t come into the picture in these cases. The more something contradicts your position the less likely it is that you will accept it and act in a way that takes into account the provided evidence. This can get so extreme that you’re not even able to understand what you’re presented with and how it contradicts your position.

All this isn’t only applicable to ‘climate sceptics’ (who often seem to reject evidence because of a free market ideology or a limited government position). It’s also very obvious when you talk to young earth creationists. Or if you try to engage those that are against GMOs and see them as dangerous. It doesn’t matter what the particular position is that you’re invested in, evidence that undermines your position will have a very hard time penetrating that mental armour.

However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t properly explain scientific findings or debunk popular misconceptions. You shouldn’t be dissuaded because it rarely convinces those that believe those misconceptions, create them, or propagate them. It’s not for them that you do this as they aren’t the intended audience for such materials.

You do it for those that are trying to honestly inform themselves so that they can make decisions that are based on reality. It’s for them that I write on these subjects and it’s for them that I make an effort to be as patient and polite as possible. As being confrontational is not productive in helping people understand scientific subjects, it’s actually counter productive and you might end up pushing them towards an incorrect position.

That’s why websites like Skeptical Science, Real Climate or the legions of other websites like mine that analyse claims on validity are so important. We provide information and context that is needed so that discussions can be held about the facts. Not solely on the basis of a preferred ideological position or policy.

But this raises another problem. The so-called sceptics often manage to make a lot of noise and because of that manage to get attention in the media. With all the consequences this entails because now you’re misinforming the public. The raise in preventable diseases caused by all the misinformation that’s being spread by the anti-vaccination proponents is a perfect example of this.

A large part of the issue is the false balance media often provide. Media outlets often ‘balance’ one view with an opposing one so that they don’t seem to be biased one way or the other. But in the case of scientific subjects there often isn’t another equally valid position. Putting a doctor next to an anti-vaccination proponent isn’t being balanced, that’s undermining legitimate science and misinforming the public.

And yes some do this intentional. But a contributing factor to this is media outlets and journalists often not having the necessary time and expertise to cover a subject well. This is of course no excuse for doing that, but in our fast paced world filled with sound bites there’s not a lot of incentive for media outlets to do this properly. The incentive is on providing the most interesting news and be the first to report on it. Accuracy and restraint are one of the first casualties in such an environment.

What I just mentioned are some of the things climate science deniers exploit to get their message to the public. Dealing with this is not easy, but I think the following response from the Los Angeles Times towards letters sent by climate science deniers is a step in the right direction:

As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they “deny” it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom.

Before going into some detail about why these letters don’t make it into our pages, I’ll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking. I’m no expert when it comes to our planet’s complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts — in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.

And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.

Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.

I think this is the correct response towards anything that isn’t factually correct. Of course you have to be careful with how you apply this, but relying on experts to help you is what you should do. Where necessary you of course run a correction or allow someone to respond if they had a point to begin with.

This isn’t about silencing opposing views or not allowing discussions. It’s about allowing views that are based on facts and allowing factual discussions. These are basic journalistic standards for accuracy that we should demand from our media outlets. Demanding accuracy and holding media outlets accountable for not properly doing their research is something we should do. Without accurate information we undermine the very democratic processes we rely on.

Of course climate science deniers will not like this as this will eventually cut off their access to large media outlets. I have no doubt that they will use this to feed into some of the narratives they have on ‘suppressing legitimate opposing views’.  And there’s probably a good chance that in the short term we might see some fallout from implementing this. But in the end it will shift discussions towards facts and merits so that we can make an informed decision about the policy options for dealing with global warming.

Demanding accuracy from our media isn’t the solutions to all the issues we face with misinformation. But at least it’s a start for keeping the public informed and a good tool for keeping our politicians honest.

It also isn’t the one thing that will destroy the ideological armour of climate science deniers; although it is an important one. If you starve someone with ideological armour from affirming non-factual information cracks will form in their ideological armour. Those cracks will eventually cause this mental armour to fail. It’s a slow process, but it happens.

But most importantly it will prevent others from creating their own ideological armour. Preventing that is one of the most important things that we can do.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.