Climate Science Is Based On Evidence, But Science Denial Is Based On Faith

Webcomic xkcd - Wikipedian protester

Wikipedian Protester” by XKCD

Anyone who wants to debate a science denier often needs a thick skin, especially concerning topics like global warming. They often hurl words like leftist, socialist, communist, fascist, sheeple, useful idiot, and worse at you. Though why a political ideology is used as an insult still is something that I don’t understand. At most you’ll get a slightly annoyed roll of the eyes from me when you label me as something that I’m not.

But the one that truly puzzles me is when I’m accused of having a religious like faith in science. Science isn’t a religion, certainly not when you accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). To me it’s climate science denial that looks more like a faith position.

To understand why I say this you need to take into account that what climate science deniers say is at a fundamental level at odds with the scientific consensus on global warming. A consensus that arises from evidence found through meticulous study and hard work by scientists.

Due to the sheer amount of supporting evidence not a single national academy of science the world over has denied anthropogenic global warming, the vast majority have formally declared that human-induced climate change is real and have urged nations to reduce greenhouse gasses. Independent unions, professional associations, societies, institutes, federations, and other organizations of international standing of scientists and engineers, all have released statements accepting anthropogenic climate change. Considering that most of these organizations are entirely independent this is quite remarkable. These organisations don’t take such positions, or make such statements, lightly.

Another salient point is that the vast majority (97-98%) of scientists who actually work and publish on climate related subjects, and nearly all published papers, support the science behind AGW. This consensus was first remarked in Naomi Oreskes’ 2004 survey of the literature. These findings have since been validated in three subsequent surveys: Doran (2009), Anderegg (2010), and Cook (2013); which used varying methodologies and datasets, yet found similar results.

The 97 percent science consensus

The 97% consensus was found in Doran & Zimmermann 2009, Anderegg et al 2011 and Cook et al 2013.

That’s a remarkable level of agreement over something that is portrayed in much of the media, and among climate science deniers, as a matter of scientific controversy. So where, if anywhere, is the debate happening?

To be sure, there’s a handful of credentialed experts who object to some part of the scientific consensus. These scientists have appeared extensively on television and in documentaries. They are often hailed as heroes, and often quite famous, in climate science denier circles because of their various degrees of contrarianism. Though some of them display very obvious ideological motives.

Roy Spencer is one of the more obvious examples due to him having signed a petition that says “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.” Others are often aligned to think tanks with an obvious ideological take like the Cato Instute, ideologies that often cause these think tanks to dismiss valid science. Why scientists like Lindzen would align themselves with such organisations is beyond me.

There is also the group of what seems to be politically motivated actors like Christopher Monckton, Joe Bastardi, Marc Morano, Anthony Watts, etc. who often venture into science denial. Several of these have devoted a substantial part of their professional lives to the speech circuit and/or their own website. They often claim to blow the lid off the ‘official science’, yet they never actually do that.

Of course there are also the news outlets known for their conservative bias, particularly press such as Fox News, and The Daily Mail. This bias seems to have created the environment where they have become outlets for science denial, particularly on the subject of global warming. Of course it’s on those news outlets where you often see speakers appear from the earlier mentioned ideologically motivated think tanks to cast doubt on valid science.

All of these combine to create an information bubble, a sphere of science denial that’s used to maintain their perception of the world. In this bubble they ascribe the lack of dissent in the science community, if they even acknowledge it, to a paralyzing fear of offending the wrong people and losing funding (there isn’t this fear). They assert that data is fabricated or hidden (it isn’t). Laymen pour over raw data, computer code, and the science literature to unveil clues of manipulation. Oh, the patterns of deception they find! (they never do) They assert that government agencies such as NOAA, NASA, or major universities, such as the University of East Anglia, are part of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave us all in a socialist regime.

This last statement by me may seem like a straw man, but it’s something even mainstream ‘contrarians’ claim. George Will, for example, recently called global warming science “socialism by the back door.” Christopher Monckton, who’s arguably the international face of climate science denial, has said that the purpose of AGW is “to impose a communist world government on the world.” Stephen Harper called Kyoto “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” Many more of such assertions can be found.

Many climate science deniers profess to be mere seekers of truth who question the consensus science because they have such high standards of evidence. Yet they never are able to find a shred of evidence for any of these nefarious motivations on the part of the worldwide science community. These wild speculations of climate science deniers often read like textbook examples of the dangers of failing to apply Occam’s razor. The webs of intrigue, conspiracy, and ulterior motives postulated by them are often far more complex than the science itself.

One of the most spectacular of these conspiracy theories was the narrative pieced together from nefarious-sounding snippets of hacked emails among scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (known as Climategate). The hack produced several formal investigations, all of these dismissed the accusations of scientific wrongdoing. Naturally, this only confirmed and widened the conspiracy, because it meant that the people who did the investigations were in on it (or at the very least thought to be incompetent). The climate science deniers, rather than accepting the conclusions of multiple investigations, constructed their own investigations of the investigations. And of course they concluded they were “flawed” (archived here). Yet they failed to actually provide evidence for this.

So where does this leave the ‘science’ of the climate science deniers? Most climate science deniers are laymen, not participants in scientific research, who scour the literature for things they believe expose the perceived hoax behind the science. They often cite papers by the very scientists who argue for and accept AGW. They must because the scientific literature, as noted earlier, is heavily in favour of the conclusion that global warming is caused by us. It’s also this very same scientific literature that marks global warming as a point of concern. With artful argumentation and cherry picked data they then piece together a massive alternative narrative, which they then publish.

On their blogs.

Which shows more signs of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ here? The similarities with other actual faith based positions is remarkable. Lets compare climate science denial with another form of science denial: creationism.

Creationists of course also rely on a handful of seemingly genuine experts who reject valid science, or outright deny the existence of it. They also rely on institutes that promote science denial, such as Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research. Their ‘science’ is also not present in the scientific literature, so they also must present it on the internet, in books, or in media appearances. The lack of creationism in the science literature is explained as being caused by intimidation and fear. They, too, cherry pick and quote mine the literature written by people who accept the science, because they lack the evidence to show they are right. Not a single institute, academy, or professional organization of science has joined them in their science denial. They hint of nefarious conspiracies and spoofing of data, and they rush to judgment when they think they’ve found evidence of such a conspiracy. They devise ‘honest tests’ of the science which, when adequately answered, they ignore and move the goalposts. And of course their science denial just happens to coincide perfectly with their ideology.

Science denial is an inherently faith based position, as it almost always stems from an attachment to a certain ideology and/or a distinct lack of supporting evidence. It’s common to many groups, from climate science deniers, to creationists, to anti-vaxxers, to those that deny the science showing the safety of GMO foods. It’s a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common as technology, science, and the understanding of both become more and more entwined in, and crucial to, our life and politics.

What can be done to counter this? Social science research suggests that better explaining the science won’t work (it’s important, and should be done, but it’s not the tool for this). Those who receive conflicting information tend to become more entrenched in their prejudices rather than becoming better informed and changing their opinions. I would rather point a finger at ourselves, those of us reading this who think we’re so impartial and fact-based. I think we who argue for an accurate understanding of science should lead by example and move beyond politics ourselves. Be scrupulous in our self-skepticism so that our own arguments are free from political rhetoric, and, as much as humanly possible, political bias. Don’t be afraid to change your position when you’re shown to be wrong. It’s this kind of behaviour that can be an important tool to break the escalating spiral of rhetoric.

That’s hard to do, but maybe through that we can find a way forward, a new way beyond politics and ideology. We should be honest with ourselves and hold ourselves to high standards. Lets face and accept what the science says in every field, from global warming, to GMO’s, to vaccines, and so on. Always accept a better understanding rather than a ‘more correct one’ or a ‘more convenient one’. This could be an important tool to create cracks in the sphere of science denial. Maybe a few of your own ideas/biases might be casualties on the way, but isn’t it worth it?

This blog post is based on writings and ideas by John Harrington who graciously gave me permission to use them as a basis for this blog post.

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.