A defense of “denial” and “debate” on climate change

LeedsSkepticsTalkI gave a talk at the Leeds Skeptics last night – part of a mini-tour talking about “Denying the Evidence: Why People Reject Science and What We Can Do About It“. During the Q&A I was asked whether using the term “denier” was an attempt to shut down the debate over climate change. These are two interesting issues which I’ll take one at a time.

Is using the word “denier” useful?

This is a thorny issue so before I lay out a few arguments for the use of the word I will say that I do think it would be better if there was another term available.  However, “denial” is now a standard part of social and psychological theory and as a result of its definition and use in those fields has a place in the vocabulary surrounding the climate change debate. Obviously the problem stems from claims that “you’re comparing them to Holocaust deniers”. In some ways this is true: both groups deny overwhelming evidence. The trouble obviously is the baggage that comes with Holocaust denialism. However, we are stuck for other terms. Some have used the term “skeptic“, but I would argue that this is too vague a term. Hard-line philosophical skepticism is an epistemological quagmire that states we can never know anything, while a more reasonable scientific skepticism allows for the accumulation of knowledge based largely on empiricism. Also, it is worth noting that “denial” has a specific, technical definition that is more general than not believing that the holocaust happened. Here are a few:

  • “…turn[ing] away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie” (Specter, 2009)
  • “…an ideological position whereby one systematically reacts by refusing reality and truth” (Fassin, 2007)
  • “…a form of pseudoscience that “contradicts an immense body of research” (Gallo et al., 2006)
  • “make great play of the inescapable indeterminacy of figures and statistics“ (Cameron, 2003)

The latter source, a speech by a South African Supreme Court judge at Harvard Law School, provides an interesting discussion of similarities in the concept of denial between the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. However, perhaps the best example of science denial is that perpetrated by the tobacco industry, detailed in Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt. That book clearly shows, based on tobacco industry documents, that the industry met all definitions of denial above. “Denial”, then, is a perfectly legitimate word to apply to the rejection of science within this context.

Are we shutting down debate?

The notion of “shutting down debate” is an interesting one, and I thought it might be useful to explain my views here. The problem here is that there is a substantial difference between the debate going on among researchers and that which occurs in the public domain. In science issues are always open to debate and refinement. The point was made after my talk that “paradigm-shifting” (sensu Kuhn) research that contradicts consensus can be immensely popular for leading journals (see the recent commotion over kin vs. group selection for an evolutionary example).  However, it is also possible that such “revolutionary science“ (Kuhn again) appears to be suppressed by the establishment.  I would argue that this is not suppression per se, but simply holding novel hypotheses to a higher standard than “normal science” (Kuhn again).  This is driven by Sagan’s old adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – if you are proposing something that contradicts a wide body of established research then you had better have some good evidence for that proposition.  This is not suppression, nor is it “shutting down debate”.  This is simply a reasonable way to evaluate scientific claims (it’s a solid application of Bayesian thinking, which is a topic for another post but if you’re interested see this illustration).

The trouble comes when we attempt to shift such discussions into the public sphere (which is more important for gaining public support for policy interventions, but essentially irrelevant in the scientific debate). I raised the claims by Brian Cox that our attempts to convey our degree of confidence in issues such as climate change provide “a false sense of debate” and that we should be giving advice instead. He argues that there is no debate over what is the best evidence-based advice, and it is that advice that we should be promoting.  The debate in the public sphere is (generally) ill-informed and frequently hijacked by those with an agenda or bias (which is most people). It is unclear what good such public debate does, apart from providing an opportunity for science education.  And so, while the scientific debate is always open, there is (potentially) merit in controlling the public debate. I’m sure people would disagree, but I would be interested in their thoughts.

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