How To Talk To A Climate Change Denier
By Ernest Partridge
22 January, 2014
The contest is joined. On one side there is the near-unanimous conclusion of thousands of active climate scientists throughout the world: the global climate is changing and human technology is the primary cause. From the other side we are told that “climate change” is at worst a “hoax” or at least a normal and natural phenomenon not significantly affected by human activity. This position is endorsed by right-wing media, almost all congressional Republicans, and a few bought-off “scientists” (“biostitutes”) lavishly funded by fossil fuel industries.
So how do you deal with a “denier” willing to engage you in a debate?
If the “denier” tells you that “God would not allow the climate to change” or that “Jesus will fix all that when he comes back in the next few years,” and then quotes the Bible as “evidence,” save your breath and his time. His is a hopeless case.
But if your adversaries are citing what they believe is “scientific fact” or otherwise exhibit some indication of a capacity to yield in the face of scientific evidence, they just might listen to reason and consider evidence – but don’t count on it.
You might proceed by citing scientific studies, to which your opponent will likely respond with anecdotes, out-of context quotes, and citations of dissenting “biostitutes” (Cf. “The Tobacco Institute”). But this promises to be an endless harangue. As one wit put it, “for every Ph.D there is an equal and opposite Ph.D.” Except, of course, in this case, with regard to the weight of empirical evidence, the “experts” in question, while “opposite,” are not equal.
Three Questions for the Denier:
Instead of citing an endless list of scientific studies, I propose a different approach. Pose just three questions.
>> “Putting aside for the moment the issue of the reality of climate change, will you acknowledge that a recent survey of 10,000 active climate scientists found that 98% affirmed the existence of anthropogenic climate change?”
>> “Will you acknowledge the existence of a recently released report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an agency with 195 member countries, which concludes with 95% confidence that the climate is changing, due to human activity.”
>> “How, then, do you deal with these acknowledged facts?”
Now he might reply that the press has lied: that there never was such a survey, and that there is no such thing as the IPCC. But such a reply will only confirm that your adversary is a certified citizen of Fantasyland, and that it is time for a polite but prompt exit.
But if your opponent answers the first two questions affirmatively, it seems that there are only four conceivable responses to these compelling facts:
1. “Global climate change” is a hoax, perpetrated by a world-wide conspiracy of thousands of scientists.
2. Those scientists have been “bought off” by funding agencies – primarily governments – who have a secret agenda (variously described).
3. These scientists, along with their inferences from thousands of peer-reviewed accounts of field and laboratory studies, are all simply wrong.
4. The consensus conclusion of these scientists is correct: global warming is real and homo sapiens have caused it.
A Hoax? Bribery? Scientific Error? Our Response:
Is climate change a hoax?
If so, then it is a “hoax” deliberately and collectively perpetrated by thousands of active climate scientists from dozens of countries throughout the world. It is a “hoax” endorsed by virtually every national and international scientific organization, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences. In other words, this “hoax” amounts to an international conspiracy.
What possible motive could unite so many individuals and nations from so many differing cultures, traditions, religions and national interests – a motive so compelling that it leads them all to participate in a colossal fraud? None that I can imagine, save perhaps personal financial gain, which we will deal with next.
There is, however, another common motive which might lead all these climate scientists to the consensus that global climate change is real and largely of human origin: Scientific integrity.
That integrity is achieved through by strict adherence to scientific method and rigorous peer review prior to publication. Conversely, a violation of this integrity, for example by presenting non-replicable “cooked” evidence or purchased conclusions, can end a scientific career.
Have climate scientists been “bought off” by funding agencies?
If you wish to trade in your scientific reputation for cash, don’t look to the United Nations, the United States, or other governments for that payoff. You will do far better if you solicit the Koch brothers, or Exxon-Mobil, or Peabody Coal. To be sure, a few scientists have done just that, but not enough to make a dent in that roster of climate scientists who have joined the consensus.
But bribing thousands of scientists around the world to affirm a conclusion that they all know to be false? What agency could conceivably be behind this conspiracy? National governments that are members of the United Nations? But why would any national government, much less all governments, prefer a finding of climate change to that of a steady-state climate?
And what independent evidence exists of this colossal bribery? If there were any, you can be sure that it would have been trumpeted by the corporate media. Of these thousands of allegedly corrupt scientists, have any of them “fessed up” to their crimes? None that I know of. If they had, we would know of it, believe me.
In one noteworthy case, Stanford climatologist Richard Muller, on record as a “climate change skeptic,” accepted a grant from the Koch brothers to critically examine the validity of the scientific consensus. Muller’s conclusion: he was wrong and the consensus was right. Anthropogenic climate change is very real.
Are all these scientists and their supporting studies simply wrong?
Conceivable, but highly improbable. In fact, the “conceivability” that the consensus view might be wrong is essential to the likelihood that it is true. Scientists call this “the falsifiability criterion.” An explanation is in order.
We can imagine a world in which evolution is false. In such a world, there would be no fossil record, no DNA similarity among the species, no random mutations, etc. But that would not be the world that we live in. Evidence in this “real world” confirms the truth of evolution.
We can imagine a universe in which Einstein’s relativity theory is false. In such a world, light from a distant star would not “bend” in an eclipse in a manner precisely predicted by Einstein’s theory. Nor would particle accelerators behave as they do, etc. But scientific experimentation proves that we live in Einstein’s universe, not another that is conceivably different.
In brief: assertions of fact, if they are to be scientifically valid, must in principle be capable of describing what it would be like for such assertions to be false.
Thus the consensus conclusion of 98% of active climate scientists is that the world we inhabit is undergoing significant man-made climate change. Moreover, it is easy to image a world in which this is not happening. In such a world, the Arctic ice cap and the terrestrial glaciers would not be decreasing, the acidity and temperature of the oceans would not be increasing, the CO2 content of the atmosphere would be steady. Sadly, that is not the world that is measured, confirmed and reported by the climate scientists.
The climate change deniers would have us believe that despite all the accumulated evidence by those thousands of scientists, the conclusion therefrom that the global climate is changing is false. On the contrary, they tell us, the world in which we live has a steady-state climate, or if not, then climate change is “natural,” occasional, and of no great concern.
If so, then where is the evidence? And where is the argument that the data from these field and laboratory experiments do not in fact support the consensus view?
There are none that survive scrupulous, peer-reviewed scientific scrutiny. Instead, we get citations of the rare and insignificant errors in the mountain of confirming data. We get out-of-context reports, such as “proof” of global cooling taken from arbitrary data points in a temperature graph that, in full context, unquestionably displays an upward trend line. In fact, the very flimsiness of the refuting arguments serve, in the minds of the informed and critical observer, to significantly weaken the denialists’ assertions. “If that’s the best that the deniers can come up with, they don’t have a case.” Unfortunately, this is not the response of the typical FOX News viewer, or of virtually all GOP members of Congress.
And what of that dissenting 2% of climate scientists? I have not seen a breakdown of that statistic, but I would guess that a large majority are “skeptics” rather than “deniers.” They have seen the evidence, might find it compelling, but “are not yet convinced.” That would leave less than one percent who are “deniers,” and that, in science, constitutes “proof beyond reasonable doubt.”
Could the consensus be right – is anthropogenic climate change a reality?
This, by process of elimination, must be the only plausible explanation of the world-wide scientific consensus.
And yet, as scientists, they are open to the possibility that they are wrong. Scientific integrity demands this openness: its called “the falsifiability rule.” All that is required is scientifically compelling contrary evidence and inference.
So far: nothing.
Furthermore, as compassionate human beings with children and grandchildren, and with concern for the future of humanity, these same scientists must hope that they are wrong. Sadly, their evidence offers them no solace.
The Climate Change Denier Responds:
Our hypothetical opponent may still be unconvinced, and thus not quite done with us. Here are a few denialist responses that I have encountered personally, and which are no doubt familiar to those who have been following the climate debate.
What do you know? You are not a climate scientist!
Granted. I am not a climate scientist. So I rely on the findings of those who are.
But neither is Glenn Beck, or Sean Hannity, or Senator James Inhoff, or any of the denier Republicans in Congress, climate scientists. In fact, the only Member of Congress to come close to expertise in the subject is physicist Rush Holt (D, NJ). And he, of course, believes in climate change.
So you are a victim of the fallacy of argument from authority.
Guilty as charged. Almost everything I know is via someone else’s say-so.
Likewise yourself, gentle reader. Indirect knowledge (from “authority”) is an indispensable condition of education and of modern civilization.
I know directly that it is sunny outside, that I’d rather be exploring the Pacific Coast in my sea kayak right now, and that my wife is about serve me a spaghetti dinner (I just checked). Virtually everything else – that Barack Obama is President, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and so on ad infinitum – I know “by authority.” And regarding the boiling point of water: if I confirm that by looking at a thermometer, I believe it only on the authoritative assumption that the thermometer accurately measures temperature in degrees Celsius.
So “argument by authority” is unavoidable. But it is also occasionally fallacious. If my doctor writes out a prescription, I trust that he is qualified to do so. But if a retired Olympic skating champion tells me on TV that I should take Vioxx, I should be skeptical. How do we know how to make that distinction? By examining the qualifications and motives of the alleged “authorities.”
In short, some alleged “fallacies” aren’t. Distinguishing sound from fallacious reasoning requires a critical “case-by-case” examination of the alleged “fallacies.” (See my “That’s Just Your Opinion”).
So it comes down to this: My hypothetical critic takes me to task for “citing authorities,” which he says is a “fallacy.” In return, he cites his own “authorities,” as he must. How do we settle this “he said - she said” confrontation? By examining the qualifications of the opposing “experts,” and the empirical foundations of their research. On my side thousands of qualified climate scientists, with conclusions following billions of dollars and billions of hours of peer-reviewed research. On the other side purchased “biostitutes” and corporate funded public relations campaigns.
Scientists have been known to be wrong in the past.
Again, true. But how has scientific error been discovered and corrected? In all cases, this has been accomplish through better science.
So to the deniers, I have this challenge: present your “better science” if you have it. So far, silence.
In the meantime, the scientific community remains permanently open to well-founded contrary evidence. As we noted above (re: “falsifiability”), that is how science works.
The political, economic and media opposition to scientific research, as exemplified in the climate change debate, is not new. We have seen it before: acid rain, cigarettes and cancer, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” aerosols and ozone, as Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway have documented in their outstanding book, Merchants of Doubt.
Corporate propaganda is powerful, but it is not omnipotent. In all these cases, the weight of scientific evidence eventually prevailed. But this time, we can’t wait for “eventual” vindication. The findings of the IPCC and of those thousands of climate scientists portend unimaginable horrors., unless the global community of nations and their scientists act immediately and decisively.
“Eventual” vindication of their warnings will be too late.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers". His e-mail is: email@example.com .
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