So yesterday a debate was sparked off on Twitter by the whole Climategate thing. I’m not sufficiently informed on the subject to blog about that in detail, but it seems it’s being dramatically overplayed by people on the side of the debate unconvinced by the science of anthropogenic climate change.
And the fact that I don’t know much about this is sort of what it’s all about. I can tell you almost nothing about the scientific evidence behind the claims that our planet is undergoing significant global climate change, that human activities are partially responsible for this change, and that it will be important for us to actively combat this in the immediate future if we want the world to continue being as nice a place for us to live as it is now. I don’t know the details of why people are firmly convinced of any of those things.
What I do know is that the scientific consensus currently strongly supports these claims. People smarter than me, and who seem to know how to deal well with this kind of complicated subject, seem generally united on this front based on the current evidence. Personally, that’s enough for me, because the extent to which I take an active interest in the subject is limited.
But that’s not enough for everyone. And nor should it be. If I were so inclined, I have a right to ask just what’s going on, to try and pin down what the evidence is, to ask that it be explained to me. I understand there are a number of pop-sci books out there that’ll do just that. (As I say, limited interest.) It seems that it’s been increasingly widely recognised lately that communicating their work to the public is often an important part of a scientist’s job.
Which brings me to the question of how scientists should treat people who don’t agree with their science.
Nobody here is denying that the scientific method is driven by internal debate and constant rigorous questioning, and that all findings need to be subjected to impartial scrutiny and criticism before being taken seriously by the scientific community. But sometimes a theory passes all these tests, continues over time to be increasingly well supported by the data and accurate in its predictions, reaches such a level of empirical support that it seems ridiculous to doubt its basic premise… but some people still do. Some people won’t accept what has become established as fact.
Creationism is a fine example of this, and it seems that some of those who doubt anthropogenic climate change fall into that category also. That’s a slightly awkward phrasing of their position, but the big question is what else to call them. They tend to refer to themselves as climate change “skeptics”, but they often get labelled as “denialists”.
Jack of Kent doesn’t think this term is useful. He points out that it can be used over-zealously to stifle any reasonable debate or dissent, which is antithetical to truly skeptical inquiry, and declares:
I care not if someone is a “denialist”. It is enough for me that they are incorrect.
And he’s right, up to a point. Some people on the side of science may well get exasperated by the more inane end of the spectrum of opposition they have to deal with, and start throwing around terms like “denialist” carelessly at people who are actually no more ignorant of the evidence than I am and might have just set off on the wrong foot. And whether or not somebody is wrong may well be more interesting than the methods by which they’re wrong.
But I’d argue that “denialist” is a meaningful term, when applied to a particular form of fallacious argument, and worth holding on to if we can learn to apply it sparingly. Richard Wilson linked to the denialism blog, which lays out a definition of denialism and explains the techniques of argument generally employed by denialists. This seems valid and useful to me. “Denialist” is not simply a word synonymous with “anyone on the other side” (or shouldn’t be). It means someone arguing in this particular way.
Even if the body of evidence is so strong that there’s really no room left for reasonable doubt, throwing any epithet instinctively at anyone daring to step out of line seems like bad form. To quote myself on Twitter yesterday:
“Denialist” is an appropriate label for some kooks, and a useful way of describing some forms of pseudoscience, but if it’s not clear why you’re right and they’re wrong, to an outside observer you look like a fundamentalist trying to stifle debate.
Meaning that the way to combat wrongness in any form, such as denialism, is with data and rational argument to support your point. Once you’ve provided that and made your case, and responded to everything your opponents have, then you can point out that they seem to be clinging dogmatically to their ideas and exhibiting these crank-like behaviour patterns.
In short, it’s a useful word to have, it often accurately describes people, but it should be used sparingly in public discourse. If you’re going to level a term like “denialist” at an antagonist, you need to really make sure you know where they’re coming from first, and support it with explanations of the logic that they’re failing to appreciate. Don’t start shouting it at people before you’ve exhausted the possibility of persuading them civilly. That just reminds me of the idiots who clamoured to call Carrie Prejean a cunt and helped ensure she was never going to come around to their side, and drove her deeper into crazyville.
Wow, that was long and rambling.
It’s late, so I’ve not proofread or redrafted this as much as usual. I might revisit it tomorrow to make some more sense of it. Thoughts?