Posts Tagged ‘climate change denial’

Yeah, I’m calling people names again. Don’t blame me, Simon Singh started it. The big eejit.

There’s been a bit of discussion on Twitter today about the use of the word “skeptic”, particularly as it applies to things that most of the skeptical community wouldn’t want to be associated with.

People who go against the body of scientific evidence supporting the fact of anthropogenic climate change, for instance, are sometimes labelled “global warming skeptics”. Other people who believe some very strange things about the HIV virus are “AIDS skeptics”. There’s even “9/11 skeptics” (though less common than “truthers”) for people who believe that a massive aeroplane is entirely incapable of doing significant damage to a building and the structural integrity of steel couldn’t possibly be compromised by prolonged intense heat.

Clearly not everyone’s using the word “skeptic” the way some of us would hope. It’s being used to just mean someone who disbelieves something, but I hope anyone who identifies as a skeptic in general will appreciate that there’s a bit more to it than that.

Skepticism is an approach to assessing reality, which places importance on the concepts of testing ideas and maintaining caution against cognitive biases and other such logical windfalls which often lead us to believe things that aren’t true.

It’s not just about saying “Nah, I don’t buy it” to any claim anyone ever makes. Rejecting the scientific consensus in an area that’s not your speciality, or foregoing a simple explanation in favour of a vast and unsupported conspiracy, do not constitute skeptical behaviour.

So maybe we should call it something else.

There’s been some controversy before about the usefulness of applying the term “denialist” to some of these non-skeptics, and whether reflexively branding thusly anyone who disagrees with you is a constructive way of doing science. But denialism is a real thing, with specific parameters and symptoms, so it can be a meaningful descriptor if judiciously applied.

There’s an alternate suggestion which has been around for a while, supported by Simon Singh in an article from April 2009, and recently revisited at a talk he gave at QEDcon: numpties.

I like this. There’s something soft, harmless, almost good-naturedly charming about the word. It’s not like calling someone a fuckwit, which has a much more intrinsically hostile feel. “Numpty” is something you’d call your boyfriend after he dropped a plate. It’s something you’d say whilst affectionately tousling someone’s hair.

Of course, let’s not start throwing it around too liberally. Not everyone who doesn’t fully buy into the currently accepted scientific line on climate change is a numpty. Many of them are no doubt well intentioned but misinformed – and maybe some of them even know something the rest of us don’t. It’s always worth checking.

But some people are persisting in their delusion, repeating the same canards, cherry-picking the same data, and avoiding the intellectually honest conclusions that they should be reaching after a full assessment of the facts. James Delingpole, for instance, is a worthy wearer of the numpty crown.

Hat-tip to Kash Farooq for raising a topic I actually managed to have an opinion on.

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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?

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