Climate Change Deniers: A Cacophony Of Grunting
“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time and it annoys the pig.”
It has been noted that we approach climate change denial as if the problem were not enough education, not enough facts in the public domain, but this does not seem to be the problem (eg here and here). Overwhelmingly the public relies on what they consider trusted sources to tell them what is true. They do not and will not go to other sources to see if their beliefs are correct.
If public education isn’t effective, what is Plan B?
My “Letter to a climate skeptic” was actually written with 2 particular friends in mind. Intelligent, educated adults that I respect, who nonetheless had been conned into adopting the “climate skeptic” posture. I suspect their stance is largely due the appeal of the ‘maverick intellect’ image rather than actual skepticism or having actually examined the issue (which they clearly have not).
There’s the rub; they are intelligent, thoughtful people who nonetheless have been taken in be the climate Denier disinformation campaign. If that demographic is not on side, what hope is there? The comments on the ‘Letter’ are instructive in that while they confirm what I say in the article itself, I suspect the actual effect favours the Deniers.
Let’s briefly have a look at them, but with an eye to how it would be perceived by someone who is not that familiar with the issue. I think it fair to say that such a person would only scan them and not read them too closely.
The first thing to note is that there are a lot of them that disagree with the content of the article, but in fact they come from only a few posters. There are actually Denier hitlists where certain writers are targeted by the Denier activists who then spam the comments forums and vote down the articles in question. Regardless, there is the appearance of significant disagreement, but it actually only represents a small cadre of Deniers. This is pretty typical.
If we look at actual content of the comments it follows the pattern described in the article itself. More than a few claim that I am wrong and/or that I make straw man arguments etc, but offer no substantiation for the claim. For some reason we are supposed to take their word for it. If I am wrong, why can’t they say how? Or offer any evidence to counter mine?
Others bring up supposed “facts” that show that I am wrong. What should be hilarious is that most of them are debunked in the article itself and/or the references provided. How would the commentators know this? They didn’t even read the article. Notice how many of those comments make no reference to anything I said? They are generic Denier claims that can (and are) pasted to any article about climate change despite their being known to be false. Others cite discredited works such as the misrepresentation of Hulme’s work even though Hulme himself has condemned their lies.
On and on it goes. It is juvenile and tiresome. Unfortunately it is also effective. Members of the public are not going to go through the comment threads on climate articles any more than they are going to look at the science itself. Even if they did, as long as some on both sides cite something it will look equally authoritative to them. Despite the vacuity of the responses, they do sustain the illusion of scientific controversy, at least to the casual reader.
So if writing such articles is not going to influence the public, what is the point of them? Or in responding to the Deniers comments? Like all political battles there is no single strategy or tactic that is going to win it.
In the title I say “skeptic” because there are many who believe that this is how they are behaving. They are not Deniers per se, just misinformed. Unlike the commentators they are actually open to seeing actual evidence and may be influenced by it.
Obviously the Deniers who attacked the article are not the people to whom the letter is addressed. It’s not simply a matter of confirmation bias in the sense of them only being exposed to one set of arguments. As we can see in the thread some Deniers do go to media that present the opposing case, they simply don’t read them.
How do you reach those who blind themselves to anything that conflicts with their world view? You can’t. Not in any direct way at least. As noted in the folk saying, it is a waste of your time and just annoys the pig.
On the one hand it is not even necessary to reach the hard core Deniers in that they represent a minority demographic, even if over represented among societies powerholders. On the other hand they have successfully created the illusion of scientific controversy and that has influenced public perception of the climate change issue. As such it is necessary to both continue attempts to educate the public and to respond to the challenges by the Deniers even though this in and of itself will not change much. The pigs may never learn to sing, but their grunting will drown out those who can if we allow it.
In seeking a successful strategy I think it is instructive to look at two other examples of scientific efforts to confront ignorance and Denial; evolution and tobacco denial. Both of these have faced virtually identical campaigns of disinformation (by some of the same “think tanks” and phony experts in a number of cases), but with slightly different outcomes.
While evolution is taught in most schools for the scientific truth that it is, it remains controversial and recently the Deniers have even enjoyed some success in the political arena. For the most part the tobacco denial industry is dead and the battle won. Why the difference?
In fact, the tobacco issue was not only aligned along similar ideological lines (ie the libertarian reflexive opposition to any state intervention), but also had enormous financial and political power. It is true that the evolution Denier industry is also powerful, but much more scattered.
I suspect that the answer is the infamous tobacco lawsuits. The court cases which made it not only not profitable to engage in Denial, but enormously costly. Given the enormous damage that climate change is causing, and will cause, there is considerable scope for holding those who knowingly lie and deceive the public accountable for their actions. Further, there is legal grounds for doing so (see here).
This is the most promising avenue of attack because a court of law is not the uncritical forum that the popular media is, nor will it accept the nonsense that a political committee or hearing pretends is credible evidence (eg here). Most judges take a very dim view of being lied to and treated like an idiot, and have the authority to communicate that in ways that make the point rather effectively.
Such a campaign has powerful potential allies. Industry itself is quite divided on the issue as has been seen in the US Chamber of Commerce debacle. The Chamber itself has taken a Denier stance, but this has alienated quite a number of large corporate interests. The simple facts are i) many corporate heads are not ideologically blind morons, ii) many businesses have far more to lose from climate change than they gain from the status quo, iii) some corporations stand to profit from significant changes in our energy policies, and iv) the corporations are under increasing pressure from stockholders.
There have been some tentative forays into using the courts
(eg here), but there needs to be a lot more. We need many lawsuits to be brought against the corporations and professional Deniers who knowingly lie and commit fraud, suits that run into the billions and trillions of dollars and which hold individuals accountable for their actions. I suspect that will get the porcine chorus singing a different tune very quickly.