FABIAN: If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
SIR TOBY BELCH : His very genius hath taken the infection of the device, man.
It is a perverse fact that often the sheer idiocy of many of the climate change Denier arguments works in their favour.
This is above and beyond the usual reasons some people find ways to believe the climate change Denier deceptions.
I am not referring to the hard core Deniers who write the blogs and spam legitimate climate sites with absurd claims, obvious frauds and largely irrelevant rants. This cadre are & will be the 10% of the population that will never be convinced even as their homes burst into flame.
My concern is the section of the general public who are “in denial” rather than being “Deniers” per se. They are our target for education, but to do that we need to understand why they are in denial and why the lies work on them.
- Information Deficit
- Psychology of Denial
- Motivated reasoning
- Future discounting & the neurotic paradox
- Belief retention
- Inferred justification
- The bigger the lie
- Beware this boy
- Links of interest
A perfectly legitimate reason to harbour doubts is that one simply does not know enough about the issue. However i) a rational, reasonable adult who is in this position will tend to be undecided rather than accepting the Denier Canon, and ii) as Naomi Oreskes discusses in the talk below, the information/knowledge Deficit model does not really seem to be applicable to most of the Denial that we see.
Psychology of denial
What is hard to understand is that the same people who do believe the Denier nonsense would not believe equally ridiculous claims such as ‘wearing your underpants on your head will cure cancer’ (then again, maybe they would). Clearly there are other factors in play here.
Obviously those who have a vested interest in the status quo in some direct way that is threatened by our dealing with climate change, such as wealth based on the fossil fuel industry, are not so keen to choose a future which involves doing away with the source of their wealth and power. Being human they are also psychologically threatened by the fact that the source of their wealth is what endangers the living Earth as we know it.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
It is too simplistic to suggest that these people make a conscious choice to deny climate science. Motivated reasoning is a subconscious cognitive process whereby a person actually comes to believe those things which minimize their psychological distress and cognitive dissonance even though those beliefs are obviously false.
Nor is this limited to those with an obvious direct investment in the status quo. Metathesiophobia is the clinical condition where fear of change is paralysing, but it is pretty common for most people to suffer some anxiety and fear about changes that they do not understand.
The strong association between the most paranoid reactionaries on the radical right and virulent anti-science beliefs is a difficult one to ignore.
Indeed there does seem to be some correlation between being generally fearful and a more conservative politic, although one should not read too much into this since “conservative” describes a huge spectrum of people and beliefs.
Even so it is not hard to believe that milder forms of the same fears and anxieties that drive the hard liners also motivate some to reject science since it’s conclusions threaten their emotional stability and security to some degree. In the industrialized world a surprising number of people do not want to accept that there is yet another threat that their society cannot protect them from.
One source of the anxiety that can drive motivated reasoning is peer pressure. “Groupthink is a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.”
Although the Denier community delights in accusing climate scientists of Groupthink, it is actually the Denier community that fits the description, not the scientific community. This is obvious in that a condition of Groupthink is “without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.” Critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas is the norm within sciences, whereas there should be a prize for anyone who can find even one decent example of it within the Denier Echo Chamber.
In his semi-serious tongue in cheek book Understanding Stupidity James Welles discusses the social and evolutionary value of maintaining ones social standing and group acceptance by believing the same idiotic ideas that the group does, rather than risk loss of social status and expulsion by displaying actual intelligence. Despite the obviously humourous nature of the work there’s some core truths there.
Future discounting & the neurotic paradox
Naturally we all wish to be happy, and we want our friends and family to be happy as well, so we try to make decisions that will ensure that. Unfortunately we are really terrible at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy (here and here).
A major factor in our poor choices is that we tend to downplay the importance of future events no matter how extreme or certain they may be, ie future discounting.
In general we tend to:
- overestimate immediate threats (eg lifestyle changes)
- overestimate immediate benefits (eg maintain the status quo)
- underestimate future threats (eg climate change)
- underestimate future benefits (eg sustainable lifestyles)
This is hardly unique to those issues. Indeed the “Neurotic paradox is the psychoanalytic term for a Condition in which an individual’s way of coping with Unconscious concerns creates even more problems in that individual’s life.”
Here again I am not saying that people make conscious choices based on these factors, but rather that these factors create a set of anxieties and psychological comforts that drive the motivated reasoning that leads them to actually believe Denier fables over scientific facts.
Having adopted a particular belief for whatever reason there is a strong motivation to continue believing it regardless of evidence to the contrary. There are a number of irrational reasons for this, several of which may be in play at once.
In the case of climate change, an individual may be motivated to continue believing the Denier frauds because:
- their social group does;
- “authorities” they trust (eg Fox News) do;
- people they despise (eg Al Gore) hold the contrary view;
- their sense of personal worth is associated to owning a large vehicle;
The “belief” that someone needs to retain may not be directly related to climate change per se, but rather one that they see as threatened if they accept climate science (whether it actually is threatened or not).
Whether we are talking about particular economic or political beliefs, or a need to believe that society and our culture are essentially stable and safe, the idea of climate change threatens these. Rather than accept the obvious reality it is psychologically easier (sensu the neurotic paradox) to deny the science and continue living in quiet desperation.
In yet another perverse twist, the backfire effect is the phenomenon whereby “… some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly:” ie the more evidence you present that the beliefs are false, the more strongly they will cling to those beliefs. I think we have all seen evidence of that in various forums and and comment threads.
Claims like climate scientists forget that “CO2 is good for plants” or that “climate changed in the past” seem credible to the average person because it does not seem possible that someone would make such a ridiculous statement if it was false.
This credibility goes up even further when uncritical popular media parrot those claims.
Frankly it shocks me that either claim is believed by anyone insomuch as both facts are Grade School level science that is found in “How and Why Wonder Books” for children 8 and older, not to mention being the subjects of countless nature documentaries. The premise that “scientists forgot” or “ignored” what almost every 8 year old knows beggars belief.
Even if one did find the claim remotely credible it is easy enough to check the facts with a simple internet search, and hence discover that they are idiotic nonsense. Apparently though, it is the sheer outrageousness of the claims that help makes them credible.
“If you tell a lie that’s big enough, and you tell it often enough, people will believe you are telling the truth, even when what you are saying is total crap.”
Part of the explanation for how this phenomenon works is something known as “inferred justification” (abstract, paper, blog post). In a nutshell, the internal logic is that the claim in question is far too obvious as a lie to actually be a lie, therefore there must be some basis to it. This is a variant of the folk saying ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’
The bigger the lie
The absurdity of their claims works for the Deniers again when rational sources expose them for the obvious lies and frauds that they are. As recent commenter Sloop posted:
“Sometimes I wonder if a post like this one by Greenfyre is exaggerating the cluelessness of members of the denialist community.
Come on! Are they really that scientifically illiterate???”
The Denier “arguments” are often so false, so idiotic, so absurd that a rational, reasonable person assumes that the source debunking the Denier myth must surely be misrepresenting it.
It does not seem credible that anyone would have advanced an argument or claim as outrageously stupid as what the debunker is exposing, so the reader concludes that the debunker must be creating a Straw Man argument in an attempt to ridicule the Deniers.
After all, who could believe that:
- The U.S Republicans would have as their only expert witness on climate a hack former journalist notorious for the idiocy of his so-called climate science;
- A US Senator would author a list of “dissenting” scientists that is an obvious fraud;
- People would outright lie about what the IPCC reports say;
- A computer technician would claim that scientists are capable of complex, difficult climate research, but too stupid to understand their own work (whereas he, and only he does understand it).
… and on and on and on and on it goes; the examples number in the hundreds, if not thousands. They really do seem impossible to believe, but in the Bizzaro world of climate change Denierism they are standard fare.
Beware this boy
Far from being a simple issue of information or knowledge deficit, climate change Denial is a complex psycho-social phenomenon that will not be dealt with merely by demonstrating (again) that Christopher Monckton is a loony or James Inhofe a fraud. Insomuch as both Monckton and Inhofe probably believe themselves they aren’t even frauds per se, merely deluded individuals who perpetuate frauds.
Which not to say that Denial cannot be dealt with, merely that it is complex. For example, by getting people to tell stories about alternate futures one can considerably counteract future discounting. By making the distant future ‘more real’ people become less anxious about the positive choices for a sustainable future, more realistic about the threat of climate change.
Some examples of other strategies might include:
- disassociating climate change from the political and economic fears that people tend to synonymize it with;
- de-mystifying the sustainable future so it is less fearful for them;
- offering community, acceptance and social support;
- create “spaces” where becoming convinced by the facts is evidence of current intelligence rather than past stupidity.
Education about the fraudulant nature of climate denial continues to be necessary, but so do many other forms of education. After all, for all of the complexity and nuances, the reasons for denial are all just one form or another of ignorance.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy.”
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Links of interest
- Dan Gilbert on the psychology of global warming
- The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change
- Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology
- Are Human Beings Hard-Wired to Ignore the Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change?
- Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?
- The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science
- How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth
- Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad
- The psychology of climate change: why we do nothing
- Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges
- “…cataclysmic global warming is universally understood to be quite a lot like that comet on its earthbound track”
- What Makes Climate Change Deniers Tick?
- Living for the Moment while Devaluing the Future
- Understanding climate change complacency
- Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology
- Why Americans Don’t Act on Climate Change
- Are Climate Deniers Crazy?
- What’s With the Climate Change Deniers?
- What Makes Climate Sceptics Tick?
- Are the climate change deniers with no evidence just naturally gullible?
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
Comments that are not relevant to the post that they appear under or the evolving discussion will simply be deleted, as will links to Denier spam known to be scientific gibberish