During the September 2011 Republican presidential debate, Gov. Rick Perry defended his denial of global warming by stating that Galileo, too, “got outvoted for a spell.”
Perry’s reference to Galileo begs the question of how we might distinguish between a scientist, on the one hand, and what have come to be called “deniers,” on the other. Fortunately, Dr. Richard Milne of the University of Edinburgh has addressed this very issue in his online lecture, “Critical Thinking on Climate Change.”
Science, Milne argues, needs skeptics. They’re not just cynics or curmudgeons shooting everything down because they will never be satisfied. Instead, their doubting has a purpose. They doubt because they don’t think the facts are in or they intuit a different way to explain them.
But skeptics seek the truth and follow the facts. That’s something deniers don’t do. Deniers are already committed to a position that they seek to confirm. So their goal isn’t to figure out how the world works, but rather to defend the view of it that they already have. Thus their strategies differ as well.
Deniers “cherry-pick,” for example, presenting only the evidence that supports their point of view and ignoring any that challenges it. So they’re giving true information but presenting it in a way that is actually disinformation. Deniers also attack well-established facts at the core of climate science with discredited data out on the periphery. In other words, if scientists make a mistake when venturing into new territory, deniers use it to try to invalidate all that has been confidently confirmed. They employ false witnesses and often commit logical fallacies.
When these don’t work, deniers try to minimize the issue and attack the scientific enterprise. Mocking is common. Consider Eric Bolling who joked that on Earth Day he throws open the windows and cranks up the heat, delighting in the idea of willful waste.
A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal provides an illustration of some of these tactics. It challenges the frequently made claim that 97 percent of scientists are agreed on climate change. It does so, however, in a way that suggests there is no consensus at all; that it’s just a “myth.” The op-ed speaks of the “so-called consensus,” yet fails to mention the overwhelming majority of scientific institutions that have issued statements on global warming (which can be found on the NASA website), and the agreement of every national academy of science of industrialized countries, which constitutes a consensus, even an overwhelming one.
Moreover, co-author Joseph Bast is the president of Heartland Institute. Funded in part by the oil industry, including Exxon Mobil, Heartland’s objectivity has long been in question. The Economist magazine referred to it as “the world's most prominent think-tank promoting scepticism about man-made climate change,” and both the Christian Science Monitor and Rolling Stone Magazine, among others, have published documents revealing its strategies to debunk global warming.
Bast spearheaded Heartland’s campaign of billboards featuring Ted Kaczynski. These suggested that belief in global warming was akin to terrorism. An overt public relations operation, this type of activity is nothing new for either Heartland or Bast, who similarly helped a previous funder, Philip Morris, deny the cancer risks of secondhand smoke (Naomi Orestes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt).
So, challenging orthodoxy is good. Even science, with its rigorous methods, makes mistakes. But not just any challenge makes the grade, and that’s where deniers go wrong.
But we don’t have to go overseas to get the message. As BYU professor Barry Bickmore stated in response to deniers who refused to listen, “When you have someone who doesn't care about the quality of their arguments, it usually means they don't care about the quality of anyone else’s.”
Milne notes that there are various denier sub-types. The gloomy economic sub-type, for example, is overwhelmed by the possible costs of responding to the climate challenge, which leads him to conclude that if it will cost too much, it must not be true.
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Yet there are glimpses of a bright future all around. This year, for example, renewable energy sources have met 27 percent of Germany’s needs, and one day it met 74 percent. It hopes to meet all its needs this way by 2050.
So, I doubt that deniers represent the Galileos of our day. A forward-looking man who followed the evidence, it’s hard to imagine him standing with Heartland Institute and against scientific establishment.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.