Why we call them “denialists”: a perfect illustration.

Those who disagree with the consensus position of working climatologists–that there is strong evidence that anthropogenic emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases is causing and will cause harmful lower tropospheric warming–like to call themselves “skeptics”. “Skeptic” is a highly respectable label. No mere synonym for “doubter” or “one who disagrees”, it carries with it connotations of modesty, caution in forming an opinion, and careful consideration of evidence.  A skeptic does not choose a side and set out in search of evidence for his chosen side; a skeptic bases his position on the evidence and is openly aware of that position's weaknesses, tending always toward modesty and toward qualifying his statements when in doubt.

Skepticism is the behavior expected of working scientists and social scientists of all disciplines, and it can be said to be institutiionalized in the written and unwritten rules for communication, evaluation, and validation of scientific conclusions.  There's thus an implicit insult in the adoption of “skeptic” by doubters of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to set themselves apart from climatologists and those who have been following their work.  Such usage carries with it the implication that scientists, especially working climatologists, are acting in an unscientific manner, that they are not being skeptical but have instead rushed to a conclusion.  The “skeptics” have yet to substantiate this with a scientifically sound argument against AGW or even against the mainstream assessment of the strength of the evidence.  Some might say that such arguments are being made but have been, to date, suppressed, but with rapid electronic transmission of hundreds of pages of text and graphics to thousands of readers well within the means of anyone in the developed world, such suppression is unlikely.  Nonetheless the doubters have succeeded in convincing a considerable proportion of the public that, to the exclusion of people who agree with the mainstream assessment of climate science, they are the skeptics.

In addition to insult, there is irony in this.  It's very difficult to find a skeptical doubter.  The very few who are working scientists have taken to avoiding presenting their arguments for frank evaluation by fellow experts at professional society meetings or through journal articles, preferring instead to directly address a public ill-equipped for meaningful criticism by writing books and newspaper opinions and presenting at think-tank conferences.  Those who are not scientists (and some of those who are) do not merely avoid institutionalized skepticism; they also exhibit a sort of credulity, a refusal to distinguish good argument from bad, and a tendency to believe even silly arguments against AGW while rejecting some of the most sound and most modest arguments in favor.  That is the opposite of skepticism. 

It appears as though the doubters' position was determined in advance, and that they fumble about in search of any argument, cherry-picked datum, or rhetorical trick that can be used to convince another of his position, fairly or not, regardless of the argument's merit.  It is for this reason that those of us who agree with expert assessment of AGW tend to call the doubters “denialists.”  Their object is not the scientist's or skeptic's search for truth; their object is to disagree with and deny what our best science says is happening and to find,  make up, or pretend to have found anything to support such denial.


One could hardly ask for a better example of denialism than a Thursday, 9 July 2009 guest opinion by one Jon F. Buck in the Arizona Daily Star, a regional daily with circulation equal to  roughly a hundred thousand, entitled “Don't tax us over shaky science”.  Buck, an employee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but ostensibly speaking for himself, exhibits the denialist's characteristic “honest dishonesty”.

He begins benignly enough, with a mention of telescope mirror fabrication pioneer Roger Angel's foray into solar collector mirror design and a local Tucson business's development of lightweight cheap mirrors, suggesting that Angel notice this if he hasn't already.  As, for opinion writers, column-inches are scarce and word limits low, it's hard to say why Buck spent a third of his piece on such a digression.  Perhaps it was to establish, in an “aw shucks” fashion, that his goal is to help out.  But it's clear that he's not out to help out.  He's out to convince the readership of two things: that Congress should not implement a carbon tax and that AGW is “shaky science”.  Let's read further.

I am concerned about our country's response to global warming/climate change. There is a dangerous “group think” that can decimate our fragile economy by persuading citizens to support big tax hikes on energy.

That is exactly what our Congress members Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords voted for with “cap and trade,” a bill that passed the House June 26.

Cap and trade is supposed to reduce carbon gases in our atmosphere, but could tax American businesses and families so much that jobs could shift overseas to countries that pollute more than the United States to create the same goods.

Buck begins his attack on science right at the top, with his accusation of “group think”, but this is mostly talk about policy:  both (Tucson-area congressmen) Grijalva and Giffords voted for a bill with “cap and trade” provisions, the “American Clean Energy and Security Act“, often called the “Waxman-Markey bill”, on 26 June.  But while there are many (the so-called “Pigou Club“) calling for a carbon tax, this is not that.  Cap and trade schemes, which require emitters (or proxies for emitters, e.g. fuel vendors) to hold permits for their emissions, with the total number of permits capped to reflect the limited quantity of greenhouse gas that can be emitted without perturbing climate (a form of scarcity) are categorically distinct from carbon taxes.  We can overlook this blunder and take Buck to claim that Waxman-Markey's effects, even though it is not a tax, would decimate the American economy.  That seems like a bit of an exaggeration:  100 billion dollars per year–the EPA's estimate, according to the Pew Center's summary–sounds like a lot, but it falls an order of magnitude short of decimation of an almost $14 trillion economy.  But again reading Buck generously, we can say that he's predicting that the rest of the world will not follow the U.S. in reining in carbon emissions.  Fair enough.

So far this has been about policy, but it speaks to Buck's state of mind.  The denialism follows:

Man-made global warming is still theory

Thus the nonsense arguments begin.  Theory as opposed to what?  There is a popular use of the term “theory” as a synonym for “conjecture” or “hypothesis”, but “still theory” would imply that scientific theories can become something better than theories.  The only thing that theory grows up to be is obsolete theory.  Every scientific theory is always “still theory”. Using scientists' use of the word “theory” against them is an example of a dishonest rhetorical tactic so common it has a name: equivocation.

“Maybe we are responsible, but maybe not; more scientists are questioning that hypothesis.”

Now we're talking about a “hypothesis”: interesting.  Every scientist who does attribution studies meaningfully questions that hypothesis.  Are more scientists doing attribution studies?  I know that's not what Buck means: Buck is using “question” to mean “doubt”: a weasel tactic that would imply that non-doubters are not questioning.  As for there being more doubters: climatology is not my field so I do not follow the literature day-to-day, but as I understand it the literature does not reflect an increase in doubters.

There are natural phenomena that can warm our planet sans industrialization.

We do know the sun's energy varies (which might explain why other planets' atmospheres seem to be warming). We also know our solar system is bathed in cosmic radiation, which varies. The core of our planet is molten; an upturn inside may warm surface temperatures.

Next to conspiracy theories about “socialism” or a “hoax”, this is perhaps the most common denialist tactic, to posit a legitimate if naive conjecture, to not look to see if that conjecture has been addressed in the scientific literature, and to parlay one's own laziness or refusal to search for the answer into an excuse for having a strong opinion.

This speculation about warming happening from the ground up is actually a new one on me, and it's patently ridiculous.  We understand why the earth is still hot and molten on the inside billions of years after its formation and the era of heavy bombardment by meteors: this is due to decay of mineral radioisotopes.  An increase in this decay rate would be quite strange.  But that's beside the point: there's no evidence in the instrumental record that the earth's interior has warmed, let alone to the point where global warming can be attributed to such a process.

The sun, on the other hand, is the denialists' favorite excuse.  We've heard that one over and over.  I often wonder if people like Buck think that the scientists who work on this for a living really didn't think to check the sun.  They could answer that question in seconds by consulting the Working Group 1 section of the IPCC Fourth Assessment. Report  In no other field of inquiry do the experts produce such a comprehensive and conservative summary of the state of science for the public; this review is available free of charge and there is truly no excuse for anyone who deigns to be an opinion-maker on the subject of climate change to not read it.  Attribution is discussed in chapter 9 and references therein.  That solar irradiance has decreased (albeit only slightly) since the 1970s should also put to rest any thought that one can account for the global warming signal by a solar forcing alone.  Perhaps the mention of cosmic radiation is an allusion to the conjecture that the cosmic ray flux can modulate cloud formation.  Plausible, but we have measurements of the recent cosmic ray flux, and it shows no trend.

My favorite theory comes from a PBS program in which scientists demonstrated that Earth's magnetic poles appear ready to flip. Their findings showed the north/south poles reversed in polarity roughly every 200,000 years. These shifts are long overdue; its been about 700,000 years since the previous reversal. The dispersal of the magnetic fields could explain disorientation reported in migratory birds and fish.

If there is warming, the cause may be more esoteric. Perhaps the vibratory level of the planet is speeding up or the consciousnesses of people are being stepped-up, affecting the environment around us.

Now we're into the nonsense!  Geomagnetic reversal is not in itself junk science, but bringing it up here, along with disorientation of birds and fish, is junk argument.  (For those interested in reading more about it, Wikipedia offers a reasonably well-written introduction.)  If there is a connection to be made with recently observed warming, Buck is the first to make it!  But compared to a “vibratory level” or a stepped up “consciousness” it sounds like sanity.  At least we know that a diminished or collapsed magnetic field will perturb the ionosphere which may in turn result in a change in cosmic ray bombardment (…), whereas this new age babble about vibratory consciousness (or whatever) is simple technolalia.  Maybe I could convince Buck that climate change is caused by the continuum transfunctioner.

Buck concludes:

The long-term effects of global warming or cooling, if they happen, are far from known. There may be catastrophes, yet the results may be a Garden of Eden.

Meanwhile, let us embrace research and development to make alternative energy more efficient and competitive with fossil fuels, but restrain Congress from disabling our economy with sky-high taxes on gasoline, electricity and natural gas.

Notice the false dualities, the whipping up of extremes for extremes' case, typical among denialists.  Above it could categorically be Man, or it could categorically be something else–all of the subtlety of attribution, all of the “it's a little this but mostly that, and here's why” is lost on Buck.  Here we have either catastrophes or a “Garden of Eden”.  I don't know what demarcates catastrophes from ordinary harms, but I do know that a “Garden of Eden” scenario would negate the entirety of the Working Group 2 section of the IPCC 4AR.  Species extinctions, ecological disruptions, ocean acidification, desertification, and flooding, none of this is a “Garden of Eden”, and even among those who disagree with mainstream attribution, none of this is controversial.

So many of the denialist tactics are here: false dualities, turning personal laziness into an excuse for an opinion, repeating claims that have been debunked over and over (“It's the sun”), nonsequiturs, nonsense arguments, that one would suspect that this is parody.  But if it is, it's too subtle to be caught by the target audience.  And his remarks on science seem there to support his  thoughts on policy, which sound sincere, however goofy: Congress is not showing any inclination to disable the American economy, let alone by sky-high energy taxes.

When it comes to questions of science, honesty and sincerity are not the same.  Honesty in science is an active process, and like so many who see things his way, Buck rejects that process.  What I gather, and I get the same impression from many other denialists, is that he is frightened (perhaps by his own exaggerations) and so inept as to be nearly incapable of truly critical reasoning concerning this matter.  Fright and ineptitude have never been the ingredients of legitimate opinion, and they sure aren't skepticism, either.


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