Is It Hot in Here or Is It Just Me?

On the difference between denial and dissent when it comes to climate changeice

by Rusty Pritchard


Conspiracy theories are nothing new. My grandfather, a North Florida farmer, never believed that men had landed on the moon. He suspected that the whole project was an elaborate fiction to raise federal taxes. In recent times, conspiracy theories have grown less benign, more prone to echo-chamber amplification, and more resistant to the marshaling of evidence. Two cases illustrate the point:

Case 1: Unfounded rumors about the link between childhood vaccines and autism have circulated for some time, without scientific basis. In 2010, the lone study that had claimed back in 1998 to find a tentative link between childhood vaccines and autism, and which had given rise to conspiracy theories about the medical establishment, was shown to be the result of outright fraud and falsified data.

But the discovery of fraud did not quell the fearmongering of activist groups of parents, many of whom still refuse to get their youngsters vaccinated. That decision puts their own children, and other children, at increased risk of death from preventable diseases, like the measles outbreaks now occurring with more frequency.

Case 2: At the end of 1996, scientists were so certain that the HIV virus caused the condition called AIDS that they began giving patients anti-retroviral therapy (ART) intended to keep the HIV virus from replicating. The result came to be known as the "Lazarus effect" as AIDS patients at death's door began to come forth and to go back to their jobs.

That didn't convince South African President Thabo Mbeki, who refused to believe in the HIV/AIDS connection and instead believed the science to reflect poorly on African morality and values. In 2000 his government invited dissenting scientists to sit on important government health panels. Those panels recommended against a large-scale national anti-AIDS campaign, despite an international scientific consensus that it would save lives. Recently, a study from the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes claims that at least 365,000 South African deaths can be blamed on the fallacious viewpoint Mbeki adopted.

It's classic conspiracy theory stuff. A May 2010 article in the New Scientist described what denialist movements have in common:

All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.

Right-wing "birthers" (who fail to acknowledge Barack Obama's birth certificate) and left-wing "truthers" (who believe George W. Bush or his friends masterminded the 9/11 attacks) both subscribe to conspiracy theories.

Today, climate change skepticism veers dangerously close to being a conspiracy theory.

Jigsaw puzzles and card houses

Denialism (a word first used in connection with conspiracy theorists who tried to cast doubt on the historicity of the German genocides of WWII) tries to veneer over its irrationality with a paradoxical appeal to science but without doing the hard work of convincing scientists of an argument. So climate denialists, like HIV/AIDs denialists and vaccine alarmists, trumpet the work of a handful of dissenters, many of whom did real research in the past but whose recent, more ideological work fails to get published because it can't pass peer review. They see this inability to get published as a sign of persecution and lockout orchestrated by the establishment rather than a reflection of the quality of their work. They might even accuse scientific journal editors of "groupthink" for failing to recognize the brilliance of the dissenters.

The paradox in many nonscientists who profess "skepticism" about climate science is that they are so staggeringly unskeptical about the claims of people who agree with them. They are willing to believe that almost all the experts are being duped. It's faux skepticism.

Conspiracy theorists look at science as a postmodern exercise of power instead of as society's best-faith effort to find coherent explanations for natural observations. The Economist (March 18,2010) newspaper put it this way:

In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misconceptions, and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around, or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists.

Nothing is more frustrating for credentialed scientists than to present their research to a general nonacademic audience and then to find themselves facing off during the Q & A with a blogger who says, "I've done a lot of research on the internet about this question, and I think your science is a house of cards."

Denialism and dissent

To avoid conspiracy theories, Christians need to learn how to distinguish climate dissent from denialism. Dissenters will recognize that there is a fairly robust consensus on the human role in climate science but will explain why a minority disagree with it (and will usually explain charitably why they haven't been able to convince their peers yet). They will recognize the reasonableness of the prevailing view. They won't look for a "smoking gun" or try to topple a house of cards. They will use their best science skills to argue that some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are in the wrong place.

Denialists deny everything—they deny that there is a strong consensus view; they deny that humans are partly responsible for climate change; they deny that the earth is warming; they deny that we could detect it if it was warming. The Christian variant of climate denialism denies even the theological possibility that a sovereign God would have created a world that humans can influence at a global scale.

In a way, their argument is with the Bible itself: They deny the reality of human dominion. If Genesis 1 means anything at all, it is that humans have in some sense actually been given charge of planetary maintenance, for good or for ill. Let's take it as evidence for God's existence that the scientific knowledge we need to manage the planet is growing along with our need to act on it.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish, a ministry that equips Christians to engage the world of environmental science and action.


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