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Environment

Learning to Live with Denialism

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Periodically, some readers accuse me of characterizing climate skepticism in an overly broad manner. There are various subspecies, they insist. So I should stop painting all climate skeptics as frothing conspiracy mongers. My rejoinder is that I base my characterization on the loudest, most relentless climate skeptics, who have made themselves the representative voices of their movement. In a nod to their different plumages, the climate analyst David Victor has in a recent talk identified three types of "denialism": Paid shills, actual skeptics, and hobbyists, the latter constituting the majority. Andy Revkin at his New York Times Dot Earth blog has excerpted highlights of the talk, including this passage that probably doesn't still well with the missionary contingent in the climate-concerned sphere:

under pressure from denialists we in the scientific community have spent too much time talking about consensus. That approach leads us down a path that, at the end, is fundamentally unscientific and might even make us more vulnerable to attack, including attack from our own. The most interesting advances in climate science concern areas where there is no consensus but the consequences for humanity are grave, such as the possibility of extreme catastrophic impacts. We should talk less about consensus and more about the consequences of being wrong—about the lower probability (or low consensus) but high consequence outcomes.

As an aside, I wonder if there is a lesson here for the GMO debate, since biotech communicators are increasingly emphasizing the scientific consensus on the safety issue. Is this, too, a misstep? But back to Victor's talk on how to deal with climate skepticism. Here's an important observation:

Various scholars have tried to identify the impact of denialist chatter and events like the climategate email scandal, and some seem to find some links. But in my view what is going on has nothing to do with denialism. Instead, what we are seeing is what psychologists call “motivated reasoning” —people hear about something they abhor and they find reasons to justify their dissent. Believing that the science is “uncertain” is one of those reasons. I know it is convenient to ascribe denialism to powerful commercial forces—evil Oz’s who are pulling levers behind the curtain—but if you realize that much of denialism is a hobby then it becomes much clearer that denialism is here to stay. In fact, as the importance of the topic rises so will denialism.

In other words, we have to learn to live with denialism and, more importantly, try not to fuel it. UPDATE: I'm reminded that Revkin has previously discussed being a (recovering) "denialist" of a different sort.

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