A history of denialism – Part III – Global Warming Denialism

Part III of our discussion of the history of denialist movements is on one that should tie things together and one I hope some of my fellow sciencebloggers will realize speaks to the necessity of challenging denialists on every front.

My work in this instance is made extremely easy as Naomi Oreskes has done it all for me. Please watch her discussion on the history of global warming denialism, it takes a bit of time, but it is dead on and is one of the best discussions of the methods and strategy of denialism (not to mention free-market fundamentalism) I have seen to date.

For those of you who follow this site and recent postings you will see some consistent themes:

1) Well-funded think tanks are capable of derailing a scientific consensus, in this case the consensus on global warming which has existed for nearly 3 decades.
2) The goal of denialists is not to propose an alternative theory that is explanatory and useful, but to create controversy and doubt where it does not exist.
3) These attempts are highly effective despite a complete absence of controversy in the scientific literature. Attacks in the lay press are more than sufficient to create a false debate using an appeal for parity or balanced presentation of ideas.
4) The same strategies used by the tobacco companies to deny the link between cancer and tobacco smoke, and in fact, some of the exact same actors are present in both cases.

These efforts must not be ignored. The methods of denialists must be exposed and attacked, and the sources of denialism must be discredited.

Part II – tobacco
Part I – the ancients


  1. It’s a great post. Again though, I don’t think anybody is saying we should ignore denialists. The issue is the best way to confront them, and again I would say that neither P.Z. Myers nor Nisbet have any real effect on the I.D. debate. If anything, this highlights the need for a more organized political/media outreach strategy than just randoming railing against particular opponents.

    Speaking of tobacco companies I literally just (2 minutes ago), posted an article about their latest campaign – http://layscience.net/?q=node/99.

  2. Martin, Mooney called us enablers for writing about the HI.

    What if someone were pointing out the dishonesty of the George C. Marshall Institutes tactics 20 years ago? Instead they operated under the radar, scientists had no idea what was happening and the issue was successfully politicized despite the denialists failing in 20 years to develop an alternative explanatory hypothesis or generating data.

    As far as framing it will become clear when I write about the DI and the history of evolution denialism why framing is irrelevant. It is based on false metrics.

  3. bob koepp

    Mark – re your point (2), “The goal of denialists is not to propose an alternative theory that is explanatory and useful, but to create controversy and doubt where it does not exist.”

    You need to tread carefully here, since it is perfectly legitimate to criticize an accepted theory without proposing an alternative. One can challenge the data, its interpretation, the soundness of inferences, etc., and also draw attention to anomlies — none of which requires having an alternative account in hand. The history of science is full of examples illustrating the simple point that we can have good reasons to think a theory is false even though we have no firm ideas about what a true replacement theory would look like. Do you deny this?

  4. lukkystarr

    The history of science is full of examples illustrating the simple point that we can have good reasons to think a theory is false even though we have no firm ideas about what a true replacement theory would look like.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you Bob, for that injection of reason.

  5. Smart work on global warming issue……….. I really appreciate your efforts…. amazing………………… and I will try to read you blog frequently………

    Nice work on global warming issue.

  6. bob,

    Of course it is reasonable to point out flaws and problems. The second half of Mark’s point is the key. The denialist’s goal is to spread FUD and is unscientific at the core. Benign uncertainty is redefined as devastating doubt.

    The major global warming deniers have no interest in furthering the science. They want to damage science for their own ideological ends.

  7. bob koepp

    boris – You are free, of course, to make it a matter of definition that the goal of denialists is to spread FUD. Unless you’re competent to make psychological diagnoses, however, you won’t be in a position to apply the ‘denialist’ label to anybody. Similarly for speculations about the “interests” of major global warming deniers. I’m not sure who you include among major GW deniers, or how you are able to discern their motives.

    We need to be wary when contrarian views are dismissed as “ill-motivated” rather than “ill-reasoned,” since there is no systematic relation between motives and reasons. The worst sort of motives are compatible with impeccable reasoning, and vice versa.

  8. We need to be wary when contrarian views are dismissed as “ill-motivated” rather than “ill-reasoned,” since there is no systematic relation between motives and reasons.

    Of course, the “ill reasoned” part comes first–as it always should. But Mark said that denialists try to

    create controversy and doubt where it does not exist.

    We can follow the evidence to a conclusion. first, their facts are wrong. Second, they are tied to a cause (say “libertarianism”) that is ideologically opposed to what most consider the obvious solution to the problem. One is left with two conclusions:

    1. The denialist isn’t a denialist at all, but is merely incapable of understanding the facts.
    2. The denialist is spreading disinformation.

    BTW, I consider Dr. Patrick Michaels a fine example of a global warming denialist.

  9. oops, forgot to close that blockquote…My words start at “We can follow..”

  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_controversy

    a full list of scientists and their work against the consensus. There is scientific literature.

  11. Jim Baerg

    It would be nice if a post that is in a series like this had an easy way to find the earlier posts in the series. Eg: links right at the start of the post.

    Searching on “history of denialism” doesn’t get me the 1st in the series within the 1st 2 pages of search results.

  12. bob koepp –

    Unless you’re competent to make psychological diagnoses, however, you won’t be in a position to apply the ‘denialist’ label to anybody.

    Bullshit. While I would definitely agree that there is a segment of the legions of crackpottery who are in fact pathological, the folks being described here are not. They are liars and obfuscaters through and through. Indeed, it is they who are preying upon those who have a pathological motivation towards buying into conspiracy theories and denialist bullshit. They are tools the denialist uses to spread disinformation, useful, because they are almost always very earnest in their desire to stick it to “the man”, whom they perceive to be the actual perpetrators of lies.

    Just look at the various threads on this blog, that have been infested by cranks. Look at the common themes that they use to perpetuate their bullshit. Consistently, the only difference is the topic.

    On another thread, I have been tangling with an anti-psychiatry nut. He was convinced by his own experience, that psych drugs are evile. But he can’t actually answer any of the arguments that while there are certainly people who manage their problems without medication, there are also many people who cannot. All he has to fall back on, is trying to discredit the whole of modern psychiatric medicine based solely on his anecdotes.

    It’s not just that denialists refuse to provide an alternative either. They refuse to provide any evidence to back up their claims that the status quo is wrong. They want to be taken as seriously as those who actually do have evidence to back up their positions, without actually having to prove anything. It is very much like medicine alties, they want their “treatments” to be taken as seriously as EBM, without actually doing any of the research and studies to prove that it is. Rather, they try to prove efficacy by association and have been remarkably successful at it.

    Too, and I think this is the clear indicator of a denialist campaign, they are not trying to convince people of their position. Instead, they are just trying to convince people that they might be right. To provide a reasonable doubt that can be used to avoid legislation and litigation. Possibly the most successful of such campaigns in recent times, is the anti-vax movement. Rather than convincing everyone that vaccines are the ultimate evil and should be avoided by everyone, they are couching it in terms of freedom of choice.

    I realize that the term “framing” is something of a dirty word around much of the sci-blogs, but framing is exactly what these folks do and do very well. I met with a group of HIV/AIDS denialists (actually, EBM denialists) recently, to interview them for an article I have been working on. The group in general was made up mostly of conspiracy theorists with a bent against medicine and something of a focus on HIV. There are however, two members who are much, much more than that. They are unquestionably, quite the remarkable persuasive speakers. They used the same arguments that I have seen debunked dozens of times on the sci-blogs, they responded to prodding the same way that I have seen dozens of times. But they were able to make it all sound so very reasonable. In part, they could do this because rather than making a futile attempt to change my mind, they merely tried to convince me that I might be wrong, that there was enough evidence to question status quo.

    I have said it before. The deck is stacked heavily in favor of the denialist. While we have to prove that we are right, they merely have to “prove” we might not be.

  13. @Jim – noted
    @bob – you are talking about how one would deal with a reasonable criticism of a theory. However in this cases, and in most cases of denialism the criticism contains an extraordinary claim – that GW is a hoax, a lie perpetrated by thousands of scientists, a massive conspiracy essentially. One must note that it’s been 20 years since they’ve been claiming this stuff and after a couple of decades one would hope they would publish a paper or two if the think the dominant theory is so incorrect. One must note that they have specifically attacked this theory through politics and the lay press, and not in the scientific literature. Meanwhile clear evidence of dishonesty emerges, and do they correct it? No, they just repeat it ad nauseum.

    I see what you mean, if I criticize a paper that just came out, it shouldn’t lead to me being labeled anti-science. One notes though that when scientists do this they usually do not disbelieve the data – their usual criticism is the data are misinterpreted and offer an alternative explanation for what was found. This is reasonable behavior.

    However, if a person criticizes an entire field of study, and calls it not only incomplete but a hoax, one would expect that this would be followed with substantiated claims in the literature. It is not enough to just tear down science, and make outrageous claims such as these without backup in the scientific literature. That is where real debate happens. That is why ID is not science, it’s why HIV/AIDS denialism is not science. They bitch and moan, demand equal time and complain about free speech, but they never offer anything explanatory.

    It’s the tactics that defines denialism, nothing else.

  14. lukkystarr

    Mark, most of what I have read in which references to a ‘Hoax’ are made are pieces that assert the consensus. Most of the reasonable discussion that refute the global warming claims, that I have come across, do not refute outright the global warming concept. They do, however, question whether there is a consensus, whether GW is anthropogenic, or whether, given the first two, we can do anything about it.

    This site, among others, have given me much to think about…


    It seems to be that the posts here, some of them, are showing aspects of denialism. Here, in these posts, there are refutations against the idea that there may not be a consensus.

  15. I’m not sure if I’m a denialist or not. Our globe has obviously been cooling or warming since… forever.

    I remember in the seventies when some researchers suggested covering the Arctic ice cap with soot to help it melt during that global cooling period. Now we read about receding glaciers. They have found remnants of villages where these glaciers once were. I wonder how those villagers would see our current situation. I also recall a Nova episode about the inversion of the magnetic pole. It apparently happens every 60,000 years or so, and we are over due to experience it again. These researchers show that during the run up to the inversion, our Earth’s magnetic field drops off dramatically allowing a huge increase in solar radiation causing our planet to heat up. They claim to have documented the current drop in the magnetic field. If they’re right, we must be in a warming period. I don’t know if fluorescent light bulbs will help.

    It seems that the consensus of scientists is currently on the warming side as opposed to the consensus thirty years ago. But science isn’t a democracy. Those scientists that are on the other side of the equation are still scientists aren’t they?

    I’m glad we didn’t put soot on the ice cap, but I’m still not sure if I am a denialist or not.

  16. This site, among others, have given me much to think about…

    Yeah, that site looked pretty denialish to me. It had the DDT ban myth, some really dumb stuff about global warming and ozone hole denial. It could be the author is stupid. Or it could be the author is a denialist. I don’t really care enough to decide between the two, life being short.

  17. DC, you are misremembering (at best). There was no “consensus of global cooling” 30 years ago. At no time did the scientific community ever warn that imminent global cooling would threaten human society.

    The Internet is full of people who claim to remember otherwise, but when challenged to provide evidence from contemporary peer-reviewed journals they inevitably fail. I think we’re seeing a lot of false memories here…. people listen to Rush Limbaugh tell them there was a climate flipflop since the ’70s, they reason that they were alive in the ’70s so they should have heard it, therefore they convince themselves they did hear it. There’s a lot more about this Big Lie of climate denialists at http://www.info-pollution.com/myths.htm.

  18. guthrie

    Martin- I think PZ has a huge effect on the ID argument. (It’s not a debate, its a fight the Creationists don’t want to lose)
    He has this effect by acting as a cheerleader for a good chunck of the pro-science people, by crushing creationist nonsense so that those of us who know less biology can understand and use the arguments against the next ID Creationist who does so. And he helps keep morale up and focus attacks where necessary, acting as a node in an information net. All this adds up to a great deal of effect, although not as much effect as the establishment clause.

  19. guthrie

    I quote a denialist from my local national newspaper (I live in Scotland). Every statement he makes on global warming is wrong, and we (meaning myself and 2 or 3 others) have corrected him on multiple occaisions for the past year:

    “Dr Etherington is correct. 10 years do not make up 1 data point. The line that 1998 doesn’t count would be defencible if the allaeged rising trend had contimued afterwards – it hasn’t. By the catastrophic warming theory we should nopw be 10% closer to the promised catastrophic temperaturer forecasr for 2100, of between6 & 30 degrees warmer (for a “settled consensus” they are in amazingly little agrrement on the rise). in fact we are less than 0% closer.

    The eco fascists in general & Slioch in particular have repeatedly proved onthis site that they will tell absolutely any lie to push their fearmongering.”

    Now, after reading that, and the accusations of being eco fascists, what is he, except a denialist? THis was his first post on a thread, without any warming up arguments.

  20. Thanks for posting this video — I finally got a chance to finish it. It’s nice to now have a better historical sense of denialism and its modus operandi.

  21. Scientists in the U.K. have reported evidence that further refutes one theory of global climate change.

    In the heated debate over global warming, there is an opposing idea, called the cosmic ray theory, which contends that climate change is simply caused by cosmic rays coming from the sun.

  22. The history of science is full of examples illustrating the simple point that we can have good reasons to think a theory is false even though we have no firm ideas about what a true replacement theory would look like. Do you deny this?

    Yes, science welcomes valid criticisms. And many theories become stronger after they are refined in the face of valid criticisms.

    And history also is full of examples of bad reasons to think a theory is false.

    Just because a criticism exists, does not mean it’s a “good reason to think a theory is false.”

    Do you deny this?

  23. In the heated debate over global warming, there is an opposing idea, called the cosmic ray theory, which contends that climate change is simply caused by cosmic rays coming from the sun.

    The cosmic ray theory is not very explanatory since there is no trend in GCR to explain the recent warming. Further, the mechanism for the GCR theory (i.e. the creation of cloud condensation nuclei) is not very well understood at all–especially compared to the radiative properties of CO2, which is quite well understood and has been since the 1950s.

    I find it fascinating that people will run to competing theories that have very little research and very little correlation because they do not like the consequences of the anthropogenic theory. Rarely does the “skeptic” show any skepticism for these new theories.

  24. bob koepp

    itchy – No, I don’t deny that there can be bad reasons for rejecting an empirical claim. I encounter such reasons on a daily basis. But I also encounter bad reasons to accept empirical claims on a daily basis. The trick is in being able to distinguish good from bad reasons.

  25. Khornet

    New to this site, pardon me if I cover things already discussed.
    Having read a lot on this topic, I have to say that there is quite a lot of material out there giving a legitimate basis for people in good faith to question anthropogenic GW. The vitriolic reaction to questioning is disturbing. Most of what I see is not a refutation of the skeptics’ claims, but plain old name-calling. When that happens, I have to wonder just how ‘scientific’ are the claims of AGW believers.
    I leave you with a quote from the Third Assessment of the IPCC, which cautions that when studying climate we must remember that we are dealing with “a coupled, non-linear system, and that therefore the prediction of a specific future climate is not possible.”

  26. LanceR


    With all due respect, bullsh*t. There is no *scientific* material anywhere disputing AGW. Anyone who tells you differently is lying or selling something. Notice the emphasis on scientific. There is a lot of bull floating around, spewed by a lot of people who have a vested interest in muddying the waters. The science is clear. See http://realclimate.org/ for discussion.

    This blog is not for discussion of the issues in AGW. This blog is for discussion of the tactics the deniers use to deflect science. I would suggest that you read http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/05/crank_howto.php for a quick primer on the tactics of the deniers.


  27. Is there any evidence that Solar Cycle 24 has so little activity that it could be the start of another potential miny ice age, or is this more bunk?

  28. Orestes presentation provides examples of (1) selective use of data (not mentioning the earth cooled from 1930’s to the 1970’s, not mentioning that the current IPCC report says that the oceans will rise 9″ in the next century, about the same as last century); (2) misstatement, by inference, of the predominant (over 90%) denialist position, which is that the earth has been warming at the rate of 0.2 degree per decade since about 1800, just as did the 1990’s; (3) classic ad-hom attacks, ignoring hundreds of other fully credentialed; ignoring that it is common for scientists to have correct opinions about some things and nuts opinions about other things (Linus Pauling and Vitamin C, Shockley and “scientific” racism)); (4) use of false experts (in supposing that physicists should know anything about SDI, and supposing that the popular press determines scientific consensus), and (6) proposal of a conspiracy theory to explain dissent (as if the Danes and M.I.T. were puppets of the Marshall Fund). Notable by omission was any data about the level of consensus on CO2 Theory; although consensus is not proof of correctness, it is relevant as expert opinion. For example, polls show 99.86% of relevant scientists endorse Evolution. The best polling data I can find is that belief that global warming is CO2-caused is doubted at about the 35-40% level, which is about the status of the Big Bang Theory in the 60’s.

    But acknowledging any contrary facts or being honest about the opposition would just play into the hands of cranks, right? No one should ever debate a denialist, right?

    notiz=[actually we don’t argue with denialists here]

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