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Taking Back Skepticism

John Cook

April 22, 2015

Skepticism is at the heart of the scientific method. Genuine skeptics don’t come to conclusions until they’ve considered the full body of evidence. That’s why it took many years for the scientific community to accept that the Earth is warming due to human greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists were skeptical until the evidence became overwhelming.

In contrast, people who deny well-established science come to conclusions first, and then reject any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. Denial and skepticism are polar opposites.

The main driver of climate science denial is political ideology. People averse to the solutions to climate change that involve regulation of polluting industries are more likely to deny there’s a problem that needs solving. Ideology decides the conclusion, and then any conflicting evidence is rejected.

However, deniers also wrap themselves in the trappings of science, in order to masquerade as scientific skeptics. So how do you tell the difference between genuine skepticism and denial? Are there any tell-tale characteristics of science denial?

A scientific paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee identifies five characteristics of science denial, whether it is rejection of human evolution, the link between smoking and cancer or human-caused global warming. The five characteristics of science denial are fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories.

Psychological research tells us that understanding and exposing the techniques of denial is the key to stopping science denial. I’ll come back to that shortly, but first let’s look at each characteristic in more detail.

Fake experts, who appear qualified but don’t have the relevant expertise, are used to create the impression of an ongoing scientific debate. A well-known example of this strategy is the Global Warming Petition Project. This is a petition featuring over 31,000 scientists or science graduates who don’t believe humans are disrupting climate. However, 99.9% of the petition’s signatories aren’t climate scientists. This is an example of fake experts in bulk.

Logical fallacies are logically false arguments leading to invalid conclusions. For example, the most common climate myth uses a faulty leap of logic known as jumping to conclusions. This myth is that “climate has changed naturally in the past, so humans can’t be causing global warming now.” This is equivalent to arguing that people have died from natural causes in the past, so smoking cigarettes can’t be causing deaths now.

Impossible expectations demand unrealistic standards of proof before acting on the science. One version of this argument is that if we don’t know everything about our climate, then we know nothing. But this ignores aspects of climate science where we have a high level of understanding—such as the human role in causing global warming.

Cherry picking focuses on specific pieces of data, often out of context, while excluding any data that conflicts with the desired conclusion. How do you tell when someone is cherry picking? When their conclusion from a small piece of data conflicts with the conclusion supported by the full body of evidence. For example, when we look at the whole climate system, we see that since 1998, our planet has built up heat at a rate of over four atomic bombs per second. And yet climate deniers argue that global warming stopped in 1998. How can they argue global warming has stopped when the planet is building up so much heat? By cherry picking the data and ignoring the big picture.

Conspiracy theories are inevitable when someone disagrees with an overwhelming scientific consensus. How else does someone explain why all the world’s experts and scientific organizations disagree with them? Their only explanation is that all the experts must be conspiring to falsify or exaggerate the science. In addition, to a conspiracy theorist, any evidence disproving the conspiracy is seen as further confirmation of the conspiracy. When nine separate investigations into the private emails of climate scientists exonerated the scientists, climate deniers accused the investigators of being part of the conspiracy.

The five characteristics of science denial are abundantly on display by those calling themselves “climate skeptics.” This inaccurate label misleads people into thinking that denialist behavior—such as cherry picking, fallacies, and conspiracy theories—is appropriate conduct for genuine skeptics.

In a previous article, Skeptical Inquirer asked that journalists stop using the word skeptic to describe deniers. Given the importance of the media in informing the public, this is a crucial step. An equally important step is that scientists and critical thinkers need to claim back the word skepticism. They need to repudiate and expose the techniques of denial that are employed by denialists who claim the label “skeptic.”

Psychological research provides the key to stopping science denial. The answer is not just more science. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the scientific research tells us that the key to stopping science denial is to expose people to weak forms of science denial.

Does this approach sound familiar? This finding comes from a strand of psychological research known as inoculation theory. It borrows from the concept of vaccination, where you convey resistance to a virus by exposing people to a weak form of the virus. Similarly, the most effective way to reduce the influence of denial is to expose people to a weak form of denial. You achieve this by explaining the denialist techniques used to distort the science.

We apply this approach in a free online course by The University of Queensland, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. We examine the psychology of denial and outline the techniques and fallacies of science denial. Then we put the psychology into practice by debunking fifty of the most common climate myths. Not only will people come away with a deeper understanding of climate change, they’ll also be able to identify the techniques used to distort the science and the most effective ways to respond to misinformation.

Our course includes interviews with some of the world’s leading scientists, including Naomi Oreskes, Richard Alley, Eugenie Scott, and Sir David Attenborough. The following video has scientists explaining the difference between genuine skepticism and science denial.

Climate science denial has tainted the good name of skepticism. Scientists need to take back skepticism. We achieve this by combining science communication with explanations of the techniques employed to distort that science. In this way, skepticism can again become associated with evidence-based critical thinking rather than the rejection of science.

John Cook

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John Cook is the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia. He created and maintains the Skeptical Science website and is co-author of Climate Change Denial (2011) and the 2013 college textbook Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.