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Persuasion or obfuscation in the climate change debate: who’s kidding who?

November 15, 2010

From time to time a denier will creep in to this blog and spray graffitti over a thread. After some soul-searching, I formed a policy of non-tolerance (they would say ‘intolerance’) and mostly erase the graffitti. But yesterday, a poster I know mainly from his BTL Guardian posts decided to make a few pithy remarks about my post on conservatives and their relationship to ecology and climate change. I responded to his comments, despairing of them, but afterwards I puzzled at his text because there was something more I could not quite identify, something implicit rather that stated.

I find I’m writing more about cliches these days. I’ve been writing about climate change for so long, the repetition gets really wearing – the deniers trot out the same weary stuff month in, month out. (The truth of this statement is made evident by John Cook’s Skepticalscience site, where the denialist arguments are numbered, catalogued and debunked – not that the latter will ever stop a denier from using them).

For the followers of science, things are very different. Every week there are new developments, new findings, old ones revisited and sometimes revised – all of which give energy and traction to the science of climate change, for it is the sheer aggregate of science that is most compelling for those who consider evidence to outweigh personal preference. While it is perfectly true that AGW, being an inferential theory like evolution, cannot be proved – where proof depends on the kind of mathematical rigour and architecture of classical physics or chemistry, which validates itself – it is also the case that half a century of direct investigation has produced only science which points towards mankind being the agent sabotaging our environment. There is no science pointing in any other direction.

What there is, of course, is a growing body of evidence that many vested interests have sought to pervert the findings of science, to distort it, fabricate evidence against it, smear and defame decent men and women doing their jobs, and employ all manner of sophistry, obfuscation and demagoguery to manipulate public opinion. In the case of some – Plimer and Monckton spring immediately to mind – there is considerable money to be made from books and the lecture circuit, not that I’m suggesting this might be a reason for them to pander to the masses and their fears. (Those who would claim this perversion of the public discourse is a fiction, or greatly exaggerated, need to take this issue up with Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, preferably after reading their shocking book Merchants of Doubt, a savage indictment of big business propaganda, and which SkepticalScience sums up economically here).


So, clichés rule the day in denier-land. Why is that? The obvious answer is that they have no science, but there’s a less obvious point here too: how can you win an argument for which you have no evidence? That depends on how you define a ‘win’.

The litany of clichés dragged out routinely by deniers owes its origins more to purpose than function. These are not offered by way of argument, because their proponents do not expect anyone who understands the subject to be taken in by them. Certainly, there is no scientist working in the associated disciplines of climate science who is going to be fooled by puerile accusations of collusion to secure funding, or political conspiracy, let alone the kind of duff science that gets dragged out from time to time. This latter strategy – arguing with the science – is something of a rarity, because they have discovered it is much more effective to attack the messenger and leave the message to rot: it doesn’t matter what the message says if nobody listens to the messenger. A win for deniers is not an act of persuasion; it is the successful fostering of distrust.

This was one of the things that struck me about the denunciatory post made here, the way it was full of moral reproach and sanctimony. It does not seek to persuade, and makes no attempt to present an argument. Instead, it is hectoring and self-righteous, its purpose to tell me how wrong I am, how misguided, how my actions and observations are ill-judged. It’s all very certain, and that’s the real problem – both morally, and logically – but more on that momentarily. Essentially, the poster demands that I distrust my own intelligence, disown the rationality and research that has gone into this subject over a decade – and specifically it ignores the scientific evidence, for this is the ground on which my argument is strongest.

And he suggests, by inference, that others should distrust me, by attaching motive where none exists, by alluding to errors where none can be demonstrated, by calling into question my motives and beliefs. An attack on the messenger, then; not a single attempt to address issues I raised in my first post, and certainly no attempt at discussion between equals, merely a litany of condemnation from someone very certain of their superior position, and of the judgments that emanate from it. It is also curious that his post is so topic-ambivalent; I could stick it at the end of any other thread in this blog and there would be only a single sentence that might need revision. General purpose, re-usable denialism: economic, a sort of labour-saving device if you like.

Of course, the same could be said of me in my denunciation of denialism, but only if we ignore these crucial differences: the deceitful  methods used by many deniers in advocacy of their position, the vested interests known and proven to be fuelling dissent by exploiting scientific illiteracy and fostering vague but potent anxiety,  and the complete lack of science to support their case. And one other thing; deniers are relentlessly backing their own, self-important opinions – which they state all the time as fact. I’m just relaying what science says, and defending it against misrepresentation. My opinions count for nothing in this debate, and I have nothing to lose if I’m wrong except a bleak future caused by climate change. If the theory of AGW is wrong, then the scientists are responsible; as the messenger, I share no culpability. The opposite is true of deniers: opinions are all they have, and any loss in this debate is personal, for the error will be theirs, and theirs alone.  


Which leads, perhaps circuitously, to certainty. A key argument in the denialist canon is that the science isn’t settled. Of course, this is just another cliché they trot out, because although a handful of foolish people over a decade have said as much, there is no scientist alive who would really subscribe to the notion. The political utility of the phrase, such as it is, relates to overwhelming probability of AGW – the oft-disputed consensus on climate change and the causes of it. But fair enough, the science is indeed unsettled, and will remain that way.

I don’t have a problem with admitting the bleeding obvious, but deniers appear to have some issues with observing their own strictures. If the science isn’t settled, what I want to know is this: how is it that so many deniers, like my example poster here, are so remarkably certain? Seriously – there is no glimmer of doubt, no equivocation, no hint of probabilities. These people know for sure that AGW is wrong. They know that all the science that supports the theory is wrong – all of it! They know the rational constructs on which climate change theory are, in fact, irrational. They know that governments and bankers and all manner of creeps are in on the act, all lining their pockets. They know that the IPCC is a sham, the UN is a front for communism, and that everything will be fine if we just carry on as usual.

And so I end with the following questions, which I believe points up an essential flaw in the deniers entire position, considering that the science is not, as we all agree, anywhere near settled. My questions are these; how on earth can you be so certain of something about which the last thing any of us can be is certain? How can you be so sure of something you’ve tried so hard to discredit by the very means of fostering uncertainty. If we accept the science is uncertain, then it is so for all of us. Without scientific proof that mankind is not causing the problem, you have nothing at all.

If anthropogenic climate change cannot be proved by science, neither can it be disproved. In such a case, certainty can only be built on a foundation of belief alone. This kind of belief is usually referred to as a faith, and certainty in the righteousness in one’s faith is a common precursor to every vile and inhuman act recorded in history, because blind faith and bigotry walk hand in hand. Science provides us with an evidential basis for action; faith provides none, and the faithful seem so often to advocate exactly that: to do nothing.

52 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil Winder permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:04 pm

    Clear, thoughful and unarguable. Good one.

  2. adelady permalink
    November 16, 2010 1:46 am

    Good as usual, Graham. But I’d take issue with one minor point about “deceitful methods used by deniers (it’s how they earned the epithet, after all)”.

    The ‘denial’ mechanism is much broader than that – though it’s obviously true that the instigators of many notions proposed in relation to climate change and the other topics mentioned by Oreskes are deliberately dishonest. Just look at the anti-vaxxers. Or look at the classic case of denial in the face of diagnosis of an illness like cancer. (In my own family we had my father denying that his physical problems were caused by a genetic disease and therefore refusing to warn us that we were likely to suffer the same condition, and another part of the family denying that a severely developmentally delayed child was showing clear signs of autism.)

    People have a predisposition to ‘deny’ anything that disturbs their sense of personal security or identity. The deliberate purveyors of FUD rely on there being a significant portion of the population ready to accept, transmit and reinforce any suggestion that they are personally threatened.

    Which is why they raise questions of politics, personal freedom, resentment against brainiacs, taxation, ……… and twenty other things. Anything that might link into an individual’s notions about how they fit into the world. We therefore have a double problem. Not only do we have to show that an individual fact, analysis, idea is mistaken, we have to overcome a person’s feeling that they _must_ hold on to the idea in question or face the fact that they’ve been had.

    Admitting that you’ve added something up wrong is not usually a problem. Admitting that you’ve made a mistake because you allowed someone else to trick you is always a big problem. That’s where the strength of the denialist position lies. Having once accepted something, such people are strongly committed to defending their own view of themselves as sensible and intelligent and not, never ever, duped by an ideologue.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 16, 2010 7:42 am

    Adelady – your criticism is well made. I’ve changed the text accordingly since the observation was invalid. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. The King In Yellow permalink
    November 16, 2010 2:43 pm

    Soopid question: BTL…not heard this TLA before can you translate ?


  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 16, 2010 3:24 pm

    …Below The Line…(articles are ATL)…

    But what’s TLA?…

  6. November 17, 2010 2:16 am

    In such a case, certainty can only be built on a foundation of belief alone. This kind of belief is usually referred to as a faith
    I know what you mean in this final paragraph and agree about the dangers mentioned. But it is worth noting that many Christians do not mean “belief without or in spite of evidence” when they refer to faith. In the Holy Scriptures, faith is a relational concept which is basically synonymous with trust.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 17, 2010 8:05 am

    Actually Byron, my remarks referred to ‘blind faith’ – the kind that leads to crusades, to persecution, to intolerance and violence. The faith I refer to has nothing to do with trust at all, but is the foundation and precursor for intolerance and persecution, both of which phenomena are greatly in evidence in respect of this debate.

    Faith also drives creationism (for example), for behind faith – with its eschewing of evidence – lies bigotry and unwarranted certainty. Science depends entirely on proofs, faith depends entirely on beliefs (for any issue on which there is evidence, faith is superceded by fact). This distinction, when applied to religion, has not garnered an admirable historical record, and in the case of climate change denialism the age-old problems emerge, dressed in a thin veneer of faux-rationality, beneath which lies much intolerance, and considerable corruption, both spiritual and temporal.

    And faith is appropriate where nothing else works, but like oil and water, it cannot be mixed with science, where faith has no place at all. Your faith is your business and so long as you don’t think anyone else should necessarily share that faith (because your faith is right, that is is ‘the truth’,and those who don’t share your faith are ‘misguided’), it isn’t any kind of issue. It’s simply your choice and I would always respect that. The moment you seek impose your faith on me (as denialists do), or use it as a tool to attack evidence-based disciplines like science (ditto), we have a serious problem.

    Let us also distinguish between faith in systems of thought, such as religions, and faith in oneself alone. The key element that I have described as ‘blind faith’ is the strident faith that deniers have in a bewildering disarray of different notions, all of which seem to have some built-in evidence of persecution before the event. Deniers faith is like nihilism – a belief more in persecution and injustice than anything constructive, such as the principles of Christianity, which are, in fact, tolerant, humanist and generous. The nearest thing to a construct of faith in denialist terms would be a belief in the powers of business as usual.

  8. The King In Yellow permalink
    November 17, 2010 6:48 pm

    GW – thabnks

    TLA = Three Letter Acronym

    All the best.

  9. November 18, 2010 4:04 pm

    Hi Graham,
    I think we are missing a trick because most people just don’t give a damn, the denialists we come across on the net are activists, of course they are unpersuadable , just like us. We are never going to persuade the skeptical activists (or denialist activists) but they are massively outnumbered by others who if you asked them would probably say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care’. That’s the constituency we should be trying to reach , the people who reckon the only certainty about climate change is that it’s a bore.

    Rather than just engaging in a slugfest of words with a dishonest adversary perhaps we should develop thoughts along the lines of ” climate change denial is an extraordinary popular delusion.”


  10. November 19, 2010 10:54 pm

    I figure there are 2 types of skeptics – skeptic activists and skeptic inactivists.

    The skeptic inactivists would rather talk about anything but climate change – but they know that the skeptic camp is where they are most comfortable because it is defending their place in the modern world. I think we need to find a way to engage them rather than the know-alls who have become skeptic activists. One way, perhaps is to muse over the fact that as soon as one has become an ‘activist’ one must be (to some extent) convinced of one’s position. But a skeptic activist doesn’t look so clever in that context because he is convinced of a position where 97% of scientists would disagree with him.

    For that reason , I have less respect for the denier or the skeptic the more they profess to know .

    Hmmmm, well I’m just developing that thought but thanks for listening 😉

  11. November 21, 2010 6:29 pm

    Hmmmm this has certainly got me thinking about a number of things. There are a few aphorisms from Bertrand Russell that might help. My favourite being “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 21, 2010 7:28 pm

    Really Hengist, I do seem to have got you going there… 🙂

    (In Praise Of Idleness is one of my favorite books)

    But you did say one thing I can’t agree with: “…as soon as one has become an ‘activist’ one must be (to some extent) convinced of one’s position…”

    It is of considerable intellectual comfort to me to know that I do not have to factor personal conviction (with its inherent dangers) into my ‘balancing act’ if I could call it that – the process of self-examination, if you like.

    Obviously it is possible with sufficient conviction to be exactly as duplicitous, as self-serving, as devious and disingenuous as those we oppose. At this juncture, the moral means are sacrificed to ambitious ends. I’ve written about this before, this moral dilemma; it’s troubling when you think you’re losing because you are constrained by rules of engagement the other side doesn’t give a damn about, but insist you follow them or be branded a hypocrite.

    So I worry about gradually slipping into technical (rhetorical) expediency and look out for it, but I have a component missing that tends to obviate motive: it is not my position I’m defending . It is the probity of science, the efficacy of scientific evidence, and the freedom to investigate the world around us without fear of prosecution or persecution that I champion, because this is the principle out of which nearly everything worthwhile has sprung.

    But it isn’t my science, and if tomorrow they tell me we are not causing climate change, that’s absolutely fine by me. Conveniently, there is also no loss of face whatever for me as an activist, for I have at no point stated an opinion of my own as fact. I don’t need to be convinced of anything except the scientific evidence. The rest – the political part – is up for grabs, but on that subject I have rather less to say, and more to think about.

  13. November 21, 2010 7:50 pm

    Graham, You might have addressed this point before somewhere I’m not sure, but a question 4 U : When people refer to ‘a skeptical viewpoint’ is there any justification for such a phrase? I mean if we are looking at something scientifically it should be a search for truth , right? And as such it doesn’t matter whether we arrive at that end via a skeptical or proponent route , just that we head in the direction of truth. So I’m wondering if the phrase a skeptical viewpoint , and similar approaches are justified. At what point does skepticism become denialism? Your thoughts would be very much appreciated, or just a link to something helpful , please.

  14. November 21, 2010 8:13 pm

    Im not having a go at activists, I consider myself one. It’s just that I’m examining how the word is used as a derogatory. I posted a comment last week on Matt Ridley’s website suggesting he is an activist himself because of his use of the term to describe other scientists he doesn’t agree with. He hasn’t got back to me.

    Apropos your tweet, not all websites are portrait- Banksy is landscape

  15. adelady permalink
    November 21, 2010 11:59 pm

    The semantics are unimportant, HMS.

    You should note that the “skeptical” terminology is used on medical blogs to refer to the supporters of science based medicine. The anti-vaxxers and peddlers of weird potions and crank theories see themselves as advancing a ‘new’ or ‘better’ form of medicine (opposed to the evils of the pharmaceutical industry and hide-bound medical practitioners) . The “skeptics” are the mainstream. So the term itself is not useful.

    By and large, most people who describe themselves as skeptical _of_ climate science are really doubters or deniers rather than people who are open-minded or skeptical within a scientific framework.

  16. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 22, 2010 8:07 am

    Adelady makes a fair point about semantic abuse, but I’m keen to reclaim certain words, rescue them from their captivity by hostiles – “denier” is another example where the scurrilous ‘Irving’ definition is being foisted on us as the only one (although there’s a lovely irony in deniers ‘denying’ the merit of, or association with, the Freudian concept).

    So let’s put scepticism in its rightful place: it is the process of not allowing one’s judgement to be coloured by preference. In science, it is the way one discount status, record, social standing, popularity, even citation count or publication frequency, and take each new work on its own merits with nothing more than an open mind and sharp tools for analysis. My best example is Fleischman and Pons, both of whom were famous in the scientific constellation, well-respected, widely published and – in the case of cold fusion – completely and utterly wrong. Their work was treated with the proper scepticism, and failed the principle test of all science – repeatability.

    But to me, you really get to the nitty-gritty when you ask this, the most pertinent question on this topic in my view:

    At what point does skepticism become denialism?

    My answer is this: when you abandon the rules of evidence (that is, the scientific method). I’ve written many times about the lack of evidence to support denialism, and earlier I made the point that I’m not fighting for my own views, my opinions – I’m simply defending whatever it is that science finds out (and largely agrees on – and here we’re back to the consensus, which as I’ve written previously is not so much a case of everyone agreeing, but everyone no longer bothering to contest a theory because it’s too good a fit with the phenomenon under study. This is my understanding of what ‘reductionist’ science is).

    Denialism then can be defined by its lack of evidence. Those people who argue that we cannot yet determine climate sensitivity, and therefore the rate of heating per doubling of CO2e is unknown, are sceptics (and they are correct). Those who argue sensitivity is too low to trigger feedbacks are deniers. They have abandoned the science, and must now turn to their own self-importance to validate a theory that cannot be validated, for if we cannot determine the true value for sensitivity (at present), we cannot determine lower values as fact any more than higher values. A key characteristic of denialism that it not only depends on opinion alone, but must also reject all science that implies something more equivocal. (

    So, as Adelady concludes, so-called sceptics who express certainty about anything are really deniers. We cannot be certain, we cannot be sure, for climate science cannot have controls, a spare Earth to play with, nor can we intervene experimentally without risking grave consequences (e.g. geoengineering, GM). Climate science is inferential, something else deniers like to make much hay out of – they demand the causative proof between CO2 and global warming just like creationists demand the ‘missing link’, that fossil specimen that is a monkey skeleton with a fossil screwdriver in one hand and a stone tablet version of the Daily Mail in the other.

    I’ll just end with a further remark about creationism, because I think it pertains to your enquiries. There are no ‘sides’ to science. Demands that the ‘sceptical’ (actually denialist) side of the debate be aired with matching frequency to the science itself is just sophistry, perfectly akin to demanding that every time we write about evolution, we give an equal space to creationism. One subject is scientific and has evidence, the other is a belief system based on faith alone. They are not equal, and creationism does not merit equivalence in treatment. Scepticism in science is served only by better science, and nothing else. Everything else is just opinion, and those who trumpet opinion as fact are deniers.

  17. November 22, 2010 11:46 am

    Excellent summary Graham. Thanks!

  18. November 22, 2010 11:47 am

    The pedant in me keeps wanting to point out that your heading should be “who’s kidding whom“, but I have been rigorously resisting the urge to mention it.

  19. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 22, 2010 12:01 pm

    Obviously where there are just trouble makers you must take a stand. But too often this is becoming just censorship to keep out views that people don’t like. There are obviously people who understand science rather well who do not accept your views. I guess this is a personal site so you shall do what you want but you pretend also that you are a liberal. To be a true liberal you need to allow others to have a say. This site seem to be rather one for agreeing among a small group of people who are all thinking alike. Of course you will always agree with one another if you do that but the real test of your views is if you can answer contrary ones not the number of your friends who agree with you.

  20. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 22, 2010 4:09 pm

    Hello Birgit. Thanks for your comments, but I do think you’re a little off the mark on certain points. You say “But too often this is becoming just censorship to keep out views that people don’t like”.

    I’m sure this is true of some sites, some blogs, but here I welcome any kind of debate, so long as it is constructive, and does not take issue with science based on ideology or opinion stated as fact.

    There are obviously people who understand science rather well who do not accept your views.

    I just finished commenting on the fact they are not my views – I write about science, and the methods used by those who would discredit it. Please ensure you are familiar with the arguments before taking issue with them.

    I guess this is a personal site so you shall do what you want but you pretend also that you are a liberal.

    At no time in my blog posts have I ever made a claim to any kind of political affiliation, personal ideologyor philosophical outlook, except by inference. That you find it necessary to invent a position for me so you can claim it is pretense, it of itself rather revealing – and not terribly constructive. Why are you commenting here – do you simply wish to tell me what’s wrong with me?

    the real test of your views is if you can answer contrary ones not the number of your friends who agree with you.

    Some views cannot be argued since they own nothing to logic and everything to emotion. But on the subject of the post which heads this thread, I cannot ‘answer’ (I think you mean debate) any contrary views, since nobody – including you – has voiced any. You spent your first post insinuating things about me and my motive, but you didn’t actually make a point, offer an argument or rebuttal. Care to offer any thoughts about the subject itself, or do you wish merely to make more personal comments and judgements about a complete stranger?

  21. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 22, 2010 4:11 pm

    Keep resisting there Byron… 🙂

  22. November 22, 2010 4:16 pm

    For the record, I’ve disagreed with Graham a number of times and am yet to get censored. Though I’m sure he’ll make an exception for any further pedantry…

  23. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 22, 2010 5:09 pm

    “here I welcome any kind of debate, so long as it is constructive, and does not take issue with science based on ideology or opinion stated as fact. ”

    Well that may be your opinion. For me I shall very much take issue with science based on ideology. This is not the method of science.

    You mention graffiti and how you erase it. The question is how are you distinguishing grafitti from art? When you are acting a censor you will be inclined to remove everything you are disagreeing with, art as well as grafitti.

  24. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 22, 2010 5:33 pm

    No Birgit, you misunderstood, and perhaps I could have expressed this better thus:

    I welcome any kind of debate, so long as it is constructive, and does not take issue with science where the challenge to that science is based on ideology, or opinion stated as fact.

    It is the ideological challenge to the science that I take issue with, where instead of challenging science with better science, it is challenged by alleging conspiracy, fraud, collusion, ineptitude, corruption or even fraud. Science cannot be changed by opinion, and as you rightly say, no science can be ideological.

    Your remarks about grafitti are too literal. My allusion was that denialist posts are the rhetorical equivalent of grafitti. As for censorship, in this blog I will trust my own judgement, for what other compass can any man or woman have? In art, it is a matter of aesthetics and I would not dream of imposing my own tastes on others, so artistic censorship is not something I could begin to contemplate. (Not only that, but the distinction between grafitti and art is a straw-man of your own invention – the second argument you’ve invented in order to attack it – since I never made such a distinction. You only have to see Banksie’s work to realise that grafitti is merely code for ‘unintended canvas’).

    I’m curious now. Your posts seem a little confrontational, and critical but in a way that doesn’t quite reveal itself through clear lines of argument (you inferred that I was a ‘fake’ liberal, but never offered any examples of my failure). Frankly, you sound a bit pissed off with me and I wonder if you can tell me why (assuming I’m reading you correctly)?

  25. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 23, 2010 1:33 pm

    So now your view on the science is rather clear for me and I am glad we agree on this. Then I am a bit confused because you say “If anthropogenic climate change cannot be proved by science, neither can it be disproved. In such a case, certainty can only be built on a foundation of belief alone.” So do you say that anthropogenic climate change is not a matter that has been proved by science?

    Now also I wont to be clear that I am not at all pissed off or confrontational but you do seem a liberal in one way because you are against “the kind that leads to crusades, to persecution, to intolerance and violence” but on the other way you are operating a censorship here which is not so liberal and is preventing the expression of alternative views and is perhaps a manifestation of the intolerance that you oppose.

  26. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 23, 2010 2:04 pm

    So do you say that anthropogenic climate change is not a matter that has been proved by science?

    Absolutely. There is no causative link whatever between anthropogenic GHG output and global warming. The science of climate change is inferential; it draws conclusions based on a number of different strands of knowledge and evidence. In this respect, it is exactly the same as the theory of evolution, also for which no specific proof exists.

    Climate change science is different from evolution however in that it is based on a set of known properties, from the work of Tyndall, Arrhenius etc – properties of gases, CO2 circulation models, the role of GHGs. But it’s a point the deniers do love, because as they love to remind us, correlation does not equal causation, and that is quite right.

    AGW as a theory can only be expressed as probabilities. There must, by the rules of the scientific method, always be another possibility – no matter how very unlikely. That is the state of climate science right now; the probability it is us is so high, there can be no justification for ignoring the implications for us all.

    On the censorship point, you seem to be speaking theoretically. I discussed this issue at length in this post A Brief Comment on Moderation. If you have a specific example of censorship you wish to discuss, I’d be happy to explain my reasoning. I would hope you haven’t simply assumed the worst of me because I have decided to exercise some editorial control over the contents of this blog. I’ve seen what an unmoderated thread looks like, been in far to many, and I’m not going to watch constructive debates between like-minded people – friends or not – be turned into denialist ping-pong. We had a bout of that, and it was really bloody tedious.

  27. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 23, 2010 6:15 pm

    This was a good comment I think, Graham. But if the science is not so settled then perhaps you should allow the peoples who have a different view more access to post their opinion. But you have had some bad experiences in the past in this connection so I think too you are right there and that it is good of you to promote this site.

    Also I am not so clear about the medical point that Adelady is making. I am very opposed to the so called alternative medicine and I think maybe you should also remove these types of comments from the site.

  28. November 23, 2010 9:51 pm

    Birgit – If you read Adelady carefully, I think you’ll see that she is using the claims made by purveyors of alternative medicines as a parallel illustration to those who peddle climate inaction. There is certainly no ideological rejection of science. No need for censorship under Graham’s current comments policy.

  29. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 24, 2010 8:53 am

    Actually, there is a strange irony here. Birgit turns up, accuses me of posing as a liberal while operating a policy of suppressing views I disagree with (without offering any proof of such behaviour), and ends up advocating exactly such censorship because she is opposed to alternative medicine (having misunderstood what Adelady was saying anyway).

    Two points then: first, I’m never going to suppress legitimate views of anything merely because I disagree with those views. Nor will I ever remove something in this blog because one poster disagrees with another.

    Birgit – get your story straight. You’re not making much sense.

  30. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 24, 2010 10:52 am

    Thank you Byron for putting me right on that one. That is all now very clear.

    And Graham it did seem strange to me also. I was not thinking that you pose as a liberal because it was rather clear that you were a tolerant and kind person, very much wanting the co-operation, like I do. However you were also saying that you had a policy of non tolerance which was completely against this. Then for me it was even stranger that you did not respect different views about the climate, although you did say the science cannot be proved but did respect the alternative medicine view. This was my mistake as Byron was good to point out.

    I thought perhaps you were a bit like the prince Charles, who is for the science on climate change but also against the science on medicine where he has been promoting some rather strange ideas.

  31. fred permalink
    November 24, 2010 6:33 pm

    I guess your opening piece is about Jack Savage’s comments on the other blog. Did you ever work out what it was you could not quite identify? Sorry for the ignorance but what is BTL?

  32. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 24, 2010 7:15 pm

    Fred – my exposition on the mystery begins in the paragraph that commences: “This was one of the things that struck me about the denunciatory post made here….”

    And BTL is ‘below the line’, as mentioned above.

  33. November 24, 2010 10:21 pm

    Me again,

    I don’t really feel that my question about the border between skepticism and denialism has been answered but no matter. I have a suggestion, instead of trying to nail that point why not ascertain what the tell-tale signs of denialism are. I say ‘trying to construct an alternative narrative’ is an example. What say you?

  34. birgit kvarnstrom permalink
    November 24, 2010 11:16 pm

    This is a good question Hengist. In my opinion it is not so fair to use the word “denialist”. This is to try to make a division between people not to look for the co-operation. Also of course it is relating to the terms “holocaust denier” but not by being open, rather by the implication. What do you say Graham on this matter? Should we use a bad word like “denier” or should we look for a new one?

  35. November 24, 2010 11:34 pm

    No Birgit it’s not saying holocaust denier that’s something different. I want to distinguish between skepticism which is on the spectrum of not having made up one’s mind , and falsely claiming to know that AGW does not exist. Which Graham has gone to great lengths to show up as absurd. I figure the words themselves have found their way into the argot, it’s just that I want to be confident in how to use them.

  36. adelady permalink
    November 25, 2010 6:51 am

    Hengist, I think the crucial difference is in the open-mindedness implicit in the scientific use of the word scepticism. The common usage too easily slips into the perpetual doubting of absolutely everything – which can turn into denialism.

    A “true” sceptical approach looks at evidence, all evidence. So if you want a quick rule of thumb for assessing a contribution to a discussion about something, look at the evidence proffered. A scientific approach would say here are these xxx papers saying something or other and you might notice there’s a bit of a discrepancy between these 2 and most of the others.

    A denialist claiming to be a sceptic will often say but look over here – one research paper and a couple of blog items (which lack citations). In itself that’s not a problem. But if further discussion elicits several repeats of the same points and no acknowledgement of having read the other items referred to, you can begin to wonder if this person fully espouses scepticism – evaluating all evidence against the same rigorous criteria – or has already decided that no additional information could ever modify whatever position they’ve stated. In other words, a denier. One who denies that information from any source they’ve not personally pre-approved can have any relevance to their opinion.

    (Of course, if the discussion immediately veers off into political alarmism about impending socialism or world government then you know that scientific or technical information just won’t make any impression at all.)

  37. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 25, 2010 8:24 am

    Hengist – I felt I had pretty much nailed the definition, but if you want another one (consistent with Adelady’s position, which I agree with) it is this: sceptics will change their minds based on tomorrow’s evidence. Deniers will maintain their viewpoint despite the change in evidence. Scepticism is informed by scientific evidence, denialism is informed by political ideology (or straightforward contrarianism). One other thing – alternative narratives are fine but I don’t think they have anything to do with it directly. Denialism starts by conflating science – which doesn’t have ‘sides’ – with ideology, which does.

    Birgit – I addessed the kidnapping of Freud’s term in my article. Connections with the holocaust are fictitious, and are used to claim victimhood, a key element of denialism e.g. conspiracies, alarmism, suppression, censorship etc. The only times I have ever seen the connection made is by deniers, and in my view it is the biggest straw man of all time. As for barriers to finding common ground, another notable aspect of denialism is its refusal to debate. Broadly, deniers spend all their time telling everyone else that they are wrong. It is this fixity of position and certainty that demonstrates they don’t know what they are talking about, because they cannot prove their case. Certainty where none exists is religious in nature, and it is another reason all scientists (and followers of science) can never be certain. Not ever.

  38. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 25, 2010 10:45 am

    Well I am not so sure about this. Of course Graham it would only be the deniers who are objecting to the word, because they are the only receivers of this bad language. Maybe there is here a different tradition. In England I think you are quite influenced by the so-called iron lady and a rather divisive approach. In Sweden we are quite used to a different way where it is important for persons to each express their opinion, without the censorship (of course Graham the situation is difficult here where you have also the so-called grafitti problem!) and to look for the co-operation. In its way this word denier is a censorship on the person who is making their case, although it is a case we are not agreeing with, a bit like using the “n” word for people of colour.

  39. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 25, 2010 10:58 am

    Birgit – hope you don’t mind, but I have slightly modified your post to remove the specific word, which I will not permit on this site in any context at all.

    And I reject your argument because that word is used simply to describe anyone with dark skin. Denialism in its Freudian sense – the way I use and intend it – is an attitude, a rejection of fact, a hiding from reality, the inability to address matters in a rational way. And climate change deniers cannot be reasoned with – I tried that for the first few years writing on this subject – because when one rejects reason, no debate is possible. Deniers earn the epithet by their refusal to accept probabilities, their constant attack on the honesty and professionalism of scientists, the way they repeat and propagate the distortions, lies, the disinformation and perversion of the public discourse to suit business interests whose only motive is more profit.

    And the issue is hardly cultural when you examine, for example, the way the issue is framed in the US, where all the disgraceful elements of denialism can be seen most clearly.

  40. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 25, 2010 1:03 pm

    No of course Graham I do not mind. This was a good use of the censorship!

    But do you not make the same mistake in calling all of them deniers? This is my point. We should not make a judgement by using bad words.

  41. Fred Drinkwater permalink
    November 25, 2010 4:29 pm

    Sorry about the BTL query. I came across the answer soon after I sent the question.

    Don’t you think you are a bit hung up on the US when you say “And the issue is hardly cultural when you examine, for example, the way the issue is framed in the US, where all the disgraceful elements of denialism can be seen most clearly.”? I think there are anti AGW people all over the world. The difference is in the US the system is more democratic so people’s views count. Unfortunately in Europe that’s not always the way; they get what they are given by politicians and politicians love a good cause so that they can spend more of everyone’s money.

  42. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 25, 2010 4:40 pm

    The difference is in the US the system is more democratic so people’s views count.

    Sorry Fred, but I could not disagree more. The US is governed more or less entirely by special interest lobbies whose overt funding of congress and the senate (or perhaps corruption would be more appropriate a term) is destroying democracy at a shocking rate. Couple this with media groups whose rabid political posturing is turning the US public discourse into a farce, and political aspirants like Palin who are turning the country into a pariah on the world stage, and it is hard to argue that democracy can possibly be served, except to the highest bidder.

    And I don’t think I’m viewing the role of the US disproportionately, since it outputs the most CO2 and is doing the least about it. Of all the players in the climate change debate, America is the most dangerous, the most foolish, and will carry most of the domestic penalties, because as they fail to prepare now, so they will find the later costs to be all the more horrendous, and the milieu in which they attempt to stabilise their failing systems will work against them, since we’ll all be in similarly dire straights.

    Except China.

  43. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 25, 2010 4:46 pm

    Birgit: “But do you not make the same mistake in calling all of them deniers?”

    Thing is, you can’t tell a denier just by looking at him. It isn’t a judgement, it is an observation based on what they do, what they say. As in all things, we humans are defined by our actions. Some people deny the possibility that we are causing climate change. When they make such a claim, that’s when I know they are deniers, and not sceptics, for sceptics can’t be sure of anything, not 100% certain. It is strange to me that deniers are so damn sure of something nobody can possibly be sure about. But mainly, deniers are the people who back the 3% of scientists in the field who have doubts, instead of backing the 97% who are convinced the theory is correct. The 3% can’t prove the theory is wrong because they have no evidence. Neither do deniers: all the evidence points in the opposite direction – towards AGW.

  44. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 25, 2010 5:38 pm

    Of course you cannot tell a denier just by looking at them. That is so obvious. But this is also why you should not use these bad words because the person may be a proper scientist but having a different opinion than yours. My opinion is this is a bad thing to do and can make peoples who should otherwise help the climate change case so to say turn against us.

    Also I say that this Fred can have a point about the USA and democracy but you are also right in this area too. Sometimes it is neccesary for the top people to make that people do not get exactly what they want but rather what they need to have but they do not do this in the USA. That is why they are still using electric chairs etc in USA but in Sweden this was not the case since a long time ago.

  45. November 25, 2010 8:30 pm

    Fred – Can I ask what you experience of European and US democracy has been? On what are you basing your claims? You may be interested in this article, which is in addition to the culture of lobbying that Graham mentioned and the recent new precedent set that allows corporations basically unlimited political spending without disclosure on the basis of “free speech” a disastrous ruling.

  46. Fred Drinkwater permalink
    November 26, 2010 12:59 pm

    My point is this. It is pretty hard to claim that democracy in Europe is somehow better than in the US when we ask France and the Netherlands whether they want a European constitution, they say no, so we say OK well we will give you a constitution, but call it something else and not ask you to vote on it again. In the UK we will promise a vote but then not have it, not because we believe the new proposal is really different but because the government knows it would lose. Then look at the various countries. Do you really think Berlosconi or Chirac are somehow superior to the US president? Or that it is OK that a governing party that gets an historically catastrophic result in a general election seriously thinks that it ought to stay in power (having clung on to the absolutely bitter end in the first place). And it may be put in an odd way but Birgit is right, the US has the death penalty because that’s what people want. It was abolished in the UK totally against the majority’s wishes.

  47. Jason P permalink
    November 30, 2010 3:13 pm

    My point Fred, is that the EU is constituted and therefore requires some constitutional baggage to enable it to function. However constitutional documents do not live in isolation, they relate to each other and are hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy sits ‘The Constitution’ – all other constitutional documents exist in respect to ‘The Constitution’.

    The Lisbon Treaty is merely another constitutional document, it’s nuts and bolts and baggage; it is not the Constitution and does not hold rank over existing treaties in the way that a Constitution would have done. Thus there is a profound and fundamental difference between it and the proposed, but rejected, EU constitution.

    It is like rejecting a skilled administrator for the post of CEO, but retaining him/her in a more appropriate administrative roll.

    Your point seems to be that you want to deny the EU the necessary administrative structures it needs to function – to throw the baby out with the dishwater – which is an absurd position. Dressing your argument up in faux moral outrage and claiming it to be disrespecting of your democratic rights and shit does nothing to alter that.

  48. john mann permalink
    December 1, 2010 9:50 pm

    re Fred and “It (the death penalty) was abolished in the UK totally against the majority’s wishes.”

    Well here in the UK we have representative democracy (ha!) and the government is entitled to take decisions without recourse to referenda – and a good thing too.

    The death penalty is contrary to the european convention on human rights and incidentally one of the house rules for the EU (one major plus of the EU – its civilising influence).

    I can see no justification for putting this point to the people as frankly, we’re not qualified to make that decision.

  49. Fred permalink
    December 2, 2010 5:49 pm

    Jason and John,

    The discussion here was not about whether the EU constitution or the death penalty was desirable or not. It was about US v European democracy. What you say is that you like a situation where various things are not or cannot be decided democratically. In the US they are more democratic, so you can still vote on eg the death penalty. You might not like that but it’s hard to say that it’s less democratic. They also have fixed terms for the President and the Houses and a separation of powers between them and between the federal government and the individual states.

  50. john mann permalink
    December 7, 2010 4:32 pm


    The problem I have is with that word ‘Democracy’. It’s easy to interpret it as the will of the majority but this presupposes that the population is perfectly informed and is capable of acting in best interests.

    Where it all falls apart is that populations are not like that in the real world: this is not some elitism interpretation, just a simple observation.

    Add to that the tendency of opinion makers to lobby that electorate and ‘democracy’ quickly degenerates into ‘demagogery’.

    I could also argue that whilst we may well have universal suffrage in the UK, whether we have democracy is not so certain.

    I’m sure that some aspects of the above apply equally to the US, but not either having lived there nor likely ever to, I’ll refrain from comment.

  51. Graham Wayne permalink*
    December 7, 2010 6:05 pm

    John: I agree with you, in that I don’t believe what we call ‘democracy’ is, in fact, what most people think of as the ‘myth’ of freedom. I think most of us have an idea of democracy a bit like having parents who look after everything and are responsible, but the kids get to vote on what they do every now and again, and if the kids don’t like the last four years of parenting, they can get some new ones.

    I know my description is a bit frivolous, but the problem with representative democracy – rather than ‘direct’ democracy as practiced in ancient Athens – is that it is inherently paternalistic, and republicanism more so when, as in the US, there is a senatorial system. The divisions are very clearly articulated; power, permanence, class division – this kind of democracy seems always to produce an aristocracy of one kind or another.

    So what we seem to have in the west is a rather shoddy, and lazy, version of democracy. Unlike the Greeks, we do not have, nor share, a responsibility to take part in the process. Our laziness invokes the paternalism – those we elect are there to care for us, and we even accept that on occasion they will have to do things we actually don’t like – up to a rather mobile point, beyond which is punishment – and this electoral ‘revenge’ is rather suspect, I feel, in terms of continuity in responsible governance.

    I think this point echoes that of freedom, of civil liberties. I think many of us think we are free now, so they content themselves with the indulgences of consumerism, happy like kids enjoying a permanent Christmas day. And while we play with our toys, it turns out the parents are putting up barricades and barbed wire, from behind which they have announced a massive cut in pocket money!


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