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A journey into the weird and wacky world of climate change denial

Just some of the people and organisations climate deniers think are coming to get them. -(Jonathan)-/flickr, scottgun/flickr, Kew Gardens/fickr

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professors Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley step into the twilight zone of climate change scepticism: where the sun is made of iron and the royals are out to get you.

Science, like much human endeavour, thrives on debate.

Climate deniers want to participate in this debate as equal partners, and feel that they are entitled to be heard and to be taken seriously. This is quite understandable, but by itself does not create an entitlement.

In science, to actually contribute at the forefront of a field one has to earn credibility, not demand it. Being taken seriously is a privilege, not a right.

In science, this privilege is earned by not only following conventional norms of honesty and transparency but by supporting one’s opinions with evidence and reasoned argument in the peer-reviewed literature.

This is what makes science self-correcting. If arguments turn out to be wrong, in time they are caught and corrected by other scientists. It is virtually impossible to publish long-refuted nonsense in good peer-reviewed journals.

Climate deniers, by contrast, seem to avoid the peer-reviewed literature or publish by sometimes abusing the system. Nor do the deniers turn up and present their ideas at any of the many international scientific conferences, open to anyone, where these issues have been explored for decades.

Deniers simply keep restating nonsensical arguments that the scientific community has known to be wrong for a long time.

The illusion of debate

So why do deniers continue to make their loud, and egregiously mistaken, claims? And what explains the tiny handful of deniers with verifiable academic credentials?

Many are (generally former) Professors, albeit usually with tenuous unpaid Adjunct or Emeritus associations with universities.

Are these individuals indicative of a scientific debate, after all? And if not, what motivates them?

Today, denial of the link between HIV and AIDS would be laughable, if the consequences of that denial hadn’t been so serious.

It is thus important to remember that twenty years ago a tiny handful of people in the medical community, including senior academics at reputable universities, rejected the consensus that HIV causes AIDS.

It is illuminating that just as in climate science, the contrarian publications on HIV were accompanied by an unusual context that made headlines and raised eyebrows for the same ethical reasons that arise from climate deniers’ subversion of peer review.

An example from astronomy is also prescient. The consensus of astronomers is that the sun consists largely of hydrogen and helium, and is powered by fusion at its core.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, and supported by multiple independent lines of investigation.

Like climate change, there are contrarian academics who argue against the consensus. O. Manuel, unpaid Emeritus of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has claimed for decades that the sun is mostly composed of iron.

Manuel has recently published his bizarre theories in the bottom-tier journal Energy & Environment, also a favorite of climate deniers due to its, to put it mildly, unusual review processes.

There is an important lesson here: an overwhelming scientific consensus does not imply the absence of contrarian voices even within the scientific community.

Over time, those contrarian voices simply fade away because no one takes them seriously, despite their shouts of “censorship” and accusations of bias.

This is not to say that a scientific consensus is never overturned.

There are well-known examples such as the Helicobacter pylori discovery in medicine, and continental drift in geology. But in both cases the arguments were won and lost in the peer-reviewed literature, not by contrarians sitting on the side-lines writing opinion pieces about how they were being oppressed.

Manipulating the media

Normally the underbelly of obsessed contrarians that strangely afflicts many areas of science would go unnoticed.

With climate change, however, we are in the extraordinary situation where the deniers have had almost free reign in media outlets such as The Australian, while scientists are given short shrift.

The editors there claim to be providing balanced commentary for their readers to make informed decisions. In reality they are doing a great disservice to the community by publishing junk science.

Providing a platform for deniers, thereby enabling political leaders to mistake contrarian cranks for real science, can have horrendous consequences, as we have seen in the case of HIV, where perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have needlessly died.

There is an ethical imperative to hold deniers accountable for their actions.

But the question remains: what motivates deniers?

With very few exceptions, academic climate deniers are male and either retired or close to retirement.

The climate deniers’ champion, MIT’s 71-year old Richard Lindzen, has had a distinguished career, but 30 years after his major contributions, he appears to struggle to respond to devastating peer reviews when he attempts to publish his contrarian views in a major journal.

More commonly, the academic climate denier will have had a mediocre career that escaped public notice and left little imprint on science. Some haven’t been able to keep up with the rapid advances in science coming from its increasing complexity and the impact of computers and new technologies. Once respected, these scientists find themselves “out of the loop” and being ignored, which sometimes makes them quite grumpy.

There is much truth in the eminent physicist Max Planck’s observation, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up,” sometimes paraphrased as, “science advances one funeral at a time.”

A strong motivation for contrarians appears to be the attention that they can gain or re-gain in the public arena.

Any scientist, no matter how out of touch, can become the darling of talk shows by simply disagreeing with the consensus on climate.

89-year-old Vincent Gray was introduced recently by shock jock Alan Jones as “world acknowledged and acclaimed,” and among “some of the most eminent people in the world”.

Gray’s most recent peer-reviewed publication appears to be an article on the chemical properties of coal, from 17 years ago. Nothing at all on climate.

Jones also recently interviewed 72-year-old Tim Ball, describing him as “one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and acknowledged as such.” This is in contrast to Ball’s CV, in which he reveals he got his PhD at the age of 44 and retired from academia at the age of 57 with a very thin list of publications, most frequently in The Beaver and the Manitoba Social Science Teachers Journal.

Jones’ listeners and The Australian’s readers are being misled.

David Attenborough is watching you…

Another necessary element of denial is conspiratorial thinking. Any denier sooner or later, whether an academic or not, must resort to a global conspiracy theory to negate the overwhelming evidence arrayed against them.

One self-proclaimed “rocket scientist” who has published junk science in the opinion pages of The Australian has been quoted on a New Zealand website as saying:

“To win the political aspect of the climate debate, we have to lower the western climate establishment’s credibility with the lay person. And this paper [an accompanying picture book of thermometers] shows how you do it. It simply assembles the most easily understood points that show they are not to be entirely trusted, with lots of pictures and a minimum of text and details. It omits lots of relevant facts and is excruciatingly economical with words simply because the lay person has a very short attention span for climate arguments. The strategy of the paper is to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists. That’s all. There is nothing special science-wise.”

Undermine credibility.

That’s all.

Nothing science-wise.

Are these the people one should entrust with the welfare of future generations?

Lest one think this is an isolated case, conspiracy theories are an essential ingredient in writings of deniers.

According to a recent (not peer-reviewed) book by Bob Carter, who has an unpaid Adjunct position at James Cook University, it is “simply professional suicide for a scientist to put a questioning head above the parapet” when faced with opposition from “the BBC, commercial television, all major newspapers, the Royal Society, the Chief Scientist, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, David Attenborough, countless haloed-image organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and even Prince Charles himself.”

Just imagine the devastating rebuttal of climate change that Bob Carter could submit for peer-review if he wasn’t being oppressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles.

But seriously, why doesn’t Carter, or any of the deniers, simply write a coherent outline of their best arguments against the expert consensus and publish it in the peer-reviewed literature?

Why don’t they turn up to the relevant scientific conferences and give a talk on their theories?

The answer is simple: they don’t have any arguments that have any scientific merit.

Which is why Carter publishes in The Australian. Again, and again, and again and again.

Returning to our discussion of conspiracy theorists, O. Manuel, whose imaginative theories on the sun we discussed earlier, avidly posts to blogs and often mentions President Eisenhower’s 1961 warning against a government-funded “scientific-technological elite”.

Manuel claims that this “tax-feeding ‘elite’ has distorted experimental data to give tax-payers misinformation about the sun’s origin.”

The peer-reviewed literature on conspiratorial thinking cites several identifying attributes that are replete in the statements of climate deniers.

For example, the imaginary conspirators are at once small in number but also all powerful.

They claim on the one hand that science is based on the strength of argument, not on the consensus of experts, but on the other hand they desperately manufacture petitions and lists of “scientists” on their side.

There’s a laughable list circulating on the internet of 31,000 “scientists” — including at one point Dr. Pierce and Dr. Hunnicutt of M*A*S*H fame — who allegedly oppose the consensus on climate change. But on the other hand there’s the simultaneous claim that opposition is squashed by the world’s science academies and Prince Charles.

Deniers yelp about being oppressed, while at the same time claiming to number 31,000.

And just to be sure, Prince Phillip runs the world’s drug trade and climate change is a means by which the Royal family is culling the population for a forthcoming genocide. Or something like that, maybe you can figure it out.

Time to close the phony debate on climate science

At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?

The so-called “debate” on climate change has been over for decades in the peer-reviewed literature. It is time to accept the scientific consensus and move on, and to stop giving air-time to the cranks.

It is time for accountability.

This is the ninth part of our series Clearing up the Climate Debate. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:

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