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The distinction between true scepticism and denial

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 8 September 2016

I came across the phrase in the title, and followed a link to a recent journal article which for once was available on open access. Entitled ‘Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism’,  it looked interesting. You can read it here. The four authors come from different fields, and propose to outline ‘the distinction between true scepticism and denial’. They also offer some guidelines to help researchers, and interested members of the public, decide how to deal with enquiries, on the one hand,  and problems which people see in published science, on the other.

The reader is brought into the area of ‘climate change’ at once. 

The controversy surrounding climate change is just one example of a polarized public debate that seems remote and detached from the actual state of science: Within the scientific community, there is a pervasive consensus that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions (Anderegg, Prall, Harold, & Schneider, 2010; Cook et al., 2013; Doran & Zimmerman, 2009; Oreskes, 2004; Shwed & Bearman, 2010), but outside science there is entrenched denial of this fact in some sectors of society (e.g., Dunlap, 2013; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013). [my emphasis]


Whoops! Substantively, ‘climate change’ is not simply whether the planet has warmed through greenhouse gas emissions. More important and related questions include, for example, by how much has it warmed, what else has been at work besides greenhouse gases, is the warming unprecedented or not, does it matter anyway (isn’t warming better than cooling?), and many others. Pedantically, there is no need for a consensus to be graced with the adjective pervasive. If it is a consensus then it is by definition pervasive, meaning ‘permeated’, ‘diffused through’, etc.

Then interested readers might wonder where to find the entrenched denial of the supposed fact that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The sceptical community for the most part, I think, accepts that greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to the warming that has occurred over the past century or so (which is not quite the same thing). There are a few dragon-slayers who don’t agree. But entrenched denial? I’m not aware of it. The links don’t help, since Dunlap 2013 is a study of 108 climate change denial books with most of the interest being in their supposed links to business groups. The Lewandowsky link is even less helpful, as well as being an intellectually dreadful paper. I don’t know quite what I would expect to find as an example of entrenched denial in opposition to pervasive consensus, but there’s no evidence for it here. To continue:

Media reports occasionally even proclaim that warming has stopped (Ridley, 2014) or that we are headed for global cooling (e.g., Rose, 2013). These propositions have no scientific support …

Well, Matt Ridley’s op. ed. in the Wall Street Journal may not be top-of-the-line science, though he refers to the science, but the UK Met Office did indeed agree that there was a hiatus in warming, and that it would continue until 2017. The scientists who propose the possibility of cooling are solar physicists, for the most part, and their views may be wrong. But the ‘cooling’  view does have some scientific support (see, for example, here).

These introductory remarks are a little jarring, in the context of the pure bromide that is to come. 

Public debate and scepticism are essential to a functioning democracy. Indeed scepticism has been shown to enable people to differentiate more accurately between truth and falsehood.


How could we disagree? So how do we tell when what we are getting is scientific fact or denial? Ah, you see, there are three factors that are always present when denialists are involved. First, they make stuff up. Second: "denial commonly invokes notions of conspiracies". (I think Dunlap 2013, mentioned above, is an excellent example of the way in which conspiracies can be invoked, but I don’t think the authors had him in mind.). Third, denialists engineer "personal and professional attacks on scientists both in public and behind the scenes"and issue "prolific complaints to scientists’ host institutions with allegations of research conduct". Two of the authors of this article claim to have experienced such behaviour.

The authors claim, on the basis of what they call "recent evidence", is:

That up to US$1billion flows into foundations and think tanks in the U.S. every year that are dedicated to political lobbying for various issues. One of the principal objectives of this network is to support a climate “counter movement” that seeks to reframe public discourse surrounding climate change from one of overwhelming scientific consensus to one of doubt, debate, and uncertainty (Brulle, 2014; Plehwe, 2014). To illustrate, more than 90% of recent books that dismiss environmental problems have been linked to conservative think tanks (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008), and such books typically never undergo peer review (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013).

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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