Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Psychology of Denialists

From Debora MacKenzie at New Scientist comes an article on the psychology of denialists. It's illuminating and helps to explain how we can be in the middle of a crisis - Global Warming - and the concrete steps necessary to mitigate this imminent disaster are for the most part not being taken.

I have never been able to get my head around the deniers of anthropogenic global warming, and the science behind it. I understand why people in the fossil fuels business are fighting it tooth and nail but the followers, the believers in this tripe have always left me cold. I tend to get extremely dismissive and condescending. It makes absolutely no sense - not because the science couldn't be wrong, it could be - but because the deniers objections always rely on anecdote and science produced by people with vested interests. The conspiracy part of the equation is just goofy. That scientists from all over the world could all be in on the climate change fix is so absurd as to be beyond ludicrous.

In discussion just a couple of days ago someone sneered at me that I was one of those who believed the science produced by NASA the NOAA and the IPCC as if these were organizations were staffed by ducks, and mad ones at that. I lost my temper, not because I was sneered at or even because he was disparaging organizations whose integrity I believe in - certainly more than the word of profit driven corporations - but because an otherwise sane human being could advance a line of reasoning so obtuse.

To believe that global warming is not happening bizarre judgements are being made. Firstly, that the intuition of the denier trumps the hard work and study of tens of thousands of scientists and hundreds of thousands of man hours of research. Second, that the evidence visible before all our eyes is somehow all part of the normal vagaries of weather patterns when there is ample proof from around the globe that things are changing markedly, rapidly and dangerously. Lastly, to make these arguments at all, one has to have come to the conclusion that the constant stream of CO2 that humankind is pumping into the atmosphere from cars and factories all around the globe are of little or no consequence (9.5 billion tons so far this year, and it's only June!).

Ms. MacKenzie points out that I should consider being less judgemental of deniers: Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics. All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism. They're just trying to be do-gooders in their own strange way.

She also says these people are neither ...malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

And there's the rub, scientific evidence and facts will not dissuade the denier, ...against emotion and anecdote, dry statements of evidence have little power. To make matters worse, scientists usually react to denial with anger and disdain, which makes them seem even more arrogant.

She does a great job of describing the crossover of corporate interests funding groups that play into these beliefs for their own benefit and gives the very definition of what are commonly referred to in the blogosphere as 'asrto-turf' movements (fake grass-roots): Many denialist movements originate as cynical efforts by corporations to cast doubt on findings that threaten their bottom line. Big Tobacco started it in the 1970s, recruiting scientists willing to produce favourable data and bankrolling ostensibly independent think tanks and bogus grass-roots movements. One such think tank was The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), set up in 1993 by tobacco company Philip Morris. TASSC didn't confine itself to tobacco for long. After getting funds from Exxon, it started casting doubt on climate science.

The consequences of denialist movements have cost people their lives and this one may cost many more. This is not some quaint discussion about people who believe in anecdote and those who believe in science, it's about preserving a livable environment for our descendants.

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