Science Deniers Give Us Too Much Credit

Really, have you noticed? I’m speaking in particular about climate science-deniers and a realization I had while I was at the American Geophysical Union meeting last December. Deniers give scientists too much credit. It would almost be flattering if it wasn’t so dangerous.

(UPDATE 1/20: Fixed error below)

I realize that climate change “skepticism” or “denialism” or “uninformed-ism” or whatever you want to call it comes in many flavors. For the most part, it’s a matter of needing better science education and communication to bring people around, in my optimistic opinion. In fact, it seems that belief in climate change in on the rise amongst Americans according to a survey by Yale. Unfortunately, Superstorm Sandy brought the issues into stark relief for many East Coasters as their lives were washed away in a freak storm that has at least partly been influenced by human-made climate change.

However, there will always be a few holdouts, and they still seem to have a large public presence. I put those that consider human-made climate change to be some kind of scientific conspiracy or disinformation campaign to be squarely in the “denier” camp, and I don’t expect to reach them with my science outreach. However, I have a response to their rhetoric. And it is this: “Seriously?! Have you ever met a scientist?”

This budding idea came to clear realization as I sat in several “communicating science” sessions at AGU, many of which were focused specifically on climate change. These were attended by scientists, communicators, and those with a foot in each camp. In this case, I am NOT a climate scientist and consider myself strictly a communicator, but when I talk about the culture of scientists, I do have an insight into that. Obvious stereotypes aside, we are a bit different than a random sampling of people. And we’re seriously not capable of participating in a global conspiracy.

I looked around at my 22,000 fellow attendees. We sit on the floor just to be near outlets for our laptops. We verbalize dissent and skepticism when presented with odd new findings. We color our hair in odd ways. We can barely decide where to go for lunch before the lunch break is over. We over-exuberantly exclaim our excitement for scientific findings, confusing the press. Frankly, I love us. But we’re not capable of duping seven billion people for our personal whim. We’re not even paid enough to try.

A tiny bit of the ginormous poster session, refreshed every day for five days. CC euphro on Flickr.
A tiny bit of the ginormous poster session, refreshed every day for five days. CC euphro on Flickr.

And yet nitwits like Virginia District Attorney Attorney General* Ken Cuccinelli go on “witch hunts” of climate scientists like Michael Mann, claiming that they are duping the public. (A friend of mine detailed the legal proceedings in great detail, and it is worth a read if you are particularly interested.) It is such that the AGU offered free legal counseling sessions for scientists worried about facing similar charges for DOING THEIR JOBS at the fall meeting.

This is still amazing to me since, as an astronomer, I rarely find myself having to fight a mob of angry dissenters. Well, there was that one internet commenter who accused me of being part of the “black hole conspiracy.” I’m still waiting for my hush money, Big Black Hole!

But the markers of human made climate change are everywhere, and more and better scientific studies will only help us better understand it. If a young scientist really wanted to make a name for themselves, offering definitive evidence AGAINST it would be quite a career boost. That alone is incentive to not “toe the party line” if there even was one.

The science is complex, yes. Session after session of jargon-filled talks and posters were dedicated to dissecting the intricacies of it. Thankfully, there are good communicators out there that can distill this information for the rest of us. I recommend Skeptical Science as one good example, especially because it explains the counter-arguments for climate change denialism. Real Climate is a blog written by climate scientists with a aim at the general public. I discovered at AGU that there are several citizen science projects where YOU can contribute to observations of the changing climate, directly or indirectly, such as Nature’s Notebook, iNaturalist, Cyclone Center, and CoCoRAHS. So, you know, now we have to include citizen scientists in our vast conspiracy. (Your checks are in the mail.)

I guess this goes for any major conspiracy theory, but do try and think about the vastness of the conspiracy needed for “The Man” to hide what he’s really doing from “The People.” Conspiracies DO exist, but vast global ones are less likely. Especially if you include scientists. Chances are we won’t play along.

*My bad. Thanks for pointing out the error, Buzz Parsec!


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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  1. Primary point many don’t seem to realize: there is, in fact, a culture in science circles. One of the biggies is that you don’t overstate your findings. That’s good science, but it’s also peer pressure.

    Far from being “alarmists”, most climatologists (like other scientists) don’t want to overstate their findings or their confidence in them. So if anything, climate dangers have been downplayed.

    It’s going to be the biggest “I told you so” of all time.

    Side note: want to live? Write the White House and express to Obama that we have to get going. He’s not taking this seriously.

  2. The plural noun for scientists (c.f. a murder of crows, a pod of dolphins, a school of fish) is an argument.

  3. A climate change denialist would cherry pick that one line about “your check is in the mail” and cite this whole post as proof of the global climate change conspiracy.

    Conspiracy? Takes one to know one, I reckon.

  4. Minor nit to pick, Ken Cuccinelli is actually the Attorney General of Virginia, not a District Attorney. This is even worse because he is the head prosecutor of the whole state, not just a district.

    Fortunately, his witch hunt against Micheal Mann was thrown out by the state supreme court last March, but only after wasting $600,000 of Virginia tax payers’ money and enormous time and resources of Prof. Mann and the University of Virginia, and after creating a chilling effect on science.

    When the forces of unreason make seemingly wild accusations against skeptics, it is often a case of projection. If there is a climate conspiracy, it is most likely the fossil fuel industry funding pseudo skeptics to sow seeds of doubt about the science. There are much fewer people involved, they have much more to gain (or lose), they have much deeper pockets, and they have a history of lying and deceit, all factors that increase the likelihood of a conspiracy and none of which apply to climate scientists.

    1. Yes, Koch brothers isn’t it? It never ceases to amaze me the lengths some people will go to fool themselves and others.

      The phenomenon you call projection, that I knew as transference, is the same thing I’m sure.

      I have seen that used as an explanation for Hitler’s powerful hatred of Jews. He himself in his Vienna days was the very image of the people he hated (or at least a poisoned caricature thereof).

      So his hatred of Jews was self hatred. What is scary is that I can, sort of, at least follow that, sick and perverted as it is. Powerful stuff.

      But I’m not comparing climate change deniers to Hitler in any other way than the use of projection, or transference, to maintain a delusion.

    2. @Buzz Ken Salazar launched his own witch hunt against Charles Monnett, the polar bear biologist who found dead bears in the Beaufort sea where Shell Oil wanted to drill (a few years ago). Monnett was suspended, his hard drives were seized and he was questioned by **criminal investigators. I hope Obama nominates Raul Grijalva so I can believe he’s pro-conservation.

  5. Have we considered that maybe WE are the problem? Are we lobbying and spending money on PR? It seems like everybody is writing articles for the paper. If a man claiming to be Jesus’ chosen space ambassador can write an article about his alien clone machine and get taken seriously in the public discourse, why can’t we? Are our articles not getting accepted, or are we just not writing them?

    1. Climate change skeptics often kick dogs, according to survey.

      The survey writes itself:

      1: Do you think that anyone critical of climate change has ever kicked a dog?
      yes / no

      2: Why do you think those critical of climate so often kick dogs?
      It’s funny / practicing for a sport / like to see animals suffer / dogs had it coming

      There we go. Do the survey, write the article, leave a little space for the journalist to insert their byline and boom! Problem solved.

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