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ScienceAugust 18, 2017

Climate change is happening – but don’t bother trying to convince a denier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Global warming is a fact, it’s caused by humans, and it’s going to change our world. Oh, and one more truth: you may never be able to convince your libertarian, climate change-denying uncle otherwise. Dave Hansford explores the psychology of denial.

The annals of inaction — the long, sorry history of human inertia — are writ large with the whitewash brush of denial. During the Qin Dynasty, Confucian philosophers were buried alive just for ruminating on different ways to govern. The Roman Inquisition imprisoned Galileo for his heliocentric heresy.

We’re all in denial, to one extent or another. Six hundred and fifty years passed before Britons allowed that keeping slaves was, on reflection, not OK. I love a good warm lamb salad, but before I tuck in, I have to mindfully suppress the inconvenient truth of animal sentience.

The seminal expression of all this rebuttal remains a 1956 US study in which three psychologists joined a doomsday cult with the aim of recording the behaviour of fatalists when they repeatedly missed appointments with their maker. The apocalypse was plagued by postponement, until the sect leader announced that the world had been saved, in the nick of time, by the indomitable power of the sect’s very belief. It was a master stroke: rather than shattering members’ conviction, they became more fervent than ever.

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,” Leon Festinger lamented in the write-up of the study, When Prophecy Fails. “Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with … unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”

Study after study has since backed him up: someone motivated by denial not only repudiates contradictory evidence, they usually double down, clutching to their myths still more tightly. They’re not called cherished beliefs for nothing.

Denial, former head of the American Psychiatric Association Paul Appelbaum told the Washington Post, is the “deliberate, often psychologically motivated, neglect of information that would be too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into one’s belief system.” And unfortunately for public policy, it isn’t just some quirky backwater of the mainstream delta. For a range of reasons, science denial looks to be on the rise.

But why? Why would someone invest so much energy in refuting clear evidence in front of them? There are a number of reasons: if their denial is rooted in conspiracy belief, they could be employing an evolutionary adaptation called heuristics — rational shortcuts we all use every day to simplify snap assessments of complex situations. We used to use heuristics to stay alive — now we use them to inspire Facebook rants.

Many of us just don’t have the smarts to keep up with what is, after all, an increasingly techy and rarefied world. The pace and the extent of technological change, as Alvin Toffler tried to warn us in the 70s, is leaving many people behind. Increasingly, they’re turning to simplistic, black-and-white shortcuts in a bid to keep up.

But overwhelmingly, research is revealing that climate denial, at least, is a product of your politics. Denialism is a shield that prevents core values from clashing with reality. The strongest predictor of climate change denial, it turns out, is a libertarian, free-market world view. Gareth Renowden, the author of the book Hot Topic, has documented climate denial since 2007 in a blog of the same name. “I’ve heard rumours of this mythical beast they call the left-wing climate denier,” he jokes, “but they’re like unicorns — I’ve never seen one.” Renowden says global science denial networks — think tanks and fake experts and opinion-shapers funded by the fossil fuel industry — “appeal to a certain strand of ideology. If you self-identify as a right-winger, especially towards the Libertarian/ACT end of the spectrum, climate denial is practically an article of faith.” [Editors note: In his new book Act party leader David Seymour describes himself as “luke-warmer” and is sceptical about the dangers of climate change.]

David Seymour is “luke warm” on climate change. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In a 2016 Pew Research Center study of American attitudes, 79% of liberal Democrats said they believed the earth was warming because of human activity, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans. Renowden points out that many of New Zealand’s die-hard deniers, like the Climate Science Coalition’s Brian Leyland and Bryce Wilkinson, have been active for more than two decades. That sheer investment, he says, can make denial too big to fail. “There is very good evidence,” says Renowden, “that once you’ve adopted a particular world view, it’s easier for you to reject the evidence that suggests you need to change that view, than it is to actually change it.”

This is motivated reasoning: if you believe fervently, as do many fundamental capitalists, that every problem can be solved by the markets, by unfettered corporatism, then climate change presents you with a real problem.

First, it implies, by definition, a manifest failure of free enterprise. Secondly, as Naomi Klein has pointed out in her book, This Changes Everything, the solutions to climate change — regulation, restraint, redistribution, and a conservative’s worst nightmare — communitarianism — are anathema to the plutocracy.

This helps explain why so much of organised climate denial is funded by corporate industry, promulgated by conservative think tanks, and why it’s a staple of talkback radio — the natural habitat of the right wing. In that respect, climate denial is like a secret sorority handshake — a badge of tribal solidarity. As events in the United States have demonstrated, partisanship has again become a powerful social force, and tribal affiliation, ahem … trumps rationalism every time.

It’s no different in New Zealand, says Marc Wilson, professor at Victoria University’s School of Psychology. “Here, climate change attitudes are strongly tied to one’s political ideological stance. The more right-wing or conservative you think of yourself, the more opposed to the notion of climate change you are.”

Other studies back him up. A 2015 survey of 6000 Kiwis by psychologists from Victoria and Auckland Universities found a marked “conservative white male” effect amongst climate deniers. Conversely, acceptance of climate change and science was higher “among respondents who were younger, female, educated, politically liberal, (and) belonged to minority groups … Belief in climate change was also stronger for those who endorse altruistic and openness values, and who were high in personality trait levels of Agreeableness and Openness to Experience.”

So, says Wilson, “it’s not about the evidence. Climate change doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather as part of an interconnected belief system. What this means in practical terms is that tugging at one particular issue — through education or debate — means you’re not just tugging at that belief or attitude, but the network it’s connected to.”

In New Zealand, as it is elsewhere, he says, “a conservative/rightist stance is predicated on greater ambivalence towards equality. People who see the world as hierarchical and inegalitarian are more opposed to climate change.”

It all explains Festinger’s observation about the doomsday cult: your ideology is the essence of your identity. So when someone attacks your core beliefs with facts, they’re attacking you, and your tribe. No wonder we stack up the sandbags.

As a consequence, Renowden predicts no victory for critical thought: rather, enlightenment will come one funeral at a time. “The problem is leaving these old white males behind,” he says. “Let them have their websites, and their forums and their Facebook pages. As long as political action acknowledges the weight of the evidence, deniers become irrelevant.”

It was, ironically, Ayn Rand that said: “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

How to know when you’re talking to a science denier

Denial is at once complex, and really quite simple. It looks and sounds much the same, whether you’re hearing it from an anti-vaxxer, a chemtrail conspiracist, a 1080 protestor, an AIDS/HIV denier, or a climate contrarian. Deniers of all ilks dip into a standard grab-bag of motivated reasoning. Almost certainly, there’ll be a conspiracy in there: “Scientists say that because their funding depends on it.” “The truth is being suppressed, and the media is in on it.” That kind of thing.

Secondly, they will often have some obscure study they can invoke to support their argument. Usually, it will loom out of the grey literature, which means it’s unlikely to be peer-reviewed. Deniers can often quote you findings or data that sound quite convincing, until you realise that they’ve been plucked out of some much broader context that, very often, actually contradicts them. For instance, a denier might tell you that surface temperatures have stabilised, or even cooled, in recent decades, so climate change clearly isn’t happening. In fact, they’re citing the surface temperature record, and a tiny slice of it boot. But surface temperatures are only one small part of a much more comprehensive suite of indicators that categorically confirm the planet is warming.

This is called cherry-picking, and orchestrated industry-funded deniers, in particular, are bloody good at it.

Then there’s the classic appeal to (false) authority. Denial is dotted with fake experts exalted as embattled defenders of the one truth. Very often, they lack relevant academic credentials, but will have letters after their name, from the pursuit of some unrelated discipline. You may be told that 31,000 scientists have put their name to the Global Warming Petition Project, which insists that humans aren’t altering the climate. Look closely: 99.9% of them aren’t climate scientists. They’re computer scientists, mechanical engineers and medical scientists.

The fourth tactic is perhaps the most exasperating. No sooner have you debunked one claim than a denier puts up another, usually unrelated challenge. You just can’t keep the goalposts in sight. Frequently, they will demand standards of certainty that no science can provide, then invoke that as a failure.

Finally, there will be the inevitable logical fallacies: reasoning by analogy; false dichotomies; straw men; ad hominem attacks and the argument from ignorance, which states that a belief is true because we don’t know that it isn’t true. Climate deniers love this one, because they can invoke the inherent uncertainty of science as a match-winner.

Climate Change Week at The Spinoff is brought to you by An Inconvenient Sequel – in cinemas August 24.

A decade after Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, brought climate change into the heart of popular culture comes An Inconvenient Sequel – highlighting the perils of unmitigated climate change and the need for more action. See it in cinemas from Thursday August 24.

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