Monday, November 09, 2015

The dangerous denialists. Especially in climate change.

Until recently, I checked with three Oregon newspapers on a daily basis: Register Guard, Statesman Journal, and The Oregonian.  Of course, I have authored op-eds at all three, though the most are only in the Register Guard.  These days, I rarely ever bother to find out what The Oregonian has to say, particularly in the opinion section--it almost always seems to have nothing substantive, which is shame given that it is published from Portland where the economic weight of the state is located.

Today was one of those rare days when I scanned through the opinions at the Oregonian.  The title of one piece there got my attention: Is 'climate change' really the world's most pressing problem?  It had a wonderful beginning too:
Famed Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman once described science as "the belief in the ignorance of experts." The very first scientific society, The Royal Society, adopted the motto: "Take nobody's word for it." Questioning is the stock-in-trade of scientists; it is the way we discover new things and the way we keep science honest. Without the ability to question conclusions, science degenerates into politics and pseudo-religion.
As a big time Feynman fan, I was hooked.  And as one who always advises students not to simply take anybody's word--including mine--I was certainly curious about the opinion.

Alas, after that it was all crap.  It turned out to be one of those climate-change denying pieces.  And, get this, the author "holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago's Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research."  Yep, a PhD from one of the most prestigious places for physics.  The very university that was home to Fermi and Chandrasekhar.

Questioning is, indeed, fundamental to science.  Scientists are skeptics.  However, we need to clearly and forcefully distinguish between skepticism and denialism.
In other words, we need to be able to tell when we believe or disbelieve in something based on high standards of evidence and when we are just engaging in a bit of motivated reasoning and letting our opinions take over. When we withhold belief because the evidence does not live up to the standards of science, we are skeptical. When we refuse to believe something, even in the face of what most others would take to be compelling evidence, we are engaging in denial. In most cases, we do this because at some level it upsets us to think that the theory is true.
At some level, the skepticism and denialism might even look the same to a casual observer:
Surely few would willingly embrace the title of “denialist.” It sounds so much more rigorous and fair-minded to maintain one’s “skepticism.” To hold that the facts are not yet settled. That there is so much more that we do not know. That the science isn’t certain. The problem here, however, is that this is based not only on a grave misunderstanding of science (which in a sense is never settled), but also of what it means to be a skeptic. Doubting the overwhelming consensus of scientists on an empirical question, for which one has only the spottiest ideologically-motivated “evidence,” is not skepticism, it is the height of gullibility. It is to claim that it is much more likely that there is a vast conspiracy among thousands of climate scientists than that they have instead all merely arrived at the same conclusion because that is where they were led by the evidence.
That's what I wrote in my response, too, when a reader/commenter questioned my embrace of climate change:
Notice though being a skeptic does not mean that there [is] nothing definitive. As far as we know, the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is not only for real but that human activities--the burning of carbon--is the prime reason for it. Yes, cows farting methane adds, but sources like that contribute way less than what can be traced back to humans. Dismissing the evidence is not how a skeptic works. 
A skeptic does not dismiss the evidence, nor cherry-picks through it.  A denialist, on the other hand, rejects the evidence as if it was a result of "a vast conspiracy" among scientists.
When we cynically pretend to withhold belief long past the point at which ample evidence should have convinced us that something is true, we have stumbled past skepticism and landed in the realm of willful ignorance. This is not the realm of science, but of ideological crackpots. 
I suppose the deniers will be out in full force all the way to, and through, the upcoming climate talks.  I hate to think that my intellectual energy will be consumed by deniers :(

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