Thursday, March 28, 2013

The mind of the denier

In the controversy on climate change, sometimes the debate gets real ugly. Nevertheless, even the most heated exchanges give us a way to learn something. Image above, from Tel Aviv University.

In Italy, we say about food: "what doesn't kill you, fattens you(*)." Transferring this little piece of wisdom to on-line discussions, we could say that "what doesn't sway you, makes you wiser." That is, you can learn something useful even from the nastiest attacks on science in the debate on climate change. Here is one example: a comment actually published in a blog (h/t Alexander Ac).

.... [Climate change] is a social construct, not a scientific theory, and it's meant to transform the society and bring advantages to those who push this idiocy.

As a scientific theory, it's complete bunk. There doesn't exist a glimpse of scientific evidence that the climate could realistically evolve in a harmful way at the global scale in the future that is shorter than the millennium time scale where the ice age cycles gradually become important.

It's immoral for people like you to lie to everyone else. It's immoral for people like you to get salaries for these lies and would-be scientific research that is neither scientific nor research. It's immoral for you to threaten the industrial civilization that's been built for 500 years. It's immoral for you to support political pressures that could prevent the poor people and poor nations from using the fossil fuels, the most reasonable and cheapest resource that decides whether their lives are human or miserable paths towards premature death.

It's immoral for you to contaminate the Internet in general and my blog in particular with your dishonest pseudoscientific gibberish and abuse the fact that hardcore scammers and fraudsters are not being executed quickly yet. It's hypocritical for you to use the achievements of the modern technology including the Internet and combustion engines even though you're superficially fighting against all these things. It's unethical for you to spread all these fearful lies in front of children who can't immediately see that you're despicable untrustworthy greedy lying bastards and who lose sleep because of all the scary shit that you're spitting everywhere.

These were just examples of the reasons why people like you are immoral bastards.

Interesting text, isn't it? But never mind the nastiness; it gives us a glimpse on how the mind of the denier works; at least of that kind of deniers who are active participants of the debate.

Note, first of all, how this text can hardly be the work of a paid disinformer, as it is implied by the often used term "fake skeptic". Most likely, as I argued previously, the author is a true believer. Consider that he posted this comment on his personal blog where he discloses his full name and he even shows his face in the front page. Now, how much would you want to be paid to put your reputation at stake in this way? And who would want to pay you so much?

Then, note how climate science is described as something designed to "bring advantages to those who push it". This is the typical conspiratorial mindset of climate deniers, as described in studies by Lewandowsky and others. It doesn't mean that people who reason in this way are stupid or evil; it is a way they have to process information. Most likely, they inherited from their ancestors a higher than average degree of paranoia which, in the remote past, was useful in some conditions. We may all suffer of paranoia (and we do when we think that deniers are paid disinformers), it is a matter of degree.

In the end, this text is a confirmation of what I argued in a previous post of mine. That is, the more you argue with people who suffer of a conspiratorial attitude, the more you fall into what I called "Desdemona's trap." That is, you are just reinforcing their attitude and convincing them that you are part of the great conspiracy. They feel threatened and they react aggressively. In this case, even with not so veiled death threats ([people like you]... are not being executed quickly yet).

So, how do we react? First, about death threats. In order to be effective, a threat must be accompanied by a credible firepower (rhetorical or real), as any respectable Mafia boss can tell you. Otherwise it backfires. In the climate debate, intimidation has been used with remarkable success to attack climate scientists, as in the "Climategate" case. However, it may well be that the denialist position is gradually losing traction and, as a consequence, rants like this one are backfiring on deniers (and that's a good thing!).

The main point, in the end, is that we are dealing with an attitude characteristic of a small minority of people. Our job is not to argue with them, it is to pass the message to the people (the majority) who don't suffer of the same degree of paranoia. Most people are not active deniers. They are simply in a position of "passive denial" regarding climate change - they know that it exists and it is dangerous, just they can't realize how dangerous and imminent it is. With them, the message can be passed. It takes time, but it can be done.

(*) In Italian: "quello che non ammazza, ingrassa"


  1. Wow, now that you've got the mind of that particular denier all figured out, what about the rest of us?

    1. Your brain will be scanned and your connectome determined. The data will be kept for future generations to explain why we had such a difficult problem in acting against climate change

  2. Ugo, I need a get-out-of-spam jail pass in your earlier post comments area

    You should watch that TED talk video re the "connectome"
    It may change your whole "mind". :-)

    1. Already done! That TED talk comes up immediately in a google search.

      Also, I started moderating the comments. We had a small trickle of trolls coming, but I know that they grow if you don't keep them in check

    2. Now it takes a little while to get a comment approved, sorry for the small nuisance, but I have no intention of giving a free pass to trolls

    3. And there is identical post from 2010 at Peter Sinclair's web with a video:

      The Mind of the Denier


    4. SB, also in your case, I would like to have your opinion on a study of mine of the communication problem in the field of climate change. Can I have your e-mail? (write to me at ugo.bardi(littlewhirlything)

  3. Thanks Ugo for your additional observations! As related to this topic, I also recommend recent article by prof. Michael "hockey stick" Mann and his first hand experince with climate denialism:

    Michael Mann: Life as a Target

    1. It is linked within the text already! BTW, Alex, I am working at a complete study of the communication problem in the field of climate change. It is too long to be published here, but I would like to have your opinion on it. I think I have your e-mail, somewhere, but would you mind to send it to me again? (ugo.bardi(littlewhirlything)

  4. about paranoia explaing active denialists. many obsessive youtube crank denialists are mentally ill for sure. ive noticed they often say the same things as creationists. like climate science being a religion etc.

    but most people don't have the mentally ill excuse when they get in their car. in that respect they are perhaps more despicable. they know full well they are doing wrong, and do it anyway.

    gore had it so right all that time ago. its an inconvenient truth to most people. they ignore it simply because they are allowed to by everyone else. its a sad fact most people are only as good as they have to be.

    1. andyuk, would you send me your e-mail address? I am trying to set up a small discussion group focused on climate. I am at ugo.bardi(littlewhirlything)

  5. Ugo, I'd like to offer you the use of word I made up a few weeks ago. I think it applies to the denier in this article.

    Amygdalism : continually responding to perceived threats with immediate fight or flight strategies regardless of consequences. Unable to assimilate reason, evidence, or logic.

    If you want to start a forum at our site ( feel free to. I enjoy your work.

    1. Thanks, Brad. Now, I learn that there exists such a thing as a "ning". How many things in the world am I missing?

      Anyhow, thanks for this concept. It may be a good idea to set a specific discussion group on the issue of communication. I am working on that, for the time being on a very small scale; just as a preliminary brainstorming before moving to a large scale. If you'd like to join this discussion, please write me at ugo.bardi(thingy)

  6. @all,

    LuboŇ° Motl also produced several articles regarding peak oil (with similar attitude than to climate change).

    If anyone is interested, he reacts to my recent article on "energy paradox" in USA, where population adjusted vehicles miles driven are declining at constant rate since jun 2005, despite "energy (shale oil) boom" since 2008-9 till now...:

    Waiting for peak oil: a paradox

    He probably thinks, new Industrial Revolution is ahead.


    1. Motl is a smart guy, no doubt. And he has studied the matter in depth. The point is, however, how many active deniers are there, around? I think they are an extremely small number - and those who are both smart and knowledgeable are a truly microscopic number. Deniers have been successful in gaining recognition in the web by being so active and aggressive, but we shouldn't focus our action on them.

    2. Absolutely agreed!

      I think we should concentrate on those "undecided" about the issue, or those who would like to contribute to the solution, but do not know how...

  7. I looked around a bit on Lubos Motl and got the impression, that he is a somewhat extreme example of a fighter for his cause, using "ad hominem" attacks galore. And when he rejects even the possibility of the earth evolving in a harmful way, he seems not to have studied the field thoroughly.
    But there are many people who admit the general argumentative line of man inducing a remarkably quick climate movement, arguing on the scale of the effects - and increasingly on mankinds abilities to deal with whatever will come at its time.
    What we don't need is hysteria of any kind. What we don't need is put ourselves on the "moral high ground". What we don't need is to emphasize one more time, that it will become warmer than at any point in the last 500, 1000, 5000, 10000 years, You name it.
    What we need is , imho, to discuss the spectrum of possible problems and their probability - clarify the probability field of the future so to say, which is of course changing with time and research going on.
    I have the impression, that mankind is in a condition of race. Can we step up food production fast enough to feed us through the 9 billion peak population expected? And keep it high for the centuries after the population peak, when population will probably shrink slowly (hopefully). And how?
    Can we strengthen global cooperation enough to feed the hungry, or better integrate them enough to feed themselves?
    Does a considerable part of earths population have to move elsewhere?
    How adapt economies to changing regional climates - the mediterranean countries to hotter and drier summers e.g.?
    These questions have finally to be answered by coming generations, but how can we avoid to make it too hard for them to find an answer?
    There are a lot of positive signs: Education goes up. Birthrates go down. Communication goes up exponentially. About nationalism and chauvinism I am not so sure, looking at China e.g., though the long term development seems to go in the right direction. Technology goes up - fast enough? Another positive sign: economy goes down (this is a joke ;-) but this slashed GHGs a bit.).
    Negative signs: consumerism generally still goes up very much. Faster - bigger - stronger is still the name of the game for many, a mind set by 500 k + years of evolution is difficult to change.
    Besides of practical questions, there is also a somewhat subtler, more emotional concern: Do we really really want to change the face of the earth completely, which we have learned to love?
    All this may lead to a clearerer and more definite motivation for acting against climat change.

    1. Hello Anmerkungen, well, there is a lot of denialism these days:

      In our current belief system, which we might term liberal secular humanism, which has held sway in the West since the Second World War, and which promotes human progress and well-being, only one response is permitted: Yes, of course! Any suggestion that there might be something wrong with people as a whole, with Man as a species, is absolute anathema. But today, two circumstances come together to prompt me to pose the question once more.

      Man is fallen and will destroy the Earth – but at least we greens made him wait

      Read the whole piece...

  8. The intellect (associated with the neocortex) is in the driver's seat, but most people do not realise that it is the chauffeur. The "reptilian brain", associated with emotions (short-term) and values (long-term) decides where to go, and the chauffeur does the work of rationalising, planning and acting. The intellect is a tool, used by the emotion-value system. Most people do not realise this. Those of lesser intellect can be expected to resort to emotions and logical fallacies when the intellect falls short.

  9. In France we have Jacques Duran, a retired university professor, who I think is quite similar to this Lubos Motl. He maintains , you should take a look at it (or maybe you already did ?). Even if you can't read French (but maybe you can !), it's worth seeing how his site is organized. He doesn't only speaks of the science, there are also whole pages about how climate change is "socially constructed" !

  10. Ugo. Sorry about the length of this comment. I think for the purposes of doing something about denialism/pathological scepticism, we need to "divide and rule".

    There are broadly two different types - out and out deniers who think the science is faked to politically control them. Secondly, and much more dangerous to determined political actions being taken, are the "lukewarmers".

    The first group believe all sorts of crap which is usually quite easy to refute (although they cannot often accept the refutations). Their ideas are often based on press stories and internet blog sites. Unfortunately their sound bite assertions sound very plausible to the general public - e.g. all the other planets are warming so it must be the sun and has got nothing to do with us - and spread an uncertainty that affects political voting patterns.

    This group can be handled like this. What we need is a big global campaign in the press. Full page ads should be placed with the deceptive soundbite "arguments" down one side and opposite each should be short, but scientifically referenced, refutations similar to those uses. The general public has never seen such a technique used before - previously if they saw the denialist memes used in a climate change piece, the nature of the stories they saw meant that they would never see the scientific refutations alongside them. I think widespread use of the press like this could have a very powerful effect at clearing the "uncertainty" muddy waters that the propagandists have created.

    The "lukewarmers" are the biggest problem. These are the ones that feed political forces. Their arguments, based on genuine scientific papers which they concentrate on to the exclusion of the majority science, is that they accept almost all of global warming science except they dispute the feedbacks, particularly those due to water vapour and clouds, which they think means that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is much lower than the IPCCs figure of ~3°C per CO2 doubling. They think it is more like 1.9-2.0°C per CO2 doubling. They think this figure is somehow "safe" because they assume we could probably handle that amount of warming.

    Like many people trying to make the sceptical/denialist case, they do not think it through. If the policy makers of the world chose to believe their call that such a value of sensitivity was "safe", what would happen? There would be few, if any, attempts to reduce emissions, so atmospheric levels of CO2 would carry on rising faster.

    Here's a question for the lukewarmer sceptics - what makes them think levels would stop just at a doubled value from pre-industrial times (280 -> 560ppm)? Why would humanity not, in due course, double that again to 1120 ppm which would lead, even using the rose tinted "get out of jail free" sensitivity of 2°C, to 4°C of warming, which no one sane can dispute would be highly dangerous.

    To those who don't think we could get to 1120ppm with just our fossil fuel, fracked gas, tars sands etc remember that the Arctic is warming a lot more than most and there is a lot of tundra/permafrost up there already starting to melt, which will be releasing large amounts of CO2 as the frozen organic material decomposes. Not to mention the increased out-gassing of CO2 from the oceans as they warm too.

    So, even if these lower sensitivity figures were valid, we are still facing a dangerous situation and the claimed "cooler heads" of the lukewarmers, that try to make out we are not, are actually irresponsible and more of a threat to appropriate action being taken than the truly dumb deniers...

    see part 2

  11. Part 2

    ...There are also the very lowest estimates of sensitivity from such as Richard Lindzen to counter. If global warming of +2°C is regarded as dodgy and +4°C is definitely dangerous, then even if Lindzen, Spencer and Christy's (even Monckton's!!!) claimed sensitivity figure of ~1°C per doubling of CO2 is correct, the second doubling to 1120 ppm puts us in back in trouble. As I pointed out before, if the world thinks that sensitivity is as low as the minority suggest, it makes it far more likely that little or nothing will be done to mitigate, or even stop the growth of, emissions.

    The only shred of Lindzen's ideas left to deal with is his contention that although the basic CO2 feedback is ~1°C, he claims there is a negative feedback from clouds based on his work with tropical clouds. Show that, even if that holds for the narrow band in the tropics, the probability is that it does not hold for the majority of the planet, particularly the polar regions, and the remaining scepticosphere case collapses entirely.

    The mind of the denier is one that refuses to accept that we can have created a dangerous situation for ourselves. The more stupid or gullible will believe almost any rubbish, no matter how implausible, as long as it backs up the beliefs they want to maintain. The mind of the lukewarmer is in a form of denial too - the denial that the minority scientific viewpoint they choose to accept might be wrong and therefore that they can be risking their own future, and everybody else's too.

    We all should also remember that science can always be proved wrong but what would be the consequences of the two "sides" being wrong as we conduct this atmospheric experiment, in which we are in the test tube - the only planet we have?

    If - looking back from 2050 -:

    Mainstream climate science is wrong and we had done a lot to reduce emissions - a lot of embarassment from science but we would have reduced our dependence on expensive oil, sometimes from unstable areas.

    Mainstream science is wrong and we had done nothing to reduce use. Energy costs would have gone up as easy to extract resources depleted. Economies would be suffering

    Mainstream climate science is right and we had done nothing to reduce emissions - very serious and increasing, probably irreversible climate disruption and economic catastrophe

    Mainstream climate science is right and we had done a lot to reduce emissions - Phew! We made it!

    Deniers often complain about being likened to holocaust deniers, but I think what they are actually in denial of is that there can be a significant threat - their appreciation of the probabilities, and the consequences of their being wrong, is irresponsible and reckless.

    1. Nick, it seems that we are all coming to the conclusion that there are two kinds of deniers: the rabid and the lukewarm. (active and passive). The second step is to develop strategies that take into account the two species and their genetic (connectomic) structure. That will need a lot of discussion - we are just starting, let's see what we can do.

    2. Ugo,

      There is an old joke about there being 10 kinds of people in the world:






      Those who count in binary and those who don't.


      Everybody models the outside world (outside their personal Plato's cave) in a slightly different way. No two denialists are exactly alike.


      Connectomes are not genetically determined in a nature-versus-nurture dichotomy kind of way. Nature and nurture are part of a seamless blend.

      It doesn't matter that there are denialists among us. What matters is who is in control of major societal movements and who understands what levers to pull in the game for gaining and maintaining control. I respectfully suggest that you are wasting your time worrying about denialists, especially among the older generations. The next generation (the youths) are already sold on climate change.


      But the question then emerges, what to do about it?
      That is where the next battle line is drawn.

    3. "But the question then emerges, what to do about it?"

      The exact thing we started doing in the 1960's, until manufactured hysteria and a financial crunch ironically born of a fossil-fuel embargo slammed on the brakes:  go nuclear.

  12. I hope that people around the world are starting to see that climate change is real and that over-exploitation of the planet will kill us all in the end. I think the deniers are either very misinformed or they intentionally want to confuse others so the pillaging of the earth can continue.... until it will be too late.

  13. Oh you silly billies.

    Don't you know that more CO2 means
    more water vapor
    means more clouds
    means more reflection
    means more cooling?

    Happy April 1

    1. Oh you sillier billy.
      Don't you know that more water vapour

      means more clouds (and more GHG water vapour in all the spaces to the sides, above and below the clouds)

      means more reflection (and more reflection of upward bound radiation back down again - much warmer at night under a cloudy sky...)

      means more cooling? (what makes you think that the reduction in albedo elsewhere, such as the Arctic, won't more than compensate?)

      Apart from anything else, the amount of water vapour the air can hold is determined by the temperature, so as the temperature rises more water can be held in the air in the transparent vapour phase so, unless there is some other effect, increased water vapour due to increasing temperature will not necessarily lead to more clouds (simplified)

    2. Nick,

      ROAFFLMMHO (Rolling On A Feathered Floor Laughing My Mad Hat Off)

      This ties in with a side-bar conversation Ugo & I were having.

      The average Joe doesn't know what causes clouds to appear in the sky.

      Therefore if you watch the "skeptic's" video I link to above,
      it all makes "impeccable" sense (especially if said with a gentleman's British accent).

      I think it is the lack of basic understandings about science:
      What makes an airplane fly?
      How does a tiny acorn become a massive wood-filled tree?
      How and when do clouds form?

      That lack of knowledge makes the general public gullible to so-called 'skeptical' con artists.

      Indeed, a news article posted today looks into the public's misunderstanding
      about the "theory" of climate change:

    3. I wish I had a vote-up button for you, Step Back.

    4. Thanks EP,

      I used to enjoy our colloquies on the Oil Drum,
      but alas, I was Drummed Out for having spoken my mind on certain political issues where the PTB of TOD are of opposite persuasion. :-)

  14. This article is very good in explaining how the mind of a climate believer works.

    1. You know, anonymous, maybe one day we could arrive to understand each other and reach an agreement!

  15. Sorry, Step Back. I didn't realise you were being ironic with your post commencing "Oh you silly billies". Poe's law applies.

  16. Nick,

    Nothing to be sorry about.

    I think you hit on one of the core problems of trying to "communicate" to the general public the certainty and severity of the Climate Change problem.

    Your average citizen does not have the knowledge base by which to judge who is right (is it the so-called climate "scientists" who are tarnished by "Climategate"?) and who is being a con-artist flim flam man (is it the self-proclaimed "skeptics" who argue CC is a Hoax? or vise versa?).

    Our biggest enemy is "common sense".

    Common sense is commonly wrong.

    It seems to make common sense to the average Joe that more warming means more water (humidity) in the air and more humidity means more white clouds, hence reflection, and hence a self-regulating cooling effect.

    That is one of the "common sense" misconceptions that the con-artist video I referenced to above plays on.

    Of course, you and I both know that increase in water vapor (generally transparent) does not inherently lead to more clouds and the issue is far more complex than that. But what does the average citizen know? Which argument is more appealing? Business as usual (BAU) or severe austerity due to major cutbacks in our CO2 spewing way of life?

  17. Latest US poll results:
    3 in 8 Americans Believe Global Warming A Hoax:

    Hat tip to



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)