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"


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)