Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)

In a recent post I mentioned a discussion I was having with a rightwinger in the comments section of an book review.  The person seemed somewhat reasonable and intelligent, but didn’t offer much evidence to support his arguments.  I’m fine with that as long as someone isn’t making extreme claims and that is where I finally took issue with this person.  I explained, in one of my comments, my criticism of the anti-intellectualism that has become popular with some conservatives, and then this person provides a perfect example of this rightwing anti-intellectualism.

I wanted to use this example because it’s too easy to think of anti-intellectual types as backwards and stupid.  That may sometimes be the case, but not always.  The particular person in question, although no intellectual giant, is able to present himself in a reasonable manner in most of his comments.  He can put together a coherent thought and articulate it with some clarity.  He does even offer some meager evidence.  However, his response to my evidence seems perplexing from a rational perspective.

My comment:

There was a study done in 2009 at University of Illinois by Peter Doran and Kendall Zimmerman which appeared in the January 19 publication Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. From around the world, 3,146 earth scientists were surveyed which included experts in academia and government research centers.

The questions were checked by a polling expert to ensure there was no bias. There were two questions that are directly relevant to our. One question was about whether the mean global temperatures had risen since before the 1800s. And another question was about whether human activity had been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Around 90% of scientists thought that mean global temperatures had risen and 82% thought human activity was a significant factor. Just considering climatologists who are active in research, 97.4% thought human activity was a significant factor. Even petrolium geologists were almost evenly split with only 54% disagreeing with the majority of climatologists.

Doran also noted recent poll data about public opinion. Gallup poll shows 58% of the public agrees with climatologists that human activity contributes to global warming. However, most Americans are misinformed about actual scientific consensus. Only 52% think most scientists agree that temperature is rising and only 47% think most scientists agree that human activity is contributing. However, a World Bank international survey found that most people in most countries thought that scientists agree that climate change is an urgent problem that is understood well enough that action needs to be taken.

From the Wikipedia article “Climate change consensus” (with cited and linked sources):

“The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. The conclusion that global warming is mainly caused by human activity and will continue if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced has been endorsed by more than 75 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the International Union for Quaternary Research, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word “consensus” when referring to this conclusion.””


“A 2004 essay by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science reported a survey of 928 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers related to global climate change in the ISI database. Oreskes claimed that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. … This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies.” Benny Peiser claimed to have found flaws in Oreskes’ work, but his attempted refutation is disputed and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peiser later withdrew parts of his criticism, also commenting that “the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.””

The other person’s response:

Sorry Steele; the science just isn’t there. You think it is because there is a conspiracy of sorts. It’s not a deal where everyone set down and plotted, but the ball got rolling and everyone jumped on for their own gain. And there is a leftist move to redistribute wealth this way. Gore has multiplied his wealth many, many times just since promoting this issue. He has a vested interest and if he was a government official would probably be violating conflict of interest. As Dr. Gray says its all ocean currents. He also says the CO2 is good for the plants as we know from biology class. There are many scientists against this and many more who won’t speak out because of political correctness. Oh well, the left has only a few months left in power. Still haven’t read all your stuff; I’ll get back to you.

I only listed part of the data that shows consensus among climatologists.  A survey of the data is presented in the Wikipedia article “Scientific opinion on climate change“.  A number of respected organizations have referred to scientific opinion on this issue as a consensus: American Association for the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Sciences,  American Meteorological Society, Network of African Science Academies, International Union for Quaternary Research, and Australian Coral Reef Society.

It takes some major balls for a non-scientist to deny the consensus of thousands of scientists who are experts in the field of climatology.  The climatologists who are the most active researchers are in fact the ones who show the highest agreement, but even the non-active scientists agree (and so presumably they aren’t receiving funding to bias their opinions).  The person I was having the discussion with obviously hadn’t really considered the science in any depth and possibly thinks that scientists are part of the liberal elite trying to take over the world.

It’s fine if you have criticisms (assuming they’re based on critical thinking).  Scientists can be wrong and the scientific method takes into account the errors of individual scientists.  That is why we have peer-review, but the meta-analysis of the peer-review articles also shows support for anthropogenic global warming.  Scientific consensus is based on the known facts.  Some of those facts may turn out to be wrong or misinterpreted, and if that were to happen then scientific consensus would change.  But it’s the worst kind of anti-intellectualism to dismiss both the known facts and the scientific concensus because they disagree with your preconceived ideology.

There are intelligent criticisms.  As an example of a slightly more intelligent discussion between two skeptical non-scientists, watch the following video:

The obvious weakness of that discussion is that neither person is a climatologists or even a scientist.  The person being interviewed is a journalist and does seem to be at least somewhat informed.  It’s fair to criticize specific measurements and how accurate they might be.  It’s fair to criticize how large the actual effect is on climate.  Most climatologists aren’t fear-mongering about the end of the world.  Even though there is a concensus about anthropogenic global warming, many scientists debate and disagree about the exact mechanism of global warming, the exact influence of human activity, and the exact influence on the climate in the near future.  Nonetheless, the consensus remains.

The major failing of the discussion in the above video is that it doesn’t take into account the 97% of experts who do support anthropogenic global warming.  It isn’t clear how much the journalist disagrees with the consensus itself or merely the conclusions extrapolated from that conclusion.  I don’t understand the science well enough to fully understand the data he is referring to.  All I know for sure is that only 3% of experts are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.  I think it’s fairly weak when skeptics refer to scientists within that 3% in order to “disprove” the conclusions of the 97%.  If this non-expert journalist disagrees with 97% of expert scientists, then I think I’ll go with the consensus of the experts.

A maybe more important failing of global warming skepticism in general is that it supports the dismissal of the global problems we face.  Even if humans don’t cause global warming and even if global warming doesn’t exist at all, we still are destroying entire ecosystems and poisoning ourselves.  If you’re concerned about the issue of diseases, poverty, and human rights, then you should be concerned about pollution and environmental destruction.  You can argue about the policies that should be implemented, but to ignore the problems themselves is insane.

Skepticism is good as all scientists strive to be skeptical.  There, however, has been a failure of our education system and a failure of our media in teaching intelligent skepticism.  I heard an interview on public radio with one of the scientists involved with Climategate.  I thought the scientist was fairly humble and defended the science in a reasonable manner.  The scientist pointed out an important issue.  The media has failed in explaining the actual science of climatology.  The reporters weak response was “So, you’re attacking the messenger.”  The scientists was correct.  The media just likes conflict and often does little to resolve conflict by intelligent reporting.  The problem is most reporters don’t understand science to any great degree.  Reporting done about science by a non-scientist isn’t likely to have much depth of analysis.

There is even support for the allegation that the media and the education system aren’t informing the public.  I thought it quite significant that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is so extremely high and yet most Americans don’t think there is a scientific consensus.  How does such a disconnect happen between public opinion and scientific knowledge?  Furthermore, even when I’ve presented this data to global warming denialists, they act as if it’s of no significance what most scientific experts think.  I’ve even seen a denialist claim that consensus has nothing to do with science and therefore the 3% of dissenting scientific opinion is somehow equal to or greater than the 97% of scientific consensus.  So, if there is any scientist who disagrees with a consensus, then that consensus automatically becomes false and anyone who promotes it is morally inferior for supposedly trying to silence the minority who disagrees.  The faulty logic of this style of thinking not only is a failure of public education in teaching critical thinking skills but also a failure in teaching the scientific method.

This post was more about the issue of anti-intellectualism than climatology, but if you want to read more about the issue of global warming and Climategate I’ve written about it previously:

Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

Head in the Sand Syndrome

And some reasonable videos showing the scientific support of anthropogenic global warming:

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