Distinguishing deniers from skeptics

A lot of people have found it useful to distinguish between different kinds of climate skepticism. In the current edition of Skeptic Magazine, David Brin makes this point and distinguishes climate denialists from climate skeptics. Keith Kloor adds some useful comments. Bart Verheggen likewise discovered various shades of grey in climate skepticism, and it is very worthwile thinking about those shades in more depth.

Not everyone who doubts scientific details about global warming is a climate denier. There’s an actually not so subtle difference between laypeople who put a lot of time and effort into vindicating or vitiating climate science, and paid professionals who seed doubt ordered by corporate players whose profits are endangered by climate policy or connected with personal ideologies opposed to anything green.

The latter group truly deserves the title “professional denialists”. They do not care about advancing science at all, they are not interested in honest debate, and they do everything to disturb the work of scientists working in the field. This sort of people is mostly absent from Europe, they appear to be largely constrained to the US and other anglosaxon countries. Their impact there, however, may be significant, according to the accounts of James Hoggan, and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Admittedly, the field of denialists can’t be reduced only to PR people, but let’s keep it like this for a minute.

Civic skeptics, however, have been met with a lot of hostility on the web, while their contributions to the climate debate can – and should – be seen in a more positive light. Yet it’s also up to them to present their case in a more digestible way.

Concepts of social constructivism may hold a key to acknowledging the work of civic skeptics – at least that’s what did the trick for me, so don’t say social theory is all dry and has little relevance for one’s everyday life 🙂 People have an interest in actively coproduce meaning, or, to say it differently, participate in the social construction of climate change. Put simply, people are eager to be heard. And blogs offer a great opportunity to take part in the climate change debates, to influence the discourse, and of course to get in touch with other people, including professional scientists who would otherwise be out of reach.

There’s no reason why the science of climate change should be confined to official experts, especially not when we basically need our whole society to move forward with strong climate policies. We need the support of everyone we can get, and for some people this means to understand what’s behind all the fuss. When they come across data glitches or strange statistical methods, they’re eager to find out more. Only through blocking such attempts has the climate community fed elements of an online movement it now wishes to disappear.

There’s basically not much of a difference when environmentalists doubt the alleged harmlessness of genetically modified organisms or question the safety of a proposed nuclear waste repository, or when climate skeptics doubt the seriousness of climate change due to uncertainties in various impact studies. While I have much more sympathy for the former, I got to admit that critically questioning what scientists present as fact to laypeople is a virtue, not a sin.

Some people have therefore tried to reframe activities of civic skeptics as “citizen science” (discussed here and here). To the degree that blog posts are actually intended to advance science, or to learn what’s behind some papers, or to discuss climate policy, that’s a valid attempt. It would offer mainstream scientists a way to get actively and productively engaged in online discussions. Yet instead, one often has to stumble upon insults, personal attacks, and gross misunderstandings of the nature of science. That’s no fun at all.

While it is relatively easy to identify professional denialists and separate them from civic skeptics, there are a lot of fine differences within skepticism itself that are not so easy to separate. In fact, a lot of denialists and skeptics alike have done so much damage to the idea of civic skepticism that too many well-minded people have shut their eyes and ears to their contributions. It’s difficult to figure out what skeptic actually has something important to say, or in which one of her dozens of blog posts lies something hidden that deserves attention. As Bart Verheggen put it:

The existence and flourishing of technical climate blogs that take a critical stance towards the mainstream scientific view shows that the dualistic view of professional scientists on the one hand and the amateur public on the other hand is too simplistic (especially if the public is deemed ‘ignorant’ of the science). It is clear that there is a continuum of interest, knowledge, skepticism, sincerity, etc amongst the public.

I agree that it’s not constructive to dismiss the expertise and energy of the more scientifically minded critics (“citizen scientists”). But then I would suggest that those sincerely interested clearly distance themselves from the contempt and suspicions raising crowd, since that are the public face of the critics, and it’s severely hampering communication with mainstream scientists and their supporters.

That would be very helpful indeed, so that finally “genuine” and “pseudo skeptics” could be distinguished. Anyway, things might be even more complicated than that. In this sense it is very good that Deep Climate has produced a series of high quality investigations into the work of Steve McIntyre from ClimateAudit (see how to be a climate auditor part I, part II, and here) Auditing the auditors was long overdue.

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