About 'Denying', 'Deniers', and 'Denial'

There has been some discussion about the D-word recently. The Science of Doom blog considered the historical implications of the word, and argues that its use in the climate debate trivialises the deaths of millions, and urged people to stop using it. Keith Kloor agreed, saying that the use of the word was needlessly ’emotionally and politically charged’ and inflammatory. Lastly, Richard Betts has a guest post at And Then There’s Physics’ blog, urging the readers there to ‘Label the behaviour, not the person‘, which fell on deaf ears. More about those articles shortly.

I have never been particularly upset by the epithet, ‘denier’, for the simple reason that it says much about the person who utters it than it says about the putative ‘denier’. I don’t know who made the observation that ‘once you give something a name, you don’t have to argue with it’ (I think it was Lenin), but it seems to me to explain the use of the word. Once you call someone a denier, you don’t have to explain what it is they have denied. Anti-deniers deny debate.

For instance, climate scientists who have slightly lower estimates of climate sensitivity than the IPCC are called ‘deniers’. I’m thinking especially of scientists like Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen here. Rather than looking at the arguments about how and why Lindzen and Michaels’ analyses come out at the lower end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum) of estimates of warming, many have chosen to see the expression of denial as a phenomenon in need of explanation. The likes of Naomi Orkeskes have sought to chart a history of a conspiracy of deniers and their strategies. Others, like psychologists such as Jon Krosnick and Stephan Lewandowsky, have sought to establish the pathology of denial. Building on this, Researchers in Cardiff University have sold their insight into ‘denial’ to the government, to suggest strategies for confronting sceptics’ influence in the public sphere.

Climate advocates could have dealt with their interlocutors’ arguments in the same way that most academics deal with disagreement — by testing and developing better theories. But the climate debate is largely a battle of received wisdoms. And it is also a battle in which people are greatly invested, and which people have internalised. Rather than admitting controversy, or at least nuance, into the debate, it is much easier to explain away disagreement as the expression of moral deviance and conspiracies. Hence, the the climate debate is divided into two by the clumsiest interpretations of the ‘consensus’.

Just as in the battle of received wisdoms the scientific consensus is a consensus without an object, the entire point of the use of the word ‘denier’ is intended to avoid debate about what it is that is being denied. The consensus without an object meets denial without an object. This produces a remarkable paradox: you can know all about climate change denial without knowing anything about climate change science. As long as you know that ‘climate change is happening’, you’re equipped to comment on climate change as an expert, and to research the minds and motivations of anyone who disagrees or who is not interested. Anyone can sell themselves as a ‘climate change communicator’, no matter their actual grasp of climate science and its controversies.

This, I believe, is a far more interesting thing to observe than the claims and counter-claims about climate science. How is it possible, for example, for the likes of the UK’s most senior climate change bureaucrat to intervene in the debate in this way:

Lord Deban, PKA John Gummer, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) used to tweet about ‘deniers’, ‘delayers’ and ‘dismissers’. But he has apparently broadened his fight, to take on the ‘lukewarmers’.

But even when he was aiming his sights at ‘deniers’, Gummer never revealed who the ‘deniers’ were, much less what their arguments were. Similarly, here, we don’t learn who the ‘lukewarmers’ are, much less what their claims are, and much much less how these claims are wrong. For so much emphasis on science, the science is distinctly lacking in claims about ‘deniers’ and ‘lukewarmers’. The chair of the CCC — which sets the carbon budgets that the entire population will have to endure — should be in a position to inform us about the errors made in the debate. Instead, he prefers hollow invective.

Gummer has obviously finally got the memo: the continued use of the word ‘denier’, attached to arguments that never explain what is being denied, and who is denying, has been counter-productive. All it revealed was the intransigence of people who have responded to criticism of climate politics by hiding behind science, and by use of the word ‘denier’. The reality of denial as a phenomenon is nothing more the fantasy of climate alarmists, attached to conspiracy theories and cod social science. Many have now seen through it, and that those who were accused of denying were doing no such thing.

This brings us to the present discussions about ‘denial’.

The point made on the Science of Doom (which I refuse to turn into a TLA, for obvious reasons) blog is straightforward enough: ‘Understanding climate means understanding maths, physics and statistics. This is hard, very hard.’ So, reasons Doom,

The worst you could say is people who don’t accept ‘consensus climate science’ are likely finding basic – or advanced – thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and statistics a little difficult and might have misunderstood, or missed, a step somewhere.

The best you could say is with such a complex subject straddling so many different disciplines, they might be entitled to have a point.

But in spite of his granting that would-be deniers ‘might be entitled to have a point’, Doom’s injunction is ultimately unmoving. The problem divides in two, depending on the credence we give to the idea that the historical allusion is intended. Even if If Doom is right that the term ‘denier’ is used in the climate debate as a deliberate allusion to holocaust denial, it isn’t wrong merely because it defames the millions of people murdered by Nazis. It’s wrong in the present because of the bad faith of the people who use it, towards their opponents. It is as if it were okay to denigrate people in this way, as long as we are careful not to lump any of history’s victims in with the would-be ‘deniers’. In this case, the interesting thing is that it was necessary for so many people engaged in the debate, to eschew debate as such, and to put their counterparts in the lowest available moral category. If Doom’s greener critics are right that the word ‘denier’ only coincidentally makes equivalents of holocaust deniers and climate sceptics, then the problem remains that using the word only serves to belittle people people’s moral character, to avoid substantive debate — i.e. to not take seriously the object of denial.

In either case, and for any proportion of each, the point is much less about what is the best and worst thing you can say about ‘deniers’ than it is about what you can say about people who need to use the word.

Whatever it is called, ‘denial’ remains a category that Doom is still extremely reluctant to appear close to, as Maurizio Morabito notes at his blog,

… both SoD and Kloor find it necessary to go for brownie points, and clarify, clarify and clarify again that they ARE part of the Good Guys Brigade indeed, and have NO DOUBTS about the greenhouse effect, or the fact that increasing anthropogenic GHGs has been a significant contribution to rising temperatures of the last 100 years.

… The point being that on this basis, very little in fact separates the putative deniers from their counterparts. And perhaps this is the root of the problem. One reason for people reaching for such crude allusions to holocaust denial might be the moral certainty that is leant by the horror of WWII to the present. That is to say that it is hard to find the moral dimensions of an argument about possibly no more than +/- 0.5 degrees C. The easy thing to do is to compare people who go with the lower estimates to the perpetrators of the most grotesque acts in modern history. But this reaching for the most dramatic moral equivalent is a symptom of weak moral foundations, in fact. Hence, many people involved in the climate debate don’t make sophisticated moral arguments on points of principle, but in terms of totalising consequences: of millions of deaths, of catastrophic and extreme weather, and of the end of civilisation. In other words, the form of climate change alarmism that resorts to words like ‘denier’ might be the consequence of an exhausted moral framework, in desperate search for authority and legitimacy.

This brings us to Keith Kloor, who superficially agrees with Doom’s superficial criticism of the use of the word ‘denier’, and who tries much harder to sustain the polarisation of the debate without recourse to the D-word. For Kloor, the real test of sceptics’ actual scepticism is their treatment of claims about ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ (WTS). Kloor searches WattsUpWithThat and Bishop Hill for articles about WTS which are not, in his view, sufficiently critical, and declares all climate sceptic bloggers to be fake sceptics.

The articles in question are here: Bishop Hill, WUWT(1), WUWT(2). DO check them out.

What you will see is that the Bishop Hill article makes zero reference to WTS at all. In fact it refers to research about the acoustic effects of wind turbines, to which the wind sector had apparently conceded. Kloor had conflated the issue of noise with the issue of WTS. Yet Kloor says: ‘No skepticism whatsoever, no critical thinking skills exhibited by these “climate skeptics” about a claim that has as much scientific validity as the power lines-cause-cancer scare.’

This simply isn’t true. The effect of ‘excessive amplitude modulation’ is tangible. And although some people respond to noise differently and subjectively, it remains a fact that disturbing noises disturb, and that loss of sleep can produce many health effects. The attempt to group these effects into one syndrome may well have its flaws — I have argued this much myself, and suggested that it is a mistake to give much weight to WTS — but it is wrong to say that there is no evidence of the effects grouped under WTS as Kloor has. It is in fact as unscientific as Kloor suggests WTS is. So much for ‘critical thinking skills’, then.

The two articles at WUWT are guest posts. The first, by Mike Duchamp, does seem to be about WTS at first glance of the title. But actually reading the article — a prerequisite to ‘critical thinking skills, NB, Keith — reveals that the issue is not WTS, but the effects grouped under WTS:

These mega turbines are reported to be emitting more low frequency noise (LFN) than smaller models, and this causes more people to be affected, and over greater distances, by the usual symptoms of the Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS): insomnia, headaches, nausea, stress, poor ability to concentrate, irritability, etc, leading to poorer health and a reduced immunity to illness.

In other words, the issue is the regulation of noise emitted by turbines. As the article notes: ‘”Hardly anyone would accept 30 dB(A) in their homes at night”, wrote the Professor last month (2).’ For what it is worth, I think Duchamp would have put his argument better if he had simply said “Wind Turbine Noise affects more people than previously thought” rather than “Wind Turbine Syndrome affects more people than previously thought”. But this difference is hardly the difference between applying “zero critical thinking skills” and their full deployment.

The second WUWT, far from demonstrating a lack of ‘uncritical thinking skills’ in fact asks for more evidence. Kloor had said, “Of course, nothing is too far-fetched for Watts, who also published a post by someone claiming that horses in Spain were becoming deformed by wind farm noise”. But the author of the post, Ric Werme, made no such claim at all:

So, WUWT readers who actually know something about horses, have you heard of this case or similar cases at other farms with new wind turbines? Or, if you live near wind farms that are near farms with horses, cattle, etc, have they had problems like this?

This is just one study, involving one farm and not very many horses, clearly more research is warranted. If it’s confirmed, it would be interesting to know if other animals are susceptible to a similar problem.

So Kloor’s test of scepticism is pure and simple bullshit, and an example of exactly what he claims to be against.

I mention all this to illustrate why I don’t consider these “climate skeptics” to be true skeptics. They don’t think skeptically; they are captive to their ideologically-driven biases and it often shows. So if they are not “climate skeptics,” how do you characterize them and others who don’t think the earth is warming (or at least not at a worrisome rate)?

So Kloor, noting that the use of the word ‘denier’ is problematic, sees it as merely a semantic problem, not a problem requiring the self-reflection he demands of sceptics. He still wants there to be a way to divide sceptics from the rest of the world, to belittle and to impugn their moral character. And he wants a way of doing it precisely so that he can continue to avoid having to actually read their arguments below the headline. In the process of making his argument, Kloor, being keener to shout down rather than find out, reveals that the problem is not the lack of an adequate definition of ‘denial’ or climate scepticism, but himself and his need to polarise the debate, to divide into neat categories of good and bad, to avoid the argument and the need for debate altogether.

Richard Betts’s contribution is more straightforward. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the sense of denial of grief, illness or other loss has been lost by the use of the allusion to holocaust denial, says Betts. Moreover, labelling anyone with anything is a poor communications strategy, and can only inflame dialogue.

I think the whole climate conversation would be better off with the word ‘denier’ being dropped completely, and with ‘being in denial’ only being used very judiciously, when it really is appropriate.

Label the behaviour, not the person, and even then take care to do so only when justified.

There is much less to take issue with in Betts’ comments than in Doom and Kloor’s. The problem remains, though, that we have only an objection to the semantics or strategic sense in using the word ‘denier’, not an examination of its usage. Imagine if some racist were to be challenged for his use of racist epithets, not because of the racism he was expressing, but because the words he used weren’t an effective way of ‘communicating’. In fact, the racist communicates his racism very effectively — nobody is confused by it. And equivalently, nobody should be confused by the words ‘denier’, ‘denial’, ‘denying’ and ‘denialism’, whether or not they are an allusion to holocaust denial.

I would argue that racists and holocaust deniers should be free to speak. This is not out of sympathy for racists and holocaust deniers, but firstly on the principle of free speech in its own right, and a commitment to the more consequential understanding that the way to eliminate bad ideas like racism is to confront them, rather than lock them away. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the climate debate is an attempt to control and prevent debate. It is this motivation and the reasons for it that should be exposed. Anything less is merely word-play.

Those who are criticising their colleagues’ choice of language will face considerable resistance. The arguments which make use of words like ‘denier’ emerge from institutions which have been established firmly on the highly-polarised view of the debate. The example of John Gummer’s interventions is given above. And then there are the likes of Bob Ward, formerly of the Royal Society (with its own history of using the word, ‘denier’, and its presidents clumsy interventions), now at the Grantham Institute, attached to the London School of Economics. Ward’s campaign against critics of climate policies continues to take the form of complaints about the denial of climate science to editors and organisations in a position to censor or censure the putative ‘denier’. It is not enough for Ward, who believes he has challenged Richard Tol’s arguments with scientific facts, to use the muscle of his billionaire backer, the power of the academic institutions he is a member of, and his contacts in the press to disseminate the material he has produced; he seeks the humiliation of the author, the deletion of the articles written on the basis of the authors research, and for the intervention of the censor.

When the editor doesn’t step in, Ward complains about the censor…

Ward and Gummer should embarrass any advocate of climate change policy that believes in debate no matter how convinced they are of their own position. Ward and Gummer are symptoms of the extent to which a narrow interpretation of climate change and set of polices were allowed to dominate the public debate, and to police the public discussion. The institutions of climate change were established outside of the usual processes which steer the construction of public bodies — their rectitude given from the outset, as planet-savers, no need for debate, no need to test their legitimacy or purpose, no need for meaningful oversight. The institutions of environmentalism, in other words, have developed outside of any real culture of debate. So when confronted with criticism, those who either are not acquainted with debate, or otherwise feel entitled to be protected from it, can only escalate criticism to hostility.

These are origins of the word ‘denier’. It is not a mere accident of language, or slight on the memories of people murdered by the Nazi regime. The use of the word ‘denier’ is the result of a delinquent form of politics, as insidious as the organised political racism that allowed the officials of governments that espoused racist doctrines to use racist epithets. (Though that is not to make moral equivalents of racism and climate alarmism). It justifies itself in the same way: that the shortcomings of the group in question preclude it from self-government. Racism, too, had a ‘scientific’ justification, even in the C20th. But scientific justifications quickly turn into pejorative terms. ‘Deniers’ are impugned — if they are not simply invented — for their moral and intellectual shortcomings precisely for the preservation of a political class as it struggles to sustain its hold over the public sphere. The word ‘denier’ is in the official climate change lexicon. It is not street slang. It is not shorthand. It is precise. It is deliberate. Its use is intended to service a political agenda.

So, I find hand-wringing about what is the most effective word to use to refer to the out-group somewhat pointless. Even if urging people to cease may ameliorate some of the excesses of the non-existent debate, resistance to the word ‘denier’ means nothing if it does not amount to resistance to the predominant political ambition. Gummer can now include Betts in his hidden list of ‘lukewarmers’:

We are not 100% certain that climate change will definitely cause huge negative impacts, but there’s enough reason to think that there is a major risk.

Here, Betts explains the difference between questioning climate science and insisting that it is wrong. “if you’re questioning then I don’t have a problem with that” he says, “but if you are insisting, then I think you are dismissing large swathes of scientific research.” But Betts’s view is naive. In particular, he seems oblivious to the predominant mode of politics, which is centred around the concept of risk. (This is discussed in a recent post, which looked at comments from Gavin Schmidt, and the legacy of Ulrick Beck who developed the concept of Risk Society with Anthony Giddens).

Risk is a highly political concept, not simply the objective, statistical definition of threats. For instance, climate — stable or changing — is a risk to anyone until a level of wealth is achieved. A few milimeters of snow can bring the southern half of the United Kingdom to a standstill, but other parts of the world cope with as many meters of snowfall in a single event as parts of the UK receive in a year. To talk about risk independent of politics, is equivalent to talking about sight independent of eyes.

Betts believes that it is the job of science to enumerate and quantify those risks. But whatever the reality of climate change — the degree of change that will occur, the quantifiable risks that this will cause — a number of things prevent a clear view of what ‘science says’ about it. First, a great deal of political capital is invested in climate change. This is to say that, no matter how real climate change is, there was an intention, from the outset, of making the environment the ground for political authority — in particular supranational political bodies — outside of democratic oversight, on the logic of Risk Society. Second, an ideology which puts the environment at the centre of its outlook contaminates much research with a great deal of green a prioi. This in turn elevates highly deterministic theories about society and its dependence on natural processes, above ideas that emphasise human agency in response to trivial climate change, and the ability of politics-as-usual to respond to larger-order changes requiring government intervention. In other words, green ‘ideology’ amplifies the theoretical risks of a few degrees to a country as developed as the UK,to a threat to to its very survival. Third, science has not yet developed a way of excluding green ideology. And worse, as has been observed previously here, there is a difference between institutional science and science as a processes — the former having been entirely co-opted into climate politics, to the exclusion of the second. This is evidenced by Betts’ employers, for example, his research priorities, and of course the priorities of research funding being directed by bodies such as the Royal Society, and other organisations which have chosen to identify the climate as a priority. And let us not forget the researchers who, on the same brief and from the same coin, insist on pathologising scepticism.

Although it is good that Betts wants to urge people to tone down the rhetoric, I can’t help thinking that his naivity is as problematic as the thing he wants to address. He rightly says that suggesting that to question science is not to deny it. But he still draws a line in the sand: thou shall not insist. But if we insist that there is not ‘enough reason to think that there is a major risk’ (or that these risks are largely unquantified, theoretical and subjective), even as a consequence of interrogating the science, then we are now ‘denying’. We don’t seem to be allowed to form a judgement from the fruits of our questioning.

It is not enough to say there is a problem with using a word. The word has a history of its own, and a politics behind it.