The Psychology of the Psychology of Denial

by | Mar 13, 2009

Last week, we mentioned an academic conference at the University of the West of England about the psychology of climate change denial, which appeared to be rather lacking on the academic front. It was a gathering of a handful of higher beings – Jungian analysts, climate activists and eco-psychologists – who, having shrugged off the shackles of the human condition, are now able to diagnose what is wrong with the rest of us.

The opening address was given by George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and author of ‘Carbon Detox’, who popped up his week on Comment is Free to tell us just how sick we are:

The greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.

He sets out the problem with a superficial analysis of ambivalent responses to ambiguous surveys:

nearly 80% of people claim to be concerned about climate change. However, delve deeper and one finds that people have a remarkable tendency to define this concern in ways that keep it as far away as possible. They describe climate change as a global problem (but not a local one) as a future problem (not one for their own lifetimes) and absolve themselves of responsibility for either causing the problem or solving it.

Most disturbing of all, 60% of people believe that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change”. Thirty per cent of people believe climate change is “largely down to natural causes”, while 7% refuse to accept the climate is changing at all.

Pesky humans, making simple black-and-white issues so unnecessarily complicated.

How is it possible that so many people are still unpersuaded by 40 years of research and the consensus of every major scientific institution in the world? Surely we are now long past the point at which the evidence became overwhelming?

Cue the psycho-analysis:

Having neither the time nor skills to weigh up each piece of evidence we fall back on decision-making shortcuts formed by our education, politics and class. In particular we measure new information against our life experience and the views of the people around us.

Yes. And Marshall’s article is a warning of what you might start believing in if you choose to hang around with psychobabblers. Each of his diagnoses can be thrown right back at him. First up:

George Lakoff, of the University of California, argues that we often use metaphors to carry over experience from simple or concrete experiences into new domains. Thus, as politicians know very well, broad concepts such as freedom, independence, leadership, growth and pride can resonate far deeper than the policies they describe.

None of this bodes well for a rational approach to climate change. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”.

Marshall – like many political environmentalists – kids himself that he is informed only by cold, hard, rational, scientific reality. Ideology is what the deniers do. Which allows him to pretend that his own penchant for ‘broad concepts’ such as ‘restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention’ – and his distaste for freedom, independence and growth – are merely imperatives determined by the science. Who’s delusional here?


Dr Myanna Lahsen, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has specialised in understanding how professional scientists, some of them with highly respected careers, turn climate sceptic. She found the largest common factor was a shared sense that they had personally lost prestige and authority as the result of campaigns by liberals and environmentalists. She concluded that their engagement in climate issues “can be understood in part as a struggle to preserve their particular culturally charged understanding of environmental reality.”

Lahsen’s interviews with three high-profile and self-professed sceptical scientists are interesting. They reveal that they recognise precisely what Marshall does not – that scientific information can be interpreted in different ways, and that policy does not flow automatically from any science. Lahsen describes the interviews as ‘remarkably frank‘, and the interviewees certainly appear a lot more self-aware (and to have less to hide) than Marshall, who interprets Lahsen’s findings thus:

In other words, like the general public, they form their beliefs through reference to a world view formed through politics and life experience. In order to maintain their scepticism in the face of a sustained, and sometimes heated, challenge from their peers, they have created a mutually supportive dissident culture around an identity as victimised speakers for the truth.

Which is just hilarious in the light of his claims that his own unpopular ‘truth’ is being steamrollered by dirty oil money, right-wing ideology and a psychologically deranged public.

One academic study of 192 sceptic books and reports found that 92% were directly associated with right wing free market think tanks. It concluded that the denial of climate change had been deliberately constructed “as a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”.

So, given that scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement, how can sceptics be swayed?

That ‘scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement’ is patently untrue. The environmental movement is far better funded, having at its disposal hundreds of millions for expensive PR and lobbying campaigns. Indeed, the likes of the European Union even fund such groups as WWF and Friends of the Earth to lobby its own MEPs.

No amount of ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ can legitimise any political ideology. Contrary to Marshall’s claims, there is nothing ideological about scepticism. Sceptics aren’t asking for the world to be reorganised around environmental ethics. George is. Where you stand on the climate issue does not determine where you stand on the merits or otherwise of conservative ideology. Sceptics object to environmentalism’s hiding of its politics behind ‘the science’ to claim that science produces moral imperatives, and that failing to observe them will cause apocalypse. Stop to ask if climate problems really demand the special politics of environmentalism – that we must swap development and progress for security, for example, or that living a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ really is the best way to express solidarity with the world’s poor and to lift them out of poverty – and George Marshall will call you a conservative. It’s black and white for him – you either do as he says, or you’ve been brainwashed by Jeremy Clarkson. You’re in denial.

Marshall is forced to fall back on psychobabble because the political case for environmentalism has proved unpersuasive. You can almost hear him putting up his hands in defeat in his answer to his own question, ‘how can sceptics be swayed?’ Forget arguing with them, he says, you can cure them only by appealing to their baser, human instincts, especially peer pressure, ‘probably the most important influence of all’:

when dealing with a sceptic, don’t get into a head to head with them. Just politely point out all the people they know and respect who believe that climate change is a serious problem — and they aren’t sandle-wearing tree huggers, are they?

Yep, that’ll do it.

Ultimately, Marshall’s case is self-defeating. If the arguments made by contrarian scientists and the majority of the world’s population can be written off as a product of screwy psychology, then so too can those made by Marshall and his cronies – and everyone else for that matter. But when it comes down to it, we don’t care to peer into Marshall’s head in search of psychological peculiarities that contribute to his political inclinations, his self-delusion, his low opinion of his fellow humans, his willingness to toe the green party line, to reinterpret cautious scientific findings as a sign of the imminent eco-Rapture, to fail to distinguish science from politics, or, indeed, his creepy habit of peering into the heads of anyone who disagrees with him.


  1. Ian Wilson

    You see, this whole article explains nicely why “psychology” is not an actual science, and universities can’t decide if it should be a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or a BSc (Bachelor of Science) – do a search for both on ‘google’.

    Psychologists read far too much into human behaviour, and make life seem way more complicated than it should be.

    This conference was just another example, in the world of the “pro” climate change camp, that seeks to justify its own stance on things via the job creation mechanism.

  2. Alex Cull

    I think that ultimately psychology can be said to have a scientific basis, in the sense that people are “things in the world” like rocks, plants, clouds, water molecules, etc. – you can observe people, make theories about them and test to see if your theories hold up (although, being about humans, psychology is also inextricably connected to the arts, as per Ian’s comment above). We’re just somewhat more complicated than rocks or clouds, though, and our behaviour is a lot harder to measure and predict. However, this conference seems to have been less about psychology as such (trying to understand the human mind) than it was about politics and spin (discussing ways to change minds, according to an agenda.) To use an analogy from marketing, it was not so much about “Is XYZ deodorant effective?” than it was “We need to turn XYZ deodorant into a best seller. How do we make all those unwashed idiots buy it?”

    I find the lack of self-awareness on the part of these people very interesting. Having had some exposure to psychology myself (in the course of being trained as a counsellor) they seem to be going way beyond their remit as therapists. Seeking to understand and help someone who has come to a therapist and who is presenting a specific problem such as anxiety or depression – that’s one thing. Seeking to evangelise and convert vast numbers of people to a cause, no matter if these people have no specific problem they wish to be helped with, or consider that they are in need of being helped or influenced at all – that’s another thing entirely. A pretty basic line has been crossed here. Are they really aware of what they are trying to do?

    As for the peer pressure ploy – I find that laughable and crude. It reminds me of the time when gas supplies were newly deregulated and all sorts of salespeople would appear on the doorstep using dodgy lines like “Everyone else on the street has signed up, you’re the last one left.” Really? Everyone else, you say?

    On a similar subject (academics, science and politics), UEA’s Prof. Mike Hulme has some interesting and thoughtful things to say about the recent climate conference in Copenhagen. First here’s the BBC’s predictably alarming headline and report:

    Here’s Mike Hulme, posting as a guest on Promethius, Roger Pielke Jnr’s blog (link courtesy of Tom Nelson’s blog, tinyurled for convenience):

    A theme for your next post, maybe, Editors?

  3. geoff chambers

    Another good article. One nitpick: calling Marshall’s psychological banalities “psychoanalysis” is really not very fair on Freud. Whatever criticisms may be made of psychoanalysis, it is rarely banal.
    You’ll perhaps have already anticipated my comment. While you were preparing your thoughtful analysis of Marshall’s article, I was actually blogging responses to the bloody thing. Looking back, I am horrified to see that I contributed 6 out of a total of 30 comments and they are far from being shining examples of rational discourse. (But on other threads, I’ve got in several plugs for Climate Resistance, so look out for trolls).
    I started with the idea that it might be more useful to blog among the plebs on CiF than here where the air is fresher, but more rarified. (I believe the early Christian Church was riven by such disputes). I can’t say the experience has been an unqualified success, but I’m learning. CiF has a system where you can tick a comment you approve of, and its nice sometimes to see that 40 people agree with you. Thanks to Alex Cull for coming to my aid a couple of times. Its off-topic, but may I offer you my comment on Monbiot’s latest article?

    In the night-train that left Copenhagen
    George announced to the sleeping Schlafwagen
    (to thundrous applause)
    I’ve just wet my drawers
    And bullsh*tted myself, into the bargain

  4. Editors

    Alex, it’s underway… Stay tuned.

    Geoff. Perhaps you’re right about Freud.

    How about ‘psychobanalysis’?

  5. Stefano

    Editors, again your article highlights the self-contradiction of green thinking.

    I’d like to refer to Ken Wilber again, because his model of how different domains of knowledge connect, leads to some choice observations about green thinking.

    Unfortunately I can’t really use the model unless people are conversant with it, and a short primer can be found here if anyone is interested:

    This is my take on it, so I may be getting it wrong:

    Green thinking arose along with PostModernity. It was great for identifying racism and sexism in culture, and in its valuing of human-bonds and sensitivity. Unfortunately there is an extreme version of PostModernity which is now so endemic it gets its own name: Mean Green.

    I can give you a personal example of Mean Green. A friend was having a tough time with his girlfriend as she was very drunk and obnoxiously wild at a party. He tries to calm her down and tell her she’s acting hysterically. Her immediate comeback was that he is a chauvinist male and he wouldn’t have said that to her if she’d been a man. That’s Mean Green. You just deconstruct anything anybody says to “point out” that person’s own sexist, racist, bigoted, oppressive core. “The only reason you tried to calm me down is because you can’t handle an aggressive woman, ergo you are a sexist!” (His answer was that had she been a man he’d have just punched him).

    Mean Green always deconstructs your evil oppressive motives, including your own criticisms of Mean Green. It is the ultimate defense for anyone’s own ego. Nobody can tell me I am wrong!

    Healthy Green on the other hand, can really increase human bonds and sensitivity, it can help people heal and find balance in their lives between work and family and environment; it increases self-awareness. Mean Green panders to people’s own egos and worse, protects them from any and all criticism. (In Wilber’s model, the problem is technically that the person’s cognitive structures are at the Green stage—-they probably got taught to think that way at University—-but their emotional drive and values core is several stages lower down. They are able to think complex arguments, and use them to defend their own egocentric selfishness.)

    So if you are a “denier”, Mean Green doesn’t feel it needs to listen to you—-it is egocentric after all—-and it can defend its wilfully ignoring you by arguing that it is your own greedy attachment to material goods that’s made you a denier. If a scientist questions AGW, Mean Green says they are only doing it to protect vested interests of the oil companies.

    And you can find Mean Green in many places. Somebody wrote a critique of Joss Whedon, creator of various sci-fi shows. The critique accused Whedon that he “hates women and is a racist”, as evidenced by the fact that in one of his films, a black woman says “Yes Sir” to a white man. The fact that the man was her commanding officer in the military… well.. *groan*.

    And Editors, as you rightly say, the contradiction here is that whilst greenies can deconstruct the cultural bias in other people, they act like they themselves have no bias.

    They talk about society’s capitalistic greed blinding people and making them “skeptics”, and at the same time, they deny as “conspiracy theory” the idea that green culture may be creating peer-pressure to hype global warming, even whilst they themselves champion peer review and science by consensus!

    Somebody hand them a freakin’ mirror already.

    Anyway, not everyone who attacks skeptics as being selfish is Mean Green. I think many people are just genuinely misinformed. If you can show them that actually you do care for the environment, then they can listen to you. But if they won’t listen to you, then there is probably some element of Mean Green going on.

  6. Burch

    The thing I don’t understand is why the AGW proponents seem to *want* to have this whole planet-warming-disaster-just-around-the-corner thing be true. I mean, if my doctor told me that I had some dire, terminal condition, I would want to have a second, third, and fourth opinion. I would absolutely want to find that the first doctor had misdiagnosed me. But with the warming crowd, there’s little of that. Seems like they are the ones with the psychological issues.

    Some of us are old enough to remember the consensus in the 70’s that the planet was going to get all ice-agey on us. We also understand the lesson of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Being wrong then does not make them wrong today, but it does give a sound reason to not accept these things without critical examination. Being skeptical seems to me to be the sane thing to do.

  7. Dubl D

    As Jan Brady would say:

    “Marshall, Marshall, Marshall”

    What would a REAL psyhologist say about Marshall’s need to fabricate his own version of the truth to support his argument, even as he holds everyone else to the measuring stick of scientific truth (cognitive dissonance)? Or how about his use every known fallacious argument (appeal to authority, slippery slope, argument by generalization/ repitition/ selective observation/ error of fact/ Burden of proof, etc etc), in the process of blaming everyone for the same? His statistics on who believes in Global Warming and why, bear no resemblence the statistics I have ever seen on the topic. His statistics on who is funding deiners and to what extent are not only wrong, but insignificant in the face of who is funding the Alarmist movement, and to what extent. And hilarious that, as others have pointed out, he would bring the laughable pseudo-science of psychology into any debate where he is trying to draw the scientific hard line.

    I know many many deniers that do not in any way meet Marshall’s claimed psychological profile. This leads me to wonder if the only psychological phenomenon going on here is Marshall’s projection of all the wrongs of the alarmists on to the rest of us.


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