Climate Sceptics: The Phantom Menace

by | Feb 8, 2014

At the Guardian this week (yes there, again), David Robert Grimes claimed,

Denying climate change isn’t scepticism – it’s ‘motivated reasoning’
True sceptics test a hypothesis against the evidence, but climate sceptics refuse to accept anything that contradicts their beliefs

Grimes, a medical physics researcher at Oxford channels a lot of the guff that is passed off as ‘research’ into the phenomenon of climate scepticism. In particular, Grimes cites Stephan Lewandowsky’s ridiculous, unscientific and poorly-executed magnum opus:

The problem is that the well-meaning and considered approach hinges on the presupposition that the intended audience is always rational, willing to base or change its position on the balance of evidence. However, recent investigations suggests this might be a supposition too far. A study in 2011 found that conservative white males in the US were far more likely than other Americans to deny climate change. Another study found denialism in the UK was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values. A series of investigations published last year by Prof Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues – including one with the fantastic title, Nasa Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science – found that while subjects subscribing to conspiracist thought tended to reject all scientific propositions they encountered, those with strong traits of conservatism or pronounced free-market world views only tended to reject scientific findings with regulatory implications.

Well, if white, male, American conservatives believe something, it must be wrong. Meanwhile, of course, as I and many others have demonstrated, there was a great deal wrong with Lewandowsky’s work. No matter though, because as long as a bullsh*t survey can be turned into an article to be published in a journal, it must be true, no matter the criticism of it… Probably from white, conservative males. The scientific consensus on climate change soon reveals itself to in fact be little more than a social prejudice.

Grimes continues…

It should be no surprise that the voters and politicians opposed to climate change tend to be of a conservative bent, keen to support free-market ideology. This is part of a phenomenon known as motivated reasoning, where instead of evidence being evaluated critically, it is deliberately interpreted in such a way as to reaffirm a pre-existing belief, demanding impossibly stringent examination of unwelcome evidence while accepting uncritically even the flimsiest information that suits one’s needs.

This, of course, is an argument that, in lieu of a perfectly-calibrated mind-reading machine, is unscientific, through and through. Although we might notice that people’s arguments tend to coincide with their preferences, the hypothesis that the preference exists before the reasoning is untestable bunk. Moreover, although it appears to privilege reason, by denying that the objects of the hypothesis are capable of it, in turn deny the value of reason. Even more moreover, positing that one putative side of a debate lacks the necessary faculty to make rational choices forgets the influence of ideology over the counter-position. As I have argued before, if one takes a robust view of individuals faculties, and of course in wider society, one might well take a different view of the scientific evidence. For example, environmental ideologues evince a view of the world which holds that: i) the world is fragile; ii) the world provides; iii) the relationship between the world and people is delicately balanced. Those claims are not scientific. They are presuppositions. They are also, in large part, mystical in origin. And they are categorically anti-human, in the sense that they do not necessarily privilege human experience in their reasoning and in their deeper philosophical ideas (such as they are). It follows that one or two degrees warming is, on one view, fatal, catastrophic. And on the other view, perhaps a problem in particular times and places.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a low-rent activist-journalist writes about the other side of the debate in such a way. However, his Guardian profile claims ‘He has a keen interest in the public understanding of science’. No he doesn’t. He wants to use science to achieve a particular political end, and he doesn’t care if he — in the amateur PUS/STS vernacular — ‘abuses science’ and confuses the public in the process. Science is a weapon — a point I will return to later.

Debates, like consensuses, have an ‘object’. Let’s say there is a debate about the proposition ‘all apples are green’. The proposition is the ‘object’. Let’s imagine that all the apples studied thus far are green. Thus, the consensus is that all apples are green’. But some scientists and interested folk take the view that, although all apples are green, there’s nothing about apples that means they have to be green. Carrots used to be purple (I am told). We might one day see a red apple, say the sceptics of the consensus. If you shut your eyes, you wouldn’t notice the difference. The debate, although it is dominated by the consensus view, now divides on a very particular grounds, about which it is very hard indeed to get excited about.

Granted, it is an absurd example. But let’s stick with it. It tells us something about consensuses and debates. They are about something. They are about the colours of apples, or they are about the value of X, or they are about the best way to organise society.

Grimes’s account of the debate, however, does NOT give us any information about the object of the debate. It says this, of course…

The grim findings of the IPCC last year reiterated what climatologists have long been telling us: the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and we’re to blame. Despite the clear scientific consensus, a veritable brigade of self-proclaimed, underinformed armchair experts lurk on comment threads the world over, eager to pour scorn on climate science. Barrages of ad hominem attacks all too often await both the scientists working in climate research and journalists who communicate the research findings.

… But to what extent is the debate defined by the claim that ‘the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate’? Is this even the object of the consensus? But worse, what is the counter-position — the claim that sceptics make in response?

The IPCC, of course, do not make quite such a claim. Grimes produces a grotesque and value-laden over-simplification. Of the thousands of lines of evidence evaluated by the IPCC, the response from the sceptics is not, as Grimes would have it, a simple negation of a single proposition, but instead consists of a range of criticisms and questions, about each of them.

Even if Grimes accurately presented the scientific consensus, he still doesn’t explain the debate, because he does not even attempt to explain the sceptic’s counter-position. There is no scientific debate in the world where this would be acceptable to the academic community. Yet this mythology persists, and is sustained, in large part by academics.

Grimes offers a crude, and entirely partial approximation of the consensus, because the extent of the consensus diminishes as it becomes specific. The broad consensus on climate change is inconsequential, thus activists like Grimes need to play fast and loose with it. Notice, for instance, that one account of the consensus (more accurate than Grimes’s) holds that ‘most of the warming in the second half of the twentieth century has been caused by man’, and does not exclude the majority of climate sceptics, who typically argue that the IPCC over estimates climate sensitivity. Moreover, notice that many sceptics do not take issue with the propositions that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, much of the increase in atmospheric CO2 can be attributed to industry, that this warming will likely cause a change in the climate, and that this may well cause problems. One of the biggest debates between sceptics and their counterparts is in fact the role played by feedback mechanisms — a response in part to claims by environmentalists such as Mark Lynas in ‘Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet’ that a relatively small increase in CO2 could cause ‘runaway climate change’ by triggering (unknown and possibly non-existent) feedback mechanisms to form.

The approximate consensus seems to serve, not inform the debate with science, but to supply it with moral coordinates in the environmental activists favour: you don’t need to know about the mechanics of CO2 or the climate; you only need to know that there are good guys and there are bad guys. To supply the debate with the actual consensus position and counter-position would deprive the moral argument of the utility that ambiguity offers. While it can be claimed that there is an other — an irrational, malign force — acting to subvert the debate, scientists and activists can seem to be on the same team. The moment the debate is deprived of its ambiguity, and supplied with actual data, it turns out that many activists, and indeed, scientists-cum-activists, are far further away from consensus position represented by the IPCC than are the putative ‘deniers’.

So, the ‘consensus without an object’ is a cohesive force. The environmentalists argument does not depend on science as much as it depends on depriving the debate — denying — of science.

This is to say that the ‘consensus’ has political, rather than practical utility: it is more useful to the task of mobilising towards ‘action on climate change’ than it is informing the debate about what kind of problem climate change is, and what the options for dealing with it are.

I have observed this before. In Naomi Oreskes’ work attempting to identify relationships between the ‘tobacco lobby’ and climate sceptics, she proposed that key individuals were ‘Merchants of Doubt’, and employed the same strategy — ‘the tobacco strategy’. As I wrote, back in 2008:

What Oreskes seems to forget is that doubt, rather than being generated by the “denialists”, has long been at the very core of environmental politics. Consider the following statement, which is part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, agreed at the Earth Summit…

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

[…]What matters to Oreskes is not the substance of scientific understanding, but an isolated, binary fact that “climate change is happening”. From here, “climate change” can mean anything. Once it has been established as a “fact”, it doesn’t matter what science says, because the doubt incubates the imagination better than certainty, and prohibits scientific expertise from undermining the power of the nightmare.

The Precautionary Principle operates just as the ‘consensus without an object’. It is not the facts of the matter that count. To define the problem of climate change means turning climate change into a merely technical problem, rather than a problem in which the parameters can be constantly shifted, for political ends. Oreskes epitomises the phenomenon of mobile goalposts by claiming that the movement which had for so long been grounded in the precautionary principle had instead been formulated on the basis of certainty. Perhaps more fatal for Oreskes is that any debate that seems to proceed from a scientific claim is going to take the form that she describes, of a proposition and doubts about its soundness.

Coincidentally, Lewandowsky and Cook have been channelling Oreskes 2008 work this week, at The Conversation:

So why are tobacco control measures now in place in many countries around the world? Why has the rate of smoking in California declined from 44% to less than 10% over the last few decades? Why can we now debate the policy options for a further reduction in public harm, such as plain packaging or tax increases?

It is because the public demanded action. This happened once the public realised that there was a scientific consensus that tobacco was harmful to health. The public wants action when they perceive that there is a widespread scientific agreement.

The argument defeats itself, of course. The public neither demanded action to stop smoking, and it didn’t demand action on the basis of ‘widespread scientific agreement’. If the public really hated smoking so much, it wouldn’t need the intervention. There is widespread scientific agreement that hitting yours head with a hammer is a bad idea. But curiously, there is no law banning people from hitting themselves with hammers. It is understood, widely, that people’s own sense of self prevents them from hitting themselves with hammers, and that where this faculty fails, there are bigger problems at play. There also existed, for a long time, that even in spite of the known risks caused by smoking, that it was a pleasurable thing for the smoker, and that he or she was capable of taking his own risks. If there was a shift in public mood, it had much less to do with ‘science’ than it had to do with the fact that smoking can be an nuisance to others, and possibly a fire risk in certain environments, and a health risk to people with certain conditions. Lewandowsky and Cook, like Oreskes, re-write history to make a political argument in the present…

A scientific consensus is necessary to understand and address problems that have a scientific origin and require a scientific solution. The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions. When the public comes to understand the overwhelming agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, acceptance of the science and support for climate action increase.


In a recent article, Mike Hulme argued that the debate “needs to become more political, and less scientific”. We agree, because the scientific debate has moved on from the fundamentals – there is no scientific debate about the fact that the globe is warming from human greenhouse gas emissions. So we need to hammer out political solutions rather than “debating” well-established scientific facts.

Hulme also suggested that, in reference to a paper by John Cook, “merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it.”


When Hulme queries the value of consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed literature, he has it backwards in two important ways.

Closing the consensus gap is an important step towards the public debate about climate policy which he rightly calls for. The problem is the attack on climate science and the overwhelming consensus, not the research supporting it.

Straight from the horses mouth… the ‘consensus’ has political, rather than practical utility: The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions.

Lewandowsky and Cook were responding to Mike Hulme’s essay on the same website, ‘Science can’t settle what should be done about climate change’. Hulme was clear about his view of Cook’s attempt to measure the extent of the consensus,

A paper by John Cook and colleagues published in May 2013 claimed that of the 4,000 peer-reviewed papers they surveyed expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming”. But merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it. By putting climate science in the dock, politicians are missing the point.


In the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it? Scientific consensus is not much help here. Even if one takes the Cook study at face value, then how does a scientific consensus of 97.1% about a fact make policy-making any easier?

Lewandowsky and Cook believe that it will make it easier because the more people who ‘believe in climate change’, the more there is apparent pressure on government to act on it. But this is naive.

First, at least as far as the UK public is concerned, policy action has proceeded not just in spite of the public’s indifference to the climate issue, but perhaps because of its general indifference to politics. Climate change has risen up the political agenda as politics has become professionalised, and managerial in character, leaving the public with less democratic choice, and public debate deprived with contested values. The political crisis that this disinterest might cause has been largely offset by borrowing the cultural authority of science — science as a weapon. The idea of managing public affairs according to the ‘best available evidence’ always sounds good. Like ‘motherhood and apple pie’. But politics isn’t about responding to the ‘evidence’. It is about contested values about how society should be organised. A dearth of ideas to contest leaves a bloated public sector in dire straits, and so scientists are recruited to give just one message: do as they say or your children will die. Arguments for ‘action on climate change’ are invariably arguments for the accretion of power away from the demos. Lewandowsky and Cook do not argue for the ‘consensus gap’ to be closed in order that the public demand their politicians take notice; they make the argument for the consensus in order to deprive the public of democracy, whether or not Lewandowsky are aware of it.

Second, Lewandowsky and Cook miss the point that there is a difference between knowing there’s a consensus and knowing what the consensus consists of. I say they miss the point. But they do know that explaining what the consensus is, and what sceptics’ arguments are, would be to give a hostage to fortune. The political argument is invested too heavily in the science, the object of which — the natural world — has a habit of confounding expectations. Especially environmentalists’ expectations, who, throughout the second half of the 20th century, prophesied civilisation’s immanent collapse in a new way every five or ten years… Silent springs, overpopulation, resource depletion, ozone depletion, acid rain… climate change. There is still political utility in these scare stories, but there is less inclination to express a view about when they will become reality. To admit to shades of grey would be to limit the political utility.

So, sceptics, in the arguments from the likes of Lewandowsky and Cook in the debate about the consensus without an object take the form of objectless consensuses. Climate sceptics are, in the arguments of Lewandowsky and Cook, like ghosts: they are the subject of lots of stories, but they do not exist. They do not have names. They do not have ideas or arguments. They are intended only to haunt the imaginations of climate activists… To fill them with horror, rather than to face reality. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.


  1. Rog Tallbloke

    Good article Ben.
    As the science looks increasingly shaky, so the psychologisation of those who point out its flaws or offer better alternative theories will increase. This is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union. Lewandowsky and his ilk are Trofim Lysenko’s apologists.

  2. Alex Cull

    Funny you should mention the Phantom Menace – on YouTube there’s a presentation by David Robert Grimes in three parts, called Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (look for DublinSkeptic’s channel) , and in the description, he is described as follows: “Dr David Robert Grimes is a writer, musician, actor, Doctor of medical physics, closet Jedi knight.”

    Haven’t watched all of it, but here’s a quote from the first few minutes of the first video:

    My background is: I’m a Doctor of Medical Physics, and I have a keen interest in scepticism and science writing, which I do a good bit of, at the moment. When I was doing my doctorate, something I found really interesting was… when you’re spending all day looking in a journal, you suddenly realise there’s a massive dichotomy between what you’re reading in a journal and when you pick up a newspaper and read the paper’s account of the exact same article you’ve just read, when your jaw drops and you go: “Are these people from the same planet?”

    Irony of ironies, he does the exact same thing in his Guardian article when he cites the “Nasa Faked the Moon Landing” paper (seemingly without going far beyond its “fantastic title”). Not even the hint of any “massive dichotomy”? My jaw just dropped (or would have, if this was all not so very predictable). Is David Robert Grimes from the same planet?

    As Yoda didn’t actually say: “Consistency, self-awareness, doing your homework – a Jedi craves not these things”.

  3. Otter (ClimateOtter on Twitter)

    I put together articles on the science and politics of climate change, over at a site called Deviantart. It is an art site but has the politics of everyone on the planet on it…

    One of the True Believers who assaults my skeptic stance, goes into hysterics that skepticism Is all about… whatever garbage grimes and lewandowsky spout. I’ve come to start using him as a resource, proof that there is very little Rational behind many of those who believe in AGW. His latest rant against me here

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to repost your article over to Deviantart?

  4. h

    Your excellent essay is describing what is a set of religious behaviors. They do no longer need science; science can now be jettisoned. You state well the non-national basis of the AGW movement: humans cause climate change, therefor anything the AGW movement demands, no matter how ineffectual or self-serving, is what absolutely must be done. Nearly all of us live in a part of the world that has had its environment changed by human efforts. Most of those efforts have been pretty good. To claim that change, as the AGW believers do, means we must stop and do what they say makes no sense. In Houston we have anti-pipeline fanatics behaving a lot more like KKK members, seeking to intimidate and terrorize those they perceive as centers of influence for the Keystone pipeline. That their claims about what KXL represents are entirely false and baseless is beside the point. They have their meaning in life: stopping a pipeline. Egged on irresponsibly by high profile leaders, these people are immune to critiques of their beliefs.
    The article you discuss in your essay is breath taking in its anti-science roots. That the article was written by a scientist is most troubling.

  5. Ben Pile

    Roger – As the science looks increasingly shaky, so the psychologisation of those who point out its flaws or offer better alternative theories will increase.

    I don’t think it’s about the science. I don’t remember a time when the debate was as much about the particular scientific claims as it was about the ‘consensus’ (without an object). What has happened, of course, is that during the lifetime of this blog, the fact that the climate has failed to warm according to observations, has prompted arguments — mini debates, so to speak — from a number of players. Andrew Neill’s discussion with Ed Davey was interesting in this respect. Davey just returned to the consensus (without an object) citing the Cook paper. And Gummer just tweeted:

    John Deben ‏@lorddeben 32m
    Clear evidence of climate change round world. Scientists almost universally agreed on its cause. Even doubters are irresponsible not to act.

    Players in the debates are much happier giving numbers to the extent of the consensus than they are giving numbers to the substance of the consensus.

  6. Mooloo

    If there was a shift in public mood, it had much less to do with ‘science’ than it had to do with the fact that smoking can be an nuisance to others, and possibly a fire risk in certain environments, and a health risk to people with certain conditions.

    And that smoking is a health risk is important only in that it wastes taxes. If the idiots would die quietly without wasting my money, I couldn’t care less. I’m picking that the countries with the greatest anti-smoking drives are also those with the most socialised medical systems for that reason.

    The nuisance to others was the clear reason most people agreed with anti-smoking legislation — and why it was banned in workplaces, bars and restaurants first.

    There’s a small, vocal, and rather crazed, minority pushing for it to be banned everywhere, but now that the majority don’t have it bothering them the momentum for change has gone. Politicians like it, however, because they can be seen to be doing something “good”.

    Environmentalism is going down the same path. We’ve tidied up or are already on the case of the big nuisances — smog, industrial pollution, sanitation, waste disposal etc. Those were done with democratic support. With the battle actually won on the environment, the zealots have to chase diminishing returns — until the bogey of climate change appeared, as if magic. Politicians like it, because they can be seen to be doing “good”, even if the majority of the population don’t actually give a shit.

  7. Arthur Dent

    The nuisance to others was the clear reason most people agreed with anti-smoking legislation — and why it was banned in workplaces, bars and restaurants first.

    I don’t think so, the driver was the concern that second hand smoke also caused cancer. The average citizen didn’t mind if his smoking colleague died of cancer, but was pissed of to think that he was going to die of cancer as a result of his colleagues habit. The irony being that the scientific basis for cancer being caused by second hand smoke was even less statistically sound than Mann’s infamous Hockey Stick.

    Of course the world is probably a much better and more pleasant place now that smoking is not permitted in public buildings

  8. Mooloo

    The science behind second-hand smoking is very weak, as you say. So weak that no-one ever really believed it completely (well, maybe the sort of people who like to be worried, but they’ll believe anything). It was just a convenient stick to beat the smokers with. Whether it was true was largely irrelevant, and the people who used it knew that.

    We see that same with CO2. People with a general sense of malaise, the sorts that used to go in for religious revivalism in the old days, like it because they can use it to indict modern “consumerist” society. Its truth is irrelevant.

  9. Robin Guenier

    Re “numbers to the extent of the consensus” v. “numbers to the substance of the consensus” see this:

    But, while we bicker about consensus, the real world has moved on. Here’s a comment I made to a Gavin Cawley on the Mike Hulme “The Conversation” thread (emphasis added):

    “In the 1970s, when the West was overwhelmingly powerful, Western environmentalists tried to impose their beliefs on what was then called “the third world”. Not unreasonably – keen to escape poverty and ambitious for economic and political growth – the third world rejected this. So a new concept, “sustainable development”, was evolved to accommodate their wishes. To put it simply, it meant that, whereas Western nations might accept environmental constraints, “developing” nations were excused. This concept was formalised at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when it was agreed that the world be divided into two blocs: the Annex 1 countries (essentially the developed West) and the Non-Annex 1 countries (essentially the least developed world, OPEC members and the developing, and fastest growing, economies). Under Kyoto (1997), the former were committed to stabilising GHGs and the latter were not.

    “In 1992, Non-Annex 1 countries were responsible a tiny share of GHG emissions. By 2012, however, their share was an overwhelming 67%. But, despite efforts for reform, the list of Non-Annex 1 countries is unchanged. And they made it clear at the UN climate conference in Warsaw last November that they, including some of the biggest and most powerful countries in the world, would not accept any commitment to GHG reduction. That means the US will not. And nor, it seems, will Canada, Japan, Russia and Australia. Essentially only the EU is left and any reduction in its 10% share cannot make any significant difference. The bottom line is that emissions will continue unabated.

    “So you see, Gavin, because of international politics, the mitigation of emissions by the EU is no longer an important issue. That may be unfortunate but it’s a fact – whatever the reality of the consensus.”

  10. geoff Chambers

    You say
    “… environmental ideologues evince a view of the world which holds that: i) the world is fragile; ii) the world provides; iii) the relationship between the world and people is delicately balanced. Those claims are not scientific. They are presuppositions. They are also, in large part, mystical in origin.”
    And these claims are believed by a large proportion of the population, according to numerous opinion surveys, which all hark back to a battery of questions called the New Environmental Paradigm, developed by a couple of social scientists back in the seventies, including such propositions as “We live on a fragile planet” etc. The peer-reviewed paper chase leads back to a (non-peer reviewed) book by Denis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich called “Ark II” which suggests that civilisation is about to collapse and recommends we should all read Marcuse and Chairman Mao to find out how to deal with it.
    So what we have is a political line leading from the Rio Declaration to a government minister declaring yesterday that we should help the third world become sustainable in order to stop flooding in Somerset, all based on the musings of couple of hippy academics forty years ago.
    Ehrlich was made a Fellow of the Royal Society last year. Grimes and Lewandowsky are continuing the tradition, and can look forward to successful careers crowned with honours.

  11. Lewis Deane

    It’s fascinating how ‘science’ has become useful to ‘politics’ as it has become emptier? And why has it become so ’empty’? From ‘string theory’ to ‘climate change’, why has this Western project lost it’s ‘energy’? That is the question that baffles and intrigues me.

  12. Lewis Deane

    I mean as a purely rational, thoughtful exercise, that strange lust for Objectivity, of Bacons experiment we once knew in ourselves? And combined with this, what Nietzsche called ‘modest’ need for the little, small unpretentious Facts we could find, that optimistic idea that a grand and unifying theory would present itself? What happened to that?

  13. matthew lundquist

    Interesting article. I don’t know too much about this debate so won’t comment specifically on it. However, I can say that I agree with the sentiment that there’s something ‘not quite right’ about David Robert Grime’s science articles. It seems his grasp of logic and nuance is rather undeveloped. I wrote a critique of his article in The Guardian about cancer. Here it is:



  1. The Grimey “Science” of Conspiracy Theories | Climate Resistance - […] as was pointed out here, Grimes had not understood the consensus properly, and worse, not understood sceptics’ […]

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