What Motivates the Scientist Deniers?

By Bryan Walker 07/09/2011


There wasn’t room in my review of James Powell’s book The Inquisition of Science to comment on one or two aspects of the book in the detail I’d have liked, and I’ll take up one in particular in this supplementary post. In a chapter titled The Anatomy of Denial he has an interesting short discussion on the motivation of the scientist deniers. The denial campaign depends on having some scientists to whom it can point in confirmation of its arguments, and they have duly been forthcoming, albeit few of them actively engaged in climate science. Powell’s analysis confirms what others have discovered, but he puts it freshly and it’s worth highlighting regularly.

Some of the scientist deniers he sees as simply contrarian by nature, revelling in being different. Every field of science has had its contrarians with provocative ideas. Most of the ideas may be wrong, but even so they can advance the science by stimulating new experiments and new questions. Contrarians may sometimes play a valuable role as devil’s advocate, but they may also simply and repeatedly be wrong. He notes wryly that if Freeman Dyson were to accept global warming no one would pay any attention to him since he would merely be one of tens of thousands contributing to the scientific consensus, almost any one of whom would know as much as he. By denying it, he lands on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and is lauded for intellectual courage. In Powell’s extended discussion of Dyson’s denial in an earlier section of the book he quotes Dyson acknowledging that Hansen, whom he accuses of consistently exaggerating the dangers of global warming, has all the credentials established by his hundreds of published papers.

’By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think that I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgement than knowledge. ’

So much for the contrarian by nature. Dyson’s assurance is breathtaking.

Others however fall into the category of professional science-deniers. ’Find a topic that an industry opposes and for a fee these apostates will write books and articles, appear on talk shows, testify before Congress and spout the industry line.’  Powell points out that collectively the scientist-deniers who have been profiled in his book have denied science in order to oppose government regulation of acid rain, CFCs, environmental mercury, fast foods, fossil fuel combustion, pesticides, second-hand smoke, and more. What they seem to have in common is that they are economic and political libertarians, opposed to government regulation of every kind. Richard Lindzen, for example, who holds the most relevant credentials in climate science among the deniers,  sees climate advocates as wanting ’to roll back industrial society’ and ’redistribute global wealth’.

Powell conducts an interesting exercise, producing a list to summarise the deniers’ methods. It’s familiar enough: dispute a well-established scientific consensus; cite an online petition as evidence of the absence of consensus; manufacture doubt by cherry picking; with the exception of one accomplished scientist, almost never do research or publish in peer-reviewed journals; derogate peer-review as designed to squash new ideas; portray themselves as gutsy truth-tellers denied research grants; conduct dissident conferences with all the trappings of scientific meetings; accuse scientists and the government of a global conspiracy; receive support from the media and heads of state; call scientists Nazis and murderers.

An unsurprising list to those familiar with climate change denial tactics, but in fact Powell based it on the AIDs denialists described by Seth Kalichman in his book Denying Aids: Conspiracy Theories,Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy. Powell points out that a similar list would also serve for evolution deniers, vaccine deniers and others. They all set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a sinister conspiracy.

Powell acknowledges that we can’t really know the minds of individual deniers, but it is clear that ’denial begins and ends not with science but with ideology, not with facts but with belief systems’.