Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

An Open Letter to Libertarian Climate Change Denialists

Hello,

I am writing this plea in order to counter the growing tendency for some libertarian groups to reject the science behind global warming and climate change. This is an unfortunate tendency because if libertarianism can be associated with fringe antiscience groups, then this makes libertarianism as a whole an easy target for naive critics. They can ignore the problems with large bureaucratic governments and the reduction in civil liberties and just focus on the fact that certain libertarians reject mainstream climate science and thereby portray libertarianism as an irrational form of antiscience denialism, in the same way many liberals view creationist republicans as intellectually left behind.

Many people would probably object to being labeled as denialists. This is understandable, but it is important to realize that this is not meant as a guilt by association tactic to, for instance, Holocaust deniers. Rather, the term denialism usually refers to the deployment of a dishonest rhetorical debating tactic which makes it appear as if there is a legitimate scientific debate about the topic when the evidence for the mainstream scientific position is overwhelming. This is usually done by quoting scientists out of context, portraying a discussion about how something is happening as if it was a debate on whether it was occurring or not, misunderstanding basic science, peddling conspiracy theories, cherry picking research results while asserting that themselves are being censored when scientists are criticizing them and so on. These tactic are frequently used by opponents of the mainstream scientific position on climate change. To be sure, big government liberals are also guilty of quite a bit of pseudoscience as well, such as postmodernism, opposition to genetically modified foods, animal rights extremists and so on.

One useful realization is that it is important to separate the science behind climate change and global warming from the big government suggestions for mitigating the issues. It is entirely consistent to accept mainstream climate science, yet reject the proposed “solutions” provided by liberal politicians and other organizations. There should be opportunity for investigating free markets solutions and investing in new technology for mitigating climate change.

Mitigating climate change is about personal responsibility. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2010, pp. 266-267) explains:

Imagine a gigantic, colossal banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content, eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens, or Rome or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then one day a man arrives wearing a white dinner jacket. Not surprisingly the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the question of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels and the bill has now come due. Yet we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously summarized all of economic theory in a single phrase: “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” And he was right. We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts’ content. But the lunch was not free.

So it is not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all we didn’t know that it was a banquet — and we didn’t know that there would be a bill. But now we do know. The bill includes acid rain, and the ozone hole and the damage produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of wealthy developed nations have lived since the industrial revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business, or both.

No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They’ve permitted us to think we could ignore the waiter, while we haggled about the bill. The failure of the United States to act on global warming as well as the long delays between when the science was settled and when we acted on tobacco, acid rain and the ozone hole are prima facie empirical evidence that doubt-mongering works.

In other words, our actions contributed to the problem, so it is time that we took personal responsibility for mitigating it.

Do not believe the falsehoods that are being promoted in the media or online. Here are just a few examples:

1. Most scientists did not use to believe in global cooling, but this was merely a few articles in the popular press. It cannot be emphasized enough that the media rarely presents science correctly. You can read more about this in the The Global Cooling Myth article.

2. The so called “Climate Gate” events does not show that the scientific case for global warming is fatally flawed or that scientists fudged the data. “Hide the decline” when read in its original context, has to do with the decline in growth of trees from certain high latitudes. The scientists simply replaced this data with thermometer data post-1960 because of human emission of nitrogen, which makes some of the tree ring data diverse (and decline) compared with temperature data from thermometers. To read more about this, see Clearing up misconceptions regarding “hide the decline”.

3. Government scientists did not invent global warming or climate change at the end of the Cold War to keep the population in a state of fear, thereby surrendering more power to the government. Tyndall discovered in 1859 that certain gases block infrared radiation and that an increase in concentration could lead to climate change. Arrhenius presented some of the first calculations of global warming from human emissions of carbon dioxide. In 1897, Chamberlin put forward a model for exchange of carbon on a global scale which included feedback processes. Callendar argues that global warming due to carbon dioxide is underway as early as 1938. Global warming became mainstream science for, among others, marine scientists as early as the 1960s. This, and more, can be found in the text The Discovery of Global Warming from the American Institute of Physics.

In fact, the U. S. government is actually distorting and suppressing climate science. This did not occur just during the Bush administration, but also quite recently in Texas by Rick Perry officials:

Officials in Rick Perry’s home state of Texas have set off a scientists’ revolt after purging mentions of climate change and sea-level rise from what was supposed to be a landmark environmental report. The scientists said they were disowning the report on the state of Galveston Bay because of political interference and censorship from Perry appointees at the state’s environmental agency.

By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. “None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed,” said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Centre.

“To me it is simply a question of maintaining scientific credibility. This is simply antithetical to what a scientist does,” Lester said. “We can’t be censored.” Scientists see Texas as at high risk because of climate change, from the increased exposure to hurricanes and extreme weather on its long coastline to this summer’s season of wildfires and drought.

Why are certain segments of the U. S government actively distorting and suppressing mainstream science? Because they do not want to take their personal responsibility and taking action to mitigate climate change would mean spending money and actually doing something. This could, from a libertarian position,, be seen as more evidence that the government is bulky and ineffective.

As libertarians, do not support government distortion and suppression of science. Please. That would be the very antithesis of what a libertarian ought to stand for.

References and Further Reading

Many of the references are sprinkled in the letter itself, but here are some of the major ones. There are many good websites for understanding not only the scientific basis for climate change and global warming, but also understanding why almost all of the “skeptical” arguments are flawed and erroneous. See below.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Connolley, W. M. (2005). The Global Cooling Myth. Real Climate. Accessed 2011-12-27.

Cook, J. (2011). Clearing up misconceptions regarding ‘hide the decline’. Skeptical Science. Accessed 2011-12-27.

Weart, S. R. (2008). The Discovery of Global Warming: Revised and Expanded Edition. USA: Harvard University Press. Also see this website.

Skeptical Science: Getting Skeptical about Global Warming Skepticism (good resource that debunks most of the flawed claims put forward by climate change denialists). There is also a similar directory called How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.

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