Thursday, July 24, 2014

Does Language Influence Climate Denial?

The language of science can sometimes be hard to follow for non-scientists, just as the language of all professionals is unfamiliar to anyone outside those professions. But can language actually influence something like climate denial? Perhaps so.

The latest Ipsos Global Trends Survey asked several questions related to the causes and severity of the ongoing trend in global warming, also called man-made climate change. The results show that "the US leads the world in climate denial," with 52% of Americans agreeing with the statement that “The climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time.” In tandem, 32% of Americans disagreed with the statement: “The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity.”

This finding is shocking. For both questions the United States was the worst denial of the twenty countries surveyed. And for both questions the United States is absolutely in denial of the nearly unanimous understanding of the world's climate scientists, the world's National Academies of Science, and the world's major scientific organizations. Not to mention basic physics.

How could this be? Supposedly the United States is the most educated country in the world (okay, this point is debatable, but let's assume we're at least generally educated). And yet we deny science that is unequivocal.

Science journalist, and author of several books including Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum), suggests that it has something to do with the English language. According to this survey, the worst three man-made climate change denier countries are the US, the UK, and Australia, all English-speaking countries. Canada, with a recently increased denialist government, came in seventh.

Mooney goes on to suggest that perhaps being English-speaking is a secondary characteristic and that the real cause and effect is something else. All of these countries have political systems that reflect highly ideological differences, where reality is simply ignored if it doesn't support your political beliefs and more concordant "factoids" are substituted in its place. Thus, the science is inconvenient for politics, so it is denied.

The presence of Rupert Murdoch's media empire seems also to be a factor. Murdoch owns many media outlets in three of the for worst denier countries. These outlets, like Fox News with its blatant discarding of reality in favor of pure political ideology, push the idea of a grand scientific conspiracy. Rupert's far-reaching ownership essentially allows him to create whatever false reality he wants and be assured that it will metastasize via the paid and unpaid ideological blogosphere. Toss in obscenely  funded "think tanks" (i.e., paid lobbyist organizations posing as non-profit groups), all of whom are well experienced with "messaging," and the denial movement is able to talk over the abilities of scientists to communicate technical information.

So in a way, language most definitely does influence climate denial, though not in the way originally suggested by Chris Mooney. Mooney does nail the language in the final sentence of his article:

In language, we're Anglophones; but in climate science, we're a bunch of Anglophonies.

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