It seems every scientist has been through it a million times. We see some climate science denier saying something that is so incredibly divorced from fact that we can’t believe they would so blatantly show off their ignorance. So we explain, we correct, we demonstrate their lack of understanding, and yet they continue.
Why? Do they not notice their ignorance, their lack of logic, their devolution into pedantic proselytizing? Are they so wrapped up in their belief systems that the very act of admitting actual facts would damage their self-worth? Or are they just trolls, thriving on their self-delusional belief that they are smarter than a fifth grader, not to mention every climate scientist in the world?
The answer, of course, is yes, all of the above, though not necessarily all at the same time in the same person. Since denialist positions are so often based on what they want to be true rather than what the facts demonstrate to be true, they cannot give in. To do so would result in such psychological discordance as to completely destroy their self-value.
However, the psyches of amateur denialists can be left for another essay; this one is about professional denialists. Why do the paid lobbyists and their designees continue to write Op-Eds and other opinion pieces in non-science, non-peer reviewed venues even when they know they will be immediately debunked?
The answer is actually self-evident in the question. Denialists know that they have no valid scientific argument; if they did they would present it in scientific journals, conferences, and debates. Their goal isn’t to demonstrate science, it is to manipulate public opinion. That is what lobbyists do, and they do it well. Their goal is to create the illusion of debate, the façade of uncertainty. By continuing the “discussion,” such as it is, in the media, they win. They know that a majority of the public won't understand the intricacies of the science, either by choice or by its complexity. Denialists know that the public will get an overall sense of whether the science is settled or not, and that it is on this vague feeling the public will make judgments as to whether immediate action is needed. Perception is more important than fact, and illusion of reality is much more powerful than actual reality.
The goal of the game
As Sherlock Holmes might say, “the game is afoot.” To professional climate deniers, the game is keeping the public confused and giving cover to politicians wishing to avoid taking positions (see "I am not a scientist").
A good example of this is the recent back-and-forth over an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal by computational physicist, Steven Koonin. The Op-Ed follows the usual pattern of being written by someone who is not a climate scientist, repeating misperceptions and misinformation already demonstrated to be false, and drawing conclusions not supported by the premises presented, faulty as they usually are. It’s the same spiel offered dozens of times before by Heartland Institute lawyer/lobbyist James Taylor and other designated denialists of the month. In each case the opinion piece presents a straw man to attack while ignoring all of the actual science and previous rebuttals of the same faulty premises repeated ad nauseam. The denial lobby knows their arguments don’t hold water, so why do they keep offering them?
Because they get rebutted. Immediately, repeatedly, and demonstrably. Every single time.
To scientists this might seem crazy. We think that constantly being shown to be wrong would be a persuasive reason not to say the same false thing over and over. We expect people to learn from their mistakes, not simply repeat them as if doing so would somehow make falsehoods true. That’s because scientists are used to arguing the science; professional denialist lobbyists, on the other hand, are arguing the public opinion. What is critical in this game is not what the science tells us, it’s the fact that to the public it appears as if there are two sides arguing with each other. Two sides + arguing = not settled.
Lobbyists, aka, professional climate deniers, know this. The act of continued “discussion” is conflated with disagreement. It doesn’t matter that one “side” says something that has been repeatedly proven false while the other “side” presents actual facts; all that matters to the public is the appearance of disagreement. Some of the public will interpret this as meaning the science isn’t settled, others will use it as convenient reinforcement for an ideologically motivated position. In both cases, reality isn’t the driver – the manufactured doubt is the driver.
That is the game being played by the denialist industry, one that they will always win. Scientific-reality-be-damned.
So should scientists take the time to rebut opinion pieces in politically motivated media outlets? Alas, the answer isn't a simple yes or no. We'll explore options in future posts, but scientists should consider whether their reply dowses a few few smoldering embers noticed only by foxholed fanatics, or fuels a wider conflagration that, in the end, further confuses the public. The latter, of course, is exactly what the professional denialists want.
[Graphic from http://xkcd.com/386/]