Thursday, September 18, 2014

Climate Denial on the Internet - Who are the Deniers?

Virtually every climate scientist agrees - the planet is warming and human activity is the cause. This is the unequivocal science. Yet there are people out there who go out of their way to deny that science. They are called deniers, or denialists, or sometimes just, trolls. But who really are the climate deniers?

The term "climate deniers," of course, is simply shorthand for people who deny the man-made causes of our current warming of the climate. One of the common tactics used by climate deniers is to rattle off the platitude "I'm not denying climate," or its corollary, "Climate has been happening for millions of years." So when we say "climate denial" we are referring to the active denial, misinforming, or ignorance of the undeniable body of data unequivocally demonstrating the planet is warming and that humans are the main cause. The science is clear; denial of that science is climate denial.

What deniers are not

But climate deniers come in multiple flavors and a good place to start understanding how to deal with deniers is to know who they are. One thing that is clear, however, is that the vast percentage of climate deniers are not skeptics. While they often label themselves as skeptics, like virtually everything else they say their use of the term is incorrect. Skeptics are those with knowledge of the field who look at the evidence (all of it) and remain incompletely convinced. Scientists are by nature skeptics, always questioning their own and others findings. It's how science works, so in those rare cases when virtually all scientists agree it's because the evidence is multifaceted and overwhelming. Climate deniers, on the other hand, are a particularly unskeptical crowd, accepting every non-science blogger's diatribe (and defending it even after it is summarily debunked) while simply denying all the actual science from actual scientists because it is inconvenient.

So deniers are not skeptics. That's the first thing to understand. The second is that there are two broad groups of climate deniers - the professionals and the amateurs.

The professional deniers

The professionals are those who are paid to deny climate science. The names most associated with climate denial are the Heartland Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute (as documented in the book, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway), a series of lobbying organizations associated with the billionaire Koch brothers, and a variety of other front groups whose names keep changing while their staff and paid spokespeople tend to overlapped considerably (denial organizations get a lot of mileage out of a very few people).

"Doubt is our product," as one tobacco executive so infamously put it in a memo that wasn't intended for public consumption, unlike the cigarette smoke that the industry was denying caused health effects. So too is this the primary goal of the climate denial industry. Some of the same players who once denied the tobacco/cancer connection, such as Heartland Institute and Fred Singer, now are paid by the fossil fuel industry to manufacture doubt about the unequivocal science of man-made global warming.

These professional deniers accomplish their creation of doubt by a variety of means that I'll go into in future posts, but the key tool they use is the internet. It is these professional denial lobbyists who create the content that they know will be plagiarized and shared unskeptically by the more ideological non-science followers, aka, the amateur denialists.

The amateur deniers

Once the professional denial lobby has seeded the internet via their paid bloggers (e.g., Climate Depot, WUWT, etc.), they rely on the amateur deniers to saturate the blogosphere with every sciencey-sounding, but already debunked, misinformational tidbit. Actual science by NOAA, NASA, the IPCC, and every other scientific organization is dismissed as "unreliable," while a blog post by some non-scientist with his pet conspiracy theory is taken as gospel. No matter that the blog post was already shown to be in error and largely in ignorance of the science. No matter that the post was plagiarized in its entirety from another blogger with no science background. No matter that that blogger had plagiarized it from some conspiracy nut blog, who stole it from someone else. The blogger says what the ideologue wants to hear so it by default, in the deniers mind, must be true and all those science organizations must be wrong.

Such is the rationale of amateur deniers. The combined information of nearly every climate scientist, every climate science organization, every National Academy of Science in the world, a hundred thousand peer-reviewed scientific studies, more than a century of research, millions of data points, and the realities of basic physics can all be washed away by an anonymous blogger posting easily debunked misinformation on a blog by a non-scientist receiving funding by lobbyists.

Such is the power of the internet.

Future posts will take a closer look at both professional and amateur climate deniers as we continue this series of periodic posts exposing climate denialism. Stay tuned for more of the tactics and tall tales of the climate denial industry.

[Graphic from Skeptical Science]