Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spotting Climate Deniers on the Internet

More than 100 years of peer-reviewed published climate science has demonstrated that human activity is warming our climate system. And yet a tiny handful of people remain climate deniers. The internet makes this tiny number seem bigger because of self-selection bias and sheer obnoxiousness and persistence of climate deniers.

As I've written before in Climate Denial on the Internet - Who are the Deniers?, it's important to be able to spot climate deniers so we don't waste too much time with them. While scientists are about the most skeptical folks around,

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.

There are two broad groups of climate deniers: the professional deniers who are paid to intentionally misrepresent the science in order to protect the profits of their corporate funders, and amateur deniers who may be ideologues or simply desperate for attention.

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).

The amateur deniers come in a variety of flavors, as I previously discussed in Scientific Debate of Climate Change on Social Network Sites:

The truth is there is no real scientific debate on the issue of climate change on social networking sites. On the other hand, there is a lot of noise about the issue.

Amateur deniers can be cut-and-pasters, focused irrelevants, and posers. Often there is overlap. They engage in Gish Gallops, self-contradiction, and various other tactics that are sometimes intentional and sometimes just cluelessness. There is also the confidence of the dumb.

One brand of climate denier that may fall into either the professional or amateur denier category is the internet troll. As science writer Chris Mooney notes in his review of a scientific study:

...people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

In short, trolls troll out of a desperate need to make themselves feel consequential. Ironically, it just makes them even more inconsequential.

In either case, whether the denier is a professional disinformer or an amateur troll, it's important to be able to recognize the traits of climate deniers. More on that in the future.