Does refuting deniers only strengthen and empower them?
Science journalist Chris Mooney, author of must-read The Republican War on Science, has a post at Science Progress titled “Enablers: Sometimes refuting unscientific nonsense reinforces it.” This is a provocative and timely post, given the recent tussles I’ve been having with deniers and delayers.
I’ve talked to Chris, and his occasional co-blogger Matthew Nisbet (who has a related post here) many times. And while we are probably 95 percent in agreement on most things climate, I don’t quite buy their argument here:
So we’ve reached a point where we may well be wasting our energies if we continue to battle climate skeptics. Indeed, we run the risk of propping them up far more than they deserve.
For that’s the other problem with constantly rebutting anti-science forces — not only does it waste our time, but it may play right into their hands. Consider: Over at his blog, Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet makes a very strong case that the rhetorical strategy of the Heartland Institute is exceedingly similar to that of the anti-evolutionist think tank the Discovery Institute. If so, it follows that the defenders of climate science ought to be at least as leery of outright engagement with Heartland as the defenders of evolutionary science are when it comes to engaging with Discovery.
The reason is that if you actually bother to rebut the Heartlands and Discoverys of the world, you instantly enter into a discourse on their own terms. The strategic framing these groups employ to attack mainstream science heavily features the rhetoric of scientific uncertainty …
The key issue is what Chris means by “battle climate skeptics.” I tend to agree that it is pointless to debate them one-on-one, as the listening audience can hardly be expected to adjudicate scientific arguments, so it is a losing proposition, and I rarely waste my time doing it anymore. And as I’ve recently blogged, I think it is also a waste of time (for me) to keep rebutting long-debunked denier talking points that someone posts in the comments of this blog.
But I do a lot of radio shows, and conservatives and libertarians (most, but not all, well-meaning people) inevitably call in, repeating old and new denier talking points. The same for lectures I give. I must rebut those points clearly and succinctly, or I will convince nobody. All progressives need to have that ability, even if they don’t give talks on the subject but merely argue with a non-progressive friend or relative. So I feel some obligation to rebut new denier talking points — like the “Earth is cooling” crap.
One advantage of doing it on a blog is that one can build up an entire database of links about the problem and the solution, so I (and others) don’t have to keep rebutting the same points — you can just refer people to the relevant posts, either here or at the few other sites that do this.
That said, I am a big believer in strategic framing, which is why I use the word “delayer” more than “denier” (although I still use the term denier occasionally, in headlines for instance, since it is better known). Delayer or delayer-1000 focuses the debate on the need for action and makes clear that the goal of the deniers is to delay action. And that’s why I insist people who want to engage in a debate answer the question: “If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal, and how would you achieve it?”
Because if we go to 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, then all debate and uncertainty in the science disappears — the planet’s livability will be destroyed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
I do not believe the climate issue has much analogy to the evolution issue. The creationists/intelligent-designers are mainly arguing over science in the public arena primarily because they don’t want evolution taught. The stakes are very low — at best, you end up with some poorly educated kids and the country falls behind in bio-tech research that someone else will do.
The deniers/delayers are mainly arguing over science in the public arena because they don’t want action on climate. The stakes, in contrast, are enormous. If they succeed in delaying action much longer, we will be condemning the next 10 billion people who walk the earth to untold misery and strife. The public (and hence the media) needs to get the facts on climate science and climate solutions much more than they need to get the facts about evolution (don’t get me wrong, though — scientists need to vigorously defend evolution).
And that means everybody needs to be educated about the science. Matt writes:
In this case, just like with evolution, sometimes the best way to respond is to not focus on the science. Instead, shift the train of thought for the public. Reaffirm the overwhelming scientific agreement from U.S. organizations such as the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and now even the Bush White House. But then quickly shift frames of reference, discussing the moral and religious duty to take action, the missed opportunity for economic growth and technological development if we don’t act now, and the public health threat to children, elderly, and the most vulnerable in our cities from increased rates of asthma, allergies, and deaths from heat stroke.
Yes, well, that’s fine. But if there’s a denier or delayer or just someone who is uninformed or a member of the media present, they will inevitably grill you on the science and the latest denier talking point — after all, anyone can see how absurd it would be for government to require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if we weren’t quite sure that failure to do so would have devastating consequences.
Put another way, I spent 15 years pushing the clean-tech opportunity story — along with the co-benefits of cleaner air, lower oil imports, new hi-tech jobs, etc — and all I can say is that nobody cares much about that stuff by itself, certainly not the media, the cognoscenti, and the powers that be in Congress. Frankly, I wouldn’t care one iota about carbon dioxide reductions if I didn’t understand how overwhelming the scientific case against inaction is.
Mooney writes on his blog about his article:
A great example occurred recently with the Heartland Institute’s climate skeptic conference in New York. Climate skepticism is totally passe — this event should have been completely ignored. Instead, many of my intellectual allies were screaming their heads off denouncing it, and thereby drawing greater attention to it.
Indeed, the other reason one must take on the deniers’ nonsense is that the media continues to cover them, albeit less seriously than before (since it is obvious to just about anybody who follows this issue that they have been dead wrong and spreading disinformation for over a decade).
If anyone can be identified as a denier/delayer enabler (other than, of course, the ExxonMobils and conservative think tanks and Rush Limbaughs of the world), it is the mainstream media. That’s why I do as much media criticism in my posts as denier/delayer refutation.
But Mooney and Nisbett do offer important cautionary notes to anyone who engages in this area. Always remember that the debate isn’t about science minutia; it’s about whether we are are prepared to act now to ensure a livable planet for future generations.