ScienceWriters Issue Explores ‘Denial,’ Points to Six-Step ‘Denialism Manual’

A University of Wisconsin geneticist tells a science journalism meeting of ‘six steps’ common to science ‘denialism’ campaigns.


Journalists covering climate science issues can take some heart in knowing they’re not alone in newsrooms across the country in reporting “in the age of denial.”

In a series of pieces in the summer 2012 issue of ScienceWriters, published by the National Association of Science Writers, Inc., several writers address what Editor Lynne Friedmann called a “game changer” University of Wisconsin conference seeking to shed light on questions such as:

  • “How does denial affect the craft of the science writer?
  • How can science writers effectively explain disputed science?
  • What is the big picture?
  • Are denialists ever right?”

Among the messages conveyed by speakers at the two-day “Science in the Age of Denial” conference was a six-step “general manual of denial” that University of Wisconsin-Madison geneticist Sean Carroll sited, drawn from a history of chiropractors and vaccination. Those six steps will sound familiar to many dealing with climate change communications challenges in the face of adamant “deniers”:

STEP 1
Doubt the Science

STEP 2
Question scientists’ motives and interests

STEP 3
Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities

STEP 4
Exaggerate potential harms (scare the hell out of people)

STEP 5
Appeal to personal freedom

STEP 6
Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a key
religious or philosophical belief

According to Carroll, who is also vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, telling the story of science “in a more compelling way” is one approach to countering such strategies.

“Science lends itself to a narrative and people remember stories more than they remember other types of information,” Emily Eggleston wrote in ScienceWriters. She wrote that Carroll suggested science writers “use the power of storytelling to convey the conclusions of science.”

The ScienceWriters features also provided links to further readings and resources on issues related to the conference and its messages on science denial: conference videos; summaries of the presentations at the Madison meeting; and a list of relevant blogs.

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7 Responses to ScienceWriters Issue Explores ‘Denial,’ Points to Six-Step ‘Denialism Manual’

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    May I make some suggestions for additions to your list?

    How about:

    STEP 7
    Endlessly quote climate scientists saying incriminating things like “It won’t be easy to dismiss out of hand as the math appears to be correct theoretically” or “this does not mean that one could not improve a chronology by reducing the number of series used if the purpose of removing samples is to enhance a desired signal. The ability to pick and choose which samples to use is an advantage unique to dendroclimatology.” or “In other words, what CRU usually do. It will allow bad databases to pass unnoticed, and good databases to become bad, but I really don’t think people care enough to fix ‘em, and it’s the main reason the project is nearly a year late.”

    STEP 8
    Responding to hysterical weather reporting by pointing out all the many occasions when the same weather pattern occurred before, long before global warming.

    STEP 9
    Criticising harshly such innocent errors as inserting the data upside-down, mislocating weather stations thousands of miles from their actual locations, or subtracting the wrong number. Suggesting weather stations might be inaccurate just because they’re situated right on top of an aircon vent. Noticing that your reconstruction of temperature is not correlated to temperature out-of-sample, and that you concealed the test results showing it.

    I could go on. Those ‘deniers’ have lots of material.

    I know it’s obvious that there’s nothing wrong with scientists making up data and breaking freedom of information laws to hide their working, but how do you explain that to the general public so they understand? Documents like ‘Harry read me’ are so easy to misinterpret…

    -

    Seriously, using “the power of storytelling” has been tried, and hasn’t worked. The genuine problems in climate science will need to be acknowledged and fixed before you can move on and neutralise the sceptics. And nobody is willing to do that.

  2. John Samuel says:

    Nullies exemplifies steps 1 and 2 through creating the fantasies of her steps 7, 8 and 9.

  3. Martin Lack says:

    Apart from Step 6 (which I do not recognise). These pretty much accord with the six pillars of climate change denial that I distilled out of reading Robert Henson’s excellent book Rough Guide to Climate Change
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/the-tough-guide-to-climate-denial/

    I think Step 6 seems somewhat out of place here because:
    – The so-called ‘greenhouse effect’ is a physical reality without which complex terrestrial life on Earth would never have emerged.
    – The results of excessive atmospheric CO2 can also not be disputed when one looks at the planet Venus.
    – Great faith is needed to believe that our climate cannot be altered by an instantaneous (in the context of Earth history) injection of geospheric carbon (as CO2) into the biosphere.
    – Ideologically-induced selective blindness is needed to deny that a 40% increase (so far) is already having the predicted effects that were deduced from basic physics.

  4. Nullius in Verba says:

    John,

    Which bits were made up?

    Martin,

    Step 6 is exemplified by principles such as rejecting argument from authority, rejecting correlation implying causation, showing your working, and not making data up.

    I agree the greenhouse effect exists, but the issue is not the existence of the greenhouse effect but the magnitude of the feedbacks.

    Temperatures on Venus have less to do with excessive CO2 than it does with the height of the clouds. That’s simple ‘greenhouse effect’ physics.

    Since most people with an opinion on the subject are not physicists, don’t understand how the greenhouse effect actually works (let alone the feedbacks), and are completely unable to quantify for themselves how much warming it ought to cause – clearly, their belief in a specific amount of warming resulting from a specific amount of CO2 is entirely a matter of faith. How do you know the observed warming wasn’t caused by something else?

    You have faith in what a trusted subset of scientists have told you, and you believe whatever you are told you should believe. Anything prefixed with “Science says…” is not to be doubted. Science says stress causes ulcers. Science says black holes can’t exist. Science says pellagra is caused by germs. Science says crystals can’t have a five-fold symmetry.

    Climate dissenters who simply trust a different set of experts are no better, or worse. It’s unscientific, but non-scientists generally don’t have the option of doing it scientifically, and even scientists must do it some of the time. I don’t judge.

    But to simply believe in the ignorance of experts and doubt the claims is not a sign of faith, but lack of faith. To say “I’m not convinced” requires no faith at all.

  5. Dan Rogers says:

    The two words “cite” and “site” sound the same but they have different meanings. The way you have used it is wrong.

    Step One in the denialists manual is the step I have never been able to really complete and put behind me. When I “doubt the science,” and express that doubt to any person who is thoroughly convinced that carbon dioxide drives the climate of our planet, that person will invariably tell me that I simply must believe what he or she believes because “the debate is over,” and I am just being perverse. But when I ask that person how much carbon dioxide there is in the air, he or she usually doesn’t know. At four one-hundredths of one percent, there simply isn’t enough carbon dioxide in the air to have any significant greenhouse gas effect. To the extent that the greenhouse gas effect has any bearing on atmospheric warming, it is water vapor that does the heavy lifting.

    • John says:

      If you think that such a small amount of CO2 has a negligible effect, try doing without folic acid or vitamin B12. Both of these exist in trace quantities in the human body. The concentration of a substance is not equivalent to its effect. Also, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased by 35% since industrialization. To account for the increased greenhouse effect, water vapor, at anywhere from 0-4% would also have to have changed, and it has not.

  6. It’s an old trick to accuse your opponents of being mentally sick or insincere. The very term “denier” is abusive, because it commonly used to describe neo-nazis, as we all know. THe advocates of global warming hysteria are pushing highly dubious science. To describe that science as something we can have confidence in is very dishonest, although I suppose if people are simply deluded or misled then they aren’t being dishonest.