Climate change is happening now — it’s man made and occurring at a rate that has never been encountered before apart from those seen in mass extinction events. This conclusion is backed by 97% of climate experts, yet the general public is far more polarized. While 70 percent of Americans believe that the climate is changing, only 27 percent of respondents for a recent poll agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of climate change.
There are various causes for this discrepancy, among them willful manipulation of the public by some mainstream media outlets backed by vested interests (for example here, here, and here but we got a whole lot more.) There’s also a worrying trend of expert dismissal and concerns that climate mitigation leads to higher taxes or business restrictions. Those who refuse to accept the scientific consensus are often labeled under an umbrella term of climate change denial, but they’re also sometimes called climate change skeptics. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably.
This is wrong, says a group of leading climate scientists and psychologists including Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, and Stephan Lewandowsky, the author of a famous study which found climate change denial is associated with rejecting other scientific consensuses like HIV causes AIDS or tobacco smoking causes lung cancer.
The researchers explain that while one type respects the peer-review and scientific process, and is willing to engage in sensible, fact-based discourse, the other blindly rejects facts and is politically motivated.
“People who deny scientific facts that they find challenging or unacceptable, by contrast, are by and large not skeptics,” the study’s authors write. “On the contrary, they demonstrably shy away from scientific debate by avoiding the submission of their ideas to peer review.”
To illustrate their point, the researchers mention some key differences between skepticism and outright denial. For instance, denial commonly invokes conspiracies, like the book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future authored by Republican senator Jim Inhofe. Another feature that is common in denialist circles, but a stranger to skepticism and legitimate debate, is personal or ad hominem attacks. Some of the authors of this op-ed have been threatened by people who “would like to see them six feet under.” Those public attacks are often paralleled by prolific complaints to scientists’ host institutions with allegations of research misconduct, the authors wrote in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.
The authors also underscore that there is room for debate in science and the public is not only welcomed but entitled to join this debate. However, this debate needs to be held in certain conditions of scientific scrutiny and politeness. “Being taken seriously is not an entitlement but a privilege that needs to be earned by participating in scientific debate by acting scientifically,” they write.
To help skeptics from the public move the conversation and science further, the authors included an Appendix to their paper which you’re welcome to visit.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.