Ignoring Denial

AGW opinion


Professor Richard Betts made a guest post on the blog “And Then There’s Physics” (ATTP) on how we should “label the behaviour, not the person”, in relation to global warming denialism or contrarianism, and in particular labels applied to people, such as “denier”.

He proposes that we should de-polarize the ‘debate’ around Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), and specifically, avoid using the term ‘denier’. Of course, it takes all sides to ‘de-polarize’ but in any conflict, it is good to take the initiative.

He further points out that this goes beyond the negative language traded between those with opposed positions, because often those of moderate temperament, but with a lot of insight and knowledge (e.g. the climate scientists who are colleagues of Richard Betts) are it seems put off from engaging in the blogosphere, due to the atmosphere that has been created, in this increasingly polarized medium.

I was thinking of contributing to the over 300 comments to this blog post, but decided that my best response was a blog post of my own, because I support Professor Betts basic premise, and wanted to go further: to question if polarization was leading to something worse – missing the target!

I envisage a simple matrix to characterize the spectrum of opinions on AGW.

  • In one dimension (vertical), we have the point of view, from the “Pro” (AGW) and “Anti” and the much greater population of those or are undecided (no, I cannot say this is backed up by a specific opinion survey, but is broadly reflected in samples of opinion, and polls – but the areas are not accurate, merely indicative).
  • The other dimension (horizontal) represents the level of engagement with AGW, from ‘passive’  (and often confused with it), through to ‘engaged’ (and with an exploratory / learning posture), and finally, those who are ‘active’ participants in the ‘debate’, with an establish Point Of View (POV), which may be backed up with some expertise (but that in itself is sometimes a contentious point).

This is depicted in the diagram at the head of this post. Within this spectrum of views I have overlayed different populations:

A. The mass of population, who are it seems minded to believe in AGW, but certainly not equipped to argue the case. To a large extent they are passive and rather confused by the arguments.

B. The influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace are much less in number but have significant impact on policy. They are engaged to the extent of exploring and learning, and have formed but malleable opinions.  In the ‘Pro’ camp will be a number of activist groups as well as outreach organizations (e.g. COIN). In the ‘Anti’ group are a number of vocal contrarians, such as contrarians that feature in the WSJ. [quite a few on both side – this is not intended to provide an exhaustive list]

C. These have an established point of view (POV), and are the experts bodies including scientific societies and of course the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the overwhelming scientific accumulation of knowledge, and consensus.

D. These have an established POV, and are those groups dedicated to countering the consensus, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), often within a liberal economic posture.

X. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Pro’ position, and include experts in various disciplines, including climate science, as well as amateurs

Y. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Anti’ position, and include experts in various disciplines as well as amateurs

To be “undecided” as an establish POV is not an impossible position, and scientists in this category, after they did the analysis, have moved to the “Pro” position. See, for example, Professor Muller’s change of viewpoint.

The problem with the blogosphere is that it has today a characteristic (partly borne of weakly moderated ‘discussion threads’) that seems to encourage an escalation in language. The ‘deniers’ versus the ‘warmists’, rapidly degenerates into personal abuse and expletives.

Professor Betts feels it is not helping, and inhibits engagement of a wider audience or participation, and to recruit valuable resources who can help in communicating the science and ensuing issues.

What the diagram above tries to convey is that two groups – A. the mass population and B. influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace – are where those (with a strong POV) should be expending our energy.  Those in the D category like GWPF have certainly got this message. Those in the C category have in recent years begun to do much better (despite a funding disadvantage), but need to do much more.

We need those in the C and X categories to spend more time talking to each other, to develop the materials needed to engage effectively with categories A and B, rather than engage in attrition with categories D and Y.

Should X category bloggers refuse to talk to Y category bloggers?  Mostly, I believe yes, given the current atmosphere. But when there is a shared interest in a specific topic, there is scope for a constructive discussion (e.g.  to debate the potential role of nuclear in mitigation).

The Anti-Pro polarization is consuming excessive energy while, guess what, the Anti-camp is working vigorously to influence the  mass population and opinion formers, to try to undermine the Pro position (although, increasingly, ineffectively judging from the polls).

Focusing on the conflict between the small number of Pro and Anti bloggers (X vs Y), may provide some kind of gratification, but it fails to ensure we build a wider ‘Pro’ platform.

We need a bigger community of active Pro communicators … that can better engage with both the passive and engaged populace, and use limited time and energy in smart ways.

Maybe the time has come to ignore denial.


Filed under Climate Science, Contrarianism, Debate, Essay

43 responses to “Ignoring Denial

  1. Where it is possible, it is likely best to ignore denial. However, the public and the influencers also get some of their (mis)information from the mitigations sceptics. That makes it harder to ignore them because the public and the influencers may need information to see where the misinformation is wrong.


    • By becoming trusted sources of information, insight, interpretation, etc. the ‘Pro’ voices (take for example Tamsin Edwards, who is now regularly called on by the BBC) are already doing what I believe is the priority. We all need to do our bit, however small.

      We should not ignore disinformation. But polarized exchanges that put off the influncers and fail to change anyone’s opinion are a waste of everyone’s time. Monitor the most popular and egregious cases of disinformation, and even respond in counter blogs. This is a media friendly monitoring function (again, this is being done, e.g. by desmogblog, albeit with liberal use of ‘denier’ word).

      But engaging in direct thread wars with people who refuse to understand the basic physics, let alone more complex aspects, and who end up questioning one’s motives and worse?

      I think we need an massive increase in levels of engagement (again, it is not that there is none … the Fossil Free, youth engaged, movement is an example of where we should be heading, with a focus on mitigation and/or adaptaion).


  2. I hate to admit it, but I’m not quite following your agurment 🙂 As I see it, there is a difference between labelling an individual or an identifiable group, and discussing the existence of some hypothetical group. If there are people with whom we should be willing to discuss this, then labelling them would be counterproductive. However, pointing out there are people who are in denial should be less of an issue if they arn’te explicitly identified, especially as it may encourage some to avoid being explicitly in denial if they have a desire to be taken seriously.

    The interesting thing I find is that there are some who object strongly to even the use of “denial/denier” as a generic term, which makes me think they have some kind of guilty complex. There clearly are climate deniers, so pointing this out shouldn’t be an issue. If someone does not regard themselves as being a climate denier, then why do they object ot its use?


    • ATTP – I don’t necessarily disagree re. the semantics of the word ‘denier’. I was trying to reframe the discussion to look at how we get wider engagement, whether RB’s colleagues or the larger pool off influencers. You are a great source of knowledge for people like me – wanting to be engaged and wanting to learn – but the unresolved batting back and forth with the like of Richard Tol seem to get nowhere. I prefer your informative developed threads that are educative, with combatitive debate, sure, but civil. The labels thing is really a symptom, not important in itself. My concern is we don’t have much time and we need to use our energies to build a broader consensus. I trust you agree on marginality and futility of some of the worst blog threads (albeit not on ATTP 🙂 – which waste time and energy.


      • I see. Yes, I agree, greater engagement would be very good. I guess my main issue with Richard B’s general argument is that I don’t really think reducing the hostility on “our side” will make much difference. I’m more than happy for people to try (there’s no reason to be hostile) but I don’t think it will change.

        Having been involved in the last few days in various discussions about the Marotzke & Forster paper, I have a slightly different view now. I think there are some who would actually like to be taken seriously and don’t like their mistakes being highlighted and mocked. I might put McIntyre, Montford, Ridley, Rose, Lewis and some others in that group. I wouldn’t put Watts, because I think he’s too far gone. It’s my sense that if more people highlighted their bad behaviour and their errors, they may actually be more careful and things could improve. While they get away with it, though, I can’t see things changing.


      • I am sure you can come up with a more sophisticated version of my model of opinions, with more granularity in the bottom right hand (and top right 🙂 ). Being nice or otherwise is irrelevant if we refuse to play their game! I sense with the list you provide (Montford et al) it will be a bridge to far (pun intended … verging on wasting time that should be focused elsewhere), given there is a kind of butterfly hoping they perform between topics. Even when one topic [temp. data] they are all over the place: … city effect (questioning temperature data sets) … the pause argument (relying on temp. data sets) … the adjustment argument (dissing temp. data sets) … make your mind up guys! An inability to be consistent in one area compounded by multiple inter-locking lines of evidence and science. It’s complex and people need help. They are attempting to debate this at a level they are ill equipped to. Which takes me back to different approaches, aimed at different more important constituencies … (because as they say, insanity is defined as doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result).


      • Looking at your graph again, it seems quite sensible. Essentially it appears to be “blog wars irrelevant” which is probably about right, expect when something nonsensical promoted on a blog ends up in the mainstream media. That’s why I’ve found this recent week quite interesting because the temperature adjustment saga promoted by Delingpole and Booker has been roundly criticised by those who might be regarded as being on opposite sides. It seems like a step in the right direction. A small one maybe, but if we can get everyone to accept what is self-evidently nonsense, that would be a start – IMO.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Scientific civility and the climate wars | …and Then There's Physics

  4. Hmm, there are some good points but also quite a few problems here.

    Good points include the diagram and associated groupings.

    Problems – to start with, merely having the D word in the title is going to alienate a lot of people. Personally I couldn’t care less about the childish name-calling, but it wastes a lot of time that could be spent on the issues that matter.

    Regarding having an impact on public opinion, you claim that “Those in the D category like GWF have certainly got this message.” and seem to think that those in C have not. “We need a bigger community of active Pro communicators”. This is complete and utter nonsense. To start with, you have not even got their name right – it’s GWPF, so clearly they are not doing well at getting their message across to you. Quite how you think this one tiny organisation is having such a huge influence on public opinion is a mystery. They are organising a talk today apparently, but you wouldn’t know this even if you looked at their website – it seems to be a members-only preach-to-the-choir event.
    On the other side you have a huge array of activist organisations promoting the climate message. These include
    Carbon Brief
    European Climate Foundation
    Green Alliance
    Friends of the earth
    etc etc, plus the BBC (rarely does an episode of Countryfile pass without a mention of the climate threat) and most of the media, particularly the Guardian which promotes climate hysteria on a daily basis (today it is “Scientists urge global ‘wake-up call’ to deal with climate change”).

    The idea that we need to put more effort in, to get the message across to the public has been debunked in the academic literature, where it is called the “deficit model”.


    • Thanks for the robust response. The diagram was not exhaustive, and I am aware of COIN, etc., and maybe was too fleetingly acknowledging them.

      My focus was on those in the blogosphere who could be spending more time joining with this spirit of engagement. Excuse my typos. The deficit model I understand rests on probably flawed assumption that more information ALONE will overcome scepticism on a topic such as genetically modified food, or AGW.

      The GWPF do seem to have mastered access to the BBC at least, as ATTP has noted – eg. Matt Ridley being ‘pitted’ against Tamsin Edwards. Small, and arguably disproportionate, but then Lord Lawson and his friends do have a powerful network, and are media savvy. All the more reason for more media savviness on the ‘Pro’ side.

      And Professor Steve Jones did a review of BBC science reporting that highlighted the problem of false balance in their coverage. So I think you maybe are being a little too strong in suggesting that there is no problem to fix, in terms of PR.

      To take another counter example, when Terry Wogan did morning slot on BBC Radio 2 he seemed to never miss a chance to ‘diss’ climate science, over a number of years. He had one of the largest audiences in all of broadcasting. The drip drip effect is difficult to ascertain, but I know when I challenged the BBC on this, they shrugged it off (a little less robustely than you, but more or less along the same lines).

      Thanks for your comments.


  5. If the A’s are uninterested despite many years of robust climate change discussion between C X D and Y’s not to mention the B’s among which after all there are opinion _formers_, why would the A’s suddenly become more interested now or in the immediate future?

    IOW your solution is engagement and communication…but that’s a solution only if the A’s have been shunted away from the climate change debate because of a lack of engagement and communication. That’s quite unlikely, if only for the sometimes blanket media coverage of news such as the publishing of a new ipcc report.


    • Take a straw poll and you will find there is disengagement … but it is a changing landscape. The A’s have a certain responsibility. The USA’s National Academy of Sciences (for example) were set up by Lincoln to advise the nation, and our own UK Royal Society is seen as the apex forum for science (so not surprising that Margaret Thatcher made here seminal speech on global warming there many years ago). These two bodies are now in fact liaising to enhance outreach activities. What would we expect them to do? Keep quiet!


      • You wrote “Maybe the time has come to ignore denial.”

        I am now not so sure who should ignore whom, in your opinion


      • Well, as an example, not engage in along ‘debate’ on whether CO^2 is a GHG with someone who angrily says it is not so. The maximum I would do is refer such a person to an accessible scientific source (not another blog). There are many lists of such FAQa. Waste of time to ‘debate’ basic well established science, as an example. On the other hand, if the question is, how is the heat distribution in the oceans impacts the speed and intensity of atmospheric global warming, then this is a very important question, which climate scientists grapple with every day, no doubt. Worthy of enquiry, for those with open minds and able to engage in genuine dialogue.


      • Thanks. I still feel you’re throwing obstacles in your own way. For example this obsession with “genuine” in which you arbitrarily decide what the bad questions are. But I see from up above that even obdurate climate crusaders like attp are waking up to the fact that there are many shades to the questioning posed by C and Y people. Maybe you will realise one day that if you …genuinely want progress on climate change action, “denier” isn’t just offensive or impolite, it’s plain stupid to use. After all, without the C and Y’s, interest in the climate discourse would be even less than it is now.


      • If we must use a label, ‘contrarian’ is better. The post used ‘denial’ in the title to attract attention. It worked. Mea culpa. Forgive me, for I have sinned.


  6. Another point along the same vein. You suggest to ignore those you disagree with. But if the A’s are uninterested and the B’s only marginally less uninterested, the most likely conclusion is that the C and X’s will talk to each other and that’s it. We have this situation already eg on Twitter where people like. Mann block left right and centre anybody who’s got thedslightest hint of skepticism. One can also consider how much difference there is in traffic between WUWT and RC.

    The end result of such an onanistic enterprise can only be a complete detachment from the rest of the world, and. I doubt that’d be the aim of anybody seriously worried about our climate future.


    • I did not say that. Or at least, I did expand in older comment replies. No, monitor, review and where opportunities exist for dialogue, grab with both hands. It is a question of balance. It is not an attempt at a mechanistic formular – more a guideline (as Captain Jack Sparrow once said).


  7. Having been rather rude about your comment at
    and illustrated my position by referring to Venn diagra ms, I was interested to see you using the same logical tool here.
    You deduce from your diagrammatic argument that X bloggers should refuse to talk to Y bloggers. As a Y blogger myself, I would argue the contrary – that we should seize every opportunity to debate with those with whom we disagree.
    You say: “Those in the D category like GWF [sic] have certainly got the message [that] “the mass population and influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace are where those (with a strong POV) should be expending our energy.”
    “Those in the C category [Scientific bodies etc.] have in recent years begun to do much better (despite a funding disadvantage), but need to do much more.”
    I would note that the C category includes the Royal Society (government finance: 42 million) and Greenpeace (income in the hundreds of millions). Where is the funding disadvantage with respect to the GWPF ?


    • I wouldn’t put Greenpeace in the top right.

      I said X and Y should have dialogue so long as it is not mutual denegration, and should focus on topics where there is scope for productive dialogue, rather than some kind of gratification for being a smart arse (in either camp).

      The model shouldn’t be taken too seriously also “All models are wrong and some are useful”… if you don’t find it useful, please ignore. I produced it in a 15 minute coffee break (a brainstorm in the lift), then wrote the words later, so I cannot claim it is world shattering research. But if it helps some people, then maybe it was 15 minutes well spent.


  8. Thanks for posting my comment. I wasn’t sure if you would, given your comments about x bloggers talking to y bloggers! Lawson was on radio 4 for about 2 minutes, about a year ago; there were howls of outrage and he hasnt been heard of since. The idea that he is influential is a fantasy invented by climate activists to explain their own failings. They need a scapegoat/bogeyman.


  9. manicbeancounter

    I very much like these sort type of diagrams, as they help people to understand various issues. However, there are limitations with any diagram. The differences in opinion I would suggest are not either/or but a broad spectrum. They go from those who believe more than 100% of the warming since 1950 was human caused to those who believe none at all. Logically, there is a huge middle ground.
    Greg Craven in his book “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, looks into the dimension of trusting expert opinion, against those of a some minor bloggers.
    However, there are other ways of evaluating scientific evidence. “Philosophy of science” provides many interesting examples. The logical positivists said that ever-stronger verification was important. (The rigorous testing of new drugs by independent standards has this idea). Popper said that predictive ability was important (as against the ex-poste justifications of Marxism and Freudianism). Kuhn looked at scientific research programmes, at whether they were progressing, or just infilling. Paul K Feyeraband has a more anarchic view of scientific progress. There are no rules. Galileo, Darwin and Einstein succeeded as outsiders with revolutionary ideas, busting open the established consensus.
    Failing to get the message across is always a problem. Consider other forms of persuasion, such as hard-selling techniques. Rather than concentrate on the negatives (there are these nasty people against us) boast of the positives. Look back at the previous IPCC reports. Find the headline short-term signposts of climate change that have come true and proclaim them as successes. Forget the failures, as there will be some, or say we have strongly beaten the odds.


    • I am familiar with Popper, and the rest, and agree that the philosophy of science is highly relevant to understanding the evolution of science in areas as diverse as cosmology, atomic science, etc. I am not sure these authors offer us much help in what is more applied science – climate science is not for the most part creating new fundamental physics, chemistry, etc. (But there are exceptions). But the work they do is sometimes heroic … The ice cores for example.

      From where I stand, the really challenge of AGW is that it brings together so many disciplines (physics, Earth science, chemistry, oceanography, meteorologists, climatologists, geologists, computer scientists, computational physicists, etc. Etc.) on the physical side, and more still on the mitigation/ adaptation side (economists, agronomists, geographers, etc.). In fact, it is almost easier to list the disciplines NOT involved or impacted.

      “Filling in the gaps” is not trivial and requires interdisciplinary Science on an unprecedented scale. and maybe a more generous attitude to these scientists is required on the part of those not involved … Quick, simple answers are what everyone expects, a Google search away.

      “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”, Oscar Wilde.


  10. TDK

    “Professor Muller’s change of viewpoint.”

    I not so sure Muller so much changed his mind as worked out a good PR strategy. Sure he was a critic of the IPCC and Mann but he also wrote in 2003

    “My own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate.”

    That hardly fits with being a Lukewarmer let alone a skeptic.


    • I cannot speak for Professor Muller, but I do think it is generally unhelpful to assume there is a binary separation, like some religious schism.

      The specific point that (I understand) Muller was sceptical about (in the proper scientific sense) was that the ‘recent’ (approx. 200 years) of temperature data was correlated with CO^2 concentrations in the atmosphere (note: this is a very specific point – it certainly was not saying that high volumes of GHG would not be a problem – hence his concern re. coal – but like Lovelock, he felt that many other factors would make matters much more complex).

      His surprise was that there was a high correlation.

      Lovelock acknowledges the long-term correlation (millions of years), respecting the ice core and other data, but feels that this correlation may be disturbed due to changing albedo (human caused) of planet, aerosols (human caused), etc., which will alter impact of GHG rise, but again, does not dispute the long term impact (hence he spends a lot of time describing how humans can survive in a much hotter world, with much reduced global population, in his most recent book ‘Rough Ride To The Future’ … rough, not easy) … his only argument is his view that the ‘short term’ (say, 50-100 years) are more difficult to be so certain about (breaking the simple correlation of the pre-industrial epochs).

      Few climate scientists would disagree on the difficulty of predicting the future, but it would be interesting to know what Lovelock thinks of Muller’s very strong statement regarding the ‘recent’ correlation (i.e. despite the massive complexity of the system, he is seeing a strong and simple correlation => hence AGW is real).

      If you are sceptical, good for you. But please don’t label Muller or assume we have some binary ‘schism’ here. This is not Tudor England. The science is multidimensional and complex.


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