Climate Skeptics, Deniers and Science

By Merrill Ring

Rejecting science cannot be done outside a religious context.   Denial of climate change without evidence requires fundamentalist religion.

There are a bunch of people out there who call themselves ‘climate skeptics’ – and the media tends to follow that designation.  But they aren’t skeptics at all.  A skeptic doesn’t think we know what the answer to something is:  a skeptic says ‘Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – we don’t know’. 

However, those who go by the name ‘climate skeptics’ somehow manage to say ‘It ain’t happening – there is no global warming, at least not any human caused global warming’.  They know the answer.  They are, in the accepted terminology, climate deniers, those who declare flat out that nothing of interest is happening.

The background to that rejection of the idea that the earth is seriously warming up is a rejection of science.  It is not as though the deniers have, contrary to the standard belief, the evidence on their side.  Oh yes, they do typically hunt around in various ways to find qualified people to support them.  That is a strange concession on their part because the chief reason they are climate deniers is that they reject science (and so looking for scientific evidence to the contrary contradicts their anti-science platform.  Oh well.)

The huge scientific consensus that we are causing the Earth to warm dangerously means nothing because they reject science as a form of human activity.  Not that they value the humanities and the arts more highly than science:  for their rejection of science is the latest in that long-running tradition in American life of anti-intellectualism (to borrow from Richard Hofstadter.)  For contemporary deniers, science is a piece of human hubris running contrary to religious texts, a means of rejecting the divine and seeking personal and political power.

Sometimes however the deniers don’t play the religious card but attempt to engage in a rational discussion.  One of the arguments advanced when they are in that mood is that science is to be rejected (and specifically rejected on the matter of the climate) because Science Makes Mistakes.

Now that argument might well fit into a skeptic’s program:  it is a warning that we must not overdo our intellectual commitments, both generally and in particular about global warming.  And such a warning is quite valuable, given a propensity for people to hold on to beliefs that they should not.  (Of course, the way to overcome any worry about whether we are right about issue X is to review the evidential situation – the skeptic, however, does not do that preferring to remain in doubt.)

But the fact that science does make mistakes fits very badly with being a climate denier.  For the question to the denier who offers that argument is to ask ‘How is it that we know that science makes mistakes?’  And the answer to that is ‘More science has revealed that a mistake has been made.’  The only way we know that science makes mistakes is because further scientific investigation has discovered the mistake.

So the climate denier is hoist on their own petard.  Rather than scientific mistakes justifying dumping science, what the fact of mistakes reveals is that more science is needed to learn what mistakes have been made so that one can confidently assert ‘Science makes mistakes’.