Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Identity and Denialism

One of the issues I spend the most time on is trying to understand just why people deny the findings of science and adhere to a falsifiable belief. Of course, I'm not the only one. This is a topic of widespread concern and study. The amazing thing is to see how far people will go to support their beliefs.

As a scientist, it's a slam-dunk to realize what is happening with climate change. Read the science and there is only one, inescapable conclusion - manmade emissions are changing the world's climate. Yes, the science is most definitely settled. So, why is it some people go to incredible lengths to deny this? If you think I'm exaggerating, take a look at the submissions to the Global Warming Skeptic Challenge. Some of them go beyond bizarre. Without paraphrasing, I had people tell me if the science disagreed with their conclusion then the science had to be thrown out. They were right and any science to the contrary had to be wrong. Wow!

Of course, climate change is not the only issue where people deny the science. Just take a look at this article here about the anti-vaxxers.  (I find it interesting how he describes bloodletting as something from the past. I have a genetic condition (hemochromatosis) that requires me to go in for bloodletting on occasion, except we call it phlebotomy nowadays.)

So, what makes someone think like that? If I knew the answer I would probably be in line for an award of some kind, a Nobel at the very least. Many people have, and are, working to solve this problem and it isn't likely to be me that finds it. But, that won't stop me from thinking about it and I think a book I read recently gives me a clue.

I read Ken Follet's book, Fall of Giants, this winter. I'm a fan of his writing and thought Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were magnificent. I've been waiting to read the first book in this new series until it was all out in print, which happened last fall. (I read a very good book twenty years ago that left me anxious for the rest of the series. I'm still waiting for the rest of the Game of Thrones series. Yes, twenty years. I just put new volumes on the shelf and will read them all once it's done.) If you're not familiar with Fall of Giants, it is a historical fiction set in Europe and the U.S. and concerns World War I. One of the amazing things about the Great War that others have discussed, and Follet brings out very well, is how the people followed the royalty almost without question. The empirical leaders of Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia made unbelievably bad decisions and they were implemented. Not just because followers were afraid to stand up to the royals (there was some of that), but also because they believed in their respective leaders so much they would do anything asked of them.

These people identified with their leaders so strongly their identities became those of their leaders. By following a great leader they themselves became great. In their minds, they became more privileged, more royal, because of who they identified with. They were better than those people over in that other country who followed some other royalty. When their leader made a great decision the followers were also great because that was their identity. Consequently, any criticism of their leaders became criticism of themselves. Thus, when the leaders made bad decisions, they were incapable of seeing that and blindly implemented the commands. Even joyfully. Let's all sing as we march off to war.

Now, we have a similar situation with science denialism. The fact we don't have battlefields covered with dead bodies doesn't mean the number of casualties and the overall cost will not be the same given enough time. It is odd and disturbing to see how people obediently follow entities such as the Heartland Institute, WUWT!, Roy Spencer, Christopher Monckton and all the rest. People still blindly follow them, even when it is shown that these entities are lying and are being paid to lie. It is the same blind loyalty seen with sports teams. "It is my team and I'm going to support them, no matter what!"

I remember having a conversation (all right, it was an argument) with a guy in 1987 about the dangers of cigarette smoking. I claimed science showed smoking was hazardous and the other guy claimed it was harmless. It was a short discussion because the guy got so angry with me I thought he was going to physically attack me. The interesting thing is he wasn't even a smoker. Of course, we know how the smoking issue turned out. I don't know what ever happened to that guy, but I wonder what his reaction was when it finally came out the tobacco companies knew all along and were lying to us.

So, where am I going with this thought?

I think many people have come to identify with the denier industry and will follow it, not because they think they are right, but because the identity of the industry has become their own. If the denier industry is wrong, then they are weak and vulnerable, at least in their own eyes. Likewise, if the industry is right, then they are strong and somehow superior. What could give someone a bigger feeling of superiority than to be able to say they can prove all of the scientists in the world wrong? Oh, and all of you people in that other group that doubt me are inferior. Sucks for you.

What that means is the only way to break the climate change gridlock is to discredit the industry. You have to make people believe that following the industry gives them a poor identity and following the science gives them a good identity.

Now, how do you go about doing that? Beats me.


  1. It seems likely that climate change deniers tend to have an Authoritarian Personality. Does the description in this snippet sound familiar? I like to think that together Authoritarian Followers and Authoritarian Leaders form a symbiotic relationship and it can be very very dangerous:

    " Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian
    leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too
    much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do
    whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and

  2. That is a very interesting quote. Where does it come from?

  3. "The Authoritarians" by Bob Altemeyer. The text is free, I think he did it as a hobby.