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The Climate Change Denial Machine: The Psychology of Denial

Mon ,03/03/2014

 “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.” – AAAS

Similar statements have been adopted by every major scientific organization in the world, nearly 200 organizations. Yet, there are those who deny there is a scientific consensus as well as the evidence upon which it is based. They object to being labelled as “deniers”  so writers often use “dissenters”, “contrarians”, or “Skeptics”, with the capital “S” denoting their skepticism is based more on financial consideration or ideology than reason. The scientists who investigate human behavior use the term “denial”, as it is correct.

Denial: In psychology, denial is an aberrant behavior  exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth. It is also a sociological concept, as author Michael Specter defined group denialism, “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.” Smokers, when confronted with the reality that their habit could shorten their lives, often denied the evidence – and the Tobacco companies were only too happy to provide the comfortable lies.  They funded scientific study after scientific study that found no link between smoking and lung disease and made commercials with doctors, or actors playing doctors, assuring people that smoking was safe. The tactics worked, as people still smoke today, harming themselves and everyone who inhales their secondhand smoke.

In tobacco’s denialism, money and misinformation were distributed through an organization of Conservative think tanks and front groups. Those who wish to deny climate change use many of the same organizations and tactics, with improvements. They are better funded,  support a far greater number of  Skeptics and politicians, and  use the Internet to widely disseminate their propaganda. Sociologists Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright have investigated the denial system and named it the Climate Change Denial Machine . Its main components were examined and explained in their article in the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society . Their diagram of the machine showing how all the components interact is below.



Corporations and Foundations: The climate denial machine is funded by wealthy corporations and foundations. It is difficult to track the funding as it is channeled through 501C(3)  tax exempt organizations, which makes it difficult to trace the donors or the money. The front groups add another layer of anonymity for the donors and help distribute the money in what they claim to be charity and education expenses, justifying the corporation’s tax-exempt status.

The citizens watchdog group Opensecrets.org reported that during the last six years, fossil fuel companies spent an average of $152 million per year on lobbying alone. The corporations see the money as an investment, as last year the US subsidized the fossil fuel industry by $13.6 billion, about six times as much as subsidies to develop sustainable energy sources. Their lobbying efforts result in laws favorable to the industry and help them avoid taxes and regulation, essentially transferring  health and environmental costs  of pollution to the public. Since the lobbying money is funneled through tax-exempt organizations, taxpayers are helping fund the climate denial machine, a machine which is undermining our scientific and democratic institutions.

Motivated reasoning . Those who support the climate denial machine often justify it by  “motivated reasoning”. A  study of climate change deniers found they tend to hold general beliefs in free-market ideology and conspiracy theories. University of Western Australia psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky  and two collaborators  investigated the dynamics of science doubters. They surveyed visitors to  climate change blogs  and asked them about free-market ideology, their views on climate science,  and their belief in conspiracy theories. The study,  published in Psychological Science, found :

 1. The more people believed in free-market ideology, the less they believed in climate science.

2.The more they accepted science in general, the more they accepted the conclusions of climate science.

3. And the more likely they were to be conspiracy theorists, the less likely they were to believe in climate science.

These results fit in with a longer literature on what has come to be known as motivated reasoning. Other things being equal, people tend to believe what they want to believe, and to disbelieve new information that might challenge them.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The study upset those denying climate science and they rejected the study,  claiming it was  just a part of the  global warming conspiracy .

Think Tanks: The Conservative think tanks are misnamed as they present climate change denial as a conservative cause, but there is nothing conservative about advocating for policies which result in changing the climate of the Earth. Think tanks are the brains of the climate denial machine, as they plan the strategy and generate the misinformation and comfortable lies that are passed on to the public. They also coordinate the production of misinformation by fake scientists, such as Lord Monckton, and, even worse, produce misleading statements by science Skeptics, such as John Christy, Roy Spencer, Judith Curry, and a few dozen others who regularly attend the NIPCC (Not the IPCC) meetings sponsored by fossil fuel corporations.  

The Sounding Board is in made up of politicians, media sources, and blog sites. Politicians, particularly those who claim to be conservatives, spread misinformation that ranges from “climate science is a hoax” to “scientists have not proved their case enough for us to take action”. The science Skeptics are invited to Congressional hearings where they cast doubt on the testimony of climate scientists and provide cover for the politicians. Politicians often speak at public gatherings and are quoted in newspapers, giving them many opportunities to spread propaganda.

Science Skeptics often present their ideas in interviews and op-ed articles in newspapers to bypass the peer review required by science journals. The media sources are complicit in this, claiming they are presenting both sides of the issue. This makes the Skeptic’s arguments, supported by little research, appear equal in weight to the arguments of climate scientist, supported by thousands of peer-reviewed research papers. A count of research papers from  1991 to 2012 found that 13,926 papers supported the consensus opinion, while only 24 rejected it.

Blog sites are one of the main ways that misinformation is spread to the public. Free from editors or peer review, the skeptics can, and do, distort information to suit themselves. Many of the science Skeptics have web sites which, along with sites like Wattsupwiththat and ClimateAudit, dispute the findings of peer-reviewed research. The misinformation they create is then picked up by other websites and Internet trolls who spread it across the Internet.

Astroturf organizations are fake grassroots organizations designed to make it appear that a cause has much more widespread support than it actually does. An example is an ad in support of clean coal that showed a large group with a banner reading “We Support Clean Coal”. The hoax was exposed when someone noticed that that the same photo was available on the Internet and that the clean coal banner had been Photoshopped in. The Internet can be used to create Astroturf organizations such as occurred on an Internet site protesting genetically modified food. A large number of bloggers in support GMO foods descended on the site to dispute the message and to shut down the discussions. The bloggers were exposed as trolls when their IP addresses were found to be registered to Monsanto – which sells genetically modified seeds, and ironically, also holds the patent for Astroturf.

Paid trolls are often called “sock puppets” as their message is controlled by those who create them.  Paid trolls are often given a target site, a set of talking points, and a program which allows them to set up a number of fake identities for additional sock puppets, to make it appear that many support their arguments . Sometimes a troll will create a sock puppet with weak, easily refuted arguments, to make the troll’s arguments seem stronger. Sock puppets do not follow the rules of debate and are often uncivil, using personal attacks in an attempt to shut down reasonable discussion. Research shows that sock puppets, and even unpaid trolls, often enjoy what they do because of negative personality characteristics.

Trolls: personality study correlated the activities enjoyed by Internet users with personality traits. The study  explored whether Internet trolls’ behavior fell into the Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). The chart below shows the results.


It shows that the Dark Tetrad traits were positively correlated with self-reported enjoyment of trolling. Of the traits, the researchers  found sadism stands out among trolls.  The internet has given sadistic trolls, those who think that hurting people is exciting, a broader and more anonymous outlet to express their behavior. We have certainly all run across these trolls on climate change articles.

Trolling works: Popular Science shut down its comment section because of trolls,  citing a research report which showed that even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story. The results of the study by Dominique Brossard and coauthor Dietram A. Scheufele was summarized by the authors in a New York Times article:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.  Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with a technology.  Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

George Monbiot who covers environmental issues at the Guardian, wrote in Reclaim the Cyber-Commons, of the need to restore civility to internet discussions of climate change. In it he said:

“… two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

The second pattern is the strong association between this tactic and a certain set of views: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation. Both traditional conservatives and traditional progressives tend be more willing to discuss an issue than these right-wing libertarians, many of whom seek instead to shut down debate.”

His comments explain a lot about the motivation behind sock puppets and ideological trolls.

 In Summary: A study by McKee and Diethelm titled,  Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?,  describe the five tactics used by deniers as a means to identify them.  Their five tactics of denial were summarized very nicely on Rachel’s Blog  which,  with a  few changes, are:

1. Identifying conspiracies. In climate science denial, people have argued that scientists are doctoring the temperature records to make it look like warming is happening when it is not. This idea must be incredibly hard to justify to oneself as it is ridiculous to think that thousands of scientists from lots of different countries could be in on some conspiracy theory which will not benefit them in any way and which all of us want to be wrong.

2. Using fake experts. This technique was employed by the tobacco industry which had a strategy of employing scientists whose views were at odds with the consensus in the field. The same tactic can be seen in climate change. From the McKee article: “In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’.”

3. Highlighting outliers. This happens in climate change when contrarians make a big deal out of research that claims figures for climate sensitivity lying outside the IPCC range. They are highlighting a few research papers that are outliers while ignoring the majority of evidence.

4. Placing impossible expectations on research. The repeated phrase that the “models failed to predict the pause” fits with this. No-one can predict the future exactly. Scientists do not work with ouija boards.  Climate models – just like all models of physical systems – contain uncertainty and it is unreasonable to expect them not to. But although the model projections do a remarkably accurate job of making future projections of climate, contrarians still place unreasonable expectations on what they can do.

5. Using misrepresentation and logical fallacies.  Logical fallacies include the use of red herrings, deliberate attempts to change the argument, and straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented to make it easier to refute. Other fallacies used by denialists are false analogy and the excluded middle fallacy (either climate change causes a wide range of severe weather events or causes none at all, so doubt about an association with one event, such as a hurricane, is regarded as sufficient to reject an association with any weather event).

To respond these tactics, the authors suggest it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal civil response to an opposing argument is to engage it, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties have a willingness to  follows certain rules such as looking at the evidence as a whole, rejecting deliberate distortions, and acceptance principles of logic. They say, a ” meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects the rules. Yet it would be wrong to prevent the denialists having a voice. Instead, it is necessary to shift the debate from the subject under consideration, to instead exposing to public scrutiny the tactics denirs employ and identifying them publicly for what they are.”

Dealing with Trolls: Exposure would probably work with sock puppets, as those controlling them do not wish to be exposed. Those who troll for the fun of upsetting people would likely enjoy the diversion off topic, deny being a troll, and heap abuse on anyone who even suggested their motives were not pure. A good strategy is to just ignore trolls. If one wants to confront the lies and distortions, it is more effective to write a separate article refuting their premises.  Running up a large number of  comments on a troll’s article is simply “feeding the troll”, giving them more opportunities to respond and enriching paid trolls. Clicking on trolls’ links only runs up the hit count of denier sites, making them appear more important than they are and possibly adding to their advertising value.

In most  cases, ensuring civility is up to the blog moderators. Blog sites can discourage trolling with good policies and strong moderation. Those who attack others or claim obvious lies as fact should not get posted.  Repeat offenders should be banned or blacklisted. The trolls may claim violations of freedom of speech or censorship. If they do, invite them to resubmit their posts with valid references, in a civil manner, and without  personal attacks.  They will likely disappear. Don’t we wish?

(c) 2014  J.C. Moore


The Climate Change Denial Machine

Thu ,31/01/2013

The Climate Change Denial Machine is a multi-million-dollar machine designed to produce only one thing, doubt.

Every major scientific society in the world has adopted a statement like that of the American Chemical Society which says,” Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s  climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing  aerosol particles. There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities. The threats are serious and action is urgently needed to mitigate the risks of climate change.” A recent CNN poll found that 97% of scientists who are actively engaged in research in climate science agree that man’s activities are the main causes of global warming. In spite of the strong consensus among the scientists and the warning by all of our major science societies that urgent action is needed, little effective action has been taken.

Why hasn’t  action been taken?  The main cause of climate change is most certainly the 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide man is putting into the into the air each year by burning fossil fuels. If man is a major cause, then surely it should be possible for us to do something about it. But we haven’t. Perhaps it’s because the effects of climate change on the Earth have been subtle. Scientific research shows the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, the temperature of the Earth is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, the probability of severe weather events is increasing, food supplies are threatened, and weather-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more costly. But couldn’t those things be from natural causes? Couldn’t the scientists be wrong? Couldn’t it be too costly?

If your is answer “yes” to the above  or similar questions, then you probably have been influenced by propaganda created by the Climate Change Denial Machine. The Climate Change Denial Machine was patterned after the Tobacco Propaganda Machine and uses many of the same organizations and tactics. Almost  50 years after the Surgeon General announced that smoking had serious health consequences leading to premature death, many people still smoke, showing the effectiveness of the propaganda. The  Climate Change Denial Machine is much better funded,  supports a far greater number of science Skeptics and politicians, and has the Internet to widely disseminate its propaganda. While smoking only affected the smoker and those around them, climate change, if  left unaddressed,  will have serious consequences for everyone and everything on the Earth.

The workings of the  Climate Change Denial Machine have been explained in an article written by  Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright, and their excellent diagram is shown below. It was published in Chapter 10 in the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, edited by John S. Dryzek, Richard B. Norgaard, David Schlosberg. It shows how money and misinformation flows from climate Skeptics and fossil fuel companies and is disseminated to the public. There is a link below the diagram to Chapter 10 of the Handbook if you would like to read the article .


 During the 112th Congress, fossil fuel companies donated over $32 million to our  Congressional representatives. You may  find out if your Senator or Congressman was the beneficiary of their gnerosity at this website which tracks the flow of the money.

(c) 2013 J.C. Moore