Posted by: JohnnyRook | June 18, 2008

Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology

[I originally posted this essay at Daily Kos back in May. I decided to repost it here because I believe that it details a fundamental psychological truth that needs to be understood by anyone working to stop Climaticide before it becomes an irreversible, disaster.]

A recent post by Joe Romm over at Climate Progress, The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP, in which he cited a Pew Poll showing that 13% fewer Republicans believe in global warming now than did a year ago, drew a huge number of denialist responses. After reading them all (groan) it struck me that it might be useful to analyze who climate denialists are and why they behave as they do.

Anyone who has tried to discuss Climaticide with a climate change denialist knows just how frustrating it can be. No matter how well informed you are, no matter how many peer-reviewed studies you cite, or how many times you point out the overwhelming agreement based on the evidence that exists among climate scientists that global warming is real and is principally caused by human fossil fuel use, you will get no where. Your adversary will deny the facts, cherry pick the scientific evidence for bits of data that, taken out of context, support his/her denialist view, or drag out long-debunked counter-arguments in the hope that they are unfamiliar to you and that you will not be able to refute them. If you succeed in countering all of his arguments he will most likely reword them and start all over again.

After a couple of hours of this, you end up frustrated, angry and confused. You give up and storm off vowing to study and learn even more so that next time you will be better prepared and able to convince the denialist of the error of his/her ways. But despite all your efforts, the next time you fare no better. What, you wonder, am I doing wrong?

The answer is simply that you are operating off of a mistaken premise. You think that the question of whether or not climate change is real and has an anthropogenic (human) cause is a question to be answered by application of an open mind, research, facts, and critical thinking. Isn’t that how scientists approach these problems? They’re skeptical and critique each others work, discarding ideas which fail to stand up to scrutiny by their colleagues and replacing them with ones that better describe the facts.

Denialists, however, have no interest in facts except as weapons in an ideological struggle. They don’t even care if “facts” are correct or not since their intention is not to establish that something is true or false, but rather to win a battle in an ideological war. If they can stump you or confuse you with a lie, well that works just as well for their purposes as does the truth.

When I speak about denialists, mind you, I’m not talking about people who are skeptical only because they are uninformed about the issue. Nor, am I talking about scientists who disagree with other scientists over the details of global warming i.e. What will the earth’s temperature be if we allow CO2 to reach 550 parts per million, twice the pre-industrial level (so-called climate sensitivity)?

No, the true climate change denialist is an ideologue. Understanding this fact is key to comprehending the denialist mentality and to knowing how to respond to denialist arguments.

Ideologues are adherents of closed, ideological systems, in which all problems are ultimately attributed to a single cause: original sin (Christianity), the accumulation of private property (Communism), restrictions imposed on a superior race by inferior ones (Fascism), the destruction of “freedom” by “Big Government” (Conservative/Libertarian). These are all a priori systems. Once the initial conclusion is reached (often after a long, complicated chain of deductive reasoning–Marx’s Capital, the writings of Ayn Rand, etc.) that factor X is the source of all of society’s ills, all debate outside the ideology’s framework ends. One may deduce new positions from the ideology’s fundamental principles, but the fundamental principles can not be questioned because such questioning might undermine the entire ideological system and the psychological security that it provides, leaving the true believer in that most urgently to be avoided of states: UNCERTAINTY. Ideology is thus, inevitably, by it’s very nature, anti-empirical.

An ideologue doesn’t believe that he needs to know the details of an issue in order to make policy decisions because his ideology provides him with a ready formula for solving all problems. Where ideologues run into difficulties however, is when the real world throws up problems that don’t fit the ideology’s problem categories.

For conservative/libertarian ideologues who compose the overwhelming majority of denialists, Climaticide is just such a case. If a conservative/libertarian ideologue were to accept global warming as real then he/she would be forced to admit that the problem is so big and so complex that government action is required to deal with it. But for an conservative/libertarian ideologue that is impossible because he/she believes that government is the cause of ALL problems and that the solution to all problems is “freedom”.

Denialists frequently make this attitude explicit when they accuse the “liberals” concerned about climate change of having invented it as an excuse to expand government. The latest version of this tactic that I’ve encountered is that none of the science in support of global warming need be taken seriously because it is the product of government-paid scientists who are only doing their bureaucratic masters’ bidding, apparently forgetting that the current “masters” are themselves Climaticide denialists.

Witness a denialist response to the assertion that most scientists believe in the reality of global warming from the Climate Progress blog I referenced above.

This is actual (sic) a very small group of people. It doesn’t include the millions of other scientist (sic) and engineers who have training in physics and chemistry and are quite capable of understaning (sic) the phony balony (sic) being tauted (sic) by the IPCC and its affilliated (sic) white-coated welfare queens. [my emphasis]

Government science is corrupt science because it’s government science. “Scientist’s” in the pay of the oil and gas industries on the other hand are free of this corruption because they are doing science for the capitalist heroes who defend our “freedom”.

The Soviets understood this way of thinking perfectly because Marxism too is an ideology, only in Marxism the great enemy is not the State but private capital. It’s no accident that in the former Soviet Union a clear distinction was made between bourgeois science and Soviet science. According to this view there are no facts only political points of view.

That there are no facts outside the “truths” of one’s ideology is a basic, if not always publicly expressed, tenet, of all ideologues be they religious zealots, communists, fascists or libertarian-conservatives.

Arguing with such people is a waste of time because they only listen to facts in order desperately to compose counter arguments. I say desperately because ideologues find psychological safety from an uncertain world in the certainties of their ideology. What you think of as an argument about global warming, they perceive as an attack on their entire world view. And they’re right of course, even though it’s not your intention.

So how does one talk to a climate denialist? I think a good answer comes from JMG’s comment on the Climate Progress blog that inspired this diary.

I once took a seminar on politics from a very successful campaign manager. He pointed out that the typical wonk (insert: scientist) will find a crowd of people and, within a few minutes, is in a hot debate with the person most opposed to his opinions. And that the smart pol disengages with that person as fast as possible, using his time to reach out to and reinforce his connection to the people who are already favorably disposed to him or have not yet reached a conclusion.

I’ve observed the unfortunate wonky tendency in myself over the years, and I sure as hell have observed it in nearly all the climate scientists and policy wonks — they’re so busy chasing idiots like the one above that they don’t have time to reach the persuadables.

In short, one should generally ignore the denialists and concentrate on persuading the open minded. They are the ones you should be trying to reach. The denialists are already beyond the pale. They will only be convinced once all the sea ice and polar bears are gone, it’s a 130 degrees in the shade in a drought-stricken Las Vegas and we have suffered multiple large scale disasters on our own territory, if then.

Now lest I be accused of simplifying reality myself, let me add a few words about what I perceive as the 4 basic categories of Climaticide denialists and their relationship to ideology.

The categories are:

1. Plutocrats

2. Shills

3. Literate conservative/libertarian ideologues

4. The right-wing booboisie

For the plutocrats, ideology is mostly a cover for their greed and a thin salve for whatever conscience they have left. For the shills (scientists and academics paid by the plutocrats to deny global warming), ideology is an indispensable tool, required by their corporate masters, and useful in providing intellectual ammunition to categories 3 and 4 and for bamboozling the uninformed public at large. For information on the relationships between the plutocrats and the shills follow this link and click on MAP EXXON’S NETWORK.

For the literate ideologues, their ideology is central to their political views and to their world view. I suspect that there are many engineers and other technical professionals in this category along with much of the business class, but that is a subject for another diary. The right-wing booboisie, (the Rush Limbaugh fanatics have also bought the conservative/libertarian ideological view but they purchased it in the alley at the back door, since they would never be allowed into the store through the front door. These are the resentful poor and poorly educated who have bought the culture wars frame or who, because of their social conservatism have embraced the ideology of the Robber Barons in a fight against mythical elites who keep them enslaved by driving Volvos, drinking lattes and removing their 10-commandment plaques from public buildings. I suspect that booboisie also harbors hopes of some day becoming plutocrats themselves, once the oppressive hand of Big Government is lifted from them and their “freedom” is restored.

For those of us in the reality-based community, understanding the role that conservative/libertarian ideology plays in determining Climaticide denialist behavior, whether sincere or simulated, can be very useful in making sense of the denialist position, a position which, ultimately, is rooted not in facts and critical thinking, but in political and psychological needs.



  1. Yours is the best analysis I have read. Thank you.

    One kind of destabilization triggers another.

    Hard work ahead.

  2. Your deep understanding leads to kindness and acceptance of denialists. It is not their political stance that I object to, it is the interference with science, suppression of wise public policy and delay of useful legislation.

    This directly interferes with our future, and may be more harmful than thought, and certainly makes the job of adaptation and mitigation all the more difficult.

    Personally I go between feeling benign pity, and angry contempt. Since they are influential, we should not ignore these disruptions. But it is tiring to wrestle with these angels of ignorance.

  3. […] I have argued elsewhere understanding that bit of nonsense is fundamental to understanding how Climaticide denialists think […]

  4. […] Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology […]

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