A Dummies’ Guide to ‘Debate, Denial and Doubt’ by Dummies, for Dummies


Prof Stevan ‘Stephe’ Lewandowsky sees himself as “a voice of sanity in the climate-change debate,” adding: “There is no climate-change debate.”

We hope you en­joyed our early coverage of Lewandowsky, Mann et al.’s latest exertion, Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism.

In the end, though, you’re a normal per­son, so you simply don’t have the psychoclimatological competence it takes to sound the abysmal brilliance of a Lewandowsky/Mann collab for yourself.

You’ll just have to take our word on it. Hey, we’re climate bloggers science communicators.

Anyway, it’s a stool of a paper.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of pretending climate psyence is a spectator sport the whole family can grasp, we asked environment correspondent Kay Fabe to give us her gloss on the paper’s main in­sights. Kay’s notes, below, won’t magically give you the pseudoscientific literacy you need to form a valid opinion of your own—that would take many, many years of postgraduate multidisciplinary study and publishing!—but hopefully you’ll be left with the illusion of comprehension. And that’s what matters, right?

Be warned though: Kay “accepts” “the” “science,” so her interpretations are occasionally moronic. —eds.

“A Very Interesting Paper”

by Kay Fabe

Age 29

The authors begin by rigorously defining their terms, like denial, which is impossible to define rigorously. For instance,

A second common feature of denial, which differentiates it further from skepticism and legitimate debate, involves personal and professional attacks on scientists both in public and behind the scenes.

These attacks often go unreported—either because the victims blame themselves, or have little faith in the justice system’s ability to prosecute the offenders.

One of the authors, Michael Mann, is the survivor of what he thinks was a professional attack in 2014. They never signed up for this!

Recent evidence has revealed that up to US$1billion flows into foundations and think tanks in the U.S. every year that are dedicated to political lobbying for various issues.

That’s an appalling factoid, if true. Only in America would people be allowed to lobby for various issues (let alone to the tune of some unspecified value less than or equal to a billion dollars). Various issues are unacceptable. I’m against various issues.

But the worst part is:

One of the principal objectives of this network is to support a climate “counter movement”

What is its motive, you speculate? Well, speculate no more—the auth­ors have done it for us:

that seeks to reframe public discourse surrounding climate change from one of overwhelming scientific consensus to one of doubt, debate, and uncertainty.

The bastards. Things like doubt, debate and uncertainty have no place in a scientific debate.

OK, maybe debate. And doubt.

And uncertainty, obviously. But with those exceptions, “public discourse around climate change” should be about one thing and one thing only: the overwhelming consensus.

Yeah, yeah, I know—strictly speaking—that’s got nothing to do with science and majority opinion doesn’t prove shit, etc., etc., etc. (You can spare us the lecture, Brad. You’re no Michael Crichton.)

We all took Scientific Epistemology 101, OK? Well, one of our cousins did.

That may all be technically true.

But still. Y’know?

The point is, what we really need is a lobby for the opposite—some kind of counter-counter-climate movement (or ‘climate movement,’ if you will).

It wouldn’t have to cost five times as much as the Manhattan Project or anything, just a couple hundred thousand bucks a year to pay for a professional-looking website, maintenance etc. Then America  would be a real democracy. Then the facts would finally have a fighting chance, leaving denial with nowhere to hide. Then the present paper would be completely unnecessary; a waste of taxpayers’ money, if you like. An exercise in résumé-bloating academic wankery, even.

To illustrate, more than 90% of recent books that dismiss environmental problems have been linked to conservative think tanks (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008), and such books typically never undergo peer review (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013).

Well fuck me. Who would’ve guessed the pop-science books churned out by lobbying groups don’t “typically undergo” the same prepublication process as, say, a manuscript submitted to Nature or The Lancet? I just assumed all printed material had to be subject to veto by three anonymous scientific domain experts, didn’t you?

Thank you, Dunlap & Jacques [2013]. Thank you for revealing the truth. You’re the real heroes of this story, every bit as much as Lewandowsky, Mann, Friedman and Brown.

At first glance, it might appear paradoxical that an industry would sponsor laws ostensibly designed to ensure transparency of research.

Yes, that is bizarre. Since when did industry benefit from science?

What, then, could their motive possibly have been?

However, access to raw data is nec­essary for the reanalyses of epidemiological data by entities sympathetic to corporate interests.

Ah, so that’s their game.

I knew it was something sinister. Replication, needless to say, is completely anti-scientific.

Please note, though, that the authors are talking here about medical science, a controversial and relatively immature field. It’s not really analogous to climate science, where access to raw data is totally unnecessary (and a sure sign of a vexatious FOI request), because you can always trust the adjustments.

In the case of tobacco, those analyses have repeatedly downplayed the link between smoking and lung cancer

The authors can say this because, as scientists in unrelated fields, they know what the correct answer should be.

The fact that the contrarian talking points that emanate from this network have little or no scientific validity was recently confirmed by a blind expert test:

I would have thought that was a truism, but OK. Go on. What happened?

Lewandowsky, Ballard, Oberauer, and Benestad (2016) translated climatological data and their associated contrarian talking points into an economic context and presented them to expert economists for adjudication.

The next part just describes how the denier talking points collapsed in an inevitable heap when put to science’s ultimate test: a survey of economists.

Unsurprisingly, a key feature of denial is the refusal to accept the verdict of the economics, business and finance communities. Popular myths include “economists don’t understand science” and “economics is not a science.” These have been rebutted so many times, at so many different URLs, that their continued usage can only be a sign of bad faith.

Similarly, data published by two of the present authors (M.M. and S.L.) have been subject to reanalyses on internet blogs.

No scientist should have to put up with that. What, I wonder, was the motive behind these ‘illegitimate insertions’ (h/t Steve Lewandowsky) into the scientific process?

to attenuate challenging implications of the research—namely, that the warming from greenhouse gas emissions is historically unprecedented (Mann, Bradley, & Hughes, 1998)

The authors are too chival­rous to name names, but here’s a one-sentence primer for anyone who hasn’t been following the climate wars:

The above is an allusion to the so-called McIntyre Scandal, where Wegman’s grad student plagiarised Wiki, thus reaffirming the Hockey Stick.

and that some of those who oppose this scientific fact tend to engage in conspiratorial [sic*] discourse.

Thanks to Professor Lewandowsky we now have a huge body of scholarship on the deranged reasoning styles of “skeptics,” some of which hasn’t been retracted yet.

In Steve’s groundbreaking studies, conspiracism has been found to be even more endemic in the science-denialist population than among science believers, and that’s saying a lot! Any more prevalent and the result might almost have risen to the level of statistical significance.

So it’s little wonder that certain unspecified parties weren’t too thrilled with Lewandowsky’s findings… and have been secretly plotting to discredit him (and his wife and young children) ever since.

Next we read the moving  account of one author’s struggle to overcome mental illness and correct an error in the scientific literature.

Once a dialog with the external expert had been established, and once N.J.L.B. had convinced his interlocutors of his sincerity (and got over the worst of his own impostor syndrome), a fruitful scientific collaboration ensued…

[I]n the end, the system worked as it should: everyone remained calm and polite, the various publishing and appeals processes were tested and observed to work, the scientific record was corrected, the field of positive psychology took stock

That’s how real scientists behave when an outsider humbly suggests they may have made a mistake. And if—say—climate science is ever found to have got some detail wrong, then you can bet leading researchers like Michael Mann will respond in exactly the same “calm and polite” way.

Why? Because climatology is a normal, robust, non-pathological science—certainly compared to “the field of positive psychology”!

Next, a somewhat less edifying anecdote:

[T]here can be a fine line, on the first reading of an initial, unsolicited contact from a lay person, between the dedicated amateur investigator who might be on to something, and the time-wasting, deluded crank. The first author of this article once engaged in good-faith correspondence with a person who turned out to be not a person but a “sock puppet”…

Fear not, readers. Prof Lewandowsky wasn’t fooled for long!

With his decades of graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral training in psychology he was—in time—able to tell the difference between a person and an item of footwear. And so, another denialist plot was foiled only weeks after it was hatched.

Another useful piece of advice is to avoid questioning peoples’ motives

Instead you should simply guess people’s motives, obviating any need to ask questions. For examples of this in practice, see this paper (passim), starting from the first sentence of the abstract.

Two of us (H.F. and N.J.L.B.) are not convinced beyond doubt that highly complex climate models are as yet sufficiently validated to be used as the basis of major public policy decisions that might have effects for many decades;

That’s not skepticism, that’s denial.

the other two authors (S.L. and M.M.) acknowledge the uncertainty inherent in climate projections but note that contrary to popular intuition, any uncertainty provides even greater impetus for climate mitigation

What’s unintuitive about that? Isn’t it obvious that the more unrealistic, invalid and inaccurate the models, the more seriously we should take what they’re telling us? (I.e., urgent political action is needed to mitigate the Earth’s climate?)

But then, I’ve been at uni a looong time. Perhaps logic doesn’t come quite so naturally to the less-educated? Let us know in comments.

Lewandowsky and Mann exhibit almost superhuman honor in their dealings, and puttings-up, with their denier colleagues:

Notwithstanding those disagreements, the present authors found common ground for this article. We also did not use freedom-of-information (FOI) requests for each other’s private correspondence, nor would we ever resort to such means to resolve scientific disagreements…

Hear hear. Private documents are just that—private—and should only be obtained by email fraud or “phishing.” Requesting them by legal means is despicable.

Next the authors touch on some of the ad-hominem abuse their findings have been subjected to online. (An abuser will often strike from the safety of the blogosphere, knowing scientists aren’t allowed to stand up for themselves for fear of legitimizing the offending website.)

The argument typically ran thus: If psychologists can be as badly wrong as Brown et al. showed, and if psychologists are scientists, then how much confidence can we have in the pronouncements of other scientists?

[My emphasis.] This, obviously, is the Fallacy of Philip II. But the Spartan ephors sure put the Macedonians in their place with that famous Laconic retort Αἴκα! (“If.”), didn’t they?

Jane Q. Public believes to have discovered an error in Dr. A’s work, or she has an alternative account of a previously published finding, or an original idea suitable for publication. The research area is highly contested.

Highly contested? This scenario doesn’t remotely resemble the settled science that is climatology, and it’s unclear why they even included this example. Skip this section.

One of those rules is that scientific arguments are conducted in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. If you are unwilling to do so, these guidelines are of little value.

In other words, there’s a time and a place for scientific bitch-fighting, and that is the peer-reviewed prestige glossies.

No matter how offensive and fallacious the “questions” of those who question his work, you don’t see Professor Lewandowsky ranting against them on YouTube or starting an anti-denier hateblog to take potshots at them with academic impunity, do you?

No. Why not? Because no matter how great the provocation, at the end of the day he’s a scientist, not some sort of fakademic demagogue.

Most researchers […] have developed an ability to detect the difference between an approach based on a genuine desire to understand their field, and one that ultimately is just intended to discredit some piece of research or extract information that can be turned against a particular scientist.

The really, really top scientists have also developed an ability to move small objects with their minds, and can tell when and how someone is going to die just by touching them on the arm.

But why did evolution equip them with this sixth sense for what science calls “bad faith”?

The answer is obvious. Self-preservation. Science simply can’t afford to have research debunked as invalid—it only progresses by proving, not disproving (or “improving,” as the pedants like to spin it). And individual scientists can’t risk the devastating effects of being betrayed by the very information they’re sworn to protect. Not for nothing is information often called “the enemy of scientists.”

The fact that a researcher performs consulting work for a pharmaceutical manufacturer must not be hidden or ignored when evaluating her article describing the favorable trial outcome for a new drug from that company; however, corporate funding does not prevent a drug from being an improvement over its predecessors.

And by analogy, this is why fossil-fuel-funded science would never be dismissed as less credible than any other research.

4. Accept that everyone makes mistakes

This advice isn’t really applicable to climate science, in which (for example) Michael Mann never uses Tiljander varves upside-down, and never has.

Many people become interested in a scientific topic because they are concerned about its political implications.

The upshot is that most fields of science are what we call ‘self-selecting.’

The exception, once again, is climate science, which takes in graduates of all political persuasions and any and all pet hypotheses on one and only one condition: that they have the extremely high marks it takes to join the ranks of ‘the world’s top scientists.’

Be patient… As a rule, science moves slowly. It can be hard for outsiders to reconcile themselves to the apparently glacial pace of the publication process.

So true. Just because a scientist takes seven years to tell you the algorithm he used to derive a high-impact, world-changing graph, that doesn’t give you the right to start a blog complaining about it. Methodological cunctation is not only salonfähig but de rigueur. Deal.

1. Build rapport

One way of building rapport is to use words like denialist and crank to describe people who don’t know as much as you about the natural world.

But no matter what you say about them, you should avoid speaking to them. To quote what may be Professor Lewandowsky’s best-known dictum (and there are no shortage of dicta to choose from):

Engagement, in my view, is not a solution but just an enormous waste of time.

And yet, try as you might to avoid it, at some point in your scientific career you’ll find yourself in the same room as someone who disagrees with you on an esoteric technical matter, like the expected climate response to a doubling of CO2 concentrations or whatever. Try to resist the natural urge to become violent or abusive. Instead count to ten, then politely ask them why they hate all of Western science (plus large chunks of radiative physics). Building rapport is as simple as that!

Although engagement is just “an enormous waste of time,” it’s also “a core element of science,” as the authors explain next:

Because engagement with critics is a core element of science, researchers may feel obliged to respond even to trolls.

Top academics have told us they now waste hours a day answering questions from leprechauns, gnomes, faeries and even dwarves. A popular misconception is that science has ruled out the existence of trolls and their supernatural cousins. But contrary to myth, mythical creatures are real—every bit as real as climate change deniers, if not more so.

Scientists should also generally not be concerned about the motives of the requestor as simple disagreement must not preclude access to data.

Well put. In science, you’re not allowed to say “Why should I make the data available to you when all you want to do is find something wrong with it?”

Uh, that’s kinda the point: to find something wrong with it!

(But not in a nit-picky, contrarian, pedantic way—see above.)

Science is a bit like mathematics: you have to show your working. If you only disclosed it to critics who promised to agree with you you’d be fired immediately, deluged with hate mail and contemplate suicide. Only the thought of watching your 5-year-old granddaughter grow up, get married and be burned to death by global warming would help you to cling to life.

And rightly so.

*Lewandowsky obviously means ‘conspiracist discourse,’ and we can safely blame an overzealous and undereducated subeditor for this unfortunate typo.

Conspiratorial discourse,’ needless to say, would mean plotting, something Prof. Lewandowsky is hardly likely to accuse his mysterious pursuers of doing against him!

That would require him to be a bit of a paranoid nutcase—which stretches all credulity. The man is a  psychologist, for heaven’s sake.

19 thoughts on “A Dummies’ Guide to ‘Debate, Denial and Doubt’ by Dummies, for Dummies

  1. Henry Bart: Thanks for this. I liked this one from the book, a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    “But ‘not in physics, and not since 1600’, insists Tyson.” (But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, by Brian Greene.)

    (I loved Tyson’s presentation of the Cosmos reboot but do not regard him as a serious scientist.)

    Geophysics applied to Earth science has been spectacularly wrong. William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) estimated the age of the Earth as 300,000 years and then proceeded to reduce its age to somewhere around 20 million years. Was he biased by a desire to refute Darwin?

    The geosyncline theory of mountain building survived until 1950 or so when plate tectonics displaced it. The geosyncline theory seems to have been based on Wernerian geology (Neptunism) that managed to survive the theories of Hutton and Lyell (Plutonism/Vulcanism). The geosyncline theory was based on isostacy, which leads to equilibrium, not mountain building. Thus the theory was non-physical. It just so happens that, although Werner himself did not associate his theory with Noah’s Flood, others did.

    Ernest Rutherford’s model of the atom was also non-physical, as was shown by Niels Bohr.

    Science is a process, not an end state. Being wrong is simple part of science.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ever heard of this bunch? http://publicinterest.org.uk/cccag/

    “The Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG) is made up of a diverse range of individuals from academia and the third sector, with expertise in climate change communication and engagement.”

    “Communicating climate change to mass public audiences” Working Document, September 2010

    “This short advisory paper collates a set of recommendations about how best to shape mass public communications aimed at increasing concern about climate change and motivating commensurate behavioural changes.”

    Check out this from 2010, “We Are Thinking The Wrong Thoughts”

    “Facing Climate Change, Climate Change Denial” University of the West of England, 7 March 2009

    “The first national conference to specifically explore ‘climate change denial’.

    “This conference aims to strengthen our awareness of the challenge facing us and to enhance our capacity for effective decision-making and action. It will do this by bringing together a group of people – climate change activists, eco-psychologists, psychotherapists and social researchers – who are uniquely qualified to assess the human dimensions of this human-made problem.

    Professor Paul Hoggett is helping to organise the conference, he said, “We will examine denial from a variety of different perspectives – as the product of addiction to consumption, as the outcome of diffusion of responsibility and the idea that someone else will sort it out and as the consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency, irresponsibility.”

    I just love “eco-psychologists”….

    Also a follow up, “We are Not Thinking the Wrong Thoughts, We Just Don’t Know How to Think The Right Ones” (and “they” can help us).


    “….public conviction about the threat posed by global warming appears to be on the decline. What can the scientific community do to communicate the message that global warming requires urgent action now, most likely via deep cuts in emissions? ”

    Interesting thoughts on “”cognitive dissonance”, which was first given a name in 1957 by Leon Festinger and associates, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult, which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

    While fringe members were more inclined to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience,” committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed, because of the faithfulness of the cult members).”

    Seems appropriate……

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Frederick—
    enlightening as always, thanks. But did you really mean this:

    “William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) estimated the age of the Earth as 300,000 years and then proceeded to reduce its age to somewhere around 20 million years”


    “Science is a process, not an end state.”

    Hear hear. A process, not a position. Which is why the accusation of “denying science” (a charge I recently levelled facetiously at John Cook for denying that animal and plant species adapt) tells us more about the scientific literacy of the accuser than the accused.

    “Being wrong is simple part of science.”

    Precisely. One has to cringe when pig-ignorant Transylvanian peasants like Dana Nuccitelli attempt to mock Richard Lindzen by calling him “the wrongest, longest.” Yes, I suppose Lindzen has been doing science a rather long time!


  4. Henry Barth:

    good find. Unfortunately Tyson comes across as the vapid semi-scientist I’ve always suspected him to be, mistaking the poverty of his own imagination for evidence that contemporary certitudes are better-justified and more durable than they are. Greene adopts a more scientific attitude.


  5. BRAD KEYES says: But did you really mean this: William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) estimated the age of the Earth as 300,000 years and then proceeded to reduce its age to somewhere around 20 million years

    Yes, there are several different Earth age estimates attributed to Kelvin by various modern authors.

    In his book From Stone to Star (Harvard,1992), Claude Alegre stated Kelvin’s early estimate was 100 million years and later Kelvin set error bars at 20 million and 400 million years (page 44).

    Kelvin was not aware of heat generated from radioactivity. This was obviously a problem for Darwin.

    Likewise, early in the 20th century, Wegener proposed the theory that the America and Europe were once joined. But the time estimated for the whole Cretaceous Period was only about 15 million years, too short for continents to drift that far apart. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretaceous

    Although geologists, paleontologists and biologists had lots of evidence for mobile continents, physicists insisted there was no mechanism.

    There is a bit of irony here. Wegener was Koppen’s son-in-law. Which is why the paper by Belda et al (2014) gives me a kick. Formerly climatology was regional, as defined by Koppen and others, notably Trewartha.

    Belda estimated that between two periods, at the start and end of the 20th century, separated by 75 years, 8% of the Earth’s grid cells changed climate type.

    When you plot a scatter diagram of distributions for the two periods, you will find there is little divergence from the straight line passing through the origin and with slope unity. R-squared is 99.5. The CRU (UK) has revised the climate data to remove wet bias, an adjustment that would increase R2, indicating even less change than these maps show.

    In any other field of Earth science, using data with similar precision, we would claim confirmation of the null hypothesis that the two data sets separated by 75 years are not significantly different.

    Climate classification revisited from Köppen to Trewartha, Belda, M. et al, Climate Research, 2014


  6. Frederick, thanks for continuing my|our education.

    I was only wondering why you described a change from 300,000 to 20 million as a reduction. Did you mean 300,000,000 when you wrote 300,000?

    “Kelvin was not aware of heat generated from radioactivity. This was obviously a problem for Darwin.”

    OK, exposing my ignorance here: why was that a problem for Darwin?


  7. So, am I correct in believing that ‘Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism’ is the first sceptic defamatory paper to be authored jointly by serial defamers of sceptics and . . . . sceptics?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. From wiki

    “Geologists such as Charles Lyell had trouble accepting such a short age for Earth. For biologists, even 100 million years seemed much too short to be plausible. In Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of random heritable variation with cumulative selection requires great durations of time. (According to modern biology, the total evolutionary history from the beginning of life to today has taken since 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, the amount of time which passed since the last universal ancestor of all living organisms as shown by geological dating.[19])”

    Kelvin’s approach assumed that the Earth had once been molten and he based his age estimate on how long it would take to cool down.


    Liked by 2 people

  9. The authors begin by rigorously defining their terms, like denial, which is impossible to define rigorously.

    That’s good. That’s very good. I’ll have to nick that. There’re other quotes I’m gonna nick, too. Shouldn’t leave such gold lying about!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. “In the end, though, you’re a normal person, so you simply don’t have the psychoclimatological competence it takes to sound the abysmal brilliance of a Lewandowsky/Mann collab for yourself.”

    OK Brad, if I actually have the “psychoclimatological competence” it takes to sound the abysmal brilliance of a Lewandowsky/Mann collab for ‘myself’, And I do so have!. What the hell is that sound??

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Pingback: Week in review – science edition | Climate Etc.

  12. Brad, From that Loo-paper appendix:

    Preamble: recognize the scientific process: If your goal is to contribute to a scientific conversation, then you need to follow certain rules. One of those rules is that scientific arguments are conducted in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. If you are unwilling to do so, these guidelines are of little value.

    That is quite a load of horse-shit. Peer review is specifically designed to quash any concept contrary to some agreed upon fantasy common to the incompetent academic elite.
    Actual “debate is a contest between contrary concepts”. No holds are barred unless agreed upon! The whole idea of debate is to get all of the concepts before some “audience”, then let that audience ‘sound out the depths’ of those competing concepts!
    I try to be contrarian even with those whose concepts are agreeable. Recently several have claimed, “there is no method for increased atmospheric CO2 to cause an increase in surface temperature.” My claim was that such needed the “known” ‘twixt ‘no & method’. Pick a subject, pick a side; I’ll argue! All the best! -will-

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: “The Need for Vigorous Debate” | Climate Scepticism

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