Correspondence

Nature 464, 673 (1 April 2010) | doi:10.1038/464673a; Published online 31 March 2010

Sceptics and deniers of climate change not to be confused

See associated Correspondence:

Jeremy Kemp1, Richard Milne2 & Dave S. Reay3

  1. Business School, University of Edinburgh, Bristo Square, Edinburgh EH8 9AL, UK
    Email: j.m.kemp@sms.ed.ac.uk
  2. School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  3. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Climate-change denial could have disastrous consequences, if it delays global action to cut carbon emissions. Denialism is gaining popularity because people have difficulty differentiating deniers' twisted arguments from the legitimate concerns of genuine sceptics. We must stop deniers presenting themselves as the rightful regulators of scientific debate.

Denial of the science of climate change is eroding public understanding of the issue and seems to be undermining trust in scientists (see http://go.nature.com/BAhVYp). This loss of public confidence — after a cold winter in Europe and elsewhere, and the 'Climategate' e-mails controversy — was highlighted at February's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California (R. J. Cicerone Science 327, 624; 2010).

Denialism is motivated by conviction rather than evidence. It has been applied to a wide range of issues, including evolution and the link between HIV and AIDS. Deniers use strategies that invoke conspiracies, quote fake experts, denigrate genuine experts, deploy evidence selectively and create impossible expectations of what research can deliver. They rely on misrepresentation and flawed logic (P. Diethelm and M. McKee Eur. J. Public Health 19, 2–4; 2009).

By contrast, scepticism starts with an open mind, weighs evidence objectively and demands convincing evidence before accepting any claim. It contributes to the debate and forms the intellectual cornerstone of scientific enquiry.

The public should understand the difference between deniers and sceptics, so that their trust in scientists is not threatened at a time when humanity needs us most. We need to expose the spurious nature of denialist arguments and draw attention back to the primary evidence.

As scientists, we have a duty to communicate our research honestly and accessibly. We do not need to speak with one voice about climate change, but we should stand together to defend proper scientific debate.

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  1. #10009
    Date:
    2010-04-06 09:54 AM
    Jean-Luc Maurice said:

    One of the problems at the origin of climate change denial is the habit of mixing up climate change and carbon (dioxide) emission. I'm afraid the present authors enforce this confusion. Let us first agree on climate change, which is hard to deny. Then, let us see the origin of that change. Maybe the greenhouse effect plays a significant role, and maybe CO2 among other greenhouse gases does also play a role, as its production has tremendously increased over the last two centuries. But let us also check that the earth has received the same amount of energy from the sun during that time. That is science.

    Then, there is the point of view of one which observes that the number of humans is booming, together with their individual consumption of energy. Of course, one day, this evolution will be such that our ecological niche will be too small. Perhaps it would be useful to now activate some friction mechanisms so that a huge catastrophe be avoided. That is politics.

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  2. #10073
    Date:
    2010-04-12 08:13 AM
    Jeremy Kemp said:

    This comment may have had more currency thirty years ago, but even a fairly casual perusal of the literature will reveal that the role of the sun as the sole determinant of recent climate change has been checked, re-checked and checked again. Changes in global climate over the last 30 years cannot be explained by such natural drivers alone, only a combination of both natural and anthropogenic drivers – principally an enhancement of the greenhouse effect – can do this.

    That is not to say that we should stop studying variations in solar irradiation and other natural drivers of climate change, or to continue to question the relative importance of natural and anthropogenic climate forcings. That's science.

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  3. #10138
    Date:
    2010-04-16 11:03 AM
    Roseann Campbell said:

    Although I do not wish to multiply distinctions unnecessarily, I feel that the authors Kemp et al (Nature 464, 673 (1 April 2010)) have missed an important category. There are those who restrict their criticisms to the science itself, while not engaging on the general issue of carbon-based anthropogenic global warming. Roger Pielke Jr. and Hans von Storch are prominent examples of this group. Although they could correctly be considered to be engaging in the 'organised scepticism' advocated by Robert K. Merton as one of his 'four norms' of science, the term 'sceptic' already has an accepted meaning in the current debate. These participants might better be called 'scientific critics'. Such a distinction might help to reduce the dangerous polarisation of the sides in the present situation.
    Posted on behalf of Jerome Ravetz

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  4. #10166
    Date:
    2010-04-20 09:47 AM
    Jeremy Kemp said:

    Our point is that the current widespread conflation of 'denialism', as identified by Diethelm & McKee, and the genuine 'scepticism' that underlies science is both damaging and profoundly misleading. In the context of climate change that conflation may contribute to disastrous decision making based on demonstrably false premises.

    There is thus an urgent need for consistent and clear differentiation between genuine scepticism, and climate change denialism. We suggest that the criteria of Diethelm and McKee enable criticisms of science, including climate change science, to be placed into one or other of those two categories in a recognisable, justifiable and systematic fashion. That includes work by Hans Von Storch, or Roger Pielke Jr, or anyone else. There may of course be some blurring of the boundaries, for example when entirely reputable sceptical (by our definition of the term) science is cherry-picked or misrepresented by deniers, but that is still best explained and understood within the framework described by Diethelm & McKee.

    The term 'scientific critic', as suggested above by Jerome Ravetz, appears to us to skirt around, and indeed risks confusing, this entire set of issues. If a criticism of science is based on sound sceptical thinking, its author is a sceptic; if it is designed to promote a particular goal or viewpoint by adopting the approaches described by Diethelm & McKee, the author is a denier.

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  5. #10167
    Date:
    2010-04-20 09:49 AM
    Jeremy Kemp said:

    Our point is that the current widespread conflation of 'denialism', as identified by Diethelm & McKee, and the genuine 'scepticism' that underlies science is both damaging and profoundly misleading. In the context of climate change that conflation may contribute to disastrous decision making based on demonstrably false premises.

    There is thus an urgent need for consistent and clear differentiation between genuine scepticism, and climate change denialism. We suggest that the criteria of Diethelm and McKee enable criticisms of science, including climate change science, to be placed into one or other of those two categories in a recognisable, justifiable and systematic fashion. That includes work by Hans Von Storch, or Roger Pielke Jr, or anyone else. There may of course be some blurring of the boundaries, for example when entirely reputable sceptical (by our definition of the term) science is cherry-picked or misrepresented by deniers, but that is still best explained and understood within the framework described by Diethelm & McKee.

    The term 'scientific critic', as suggested above by Jerome Ravetz, appears to us to skirt around, and indeed risks confusing, this entire set of issues. If a criticism of science is based on sound sceptical thinking, its author is a sceptic; if it is designed to promote a particular goal or viewpoint by adopting the approaches described by Diethelm & McKee, the author is a denier.

    Report this comment

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