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Why is climate change scepticism such a slippery concept?

Nov 27, 2013 by | 4 Comments

What exactly is climate change scepticism? The quest to provide a satisfactory answer to this question is now well into its second decade, with scholars, commentators and campaigners (on both sides of the argument) offering taxonomies and classification systems in an attempt to pin the term down.

Some consider scepticism to be a form of ‘flat earth’ denial: the product of conspiracy theories and the domain of crackpots. Others point to the historical evidence that the same tactics – in some cases the very same institutions and individuals – have been behind co-ordinated attempts to smear the science linking smoking and lung cancer and that linking human CO2 emissions and climate change.

Certainly, there is some truth in both of these conceptualisations: some people deny that there is any link between human activity and climate change, or even that the earth is warming at all. And it is a matter of record that lobby groups have run campaigns explicitly designed to undermine the science of global warming.

But these are minority forms of scepticism (if that is even the appropriate term to use). In the UK, the proportion of people who dispute that human activity is playing some role in changing the climate is small. Most people, if they are sceptical at all, fall somewhere between uninterested, uncertain and disinclined to trust what they read in the papers.

A new investigation led by Stuart Bryce Capstick at Cardiff University is the latest attempt to bring some clarity to the debate. Drawing on both survey data and focus groups with members of the UK public, the study suggests that scepticism can be divided into two categories: ‘epistemic scepticism’ (where people doubt the reality or causes or climate change) and ‘response scepticism’ (where people dispute the efficacy of acting to tackle the problem).

Interestingly, the study found that it is the latter type that is most strongly associated with a lack of concern about the issue. As the authors put it: “This is important because whilst there are clear arguments which can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.”

This statement seems to get to the heart of why scepticism is such a slippery concept: so much of it is bound up with (or even indistinguishable from) broader societal questions where there is no right or wrong answer. How much influence should governments have over people’s lives? To what extent should industry be regulated? These are issues that go beyond climate change, yet are central to its resolution.

It is well known, for example, that people don’t trust journalists or politicians. Yet measures of climate change scepticism often ask questions relating to media exaggeration of the problem. What could be interpreted as a statement of scepticism about climate change may in fact be a rejection of the trustworthiness of the media in general.

There is a sense, then, in which attempts to classify and re-classify scepticism are a somewhat circular exercise. Dogmatic ‘response scepticism’ – although seemingly oriented towards the feasibility of tackling climate change – could be equivalent to epistemic scepticism in terms of the practical outcomes for the planet. In other words, a steadfast response sceptic, who doubts the severity of climate impacts and questions the wisdom of spending public money on mitigating them, is effectively acting as if there were no problem in the first place.

And, as anyone who has ever tried debating with climate sceptics below the line on comment threads will confirm, the categories of scepticism are often crossed with a frustrating level of fluidity.

An argument may begin with disagreement over the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, but then move on to the supposedly compromised research funding of ‘alarmist’ scientists and end on the dubious motives of politicians adopting green taxes.

The reason for the shape-shifting character of so many sceptic arguments is that none of the specific reasons on their own are the basis of the dispute – for many, climate change simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which they ought to be opposed.

Capstick’s new paper reinforces a finding that is now well-established: that people’s worldviews, political beliefs and personal values are strong predictors of whether they doubt climate change.

People apply motivated reasoning processes to selectively accept the information that supports their existing beliefs. And it is this motivated reasoning that propels the whole process along.

Very few people beyond the community of climate scientists producing the data can claim any real authority with regard to the underlying facts themselves. We decide whether to trust the information we receive, and weigh up the pros and cons of acting on it, based not on a deep interrogation of the evidence but on our judgement of whether it seems legitimate.

As this judgment of legitimacy is itself a product of our personal politics, it is perhaps no surprise that scepticism is such a slippery concept to get to grips with.

First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19.11.13

4 Comments + Add Comment

  • Is it possible that the reason for shifting arguments is that sceptics have many reasons for their scepticism, that all apply in parallel, but you can usually only use one at a time?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed the same thing looking the other way. They start off with connections with present-day extreme weather, when you point out that even the IPCC disagrees, they shift to the Arctic, and the polar bears. After that’s debunked, they’ll move on to sea level rise. When you tell them how slowly it’s rising, they’ll switch to Antarctic ice sheet instability. Then the spread of malaria and other diseases, or species extinction, or all the crops stop growing and what remains of humanity turning to cannibalism, or whatever.

    The only time I’ve regarded such shifting as illegitimate, though, is when one starts off criticising the simplistic pop-science version of AGW theory sold to the general public, much of which is scientifically indefensible, at which point someone will switch in the deep technical literature in its place as the target of your complaint. But most of the time it is simply that they have multiple arguments available, and they’ll use whichever one suits.

    I agree that very few people outside a very specialist community (on both sides) understands the technical issues and detailed data. And I agree that political preconceptions affect the extent to which people either trust or critically examine the information they’re given. The interesting thing is that this effect also extends to the more scientifically literate – in fact, the more scientifically literate people are, the *more* politically polarised they seem to become. And scientists have political views, too. The obvious corollary of these observations is one that the sociologists seem to be reluctant to examine too closely, but it is potentially worrying.

  • Nullius: Skeptics of climate change may indeed have many reasons for their skepticism, but wouldn’t you agree that the stated reasons should be accurate representations of the discipline? In all my interactions with so-called skeptics, I have yet to meet one who provides an honest summary about what is known about climate processes (whether from the IPCC or other credible sources) and why we know it. The skeptics will typically run through a litany of discredited talking points (in the 70s scientists believed in cooling, it’s the sun, they ignore the role of water, etc.). If a skeptic wants to be taken seriously, they must first demonstrate they know what they are talking about and drop all the wild conspiracy mongering.

    And while I don’t doubt that many environmentalists hold erroneous (or even anti-scientific) views, on the issue of global warming, the shifting arguments that you allege are irrelevant, as the burden of proof has been convincingly satisfied to anyone familiar with the science. If the prevailing views of the vast majority of climate researchers are in error, then that would create powerful incentives for enterprising researchers to make a name for themselves and publish evidence for why all the experts are wrong. That’s how science works–it is intensely competitive. Yet, we see nothing in the technical literature from the so-called skeptics.

  • Tres Rios,

    I would agree that it is *desirable* that reasons for either belief or scepticism about climate science should be as accurate about it as is reasonably possible, given the access people have to the background information. (At the same time, freedom of belief and expression means that everyone has the *right* to a different opinion, even if it is wrong.) I sometimes mutter a bit myself about the misconceptions and misunderstandings rife on *both* sides of the debate, but then it is pointed out to me by my friends that I’ve spent years being trained as a physicist and further years studying climate science as a hobby, and it’s not *reasonable* for me to expect Joe Average to be able to argue about differential equations with me, or to demand that they keep quiet unless they can. They’re right. We all participate at our own level, and we are all fallible. So I try not to judge others for their level of knowledge.

    For me, it is not really a matter of “wanting to be taken seriously”. People will come to their own judgements about my abilities – it makes no difference to me. I try to understand other people’s arguments and reasoning, and better explain my own. I see debate as a contest of ideas, in which the strongest survive and flaws are identified, by which I can test my own beliefs. What matters to me – and many other sceptics – is that I am *allowed* to debate with those who disagree with me. I don’t expect or require them to be persuaded – although it’s nice if they are – but it is a joint failure if my ‘opponents’ refuse to even argue, on the grounds that I am not worth taking seriously. If the other player doesn’t compete then I ‘win’ the debate by default, but it is a hollow victory that fails to achieve its true purpose. So in a sense I do think it’s a *good* thing if sceptics are taken seriously enough to debate with, but it’s not an aim as such.

    Like you, I have come across many believers unable to provide an accurate summary of the state of IPCC science. I’d hesitate to call it ‘dishonest’, though, since I think in most (but not all) cases it is simply that they are too trusting of what they have been told, and are only repeating the media/activist simplifications, half-truths, and errors.

    As a case in point, consider what you say here about “pre­vailing views of the vast majority of cli­mate researchers”. Do you know what those actually are?

    Considering the number of times the “scientific consensus” has been cited, there has been surprisingly little survey research on the views of scientists generally and climate scientists in particular. The best survey (with the most comprehensive question set) is probably von Storch and Bray, who found around 53% in favour (, Doran and Zimmerman found 82% of respondents thought human activity had been a significant contributory factor ( Anderegg constructed a list of scientists of who only 66% were for the consensus, although there was no claim that the sample was representative. There have been surveys of meteorologists, chemists, and earth scientists that have come out with numbers in the range of 50-85%, but it depends on what question you ask, and I don’t think the pattern is fully understood. One think that very few of the surveys do is to ask *why* scientists believe what they do.

    Unfortunately, it appears that instead the surveyors have their own agendas, and the results you see quoted in the press releases are for literature surveys (which don’t accurately reflect the opinions of scientists as they double-count those who get published more), or filter scientists according to who is published or cited most often. We all agree that those that are ‘in the club’ are solidly pro-consensus. Although we would also emphasize that science is not decided by a vote.

    So to attempt my own “honest summary” of the mainstream science, I’d say that the division of opinions depends on what question you ask – ranging from “it’s warming”, through the many gradations of “it’s some/mostly/all due to anthropogenic CO2” all the way through to “in 30 years time all the crops are going to stop growing because of global warming and those few of us who aren’t dead will become cannibals” – with strong confidence at one end of the spectrum and very little confidence at the other. On the most commonly asked ‘consensus’ question – whether the observed rise is mostly anthropogenic – we think around 15% of climate scientists are sceptical, possibly up to 60% of other scientists (but with very little confidence), and well under 10% (the sample sizes are small so it is hard to tell precisely) of well-published ‘core’ climate scientists such as those working for the IPCC.

    It’s probably worth noting that there are a lot of notable sceptics who would be included in that number, too. The observed warming 1950-2000 is about 0.6 C, so “mostly” means at least 0.3 C, which would imply a transient climate response of about 1 C. Since many sceptics estimate TCR to be around 1-1.5 C (and have been published in the technical literature saying so), it’s not something they’d probably object to too much if they thought about it, although there would no doubt be more of an argument about whether the evidence was sufficient to say it had been ‘proved’ at any given confidence level. Either way, it is a very different question from the politically relevant one: will climate change cause serious damage in the future worth the cost of preventing? We know very little about scientific views on that one.

    I would agree with you that the incentive to publish counter-evidence is how science works – but ‘science’ as a matter of principle does not restrict itself to ‘approved’ channels, but accepts publication in any arena. The only thing that matters is whether the arguments stand up to criticism. Sceptics publish most of their material in the sceptical blogs, where it undergoes a very public and open peer review, although there is a fair amount that makes it to the scientific journals, too. It is fascinating to see how science here has adapted so quickly to the internet age, and I’m sure this is a harbinger of things to come. We live in interesting times.

  • […] On the Talking Climate blog we reported back from the Tyndall ‘Radical Plan’ conference that was held just before Christmas at the Royal Society in London, and also asked why climate change scepticism is such a slippery concept. […]

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