Denialism and the end of the world



The epistemic problem with any denialism is a complete shutting down of any consideration of evidence or argument that threatens the denialist’s position. Politically, the best to be hoped for is marginalization of the denialist position. That has (largely) worked against Holocaust deniers. Climate change deniers, on the other hand….

First, let’s face the hard reality concerning politics, climate change, and the American way of life. Accepting some form of climate change (caused by humans, and damaging to humans) – and I do – Americans collectively are not going to change their way of life radically – not on any level. Pockets of Americans will make some efforts at doing what they can for the environment (sometimes seriously, sometimes as mere gesture), and the media will hype recycling and Earth Day, and politicians will position themselves along a spectrum from doing nothing to doing not very much, as long as it doesn’t interfere with commerce and doesn’t cost a lot of money.

But Americans will continue driving cars (they really don’t care if cars run on gas, electricity or blood); they will continue to demand products packaged in non-biodegradable plastic and cellophane, they will continue to insist on increasing economic growth through new, non-environmentally friendly industries. And they will keep voting for politicians who will continue to do not very much.

Environmental concern began as a ‘bandwagon’ issue, but it has progressed well into consensus. There’s one problem – it’s probably too late. Climate change denialists are still given ‘equal-time’ by news media, and we still pretend there’s something to debate. There’s too much money and too much power, and too many cultural biases, invested in making only gradual and incremental improvements – if at all.

That suggests to me that we may need different conversations about our future – not about what we could do to stop climate change from happening, but what we will need to do in order to survive.

Now, let’s go back in time, to the 1960s: polio, tuberculosis, measles, all coming under control. Nuclear power is considered ‘clean and safe,’ synthetic drugs make people feel good, and a man walks on the moon by the end of the decade. Homes are now filled with electronic toys. Who could possibly doubt that science would continue to make our world a better and happier place? It was in this environment that a few intellectuals began beating the environmental drum. But while their books sell well, they are deemed outsiders in various fields, and completely ignored by by businessmen and politicians.

In the 1970s, the story takes a radical turn – to the worse. New age popularizers jump on the environmentalist bandwagon; that actually leads to the marginalization of the concerns. A wave of fundamentalist Christian revivalism generates a Religious Right committed to science denial at multiple levels. In 1980, Americans elect a president who would consult astrologers on national policy.

Worse still, as the story continues, the benefits of science begin to unravel – the over-use of antibiotics generates germs resistant to them. The over-use of happy drugs leads to corrosive narcotic subcultures. The electronic toys isolate us from our neighbors, tearing little holes in the social fabric. The media realizes that any information they distribute in sound bytes will be believed by someone somewhere, true or not – and this makes information itself a commodity (again, true or not). Meanwhile, the academy begins falling into conflicting camps; rather than the detached disinterest shown to disagreeable colleagues, or the collegial debates that we saw in the ’50s and ’60s. we now have open turf-war, between various disciplines and between various theories within the disciplines. And some of these theories are looking pretty strange – e.g., string theory (which can’t be demonstrated empirically), genetic hybridization (which is empirically validated, productive, but raises all kinds of unsettling questions). Even well-read intellectuals are now confronted with ideas they poorly understand, that seem contentious within their fields, that have difficult and not well-understood ethical implications.

But at the same time, many quite intelligent people discovered the secret of the relationship between science and technology – namely, that there is no necessary relationship. Recent evidence for this is unsettling: Jihadi John the executioner is a former computer programmer, the next in line to be caliph of ISIS apparently formerly taught physics. That’s not expected from scientists; but technicians need not be scientists. That means our cellophane-packaged electronic toys (and new weapons and new pollutants, etc.) are now science independent.

Scientists studying climate, weather patterns, ecological change are now pretty much in consensus that climate change is happening, and that it originates from human activities. And they have suggestions concerning what we can do about it.

Intellectuals concerned with the environment rely heavily on the consensus of environmental scientists with access to the information, the theories, the constructs of various ecological trajectories, to argue for realistic responses to an environment undergoing the most radical change in recorded history. But we have to do this in a world where the sciences are now considered suspect by a large portion of the population.

That is the hard reality in which this conversation takes place.

Unfortunately, ‘denialism,’ as a cultural phenomenon, presents along a spectrum. There’s the obvious troll shouting ‘you effing librul commies!’ Then there’s a more sophisticated argument, derived either from premises held to be themselves unarguable, or from interpreting evidence to preference. That’s harder to unravel and argue against – but at least it’s an argument. Finally we enter an interesting grey area – efforts at moderation that attempt to clarify the debate, but may obfuscate it by not admitting limitations between opposing positions: there may simply be no common ground between the two positions. And one will be right; and one will be wrong.

However, there are indeed extremes on both sides that we should best avoid. I remarked the attachment to environmentalism by New Agers for a reason: yes, the spectrum proceeds to the left, to activists who don’t recognize the political complexities of the issue.

Nonetheless, there just has developed a scientific consensus on the issue of climate change. The specifics are open to criticism, the general trend simply is not.

We’ve several interesting issues here, that require some philosophic detachment in order to consider clearly. 1) the nature of scientific consensus; 2) how this is addressed publicly for political purposes; 3) how negotiations between differing positions on such consensus are best negotiated. Only after these questions are addressed, can we then turn to the actual debate.

However, emotions run high. Why? My guess is that a) radical change threatens our way of life; and b) radical change cannot yet adequately account for our way of life; c) radical change may be the only change that can resolve the problem. Finally, (d) mediations and moderations offer hope, but they may be as impractical – and as difficult to argue – as radical change.

None of this is anything we like.

I’ve sounded the toll of the bell: I don’t think there is much going to be done about this issue, and the muddle found in the public debate indicates why that might be. Philosophic considerations of the future need to address the result of this. But I’m also aware that philosophy is, as reflection on what we know, essentially a backwards’ glance – as Hegel wrote, “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.”

There’s worth in that. I doubt that the discussion we’re having will change any minds. But perhaps it can help us understand the nature of mind in its social, historical setting.


Of course, much of what is said here concerns other forms of denialism as well….  Make of it what you will.  The planet seems doomed, in any event.


2 thoughts on “Denialism and the end of the world

  1. Hi ej,

    I’d like to try and engage with some of the reasons behind what may be correctly seen as a growing trend of “denialism” among the public. In the context of climate change I think you are right to see it as a reluctance to change a generally comfortable lifestyle in the West exacerbated by a fear of the future as projected by those who predict the most catastrophic results of AGW. However, I believe there is also something more fundamental, even existential at work.
    But first, in case my position is misunderstood, let me say that belief in the fact of AGW is a simple matter of logic which I fully accept.

    Greenhouse gasses cause the atmosphere to warm.
    Human activity produces greenhouse gasses.
    Therefore, human activity warms the atmosphere.

    I agree that if what we are being told is true it is probably too late to avert it. The time to do that was to cancel the industrial revolution, forego central heating and refrigeration and stick to walking and cycling as our only means of transport. That any hope of significantly affecting AGW in the present involves persuading the Chinese and the Indians, (and further down the road, all African nations) to forego their own industrial revolutions speaks for itself.

    More generally, we are told that only experts can engage in sensible discussions on scientific matters, and this is obviously true in regards to the technical details of the subject, but there is sometimes a tone adopted by some professionals that suggests that the role of the man in the street is to simply listen, believe and obey that is reminiscent – to me at least – of the attitude of the clergy in times gone by. Science is a social activity, and in this sphere we are all experts to some degree by virtue of being human and we should not be silenced by calls for irrelevant evidence and authority.

    I believe that politics can be corrupt. Have I got hard evidence for this, apart from cases already exposed in the press? No, I don’t. Do I have expertise in the subject? If you mean a PhD in Political Science, no I don’t. Should I give up my belief? I don’t think so.

    I believe that somewhere in the world, a banker is planning to game the system to his own benefit and our detriment. Have I got hard evidence for this? No, I don’t. Do I have expertise in the subject? If you mean a PhD in Economics, no I don’t. Should I give up my belief? Not a hope.

    Repeat ad nauseam.

    As regards climate change science, I would make similar claims and would not regard myself as cynical because of it. Research in this area is a billion dollar business and given that it is entangled with international politics, I believe that confirmation bias is probably the least of the corrupting influences on it. Not because I’m an expert in climate science or politics, but because I’m a human being.

    I don’t buy into the idea that there is some vast conspiracy afoot if only because changing people’s behaviour in the appropriate way is an impossible sell for politicians so why would they bother? But for the very same reason, I believe it is plausible that the same politicians would say to their science advisors, “If we’re going to have any chance of getting the public to accept the needed changes, you guys are going to have to make this thing seem like Armageddon”. And since the politicians control a vast amount of funding, I think they could make this happen. To what extent are we being fed the most extreme projections, I cannot tell, but that we are being beaten over the head with the subject, I have no doubt.

    We are all experts in being human. This may seem trite and insignificant but it isn’t. We allow our integrity and self respect to be undermined constantly by reminders of our lack of relevant expertise without ever questioning the nature of relevance. If we appeal to our instincts we are bombarded with examples of how unreliable our instincts are. We are told that we have no purpose or meaning by people who seem to revel in the nihilism of it and who appear to be comforted by the fact that by embracing their emptiness, they are being “mummy’s big brave boys”. It is no wonder that some people become so frustrated that howling at the moon (trolling around Internet sites ranting incoherently is a current manifestation) is all that is left to them.

    If philosophy is to have a future, maybe it lies in helping us reclaim our own everyday expertise in simply “being”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s