Mark McCaffrey's picture

The D Word

Recently we sent out an email blast to our members with the subject line: Denial's in the Mail: Who got the denialist mailing?  We are asking people to report on whether they have received a packet from the Heartland Institute:

Around Halloween, teachers across America got a scary surprise: a leading climate change denial organization mailed out thousands of packets filled with material to misinform and confuse teachers about climate change. To defend science education, support teachers, and protect children, NCSE needs your help to track the spread of this mailing.

The responses we’ve received indicate that the mailing, sent to K12 teachers as well as educators in higher education, will likely be dismissed as a bad joke by most teachers. But it may prove appealing to some who either doubt climate science findings or who feel that teaching “both sides” of what amounts to a phony scientific debate is good educational practice.

Two respondents, however, chided us for using the “d” word, suggesting that "denial" is not a scientific term, and that we are being political and straying from our focus of defending science education. Do they have a point?

Denial is a powerful word, and some have suggested avoiding the label altogether since it might alienate people who otherwise might be open to discussion and dialogue. We've wrestled with this at NCSE. When we launched our climate change education website in early 2012, we wrote in Why Is It Called Denial?:

Recognizing that no terminological choice is entirely unproblematic, NCSE—in common with a number of scholarly and journalistic observers of the social controversies surrounding climate change—opts to use the terms “climate changer deniers” and “climate change denial” (where “denial” encompasses unwarranted doubt as well as outright rejection). The terms are intended descriptively, not in any pejorative sense, and are used for the sake of brevity and consistency with a well-established usage in the scholarly and journalistic literature.

Social scientists are certainly well versed in studying states of denial and "motivated avoidance." They describe the continuum of literal denial (it’s not happening!), interpretive denial (maybe it’s happening but it’s not what you think), and implicatory denial—denying the implications and responsibility for a problem. The end result of all forms of denial is the same: the problem is avoided and not addressed.

In a previous post--Against Denial: Just Say Know—we noted Mary Pipher’s notion that ”We Are All Climate Change Deniers”, which focuses on implicatory denial and describes how, even though most people accept that climate change is occurring, we tend to  “minimize or normalize our enormous global problems” because “(o)ur species is not equipped to respond to the threats posed by global warming.”

However, the relativity and continuum of denial can obscure the fact that deliberate efforts to seed doubt about climate science—which organizations and dedicated individuals have done very effectively for several decades—can contribute to derailing progress to address the problem.

Which brings us back to the Heartland package, that includes a pseudoscience report called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) that we've reported on previously. The package also includes a cover letter that acknowledges that science teachers are likely planning to cover climate change, which we've found many science teachers say is a high priority.

But Heartland also suggests that “real science is never settled”, implying that taking action based on current science to limit and prepare for climate change is somehow unscientific, and that we should simply wait and see what happens. The “better safe than sorry” precautionary principle that is rationale for all insurance policies? According to the NIPCC document, it’s unscientific and "lacks the intellectual rigor necessary for use in policy formulation."

As social scientists Max Boykoff and Shawn Olson in their paper "Wise contrarians" demonstrate, small numbers of "celebrity climate contrarians" like those behind this package have wielded an outsized influence on climate and environmental policies in the United States for over twenty years. While Boykoff and Olson avoid the term "denier" or "denialist", their point is clear: these groups and individuals have played a key role in the countermovement to confuse the public about the current science and thereby successfully block meaningful and substantive climate and energy policies.

The goal of Heartland and other “celebrity climate contrarians” has always been simple and straight-forward: doubt the findings and implications of current peer reviewed climate science through literal and interpretive denial, using pseudoscience and attacks on the scientists with the aim of preventing or delaying action that could change the status quo. The specific status quo they seem most concerned about is the one that allows carbon emissions to continue to be emitted without regulation.

So, yes, using the word "denial" in this instance is appropriate. Promoting climate change confusion through education, which is Heartland’s goal with their mailing, clearly fits the definition of denial: refusing to admit reality. In this case, the reality is that human activities are significantly altering the Earth’s environmental and climate systems and that there are specific things that can be done to reduce risks and maximize preparedness.

Such blatant efforts to promote doubt and denial in schools contribute to our national agony about what to do about climate change. 45% feel we could reduce it, but whether we will or not is unclear; 24% say we could but we won’t do anything about it. A mere 3% of Americans feel confident that we will successfully address climate change.

Let’s be clear: Heartland’s effort to undermine science education through doubt and denial harms our national and global security. It's an explicit attempt to prevent people from their right to the knowledge and knowhow they will need to make informed decisions as individuals, communities, businesses and as a society.

If you teach about climate change, we’d like your input. And tell us whether or not you’ve received the Heartland package.