Skeptical of Science? Why People Are Rejecting the Data

Here at NCSE, we talk a lot about the people who reject climate change science, how they are threatening science education, and what we can do to ensure teachers have the support they need to teach the science. What we don’t always discuss is why people reject climate change.

As I began to dig deeper into the why, I found a paper by Dr. Peter Jacques and Claire Conolly Knox of the University of Central Florida. The duo used keyword searches on Twitter to figure out why people are quick to dismiss the science of climate change. What they found should be of no surprise to anyone who reads NCSE’s blog—it’s not the science, it’s the politics.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Dr. Jacques to ask him a few questions about his research and learn more about the implications of his findings.

Why did you decide to use Twitter as the source of your data? How do you think social media has played a role in the debate over climate change?

Twitter has become one of the more important sources of social science data simply because of its volume and availability, in addition to the fact that we are able to empirically study how people rationalize something without interfering with them (as we would with a survey for example). So we can examine the perceptions of people “from afar” with the assumption that this is pretty close to how they really feel. Social media has played a role in climate change in terms of engaging people who post, who then become broadcasters of assertions but its overall effect is difficult to know.
One problem we are aware of is that “birds of a feather” problems emerge in social media, where people follow like-minded people, which then facilitates a sense of us versus them, and blocks some debate. We also know that when a public divides along these lines, it can undermine the shared sense of reality. Community is the source of common sense, but if there is not agreement on the nature of reality we lose our common sense—our sense of the world is no longer common. That is a pretty dangerous path, particularly for complex problems that require expertise.

Your study found three themes among climate change denial posts: opposition of taxation for environmental purposes, such as a carbon tax; belief that climate change is a conspiracy to promote more interfering government, such as implementation of environmental regulation on businesses; and opposition to renewable energy. The first two are related to fear of the growth of government, but why do you think people are opposed to renewable energy?

That part was a real surprise. Renewables help build energy independence with fewer bad side effects so it would seem like a place for agreement. But I think the real answer is that since the driving goal of contemporary conservatives is to support free enterprise and market capitalism, some oppose renewables because they view it as a false market—one that is not growing on its own. Of course, the traditional energy market has always had enormous government intervention that continues today, but renewables also relate to the other fears we discovered, unlike traditional hydrocarbon energy.

Why do you think acceptance of climate change is such a heated topic in the United States when so many other countries have already acknowledged global climate change as fact and have moved on to discussing policy to prepare for the effects of global warming?

That is a good question—why the US? The fact that mainly Anglophone countries have the most organized climate denial, and that it is—by far—strongest in the US is conspicuous. If climate change were a real hoax, I assume that Anglophone countries would not be the only ones to suspect it, and it would not just be individuals and groups with a conservative ideology that suspect climate science. That part alone is quite telling. We should be asking more questions like this because it highlights the political nature of climate denial.
Over the last fifteen years or so, I have come to realize that climate denial, and it’s larger project of environmental skepticism that doubts the authenticity of global environmental problems, is actually rooted in civics and identity. This means several things—first, that the world cannot continue on the same path, that it’s not sustainable means that deep change is needed. The need to reduce greenhouse gases taps into a deep fear about the loss of freedom, wealth, and even the arrest of Western progress. If this is true, then climate denial actually starts from the assumption that climate change is a real threat, ironically. There are real material (capital and money) reasons for climate denial of course, like the billions of dollars Bob Brulle traced in his study, but there is a real commitment that is tied to authentic political identities. In other words, climate denial is not just a scheme to protect interests, but to protect a sense of self that climate denialists harbor.

Why do you think methods to undermine the science that backs global warming have been so effective in the U.S.?

There are several reasons why climate denial has been effective (in paralyzing real policy debate). One is that organizations like conservative think tanks have effectively confused the public about how robust the consensus is in the halls of science around the basics of climate science. This has been facilitated by the news media which felt compelled to report “both sides” every time a new paper came out about new evidence or escalating impacts; but this reporting model misleads the public to think that both sides are equally valid, and then the public is led to believe there is a real divide amongst scientists around the basics, when there truly, truly is not. This confusion is further facilitated by the people who provide that counter-point, especially if they are real science PhDs—it makes it seem like the scientists themselves cannot agree. But consensus is part of the process of the history of science, and unanimity is normally not. Note also, that climate denial does not actually have to really win any scientific debate (to do so it would need to defeat basic physics) but it need only sow enough confusion to paralyze the policy debate. This is why we have had such a hard time moving away from the “but is it true” conversation and getting to the “so what can we do about it” conversation.

Is there anything else you wish to add?

We don’t need unanimity to move ahead with policy remedies that will start to address climate change. Our study indicated those dismissing the orthodox science were a very small minority, and even if we were off by a lot, this group would still be a minority. Most people believe climate change is real and that we should do something about it. Evidence accumulates daily that we are in imminent danger, as is the rest of the living world, and our ability to solve this complex problem will rest significantly on our ability to have an informed dialogue, and that includes intelligently assessing the science and taking responsibility for our actions.

Peter J. Jacques is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida and Co-Director of the Florida Climate Institute at UCF. In addition to work on coastal and marine environmental politics, his research has examined climate denial and the broader project of environmental skepticism. He was the lead author on the 2008 article that empirically demonstrated environmental skepticism as an organized, ideological effort. He is also the author of the book, Environmental Skepticism: Ecology, Power, and Public Life (Ashgate 2009) and numerous other articles on the topic that you can find on his webpage.

This piece was written by NCSE intern Yayla Sezginer. She will be a second year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley this fall. She is studying Molecular Environmental Biology (MEB) and hopes to pursue a double major in MEB and Marine Science.

Art by David Blackwell via Flickr.