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Distinguishing Climate “Deniers” From “Skeptics”

David Brin

Contrary Brin

February 13, 2010

A fair number of people have written in response to my previous posting—The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change: A War on Expertise—griping that I do not get a crucial distinction between climate change “Skeptics” and “Deniers.”

Several claimed to be rational, educated fellows who regret the shrill anti-intellectualism of Fox News. Yet, they still defend the core notion underlying the anti-HGCC (Human Generated Climate Change) movement—the premise that virtually 100% of the thousands of scientists in a given field can be suborned, corrupted, or intimidated simultaneously into supporting a nonsensical, baseless theory.

A baseless theory that thousands of “skeptics” happen to be able to see through, all at the same time.

“We skeptics just want to get our questions answered,” one person wrote. “Until then, of course, society should do nothing rash.”

That sounds so reasonable, who could refuse?

Well, in fact, after two decades of seeing “let’s not do anything rash” used as a talking point excuse for doing nothing at all? No, it doesn’t sound reasonable.

But let’s focus on the core matter at hand.

What factors would distinguish a rational, pro-science “skeptic”—who has honest questions about the HGCC consensus—from members of a Denier Movement who think a winter snowstorm means there’s no net-warming of the planet?

Is such a distinction anything more than polemical trickery?

Well, in fact, it happens that I know some people who do qualify as climate change “skeptics.” Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by curiosity than partisan rigor. One who I could name is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

(In fact, if truth be told, there are some aspects of HGCC that I feel I want clarified—that seem to be poorly-justified, so far. I am an ornery, contrarian question-asker, of the first water!)

After extensive discussions with such folk, I found a set of distinct characteristics that separate thoughtful Skeptics from your run of the mill, knee-jerk Denier dogma puppet.

Here’s the first one:


Skeptics first admit that they are non-experts, in the topic at hand. And that experts know more than they do.

Sound obvious? Especially regarding complex realms like atmospheric studies, or radiative transfer, or microcell computer modeling.  But this simple admission parts company from…

Deniers, who wallow in the modern notion that a vociferous opinion is equivalent to spending twenty years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.

(Note: this is important. Since the Neolithic, human civilizations have relied on specialists, a trend that accelerated across the 20th century. Want an irony? As coiner of the term “age of amateurs” I’ve been helping to push a new trend toward more distributed expertise and citizen-empowerment! Yet, I also avow—as “Skeptics” do—that a nation has to start by respecting knowledge and those who have it.)


Next, the Skeptic is keenly aware that, after four thousand years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophecy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan three days ahead pretty well, and more tentatively as far as two weeks ahead, based on a science that’s grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

The Skeptic admits that this rapid progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward. A rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.

Deniers also share this utter reliance on improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by… the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks. Miraculously, they see no contradiction.

(Side note: There is a distinction between weather and climate. Both deal in the same oceans, vapors, gases and sunlight, using almost identical basic equations and expertise. Both are extremely complex, and deal with that complexity by making different simplifying assumptions and boundary conditions. Clearly, climate modeling is more primitive, right now. Perhaps it is even rife with errors! But the overall tools, methods, community and eagerly-skilled people overlap greatly.)


Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting to fight over sub-models.  Hence, if an outsider thinks that there appears to be “something wrong” with a core scientific model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider is to ask “what mistake am I making?”—before assuming that 100% of the experts are wrong.

In contrast, Deniers glom onto an anecdotal “gotcha!” from a dogma-show or politically-biased blog site. Whereupon they conclude that ALL of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Simultaneously. Uniformly. At the same time.


Now dig this. The Skeptic is no pushover! She knows that just because 100% of those who actually know about a scientific subject are in consensus, that doesn’t mean that consensus-paradigm is always and automatically right! There have been isolated cases in scientific history when all of the practitioners in a field were wrong at once. 

Still, the skeptic admits that such events are rare. Moreover, a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of the experts are wrong. That burden of proof is a moral, as well as intellectual geas, as we’ll see below.

The Denier, on the other hand, knows no history, knows nothing about science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young Guns in any scientific field—the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors—are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel prize winners and make a rep for themselves, in very much the manner of Billy the Kid! (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)

This is a crucial point. For the core Denier narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most…but every last one of them! Only that can explain why none of them have “come out.”  (And note, Exxon and Fox have even offered lavish financial reward, for any that do.)

Oh, I admit that it’s easy to see why the Denier can believe this. He imagines that all of the Young Guns are either cowed, intimidated, or suborned by greed for measly five figure grants…because that is the way things work in the Denier’s own business and life!

He has no idea that most scientists are propelled by adventure, curiosity and sheer macho-competitive balls, far more than they are by titles or money. If all the post-docs in atmospheric studies have timidly laid down, then it is the first time it has happened in any field of science. Ever.

Oh, but if the Denier thinks they are all just greedy, conniving little putzes, this is a natural human mistake, to assume that others are like yourself. But it is a mistake.

Sorry… but this is a point to reiterate: I am not saying that all young scientists are noble and brave. I’ve known plenty who weren’t. But I have served in almost a dozen scientific fields, and I know that the best of the Young Guns would be screaming now, if all those “holes in the theory” were real.

They have the knowledge, the tools and the ambition. Their failure to “bark in the night” means something! Their acceptance of the HGCC model means something. It means a lot more than any number of glib spin-incantations from Sean Hannity.

The Skeptic realizes all of this. She takes it into account. She adds it to the burden of proof borne by the other side. But let’s move on.

The Denier claims that the corruption of 100% of the experts—(upon whom he relies for his weather report)—is propelled by “millions pouring into green technologies”...without ever showing how a space probe researcher studying Venus at JPL profits from a contract going to a windmill manufacturer in Copenhagen. But I’m repeating myself, so hold that thought for later.

In contrast, our Skeptic, still fizzing with questions, hasn’t finished “admitting things” first. 


The Skeptic openly admits, for example, that he knows who the chief beneficiaries are of the current status quo.

Those who pushed a wasted decade, delaying energy efficiency research and urging us to guzzle carbon fuels like mad. The guys who benefit from keeping us on the oil-teat are…foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon

The Skeptic admits that these fellow have trillions (with a T) staked on preserving that status quo—on preventing America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence. He admits that a conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems a lot more plausible than some convoluted cabal to “push green technologies”—a supposed conspiracy involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.


Consider some eerie parallels of methodology with the Great Big War over Tobacco. Some of the very same consulting groups who formulated Big Tobacco’s “deny, delay, and obfuscate” strategy—that gave that industry ~40 years to adjust to growing societal awareness of its problems—are working on the Energy Denial Front today, with precisely the same agenda. As one analyst recently put it:

I think that the main driver for this movement is that when you compare the US economy “before” and “after” acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant differences will be the value of owning particular stocks. It’s impossible to dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping through the floor. But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries.

This strategy became especially crucial for them, when their earlier gambit—investing Social Security trust funds in the stock market—fell through. This would have allowed brokers to unload half a trillion dollars in failing assets on millions of naive new stockholders. We now know retirees would have lost hundreds of billions.

This parallel with Big Tobacco is not only eerie, but puzzling. In the end, Tobacco faced fierce ire and severe liability judgments that they escaped only through fast-footed political maneuvers. This raises a fundamental issue.

If the Denier Movement obstruction leads to billions in losses and millions of refugees, will the top Deniers then be liable, under common and tort law, for damages?

This appears to not have been discussed anywhere that I know of.  But it makes the Skeptic/Denier distinction crucial.

Those who merely ask scientific questions WHILE helping push for energy independence will be safe enough. On the other hand, those who directly and deliberately obstructed reasonable precautions and progress toward efficiency may face a very angry and litigious world, if the expert forecasts prove right. Preventing action upon expert advice is legally culpable.

In effect, they are betting everything they own.


Further, the Skeptic admits something pretty darned creepy and suspicious—that the main “news” outlets pushing the Denier Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch’s debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own more.) Because of this, the Skeptic has moved away from getting any of his news or sense of “reality” from propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in “culture war.”

The Denier, in contrast, suckles from the Fox-Limbaugh machine. He shrugs off any notion that oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs, or Exxon moguls could possibly have any agenda, or ever, ever connive together. They are pure as driven snow…compared to climate scientists. Right.

Elaborating a bit: the Skeptic has noticed that the Denier Movement is directly correlated with a particular “side” in America’s calamitous, self-destructive Culture War. The same side that includes “Creation Science.” The same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles and magical “financial instruments.” The same side that promised us “energy independence” then sabotaged every single effort, including all of the energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention-to than carbon credits.)

While the Denier sees this association of parallel anti-intellectual movements as a good thing that enhances the credibility of the Denier Movement, the Skeptic has the mental courage to be embarrassed by it. Even while remaining a conservative, she is pulling herself away from all that.


Having admitted all of those things, the Skeptic now feels sufficiently distanced from madmen and reflex-puppets to express legitimate curiosity about a scientific matter much in the news. 

Moreover, he knows that this is his perfect right! We do not live in a society where elites are gods. Not the rich or even scientists. The Skeptic refuses to get caught up in the reflex anti-intellectualism being pushed by the faux-right. But he also knows that amateurs can be smart, and that curiosity was God’s greatest gift to man. 

Moreover, our Skeptic feels like a smart guy! He’s generally pretty well-educated and good in his own field. Above all, he is a free citizen of the greatest and most scientifically advanced republic ever! And so, by gum, having admitted all that stuff (see above), he now wants his curiosity satisfied!  He wants the atmospheric experts to answer hard questions about some things that SEEM contradictory between the data and the model.

Fair enough.


Ah, but there is one more thing our poor Skeptic has to admit, if she truly is honest and ready to start peppering the experts. She needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human.

Furthermore, having tried for twenty years to use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty Denial Movement, these human beings are exhausted people. Their hackles are up. They have very, very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any further effort trying to reason with folks who:

• deny that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas…

• then deny that human-generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere…

• then claim the increase won’t affect temperatures…

• then claim there is no warming…

• while the US Navy is furiously making plans for an ice-free Arctic…

• then claim humans have no role in the warming…

• then admit we’ve caused it, but claim it’s already too late, and anyway they’ll have a longer growing season in Alberta…

• then shout that we “can’t afford” efforts to wean ourselves of greenhouse emissions…

• even though the things that would address HGCC happen to be things we should be doing anyway, to gain energy independence, increase productivity, reduce the leverage of hostile petro powers, and a dozen other important things.

Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, can you see how wearing it has been, dealing with a storm of such BS? Can you admit that the professionals and experts may not, at first, be able to distinguish sincere skeptics, like you, from the maniacs who have been chivvying and screaming at them (on puppet-orders from Fox and Riyadh and Moscow) for years? 

HGCC “Skeptics” like you are saddened to see that many of the scientists are prickly, irritable and sullen about answering an endless stream of rehashed questions, only a few of which aren’t blatant nonsense.  But you Skeptics—the smart and honest ones—understand what’s happened. 

And so, you’ll cooperate about helping the experts feel safe to come out and share what they know. And maybe then they will answer some of the Skeptics’ inconvenient questions. 


This is when the honest Skeptic recites what I suggested earlier:

Okay, I’ll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, prevent ocean acidification, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. If I don’t like one proposed way to achieve this, then I will negotiate in good faith other methods that can help us to achieve all these things, decisively, without further delay and with urgent speed.

Further, I accept that “waste-not” and “a-penny-saved” and “cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness” and genuine market competition used to be good conservative attitudes. But the “side” that has been pushing the Denial Movement—propelled by petro-princes, Russsian oligarchs, and Exxon—hasn’t any credibility on the issue of weaning America off wasteful habits. In fact, it’s not conservatism at all.

And so, for those reasons alone, let’s join together to make a big and genuine push for efficiency.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t believe in Human-caused Global Climate Change! But in case I am wrong, these measures would help deal with that too.

So there, are you happy, you blue smartypants-eco-science types? Are you satisfied that I am a sincere citizen-skeptic, and not one of the drivel-parroting Deniers? 

Good, then, as fellow citizens, and more in a spirit of curiosity than polemics, can we please corner some atmospheric scientists and persuade them to enter into an extended teach-in, to answer some inconvenient questions?

(Oh, and thanks for the vastly improved weather reports; they show you’re smart enough to be able to explain these things to a humble-but-curious fellow citizen, like me.)

As I said earlier, when I meet a conservative HGCC skeptic who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheres guys I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

But such genuine “skeptics” are rare. 


Alas, I really have wasted my time here. Because while the species of sincere, conservative-but-rational HGCC skeptics does exist (I know several, and kind of qualify as one myself), they turn out to be rare.

For the most part, those calling themselves “skeptics” are nothing of the kind. More often than not, they are fully-imbibed, Koolaid-drinking Deniers, who wallow in isolated anecdotes and faux-partyline talking points, egotistically assuming that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-think opinion entitles them to howl “corrupt fools!” at 100% of the brilliant men and women who have actually studied and are confronting an important topic…

...the very same people whom the “skeptics” now count on to help them plan activities as far as two whole weeks into a future that used to be murky beyond two hours’ time.

There are words for such such people. But none of those words is “skeptic.”

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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