Science journalist Chris Mooney, author of the must-read Republican War on Science, has a post at Science Progress titled, “Enablers: Sometimes Refuting Unscientific Nonsense Reinforces It.” This is a provocative and timely post, given the recent tussles I’ve been having with deniers and delayers.
I’ve talked to Chris, and his occasional co-blogger, Matthew Nisbet (who has a related post here), many times. And while we are probably 95% in agreement on most things climate, I don’t quite buy their argument here:
So we’ve reached a point where we may well be wasting our energies if we continue to battle climate skeptics. Indeed, we run the risk of propping them up far more than they deserve.
For that’s the other problem with constantly rebutting anti-science forces–not only does it waste our time, but it may play right into their hands. Consider: Over at his blog Framing Science, Matthew Nisbet makes a very strong case that the rhetorical strategy of the Heartland Institute is exceedingly similar to that of the anti-evolutionist think tank the Discovery Institute. If so, it follows that the defenders of climate science ought to be at least as leery of outright engagement with Heartland as the defenders of evolutionary science are when it comes to engaging with Discovery.
The reason is that if you actually bother to rebut the Heartlands and Discoverys of the world, you instantly enter into a discourse on their own terms. The strategic framing these groups employ to attack mainstream science heavily features the rhetoric of scientific uncertainty….
The key issue is what Chris means by “battle climate skeptics.” I tend to agree it is pointless to debate them one on one, as the listening audience can hardly be expected to adjudicate scientific arguments, so it is a losing proposition, and I rarely waste my time doing it any more. And as I’ve recently blogged, I think it is also a waste of time (for me) to keep rebutting long-debunked denier talking points that someone posts in the comments of this blog.
But I do a lot of radio shows, and conservatives and libertarians (most, but not all, well-meaning people) inevitably call in, repeating old and new denier talking points. The same for lectures I give. I must rebut those points clearly and succinctly, or I will convince nobody. All progressives need to have that ability, even if they don’t give talks on the subject, but merely argue with a non-progressive friend or relative. So I feel some obligation on this blog to rebut new denier talking points — like the “Earth is cooling” crap. Indeed, that was one of the reasons this blog was created.
The other advantage of doing it on a blog is that one can build up an entire database of links about the problem and the solution, so I (and others) don’t have to keep rebutting the same points — you can just refer people to the relevant posts, either here or at the few other sites that do this.
That said, I am a big believer in strategic framing, which is why I use the word “delayer” more than “denier” [I still use the term denier occasionally, in headlines for instance, since it is better known]. Delayer or delayer-1000 focuses the debate on the need for action and makes clear that the goal of the deniers is to delay action. And that’s why I insist people who want to engage in a debate answer the question: “If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal and how would you achieve it?”
Because if we go to 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, then all debate and uncertainty in the science disappears — the planet’s livability will be destroyed for hundreds if not thousands of years.
I do not believe the climate issue has much analogy to the evolution issue. The creationists/intelligent-designers are mainly arguing over science in the public arena primarily because they don’t want evolution taught. The stakes are very low — at best you end up with some poorly educated kids and the country falls behind in bio-tech research that someone else will do.
The deniers/delayers are mainly arguing over science in the public arena because they don’t want action on climate. The stakes are enormous. If they succeed in delaying action much longer, we will be condemning the next 10 billion people who walk the earth to untold misery and strife. The public (and hence the media) needs to get the facts on climate science and climate solutions, much more than they need to get the facts about evolution (don’t get me wrong, though — scientists need to vigorously defend evolution).
And that means everybody needs to be educated about the science. Matt writes: