Lessons In Climate Newspeak: How To Make A Sociologist Sound Orwellian

by Ros Donald, via The Carbon Brief

“‘If you don’t believe in climate change you must be sick’: Oregon professor likens skepticism to racism,” read an article published on the Daily Mail‘s website over the weekend. But this Orwellian news of a villainous conspiracy to cure dissenters looks like little more than one more example of the Mail’s willingness to add … selective reporting to its daily churn.

Professor Kari Marie Norgaard, to whom the views are attributed, presented a paper at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London last week. Norgaard and her colleagues had conducted a study to examine “cultural inertia as a social process” in the case of the policy measures that are needed to tackle climate change. She says that the climate change message damages our perception of ourselves because it raises “fear about the future, a sense of helplessness and guilt”.

It is a little bit difficult to know where the Mail got its claim that Norgaard “suggest[ed]  that doubters need to have a ‘sickness'” — but it appears to be attributing it to a sentence in the press release:

“Resistance at individual and societal levels must be recognized and treated before real action can be taken to effectively address threats facing the planet from human-caused contributions to climate change.”

Treated! As in sickness – get it? We were at the professor’s talk at the Planet Under Pressure conference last week and heard no suggestion Norgaard considers skeptics to be sick. It looks rather more like some bright spark at The Register (which incidentally left out the other half of the sentence, therefore divorcing it from the context) made that connection. The paper itself isn’t yet available but you can see some of her previous work along similar lines here and here.

The University of Oregon has since removed the offending word from the press release, along with Norgaard’s email, prompting hue and cry at the skeptic website Watts Up With That. There, the thought is briefly entertained that she may want to avoid receiving unpleasant emails, before being brushed aside in favour of dark murmurings about a Communist plot.

The second press release quote exercising The Register and the Mail is:

“‘This kind of cultural resistance to very significant social threat is something that we would expect in any society facing a massive threat,’ she said. The discussion, she said, is comparable to what happened with challenges to racism or slavery in the U.S. South.”

Is this the same as “comparing skepticism to racism”? In the press release, Norgaard used the example of attitudes to race, but taken in context it looks far more likely that she is making a comparison to historical instances when societies resisted fundamental changes, not the attitudes themselves . As her abstract says:

“Using ethnographic and interview data we describe the powerful processes that work at the psychological, institutional, and societal levels to maintain the current orientations and ensure social stability in spite of the evident imperative for change.”


The sickness analogy is an interesting demonstration of the blogosphere’s role as a test bed for skeptic memes.

It appears that the repackaging of Norgaard’s research as a Clockwork Orange-style call to re-educate the masses first appeared in the information technology blog The Register (which has a curious skeptical line) on 30th April.

The Mail appears to have borrowed heavily from the piece, judging by the similarity in the first paragraphs of both pieces. James Delingpole of the Telegraph also reproduced comments from The Register – without linking to Norgaard’s work.

How an IT blog became the Mail’s source of choice when it comes to skeptic framing of climate change issues we don’t know, but the same food chain process was evident in last week’s Mail story about the Medieval Warm Period. Now, with a hat tip to the Mail article, US skeptic stalwart Rush Limbaugh is also repeating The Register’s framing – with his own fruity brand of speculation about everything from Norgaard’s political leanings to her love of camping.

Skeptic blog Prison Planet – also quoted in the Delingpole piece – encapsulates the extent to which Norgaard’s words have been exaggerated:

“The effort to re-brand legitimate scientific dissent as a mental disorder that requires pharmacological or psychological treatment is a frightening glimpes [sic] into the Brave New World society climate change alarmists see themselves as ruling over.”

Quite. And lo, by the power of inference, a sociologist from Oregon turns into Big Brother or, according to Delingpole, controversial Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko.

This piece was originally published at The Carbon Brief and was re-printed with permission.

6 Responses to Lessons In Climate Newspeak: How To Make A Sociologist Sound Orwellian

  1. M Tucker says:

    The scientific dissent expressed is a red herring. They simply want to sow confusion and outrage among the scientifically illiterate to support the fossil fuel industry. It is all about protecting that massively powerful interest. They will twist any report, statement, blog, email, or tweet to foster this outrage. They are the tip of the spear of the fight to protect business as usual and the more outrageous the arguments the better they like it. Inertia is on their side and we will not see any change in this situation for a long time to come.

  2. EDpeak says:

    She may not have called it illness, and I do *not* personally think they are all ill, but some of them? Well, some of them are liars.

    And some of them? Some deniers indeed suffer from an ‘ism’, not racism but market-fundamentalism that says, if a market failure causes the markets to say 1+1=3, then the fault is with arithmetic, not the market and likewise, if clearly maximize-short-term-profits (and externalize costs as much as possible, as corporations’ mandates pushes them towards doing) if that causes massive environmental damage, then deny the damage…that’s a sad “ism” that is exactly how a very larger number of ‘deniers’ act. Many of the general public are well meaning and have been mislead (remember WMDs?) the media outlets and ‘pundits’ but some deniers, including media and punditry leaders, know they are lying, and know the facts, or else they have deliberately worked hard to avoid finding out.

    Anyone who’s looked at the graphs of CO2 over the last 650,000 or 800,000 years and knows what the heck the Precautionary Principle is, knows that we cannot continue business as usual with a devil-may-care attitude.

  3. Tim says:

    Climate Progress, reading (*) so you don’t have to.

    * = The Daily Mail, FOX “News”, Washington Times, etc.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mistake No.1-taking any notice of the Daily Mail. Mistake No.2-refuting the serendipitous, but correct, inference that denialists are suitable cases for treatment. There are different classes of denialists, requiring different treatments. The genuinely ignorant, but of middling intelligence, can simply be informed. The honestly dull will require more intense work. The liars, confusionists, disinformers, ie the bulk of the professional denialist industry, will require isolation, as with a plague, ideally in a distant galaxy, but, lacking ‘Stargates’ or wormholes, we’ll just have to rely on good old social ostracism.

  5. Climate change denial is all part of the ancient curse of human greed. It is more a state of being than it is a disease. Humans inevitably think they can push the risk envelope when their own material interests could stand to benefit.

    The fossil fuel industries supporting climate change denial are looking at all the money they will make off of a finite and depleting resource. Their eyes are fixed on a golden prize. But they continue to muffle and ignore the voices of reason that are telling them that their continued peddling of these fuels represents extreme risk. Perhaps the most extreme risk in all of human civilization.

    Yet the fossil fuel interests are hell-bent to play their game.

    Sickness? No. Greed? Overwhelmingly, yes.

  6. J4zonian says:

    If they’re liars that has 2 parts: one, that they know the truth about climate catastrophe and two, that they knowingly misstate the facts and use other tactics to deceive and confuse people and delay action. But if someone knows that climate change is likely to cause massive disruption, even collapse, of civilization, and maybe the extinction of humanity as well as millions of other species, and lies about it anyway, what does that say about their mental health? And if they continue to not know in the face of overwhelming evidence contradicting what they say they believe, what does that say about their health? What could cause someone to block the truth from their consciousness at either of those levels and collaborate in the imminent death of billions, even the destruction of the biosphere, for the sake of profits for a few people and corporations and the avoidance of some increase in government power? The contradictions of this overwhelm the argument that it’s simply “lying”. (How could they be so afraid of government power but so oblivious to the vastly more wealthy and powerful corporate power madness–unless it’s not conscious lying but psychological disturbance that’s the problem?

    So even if they’re lying on some level, about some part of the story, there are deeper truths they’re not willing to admit to themselves. Or there is a connection to other humans, and other beings, they’re not willing or able to feel. Either is such a high level of dissociation that it’s the definition of a psychological problem. People who were so unable to feel connection as that used to called psychopaths. (That’s been superseded in the bible of psychological diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV).

    The only answer to the question I so often end up asking about denialists and other extremists, “Are they lying, stupid or crazy?” is “Yes. All of the above.”