Democracy & ignorance: climate deniers and climate believers

Behind many of today’s challenges is the problem of ignorance. That’s not to deprecate or disparage the intellectual capacity of citizens or their desire to be well-informed. The proliferation and complexity of knowledge and the segmentation of disciplines and expertise means there is just too much for anyone to absorb it all. This is a problem for policy-setting in democracies; climate science is one example.

That some people remain unconvinced about the dangers to human security that climate science predicts poses an unfathomable mystery to many climate believers. Believers also tend to associate climate denial with moral failure. But it’s not that simple. Most people who believe in anthropogenic climate change and believe we are in a climate crisis are not likely to be sufficiently science literate to have read the science with a critical eye themselves. They largely take the science on trust.

In the same way, climate deniers generally are not deeply familiar with the ins-and-outs of the science. Their denial probably comes from a mixture of listening to who they trust and their general scepticism of experts. Their views are more likely to be formed by an intuitive sense that the alarmist projections of the scientists are at odds with their lived experience rather than being formed by disagreement with the methodology of the scientists, the soundness of their analysis, their modelling strategies, or their hypothesis forming. They often look on believers as ideologically driven environmentalist or as part of some conspiracy.

Both these groups—believers and deniers—are subject to being convinced about climate change. On this and other issues, the normal citizen is too busy putting in long hours at work, engaging with the complexities of modern family life, and staying on top of the demand of new information that directly affect them, to generate the time to master the knowledge required to form expert opinions on a vast and every growing array of technical and scientific facts.

It is as unrealistic to expect believers and deniers to become experts on climate change as on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing or any of the other complex issues that will affect their future. In any event, in many areas of scientific endeavour, and indeed the history of science is a tale of, verities are regularly being overturned and new paradigms being accepted. To the interest observer firm scientific knowledge seems transitory—even in hard sciences like physics, cosmology, and genetics.

Those excuses don’t wash for politicians. In government politicians have access to enormous intellectual resources. They should be well informed on the science of climate change from reliable experts coming from a variety of perspectives in the public service, from advisory bodies, and academia. It’s not, though, that politicians will eventually learn to understand the language of science but that believers expect they must increasingly accept its primacy.

Still, implementation will always involve choosing among policy options. A believer’s naïve view of science might assume that once the “scientific truth” is accepted the path ahead will be clear. But the whole notion of credible alternatives is a necessary prerequisite for democratic decision-making. Democracy depends on choice. Climate scientists and climate believers might think that because this is about natural processes—atmospheric gases, surface albedo, and the thermal expansion of the oceans—there is no room for politics? But that’s wrong.

The real puzzle is why despite the lack of any real disputes within the community of climate scientists, so many recipients of climate knowledge—policymakers, journalists, activists, and citizens—still doubt its validity. The scientific research isn’t challenged or contested by other scientists.

Well, there are many factors and they don’t just affect members of any particular group. Believers see malign motives behind think tanks and prominent media personalities and outlets that push denialist positions. And this has some justification. There is ample evidence overtime of vested interests in the form of the tobacco, mining, pharmaceutical, energy, and nuclear industries funding think thanks or paying for pseudo-scientific knowledge to be produced to protect their financial interests. This phenomena has given rise to the study of agnotology or culturally induced ignorance. Still, a number of influential deniers might be genuine.

Equally many deniers see green, environmental, and climate-friendly think tanks and institutes as propaganda vehicles. For citizens to be cynical about self-proclaimed experts lacking scientific backgrounds claiming to deny the science no less rational than doubting those claiming exclusive access to the truth and advocating radical solutions.

One explanation of the deniers can be found in the notion of ontological security. This refers to the importance of certainty to rational cognition and establishing routines as a way of dealing with the threat of uncertainty, disruption and crisis. In some people meaning is found in experiencing positive and stable emotions, and by avoiding chaos and anxiety. This can cause rejection and a refusal to consider existential issues or accept major change.

Personally I’m a strong believer in the science and rail at what I see as the propagation of misinformation in the media, in books and in think tank reports. The prevarication of ministers and politicians who should know better incenses me. But in the end I’m just a believer not a scientist. Yet, common-sense, struggling to understand published research, and observations over a life time give me confidence that the threat is real.

The persistence of ignorance because of ontological security or agnotology or for whatever reason is not just retarding the necessary action on climate change. It is a threat to democracy. Unless policies are at their core firmly rooted in the best evidence and science, and unless the increasing volume and complexity of important knowledge can be packaged up in a way that policy advisors and politicians can digest and then communicate effectively to voters, and in a form that builds trust and overcomes fears, then democratic trust will continue on its downward spiral. Failed policies based on marketing undermine our political institutions, and Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s 29 January 2020 address to the National Press Club doesn’t cut it.

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Published 5 February 2020 in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.