Five Signs of Denial

CNN has published an important article by John Cook outlining The 5 telltale techniques of climate change denial.

In summary, the five techniques are:

1. Fake experts
2. Logical fallacies
3. Impossible expectations
4. Cherry-picking
5. Conspiracy theory

The article gives more detail on each; it’s well worth a read.

It made me curious; if you were to pick a post, any post, from the WUWT blog, then read both the post and the reader comments which follow, how many of the 5 techniques would you find?


33 responses to “Five Signs of Denial

  1. John Cook and colleagues put on an interesting online course on this subject a while ago. Some of your readers may have taken it. I thought It was worthwhile. A self-paced version of the course is available:
    There is also a youtube channel with videos from the course:

  2. Methinks John is undertaking new data collection, the infuriated denialist comments on his CNN post are a perfect trove.

  3. I took Professor Cook’s course. On the whole it is good, and includes excellent interviews with climate scientists regarding their work, their findings, the climate, and their experience at being assailed by science deniers. One of the most moving is from Professor Katharine Hayhoe who has all the creds of an evangelical Christian, yet found herself very much in the crosshairs, and noted it was surprising that atheists and other humanists were the most supportive.

    There was a late section in the course I found less useful and interesting, one involving skills for helping convince deniers regarding the reality of climate change.

    Also, on the initial rollout, there were, for me, and for some others, some miscommunication regarding course expectations, due dates of assignments, and so on, such as participation in online discussions. I had time away in the middle of the course, known about when I signed up for a fee, but I did not think that was going to be a problem, etc.

    I think the offline course is a better format. But, oh, well, I’m sure it cost to put together and I don’t mind supporting such a worthy cause.

  4. I’d bet you’d find them all, plus the ever-popular unsupported mockery and/or smear.

    Of course, I can’t get too self-righteous about the mockery, as I do find comedic content in some denier contents, and have been known to react thereto in a similar fashion. But if it’s unsupported by anything else, well, it’s certainly fair to point that out.

  5. skeptictmac57

    I use to engage regularly with denialists and misinformed commenters on various blogs, but I now find it too depressing and frustrating. I am grateful for the people who have the tenacity, expertise and constitution strong enough to keep up the good fight.
    Now I prefer to do my part by contributing money when I can to at least feel like I am not completely helpless. It literally makes me ill reading the irrational ‘arguments’ and attacks by those who have been co-opted by the denial merchants.

    • In three or four years of observing such commenters on several media forums I’ve never seen one change his or her mind. Some have stopped due to what I assume is a loss of interest, debilitation or death (many of them appear to be pensioners), but I’ve not read a single one state “I was wrong, and here’s why I’ve changed my opinion.”

      Does engaging and rebutting such commenters prevent their misinformation from spreading? One can only hope, because it certainly isn’t sinking in with them.

      • I agree. No point trying to change the mind of a denialist. Do try and influence people who ask because they genuinely want to know more. Often these people don’t even want the details, just to know if you seriously believe that global warming is a serious problem.

      • Not the militant deniers. But I have had lurkers de-lurk to thank me for clearing up a question or confusion that they had had.

      • Over the years I’ve seen, count ’em, one example of a persistent denialist commenter change his mind.

      • And, come to think of it, I have the impression that the worse the dialectic drubbing the denialist takes (from my perspective), the more likely he/she is to crow about how they are ‘winning the debate.’

  6. To me, one of the most telling is simultaneously supporting many contradictory alternative theories.

    e.g. It’s the sun! (So climate sensitivity must be high.) CO2 isn’t a significant greenhouse gas! (So climate sensitivity is low.) It isn’t warming! (Wait, I thought it was the sun?) Humans aren’t responsible for the CO2 increase! (Riiiight….) It’s beneficial! (Wait, I thought it wasn’t warming and we weren’t responsible for the CO2 increase?) etc.

    • skeptictmac57

      And of course the conversation ender ” Okay, it’s real, it’s bad, it’s us, but Libs (read commies,socialists) will destroy the world economy (on purpose implied) trying to fix it, and kill all of the poor unfortunates in the third world who only want to have what we have” (oh, they are soooo compassionate,aren’t they?)
      No mention of the opportunities for economic growth by developing new technologies that are more friendly to the environment, and the reduction of future costly negative impacts on society that are caused by greenhouse gases.
      They are engaged in a high stakes shell game, and the uninformed public is their dupe.

      • skeptictmac57 wrote:

        And of course the conversation ender ” Okay, it’s real, it’s bad, it’s us, but Libs (read commies,socialists) will destroy the world economy (on purpose implied) trying to fix it

        Over at CNN I pointed to the revenue neutral carbon taxes — which seem to be a net economic benefit even in the short run, citing what’s working in British Columbia, and mentioning a study modelling the effects of a hypothetical high revenue neutral carbon tax on the California state economy.

        Over there, I wrote:

        “Revenue neutral to who and where does the money go in this revenue neutral solution[?].” Revenue neutral means that it is neither increasing nor decreasing the amount of money being received by the government. And in Hansen’s approach, this means an equal dividend being given to each citizen.

        Other approaches include reducing other taxes by the same amount as the revenue that would otherwise be generated by the carbon tax itself, e.g., sales tax and income tax. Thus even someone on the far right* e.g., a follower of Grover Norquist who has taken the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”, shouldn’t have a problem with this sort of approach.

        For an example of where this has already been implemented, all you have to do is look North a little to British Columbia. From “The Economist” –

        “BC’s levy started at C$10 ($9) a tonne in 2008 and rose by C$5 each year until it reached C$30 per tonne in 2012. That works out to 7 cents of the C$1.35 per litre Vancouver residents pay at the pump to fill up their vehicles. Because the tax must, by law in BC, be revenue-neutral, the province has cut income and corporate taxes to offset the revenue it gets from taxing carbon. BC now has the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada and one of the lowest corporate rates in North America, too.”

        Before the tax, British Columbia’s GDP was falling more quickly than the rest of Canada. As the tax and offsets (decrease in other taxes) have grown, British Columbia’s GDP growth rate has increased more rapidly than the rest of Canada. There is some pain to some industries, but for tax payers and the economy as a whole, it would appear to be a net benefit.

        A study of how a similar revenue neutral tax in California suggests that state would benefit, too, even if they decided to implement this simply at the state level, independently of what the rest of the United States does. It also suggests that the net economic benefit of a high revenue neutral carbon tax offset by an equal reduction in other taxes would be considerably greater than Hansen’s tax-and-dividend approach, but both would be a net benefit to the economy.

        *Someone who is opposed to all increases in taxes, even those for supporting education, rebuilding our highway infrastructure or enforcing pollution regulations that protect people from carcinogens and toxins

    • TrueSceptic

      Not much has changed since I came up with the following in 2008, has it?

      You might wonder if you should be a Global Warming Sceptic and I thought it might be useful to show you how easy it is.

      Just choose any combination of the following beliefs.
      Don’t worry if you choose the “wrong” ones to start with: you can change any time and as often as you like.
      Don’t worry if your choices contradict one another or any that you had previously.
      If any of your claims are shown to be false or irrelevant, don’t apologise or even admit it: just move onto another one!
      Go back to ones previously discredited whenever you like.

      Global Warming is a creation of the media and they keep ramming it down our throats.

      Global Warming is just a scare tactic thought up by governments to make us use less coal and oil.

      Governments don’t really believe it or they would ban thirsty cars.

      Belief in GW is a religion with fanatical followers. It is almost impossible to reason with them.

      Anyone who doesn’t believe in the GW consensus is a heretic. Heretics are usually right in the end. Just look at Galileo and Darwin.

      In the 1970s climate scientists said that we were heading into an Ice Age. Why should we believe them now?

      Weather forecasters can’t predict the weather a week in advance so how can anyone predict the climate 10, 20, or 50 years ahead?

      GW is a conspiracy created by the left-green elite to tax and control us all.

      Climate scientists are part of this conspiracy. They all know one other so they can get away with this quite easily.

      The scientists invented the GW theory so they can keep getting research grants.

      Other scientists, and especially the national bodies such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences, are part of the conspiracy.

      Most scientists are honest. The real conspiracy is in the IPCC, which distorts and misrepresents their work for ideological reasons. There is no real scientific consensus.

      Climate models are just a collection of formulae tweaked to produce results that are close to measurements.

      Climate models might be based on physics but it’s all so uncertain that the results are meaningless.

      It’s not getting warmer at all. The figures and graphs produced by the climate scientists are all doctored and can’t be trusted.

      The figures don’t need to be doctored: lots of the weather stations are unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out.

      The warming seems to have levelled off so the figures and graphs might be OK after all.

      China is having the coldest winter for 50 years so obviously GW can’t be happening.

      Temperatures have stopped increasing so GW must be a hoax.

      It has got warmer but it’s nothing to do with us. It’s all to do with natural cycles.

      It was much warmer millions of years ago and we weren’t around then so how can we be the cause now?

      The Medieval Warm Period was at least as warm as it is now. The Vikings colonised Greenland and grapes were grown in Britain.

      Mars has been getting warmer too, so it must be something outside the Earth.

      It’s electrical heating caused by the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

      It’s caused by increases in the sun’s output.

      It’s all to do with sunspots. Or cosmic rays.

      It’s caused by changes in the Earth’s core.

      The so-called greenhouse gases don’t cause warming. It’s a lie told by the scientists. What really happens is that the temperature rises first and the CO2 follows.

      It can’t be caused by greenhouse gases because they are only a small part of the atmosphere and can’t have much effect.

      Cows produce more greenhouse gas than anything we do.

      CO2 is measured on Mauna Loa, an active volcano that spews out CO2, so how can the measurements be accurate?

      Volcanoes produce more CO2 each year than all the factories and cars and planes and other sources of man-made carbon dioxide put together so how can we make any difference?

      Greenhouse gases are the cause and global warming is a good thing. More CO2 means that plants will grow faster and who likes being cold? We should increase CO2 output!

      Global warming is happening but we have no idea if it will be a good or bad thing. We should just wait and see.

      Global warming is happening and it’s mainly our fault but we can’t do anything about it anyway. Even if we cut our emissions, China and India will more than make up the difference.

      • skeptictmac57

        Pretty comprehensive, but you left out “Al Gore is fat (or Al Gore blah blah blah…anything really, as long as it’s done with a sneer).
        Oh, and “Climategate!”

      • I didn’t expect the “Al Gore is a fat liberal hypocrite” thing to have any legs so I missed it out (mistake!). This was 2008, so no “Climategate”. I’ve been meaning to update the list a few times but never managed to do that.

  7. how about no 7 [see above for 6]- illogical fallacies, some of the comments on the CNN site are terrifying if the commentators allowed to do things like use scissors, have children, vote..

  8. The denialosphere is a case study in anti-science. Both science and anti-science seek to explain an observed set of facts. The difference is that the very nature of scientific explanation opens up new questions, new hypotheses that can be investigated and confirmed or falsified. Science by its very nature stimulates curiosity.

    Anti-science by contrast attempts to satiate curiosity, posing no new questions or hypotheses. It weaves Just-So stories that may satisfy in the short term, but ultimately merely dull the intellect.

  9. Had trouble re-finding it

    Related, this Ars Tecnica report of Heartland’s 2015 conference is excellent, and makes the same observation.

  10. FLwolverine

    Here’s one (impossible expectations?) recently encountered at WeatherUnderground: “How can I believe in climate change when you (hypocritical climate change doomsayer) are still driving a car and using a computer?”

    Followed by: “Anyway, this GW stuff is just another way to take money out of the taxpayer’s pocket.”


  11. Horatio Algeranon


    The Pentragram of Denial
    Is like a Kafka trial
    With mindless incantations
    And pics of surface stations

  12. Dick Veldkamp

    Cook’s article seems very similar to Diethelm & McKee (2009) who said pretty much the same things:

    Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?

  13. Susan Anderson

    Can’t resist. Don’t know why y’all think denial is subject to reason or correction:

    ‘I’ve tried the roots of trees, and I’ve tried banks, and I’ve tried hedges,’ the Pigeon went on, without attending to her; `but those serpents! There’s no pleasing them!’
    ‘As if it wasn’t trouble enough hatching the eggs,’ said the Pigeon; `but I must be on the look-out for serpents night and day! Why, I haven’t had a wink of sleep these three weeks!’
    ‘And just as I’d taken the highest tree in the wood,’ continued the Pigeon, raising its voice to a shriek, `and just as I was thinking I should be free of them at last, they must needs come wriggling down from the sky! Ugh, Serpent!’
    ‘Well! what are you?’ said the Pigeon. `I can see you’re trying to invent something!’
    ‘A likely story indeed!’ said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt.”

    I have to admit I’ve trotted this out before, but thinking there is anything scientists can do to correct these misconceptions is to attribute thought and mind where these are largely absent.

    Snarkrates touches on one bit of it, which is that those of narrow mind cannot conceive of what an open and skeptical mind might be like.

  14. …if you were to pick a post, any post, from the WUWT blog, then read both the post and the reader comments which follow, how many of the 5 techniques would you find?

    Logical fallacy is at least almost ubiquitous there, if not actually so.

    And in the policy expositions of Australian conservative politicians, the engaging of logical fallacy is a mandatory prerequisite before any mouth can be opened.

  15. Susan Anderson

    Good bit on DailyKos:

    “Science is hard, so it must be wrong” (poster illustration)

  16. Horatio Algeranon

    “…if you were to pick a post, any post, from the WUWT blog, then read both the post and the reader comments which follow, how many of the 5 techniques would you find?”

    At least 6.

  17. “In three or four years of observing such commenters on several media forums I’ve never seen one change his or her mind.”

    The important person to bear in mind when you’re deep in yet another pointless exchange with a nameless dimwit is not the dimwit. It’s the dozen or so lurkers or visitors who never comment. You’ll never know what effect your arguments might have on those people, but at least you haven’t let the incorrect facts or the fallacious arguments stand unchallenged to be taken at their face value.

    There are far more readers and visitors to most blogs and forums than there are active participants. If you’re to influence people’s understanding of whatever-it-is – climate, vaccines, evolution, germ theory – then you patiently address the daft individual much as a schoolteacher does with a stubborn student, with words addressed to the individual but most of their attention on the rest of the class who aren’t being silly but would benefit from hearing it all again.

    • Dick Veldkamp


      I have often thought myself that one is countering nonsense in web discussions for the benefit of the people who do not comment, rather than to try to convince the denier you are talking to.

      However it would be interesting to know if this is the case, and to have answers toquestions like:
      – What is the percentage of commenters vs total readers? [That is the easy one]
      – How many readers are sitting on the fence and are swayed by the arguments?
      – If (as I suspect) most readers of this blog (and others like it) are already convinced of the facts, do they benefit?

      Regarding the last point: it seems to me that any reasonable person can see the main thing: “It is the trend, stupid”, while deniers are always concentrating on noise.(by noise I also mean small differences between databases etc. – it simply does not matter in the grand scheme of things).

      Still I think it helps much that Tamino takes apart the denialist claptrap rigourously time and again. Let’s put it this way: whenever I mention some statistical aspect of GW in some discussion, I knowthere is 100%+ high quality backup. The quantitative analysis HAS been done (here!), and I can refer to it any time I need to.

    • Dick Veldkamp

      And I forget to mention that I also find the analyses presented here very clear and interesting! ;-)

    • My goal in commenting in response to deniers indeed is for lurkers to get at least some info. I’m most interested in having lurkers visit sources of good info such as Tamino’s blog, so they at least have an opportunity to learn more not just about that one topic I linked about. I’m especially desirous of having such links visible in perpetuity at the top of the thread, after the commenting has reduced and after the commenting has been disabled. To minimize my time, often I wait until comment threads slow down, so my comments-with-links don’t immediately sink down the thread where no one will bother to scroll.