COLUMN: If Facts Can’t Defuse Deniers, What Can?

The View From Fly Creek

If Facts Can’t Defuse

Deniers, What Can?

‘What is Truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asked. Lately, it seems a bigger question than ever. If, like me, you surf between conservative and liberal websites, Fox News and CNN/MSNBC, talk radio and PBS, Sean Hannity and Alan Chartock, you know that you’re getting radically different, irreconcilable
versions of the truth on virtually any subject.

It’s scary.

The other day, driving down Fly Creek valley, it was Glenn Beck on the radio making fun of people worried about climate change, something President Trump calls a “hoax.” Trump, in a recent tweet, approvingly quoted a renegade Greenpeace activist, Patrick Moore, who says:

“The whole climate crisis is not only Fake News, it’s Fake Science.”

There are policy implications as well. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is planning to alter the reporting of the government’s “National Climate Assessment” to eliminate projections for the years after 2040. That’s when the worse consequences of greenhouse gas emissions are expected to kick in.

Many conservatives reduce climate change to nothing more than liberal propaganda: a tactic by the left to frighten people into submission while providing a handy excuse to centralize government power and move towards socialism.

Call this Climate Change Denial. One is reminded of other, similar Denials, including Holocaust Denial, the denial that priests ever abuse children, or that smoking causes cancer.

What these denials all have in common is a rejection of overwhelming factual evidence. Photos, documents, and testimony about Nazi extermination camps are brushed aside or said to be fakes.

Accounts of child abuse are dismissed as preposterous. The established correlation between smoking and lung cancer is reduced to speculation.

In the case of climate change, the documented accelerating effects of humanly generated greenhouse gases warming the planet are simply ignored.

This in spite of a near consensus among climate scientists.

An oft-quoted statistic states that something like 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the evidence shows that human activity – using fossil fuels – is the main factor driving climate change.

This near-scientific consensus is blown off by climate deniers. One wonders if they would reject a medical diagnosis given by 97 percent of doctors, or legal advice given by 97 percent of lawyers. That would be considered, by most of us, classic cases of denial.They key tactic of deniers is to find any dissenting opinion at all, and use that to argue that the issue in question remains unsettled.

If you’re an addicted smoker, if you benefited by the appropriation of Jewish property during the war, if you’re a church trying to avoid scandal, or if your economic security depends on the continued use of fossil fuels, then you have an incentive to deny that smoking causes cancer, that the Jews were dispossessed and murdered, that priests molest children, or that humanly created greenhouse gases cause global warming.

Deniers come down on the side of calling something into question just because it’s been disputed. It’s a clever strategy that substitutes opinion for evidence, and it’s become a staple of fake news. It turns into denial when it persists in the face of overwhelming evidence.

This allows climate-change deniers, Holocaust deniers, child-abuse deniers, cigarettes-cause-cancer deniers, and other deniers to sound reasonable. I have my opinion, you have yours, they say, while subverting the truth.

Denial isn’t a monopoly of conservatives, to be sure. Many liberals, for instance, deny that globalization has dramatically increased economic inequality, or that open borders have negative consequences, or that there are gender differences, or that Trump voters are anything other than stupid, misguided “deplorables.”

Indeed, who among us hasn’t fallen into denial at some point in our lives? If I’m focusing here on climate change Denial, it’s because climate change is arguably the most disruptive challenge we face. It’s a denial we can no longer afford.

Absolute certainty isn’t required to make informed, rational decisions. What’s necessary is an objective, reliable standard of evidence, not uniformity of opinion. There will always be outliers who reject objective standards, out of fear, greed, or sheer craziness.

In such psychological states, objectivity itself is denied. Truth, by contrast, is what we normally observe in our common experience, including what we are most likely to experience in the future. We ignore it at our peril.

Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.


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