Stop Debunking Climate Change Deniers

Phil Plait is that exotic creature, the public intellectual. Armed with a PhD in astronomy, he writes with lucid force about scientific research, and about the people who misinterpret it. His articles attack everyone from climate change deniers to creationists to, well, still more climate change deniers. (There are a lot of climate change deniers). He’s the type of guy that a young writer, focusing on scientific topics, will find himself looking up to.

Earlier this month, as part of the Climate Desk collaboration, Plait wrote an essay titled “Why Debunk Climate Change Deniers?” Plait explained that he does so unwillingly: “It’s no fun writing about this kind of thing. I hate it. I hate having to do it.” But, understandably, Plait sees debunking as his duty: “The more people who can show these claims for what they are—wrong, willfully or otherwise—the better.”

Plait’s commitment to facts is admirable. But it’s time to realize that, perhaps, the style of aggressive debunking that Plait practices is not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive. As I’ve argued before, climate change denial is a sociological phenomenon, not a strictly scientific one, and its most effective response may be found less in scientific attack, and more in the realm of sociology, psychology, and, yes, religion.

To understand why debunking may be harmful, it helps to read Judith Shulevitz’s recent, excellent piece at the New Republic, This Is How You Should Talk to a Climate-Change Denier.” Shulevitz, drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, makes the seemingly obvious point that human decision making and risk assessment aren’t especially rational. Simply put: scientific facts do not, as a rule, sway science denialists. That’s the whole problem, right?

Shulevitz goes on to point out that, for many people, it’s actually pretty rational to listen to group opinions, and not disembodied facts:

Risk assessment by groupthink is reasonable, if not rational, because, at the personal level, it costs nothing. If you misconstrue the nature of a global threat, your mistake won’t hurt you much, because you can’t save yourself anyway. But if you contradict your friends or powerful members of your group—that could cost you dearly.

The challenge, then, is not just to produce more facts, or better narratives, but to understand how those facts and narratives will translate across social barriers. That’s where Yale psychologist Dan Kahan (not to be confused with the aforementioned Daniel Kahneman) comes in. Kahan, Shulevitz writes, studies “how to present science so that it won’t be entangled with issues of ‘membership and loyalty to a group.’” Speaking to Shulevitz, Kahan argues that it’s essential for science communicators “not to use language or modes of communication that convey animosity, contempt, and hostility.”

A strident article, then, that debunks a piece of climate change denial is not only unlikely to change anyone’s mind. It runs the risk of conveying animosity and drawing those lines more sharply.

Shulevitz doesn’t talk about religion, but her essay makes points that should be apparent from a religious (or a religious studies) perspective. Like it or not, human beings tend to form and reinforce beliefs in a communal way. And it’s personal contact that changes minds, not just good ideas. Diplomacy, in other words, might be a lot more effective than debunking. “Sometimes democracy is less a matter of thinking well,” Shulevitz writes, “than of choosing your friends wisely.”

In that diplomatic spirit, there’s a whole movement of thinkers devoted to environmental theology, and other reconciliations between environmentalist ideas and scriptural messages. Frankly, that effort seems too intellectual to appeal to most religious practitioners, but too broad in its interpretation and too predetermined in its hermeneutic goals for many intellectuals (although I’d be delighted to be convinced otherwise).

And, in fact, the opposite tack may be necessary: religious groups actually have a unique ability to help uncouple the facts from ideologies, rather than entangle them with new ones. Advocacy organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), which combines evangelical Christianity with passionate advocacy on behalf of environmental issues, including climate change, do exactly what a debunking cannot: remind us that the facts transcend particular groups, and that the threat of climate change is an issue that we all must face.

Look, someone does need to assert the facts. But when it comes to tone, Plait and other debunkers would do well to observe organizations like the EEN, and think more like curious and concerned neighbors, and less like lecturing professors. After all, if you don’t think that scientific facts should be the stuff of a culture war (and they shouldn’t be), then don’t act like a culture warrior.