New book aims to reclaim scientific skepticism
An assertion frequently found in the comments sections of
websites - and sometimes in national
media - is that there is no credible evidence for climate
For several years now one of the best resources available to
rebut this claim (and the many others that come with it) has been
the blog Skeptical
Science. Founded by Australian John Cook, the site sets out its
mission on its home page:
"Scientific skepticism is healthy.
Scientists should always challenge themselves to expand their
knowledge and improve their understanding. Yet this isn't what
happens in global warming skepticism. Skeptics vigorously criticise
any evidence that supports man-made global warming and yet
uncritically embrace any argument, op-ed piece, blog or study that
refutes global warming."
So this website gets skeptical about global warming skepticism. Do
their arguments have any scientific basis? What does the peer
reviewed scientific literature say?"
The website specializes in laying out the arguments of climate
sceptics, and in explaining patiently, honestly and accessibly the
reams of evidence to the contrary.
Now Cook has released a book. Entitled "
Climate Change Denial: heads in the sand" it is
co-authored with environmental scientist
Hadyn Washington and
billed as an "an in-depth examination of the social
science behind denial" - particularly denial of climate change.
The introduction kicks off with some 'no-messing around' semantics
"The Oxford English Dictionary
definition of a skeptic is 'a seeker after truths; an enquirer who
has not yet arrived at definite conclusions'"
"….refusing to accept the overwhelming
'preponderance of evidence' is not skepticism. It is denial and
should be called by its true name".
Perhaps the strongest part of the book deals with a
categorization of the main climate sceptic/denier arguments -
separating them into five types: conspiracy theories; fake experts;
impossible expectations; misrepresentations and logical fallacies
The evidence behind nine of the main skeptic challenges to
climate science are then examined - including that "climategate
proves conspiracy" (=conspiracy), "climate models are unreliable"
(=impossible expectations), "temperature measurements are
unreliable" (=cherry-picking) or the reliable standby, "global
warming stopped in 1998" (=the ultimate in cherry-picking).
This is Skeptical Science's bread and butter, and Cook and
Hadyn's book makes clear the inconsistencies and flaws in these
arguments very well. The explanations are accessible and make use
of some great metaphors - for example that the argument that
"climate change has occurred naturally in the past and therefore
must be natural now" is
"….akin to saying 'forest fires have
occurred naturally in the past so any current forest fires must be
The publicists of "Climategate" continue to
present climate science as a corrupt entity, separate from the
rest of science and inherently uncertain and untrustworthy.
"Climate Change Denial" rebuts this by giving a useful explanation
of the scientific method as a whole - a discipline which "thrives
on disagreement". Without putting "science" on a pedestal (or in an
ivory tower), it argues that
"At least science tries to be objective,
tries to seek the truth, and has a philosophy of challenging its
biases and beliefs, not adhering to blind faith of blind denial.
Denial does not do this, it is about refusal to believe the
The second half of the book treats us to a whistlestop tour of
the theory behind denial as a human condition, its history, its
application to climate change and to environmental damage generally
- both in individual psychology and in government. The book asks
"why do we let denial prosper?" - emphasizing that is happens
"because we let it".
The industry of denial has been well covered elsewhere, but Cook
and Hadyn are at pains to emphasise that there is also something in
it for all of us in failing to look reality in the face. Finally,
they take on some of the solutions - psychological, political and
The book does not shy away from the big questions - like the
need to change our worldview of economic growth ("…a fetish, even a
God of both the Left and the Right"). Those more familiar with this
area may feel they have read some of it before somewhere (it relies
fairly heavily for example on previous work by George Monbiot, Mike
Hulme and Naomic Oreskes amongst others) - but just as with
Skeptical Science, that isn't really the point. The book is
addressed, in its own words, to
"…people who are true 'skeptics' looking
to for the truth. People who are willing to stop deluding
themselves. People who will seek to bridge the gap between concern
And with that in mind, the book has the virtue of thoughtful
accessibility, and is an excellent primer for anyone getting
interested in this area and looking for a good overview.