The two faces of denial

If scientific authority is to produce its democratic goods, it needs to be reimagined and reconstructed in ways that go with the grain of an increasingly mobile and well-resourced audience of critical citizens.

Alfred Moore
18 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

What is the significance of conspiracy talk in recent public debates about climate change? By conspiracy talk I don’t just mean conspiracy theories. I mean the ways in which people talk about conspiracy, accuse others of being conspiracy theorists, or deny that they are conspiracy theorists.

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Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.All rights reserved.When we look at the climate change debate today, two families of conspiracy talk stand out, and they both centre on the affair known as ‘climategate.’

The giant hoax

On November 17 2009 thousands of emails and computer files stored on servers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) were copied and released to various online locations (it is still not clear if they were leaked or stolen). Many of the emails were from the CRU’s then director, professor Phil Jones. The CRU is a small centre, but it has been central to the development of datasets on global climate and the development of computer models to analyse and represent that data. And scientists at the CRU were also part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reviewing process. The story got huge exposure.

The publication of the CRU emails prompted a number of investigations (such as this one by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee), none of which found evidence of scientific fraud. Indeed, the formal investigations into the emails have largely concurred with Phil Jones’ own defence: that much of the scandal comes from confusion over the meaning of the backstage language used in the emails. However, critics of the climate scientists thought that the emails served to pluck the mask of consensus from the face of climate science (to adapt a phrase from Bentham).

Critics treated the emails as a glimpse behind the veil, as evidence that behind the apparent consensus on climate science lay a conspiracy of scientists, suppressing uncomfortable data and attempting to manipulate the peer review process. James Delingpole, the UK journalist who broke the story, commented that ‘[t]he conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth ... has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed after a hacker broke into the computers at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit... and released 61 megabytes of confidential files onto the internet.’

And US Senator James Inhofe wrote: ‘Climategate finally destroyed what was left of the facade of the 'consensus'. Contrary to their repeated public assertions that the 'science is settled', the emails show climate scientists were arguing over critical issues, questioning key methods and statistical techniques, expressing concerns about historical periods (such as whether the Medieval Warming Period [MWP] was global in extent) and doubting whether there is 'consensus' on the causes and the extent of climate change’. The email scandal was taken to reveal an explicit but secret agreement among scientists. Their motives are supposed to range from the institutional and financial self-interests of the scientists themselves to a broader and (perhaps even unwitting) ideological commitment.

The first conspiracy narrative, then, can be summed up as the idea that climate change is a giant hoax.

Small, nasty groups

The second family of conspiracy narratives turns on the idea that the climategate ‘conspiracy’ is itself a conspiracy. Here the focus is not on the emails themselves, which are taken to simply reveal ordinary scientists under intense and hostile scrutiny, but rather with the timing. As Phil Jones put it in an official statement on 24 November 2009: 

"In the frenzy of the past few days, the most vital issue is being overshadowed: we face enormous challenges ahead if we are to continue to live on this planet. One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that this email correspondence has been stolen and published at this time. This may be a concerted attempt to put a question mark over the science of climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks." (My italic) 

The motives of the conspirators here are also varied, involving both financial interests and ideological commitments. Consider the account given by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway in Merchants of Doubt. They argue that oil companies today are following the same playbook as big tobacco before it, namely, intentionally manufacturing doubt and uncertainty about well understood risks in order to extend the time during which their activities can go unregulated.

Their chapter on climate denialism concludes: "We take it for granted that great individuals - Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King - can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts - unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power” (Oreskes and Conway 2010: 213).

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YuryZap/Shutterstock. All rights reserved.Intriguingly, they suggest that part of the reason this group of ideologically committed cold-war scientists are so willing to behave conspiratorially and to accuse climate scientists of conspiring is because their formative years were spent working on large scale secret research, such as the Manhattan project. They were habituated to keeping the real goals of their research programme secret. This has the effect that they are quite happy to use public debate as a tool to promote their real but undeclared goals, and that they treat other participants in the public debate as though they are doing the same.

The politics of science

Both families of conspiracy talk involve the claim that science has been corrupted, and that it is no longer able to play what should be its proper role in political debate. The claim of corruption in turn rests on a common general view of what non-corrupt science looks like and what role it ought to play in political discussion and decision.

This common view of the role of science in politics is usefully described by Roger Pielke Jr. as the ‘linear model’ of science advice. The 'linear' model insists that getting the science 'right' is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for good decision-making, and assumes that the science will determine political decisions, or at least will set clear limits on the range of possible decisions. This model, he argues, is entirely appropriate where there is consensus on values and low scientific uncertainty. He calls this ‘tornado politics’. If we agree on what we want to do (not be killed by the tornado) but we simply lack the information, knowledge and skills to achieve it, then we can effectively delegate decisions about what to do to those who know best what they’re talking about. Where there is no consensus on values, however, we are in what he calls 'abortion politics,’ where no amount of scientific certainty will compel agreement or political decision. Here experts can play the role of issue advocates, speaking on behalf of a particular interest group, and seeking to narrow the set of policy options. Or they can try to be ‘honest brokers,’ and seek to expand the set of policy options, and relate them to the positions of different stakeholders.

What Pielke thinks is going on in the case of climate science is ‘stealth issue advocacy’, which involves treating ‘abortion politics’ as though it were ‘tornado politics’. The stealth issue advocate presumes that greater scientific certainty will compel political decision, even though that is not the case.

Thus, connections between gas emissions and projected climate changes are taken to support actions to reduce emissions, and studies denying such links are taken as supporting the status quo. "[A]dvocates of Kyoto and emissions reduction policies more generally have seized upon claims of near-absolute scientific certainty as the linchpin of their advocacy efforts. In this way, the political debate over climate change takes place in the language of science". By framing their arguments in this way, advocates of those policies enable opponents to use scientific uncertainty as a reason for inaction.

Contesting consensus

When advocates in the case of climate policy act as though the science decides the policy, they should not be surprised when opponents of the policy oppose the science. It is for this reason that much of the political debate about climate change invokes the ‘certainty’ or the ‘uncertainty’ of the science. This in turn has made the status of the ‘scientific consensus’ into a focal point for dispute.

The refusal to accept a consensus of knowledgeable opinion is central to many accounts of science ‘denialism’, and it also plays a key role in the process by which such denialism is thought to shade into ‘conspiracy theory’. Consider Michael Specter’s recent account of science ‘denialism.’ “Denialist arguments are often bolstered by accurate information taken wildly out of context, wielded selectively, and supported by fake experts who often don’t seem fake at all... No amount of data will convince climate denialists that humans have caused the rapid, devastating warming of the earth”. The denialist creed, Specter continues, holds that “change is dangerous; authorities are not to be trusted; the present ‘posture’ of the scientific community has to be one of collusion and conspiracy”.

Climate “denialists” have been the focus of a series of high profile studies of conspiratorial thinking led by the psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky. Lewandowsky and colleagues claim that people who believe one conspiracy tend to believe lots of them, and that this “conspiracist ideation” is correlated with a refusal to accept scientific consensus views on a range of issues. The logic linking the rejection of scientific consensus to belief in conspiracy theories is expressed as follows:

‘The prominence of conspiracist ideation in people who espouse science denial is not entirely surprising, because if an overwhelming scientific consensus cannot be accepted as the result of researchers independently converging on the same evidence-based view, then the very existence of the consensus calls for an alternative explanation’

The point I want to make here is that both the criticism and the defence of the scientific consensus implicitly promote a misleading view of the ways in which scientists come to speak as one. The view they implicitly promote is that consensus means the unforced convergence of a number of independent inquirers on the same result. Consensus here is a by-product of a group of scientists working to make sense of some phenomenon.

However, in contrast to the view of consensus as revealed uniformity of belief, consensus can also involve collective decision across persistent difference. Mike Hulme, in Why We Disagree about Climate Change, also uses the term ‘consensus’ in this way: ‘consensus is merely one (structured) way of distilling evidence - evidence which might be somewhat ambiguous, incomplete or contradictory or where there is latitude for genuine differences of interpretation - into an overall agreed statement on an issue of scientific or public importance’. Consensus here refers to a collective decision made under conditions of uncertainty and urgency, where experts need to speak as one. This sense of expert consensus has been far less well explored than consensus as uniformity or general acceptance of scientists (though see this essay by philosopher John Beatty and I on the issue).

The IPCC and the consensus of scientists

To illustrate a ‘consensus of scientists’ as a decision process, consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme with the explicit purpose of producing a consensus on the science of climate change for the purpose of informing public and policy deliberation. The IPCC brings together hundreds of scientists from the member states to assess the state of the evidence in three areas, which are structured into three working groups. The first is on the physical science basis of climate change; the second on the impacts of climate change (which now also includes adaptation); the third group is on mitigation. Each working group proceeds by mounting, in effect, a comprehensive literature review. This is a complex and drawn out process (see here for a good summary of its structures and processes).

The final report has to be adopted in a full IPCC plenary session, and the report includes a ‘summary for decision-makers’. The summary is decided by scientists in conjunction with representatives of member Governments, who go line-by-line through the proposed consensus statements. The ‘summary’ is an outcome of an explicit consensus decision process involving scientists and policy makers trying to agree the wording of the summary statement, though only scientists can amend the text itself.

The production of the summary for policy makers is a hybrid scientific-political decision process. The policy makers want something that their delegations can live with. Scientists want a fair representation of the science. This leads to disputes and negotiations. Oreskes and Conway describe one such dispute in 1995 over the summary of Chapter 8, on the crucial issue of the detection and attribution of climate change. The Saudi and Kuwaiti delegates were particularly vocal in opposition to early framings of the summary. The dispute came down to a single adjective: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a [blank] human influence on global climate’ (Oreskes and Conway 2010: 205). The group tried twenty-eight different words, according to one participant, before settling on ‘discernible’, and it is at least conceivable that nobody was in full personal agreement with the use of that term.

Thus, while the IPCC’s summary statements are produced through a complex consensus decision process, they are often taken to represent consensus in the sense of independent and unforced convergence.

This ambiguity creates two broad problems. The first concerns the behaviour of the scientists themselves. Framing consensus as that from which there is no qualified dissent leads to internal pressures toward concurrence, pressure to mask internal disagreement from outsiders, and conservatism or minimal agreements.

The second is that the resulting agreement is especially vulnerable to criticism by outsiders. By hiding the disagreements that went into its production, the resulting consensus is especially vulnerable to any subsequent claim of dissent or disagreement. The critics who seized on the ‘climategate’ emails thus claimed to have ‘debunked’ the consensus simply by showing that there was a collective decision process, and that there is persistent disagreement and uncertainty, rather than showing that it was a badly produced decision. They are following Lewandowsky’s logic: If the consensus is not a product of independent convergence on the truth then it must be a sham.

Two faces of denial

We end up with two faces of denial. On the on hand, we see the denial of consensus, where any glimpse of discord, no matter how superficial or irrelevant, is taken to unmask the apparent consensus. On the other hand, we see pressures to deny the presence of significant disagreement, and attempts to keep such disagreement from the eyes of hostile observers. The problem is not so much the IPCC’s internal decision processes, which are largely rigorous and transparent and have adapted well to criticism, but the conception of expert authority implicit in its basic aims. At least part of the problem is that the language of consensus hides the fact that a process of collective decision is taking place.

So does this mean that more transparency is the solution? It depends. There’s a good case to be made that transparency was part of the problem. In particular, this case shows the dangers of an idea of transparency as uncontrolled exposure. The climate scientists were behaving in a ‘sclerotic’ and ‘partisan’ way (as sympathetic critics Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz put it at the time) in part because of the intense pressure placed on them by their critics.

They were subject to what they considered to be vexatious Freedom of Information requests. Their data were being distorted and cherry-picked by highly motivated partisan critics. Mechanisms of transparency in this case seemed to generate the concealment that was then taken as evidence of conspiracy, producing endless chains of demands for information.

Where transparency is identified with selective exposure of the backstage practices of institutions, without a guiding principle and without a context of understanding of the nature of the activity being exposed, it perversely motivates more closure, which in turn creates cover-ups and evasions. We end up with a self-perpetuating spiral of suspicion. Uncontrolled transparency here creates the very thing it is trying to detect.

Yet we probably can’t go back to an era of widespread uncritical deference to scientific authority. The low cost of information, the speed of communication, and the ease of sharing knowledge and forming associations, all contribute to a situation in which it is harder than ever to construct and maintain authoritative knowledge. If scientific authority is to produce its democratic goods, it needs to be reimagined and reconstructed in ways that go with the grain of an increasingly mobile and well-resourced audience of critical citizens.

The climate case illustrates the dangers of this situation, as authoritative assessments of science for decision-making processes are more easily contested than ever before. But it also presents a positive challenge, to work out ways of supporting more realistic public conceptions of scientific process. We can’t deny the existence of a politics of science, but we can think about better ways to structure and imagine such a politics.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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