On April 28, the University of Queensland commenced its seven-week course on climate change denial. The course, “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial,” also known as Denial 101x, is completely free, open to the public and requires no more than a two hour commitment per week.
Denial 101x is the brainchild of John Cook, Climate Communication Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and founder of Skeptical Science, a website dedicated to explaining the science of climate change and rebutting global warming misinformation.
Cook has described the course as an applied exercise in “inoculation theory.” Rather than subject students to a shower of climate science, the course inoculates them with the very arguments used to refute it. Just as weakened bits of disease are used to strengthen patients’ immunity to the disease itself, the course bolsters students’ understanding of climate change with the misinformation campaigns that so often ride shotgun.
Examining the Gulf Between Fact & Belief
Cook, who studies the psychology of climate change denial, developed his method of instruction as a response to the “worldview backfire effect.” According to Cook, the effect can occur when a person is presented with evidence that threatens their worldview, as first observed in a 1975 experiment at the University of Kansas. Teenage Christians were presented with evidence (formulated specifically for the experiment) that Jesus Christ did not resurrect after his crucifixion. In response to this evidence, the subjects actually became more militant in their faith.
Cook writes that “[t]his type of reaction happens across a range of issues,” from politics to medicine to climate science. In the United States, the most current example is the anti-vaccine movement, which was formed in response to a single Lancet study – later proved to be fraudulent – that suggested vaccination causes autism. Despite the study’s retraction, the belief that vaccinations cause autism persists because some children do develop autism around the same time that they are vaccinated.
As Cook explains, anti-vaxxers operate on the logical fallacy that correlation equals causation.
This sort of reasoning is why, despite 11,000 peer-reviewed articles that show 97.1 percent of climate scientists believe human-made emissions are affecting the planet’s climate; and the fact that the Northern Hemisphere has a higher concentration of carbon dioxide than it has in the last 800,000 years; and the fact that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century; there is still a vocal segment of the population that refuses to accept the facts.
This vocal segment includes 56 percent of Congressional Republicans, as well as presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and the chairman of the Senatorial Committee on Environment and Public Works, James Inhofe.
Michael Mann: A Firsthand Observer of Climate Misinformation
Over 10,000 people from 150 countries have already signed up for the Denial 101x course to learn why, and how, this is possible. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) features interviews with 75 scientific experts, including Sir David Attenborough, Naomi Oreskes, Richard Alley and Planet Experts Katharine Hayhoe and Michael Mann.
Dr. Mann is the Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University and holds joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He is also the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers. Perhaps most famously, he is the co-author of the study that established the iconic “hockey stick graph,” a reconstruction of global climate that shows a general cooling trend over the last 1,000 years broken by an abrupt and precipitous spike that began in 1900.
The publication of the graph changed Dr. Mann’s life, and not all for the better. Last year, Mann described to Planet Experts what it was like to be on the business end of a personal and professional smear campaign. He was even sent death threats.
It was Mann’s personal experience with anti-climate change propaganda, in addition to his prominent role in publicizing climate science, that led to his inclusion in the curriculum of Denial 101x. Mann and John Cook have corresponded for many years and Mann has described Skeptical Science as a resource he often points people to when they’re seeking vetted information on climate change.
Mann considers the MOOC “a natural extension” of the work Cook as been doing for the last several years. In his interview for the course, he explained how efforts to discredit the hockey stick curve became efforts to discredit him personally.
“It’s a very cynical way of attempting to convince your audience that the science isn’t solid,” said Mann, “and the way they do that is to take one study and make it seem like the entire weight of evidence for human-caused climate change rests on this one study -which of course it never does; it’s thousands of studies over many decades – and then make it seem like the entire science rests on one person.”
Mann said Cook and his colleagues experienced similar attacks for their work in calculating the 97 percent consensus among climate scientists. “That, too, became an iconic result and it was subject to all sorts of attacks and efforts to discredit it,” said Mann. “And that’s typically the approach that you see among climate change deniers. It’s an ad hominem approach.”
Can Climate Deniers Be Inoculated?
Is Cook’s inoculation approach the right medicine for climate change deniers? Mann was quick to acknowledge that there is no panacea for the ailment, as it is both pernicious and expensive.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “there are powerful interests like the Koch brothers who are spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars in what is the most expensive misinformation campaign in the history of human civilization.”
There is no “one-size-fits-all magic solution,” said Mann, but the MOOC is still powerful medicine.
“It takes many different efforts of different types aimed at different audiences and using different methods to try to break through this barrier of disinformation and misinformation,” said Mann.
Where Denial 101x can succeed is in building “a small army” of people “who are now very informed not just about the basic science but of the various techniques that have been used by critics to try and discredit the science,” said Mann, “the rules of rhetoric and how rhetoric has been used by the other side and how it can be used in an appropriate way to provide a more compelling message about what the science has to say.”
This army, said Mann, will go out into the world and interact with friends, family, neighbors, civic groups and, especially, social media, to hopefully influence the public discourse to become more fact-based and more objective. “And that’s critical,” said Mann, “because there is this concerted effort by the other side to cloud the public understanding of this issue.”
NASA and the Sacrificing of American Science
Speaking of cloudy, I asked Dr. Mann on his thoughts concerning the House’s recent decision to slash NASA’s Earth sciences budget by at least $300 million. The move was spearheaded by Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees NASA and an avowed climate change denier. Last month, Cruz publicly questioned the agency’s purpose.
Salon has called the proposed cuts (which could remove up to half a billion dollars from NASA’s budget) “a clear attack on climate science, to which NASA contributes significantly and House Republicans continue to deny.”
Mann agreed whole-heartedly. “No question at all,” he said. “This is being led by…elected officials who deny the overwhelming consensus and in many cases take a lot of money from fossil fuel interests.”
Mann again pointed to the Koch brothers as prime examples of the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on certain politicians. Following the November mid-terms, the Center for Responsive Politics and Kantar Media Intelligence reported that the Kochs were among a coalition of oil, coal, gas and electric utilities that contributed to at least $721 million in political campaign funds. The Center for American Progress noted that potentially millions more were spent in contributions to outside groups that are not legally obligated to disclose their donors.
“The Koch brothers spent tens of millions of dollars getting these people into positions of power,” said Mann, “and now they are doing their bidding by literally trying to defund the science that the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests find so inconvenient – trying to cut off the funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation for earth sciences.”
He added, “It couldn’t be a more transparent effort to shoot the messenger and to sort of collectively try to bury our heads in the sand.”
The frightening thing, said Mann, was that the behavior “harkens back to the Church’s effort to suppress Galileo.”
Worse yet, if the House’s proposed bill passes and climate science is further derailed and defunded, U.S. science, warned Mann, will quickly fall behind the rest of the world. “We’re already falling behind the rest of the world,” he said. “China, India, many other developing nations and industrial nations are forging ahead with research and development of renewable energy technology. They recognize that the future of our global energy economy is in renewable energy.”
Renewable energies already supply 22 percent of the world’s electricity and the Frankfurt School recently announced that global renewable investments have risen by 17 percent. Goldman Sachs has even projected that some $900 billion in oil investments could become worthless if oil prices continue to fall and countries decide to implement stricter carbon emission standards.
Beware False Prophets
Ironically, though the Catholic Church once fought to suppress Galileo’s theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, Dr. Mann acknowledged that it is now one of the more progressive institutions where climate science is concerned.
This is particularly notable, given that U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) uses religion as his main justification for opposing the concept of human-made climate change.
In his book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, Inhofe argues that Genesis 8:22 supports his view that the Earth’s seasons cannot be changed. “God’s still up there,” Inhofe wrote. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
In February, Inhofe even brought a snowball to the Senate to prove to President Obama that global warming isn’t happening.
Yet for all his purported piety, two of Inhofe’s top three campaign contributors were Devon Energy, one of the country’s largest natural gas and oil producers, and Murray Energy, the largest independent coal producer in the United States.
To Dr. Mann, the dichotomy offers a perfect illustration of how dangerous and duplicitous climate denial can be.
“The true leaders of the world’s religious community recognize that the implications are exactly the opposite of what people like James Inhofe are claiming,” said Mann. “It’s about preserving Creation, it’s about making sure we don’t sacrifice this planet for future generations, it’s about our ethical obligation to be stewards of the Earth. That’s why the Pope is about to issue an encylical [on climate change]. So you couldn’t have a greater contrast between what actual, real religious leaders are doing and what fake religious leaders like James Inhofe are doing.”
Making Sense of Climate Science Denial
To learn more about climate change and how it may or may not ruin your tomorrow, check out the University of Queensland’s online course.