About a month ago I attended the 2016 International Žižek Studies Conference and had the privileged of meeting some fantastic people. Additionally, and of more relevance to any readers of this post, I was awash in new ideas and new things to think about; some of which I am still processing to this day. This post, however, attempts to deal with an issue that was brought up in passing during a Q and A session during a panel. For context: I was in a panel where Dr. Gregor Campbell of the University of Guelph was presenting a paper and we finished before the allotted time ended (due largely to the other participant’s absence) allowing for an extensive Q and A session and discussion. During our conversation, Campbell said, in passing, something that caught my attention and which I am indebted to him for thinking of. Campbell mentioned how people who deny climate change (climate deniers) serve to motivate climate scientists to work harder to prove their theories. While this comment lasted all of maybe 30 seconds, I would like to briefly unpack it and see what implications it has, if true.
Climate deniers — or more specifically, those who deny anthropogenic climate change — range from politicians (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, etc.) to statisticians (William Briggs) to scientists (David Bellamy) to our beloved Sen. James Inhofe and his snowball, all with varying degrees of influence. For the purpose of this brief analysis, we will bracket the fact that the oil and auto lobbies have massive sway in Congress and that climate deniers, unfortunately, are in positions of power to make decisions regarding U.S. environmental policy. For the purpose of this brief analysis, we will assume an (over)idealistic view wherein no one has power over governmental policy and we will simply examine the human-human implications of climate denial. In other words, I will simply examine how the rhetoric of climate deniers affects the public and climate scientists as a whole.
Climate deniers, needless to say, tend to be rhetorically talented and are able to sway public opinion one way or another. Climate scientists, on the other hand, are scientifically talented but rely on talking heads such as Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson to attempt to sway public opinion. Given these factors, the fight over the public comes down to rhetoric vs. quality of evidence and given the current intellectual state of the U.S., high quality evidence is required to overcome even mediocre rhetorical prowess. The climate denier, despite all the harm she does, can also be seen as a kind of “useful idiot.” Without knowing so, every time she calls into question data about El Niño or Earth’s albedo or temperature fluctuations over time, she acts as a free peer-reviewer. While obviously not as rigorous as peer-review standards required to get published, her critical comments cause climate scientists to be self-reflective about their work and take these criticism, if valid, into account.
For example, following the cries of deniers in the early years of this century that any change was irreversible and the subsequent affirmation of the claim by the U.N. in 2014, climate scientists began writing about (and explaining) how the irreversibility of past warming does not mean that future warming is inevitable. Climate scientists know that the battle takes place in the public sphere and thus, when confronted with the denier, recognize that in order to counter the denier’s arguments, they must produce more and better data. Although life would be simpler if everyone recognized anthropogenic climate change as a truism and climate scientists could sit lazily on the couch, the cries of deniers stir scientists from their slumber and ultimately push them to produce better and better data further advancing our understanding of the Earth’s climate.
In this way, climate deniers are the “useful idiots” of climate science.