MIKE SCRAFTON. Democracy and Ignorance-climate deniers and climate believers

Behind many of today’s challenges is the problem of ignorance. That’s not to deprecate or disparage the intellectual capacity of citizens or their desire to be well-informed. The proliferation and complexity of knowledge and the segmentation of disciplines and expertise means there is just too much for anyone to absorb it all. This is a problem for policy setting in democracies; climate science is one example.

That some people remain unconvinced about the dangers to human security that climate science predicts poses an unfathomable mystery to many climate believers. Believers also tend to associate climate denial with moral failure. But it’s not that simple. Most people who believe in anthropogenic climate change and believe we are in a climate crisis are not likely to be sufficiently science literate to have read the science with a critical eye themselves. They largely take the science on trust.

In the same way, climate deniers generally are not deeply familiar with the ins-and-outs of the science. Their denial probably comes from a mixture of listening to who they trust and their general scepticism of experts. Their views are more likely to be formed by an intuitive sense that the alarmist projections of the scientists are at odds with their lived experience rather than being formed by disagreement with the methodology of the scientists, the soundness of their analysis, their modelling strategies, or their hypothesis forming. They often look on believers as ideologically driven environmentalist or as part of some conspiracy.

Both these groups—believers and deniers—are subject to being convinced about climate change. On this and other issues, the normal citizen is too busy putting in long hours at work, engaging with the complexities of modern family life, and staying on top of the demand of new information that directly affect them, to generate the time to master the knowledge required to form expert opinions on a vast and every growing array of technical and scientific facts.

It is as unrealistic to expect believers and deniers to become experts on climate change as on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing or any of the other complex issues that will affect their future. In any event, in many areas of scientific endeavour, and indeed the history of science is a tale of, verities are regularly being overturned and new paradigms being accepted. To the interest observer firm scientific knowledge seems transitory—even in hard sciences like physics, cosmology, and genetics.

Those excuses don’t wash for politicians. In government politicians have access to enormous intellectual resources. They should be well informed on the science of climate change from reliable experts coming from a variety of perspectives in the public service, from advisory bodies, and academia. It’s not, though, that politicians will eventually learn to understand the language of science but that believers expect they must increasingly accept its primacy.

Still, implementation will always involve choosing among policy options. A believer’s naïve view of science might assume that once the “scientific truth” is accepted the path ahead will be clear. But the whole notion of credible alternatives is a necessary prerequisite for democratic decision-making. Democracy depends on choice. Climate scientists and climate believers might think that because this is about natural processes—atmospheric gases, surface albedo, and the thermal expansion of the oceans—there is no room for politics? But that’s wrong.

The real puzzle is why despite the lack of any real disputes within the community of climate scientists, so many recipients of climate knowledge—policymakers, journalists, activists, and citizens—still doubt its validity. The scientific research isn’t challenged or contested by other scientists.

Well, there are many factors and they don’t just affect members of any particular group. Believers see malign motives behind think tanks and prominent media personalities and outlets that push denialist positions. And this has some justification. There is ample evidence overtime of vested interests in the form of the tobacco, mining, pharmaceutical, energy, and nuclear industries funding think thanks or paying for pseudo-scientific knowledge to be produced to protect their financial interests. This phenomena has given rise to the study of agnotology or culturally induced ignorance. Still, a number of influential deniers might be genuine.

Equally many deniers see green, environmental, and climate-friendly think tanks and institutes as propaganda vehicles. For citizens to be cynical about self-proclaimed experts lacking scientific backgrounds claiming to deny the science no less rational than doubting those claiming exclusive access to the truth and advocating radical solutions.

One explanation of the deniers can be found in the notion of ontological security. This refers to the importance of certainty to rational cognition and establishing routines as a way of dealing with the threat of uncertainty, disruption and crisis. In some people meaning is found in experiencing positive and stable emotions, and by avoiding chaos and anxiety. This can cause rejection and a refusal to consider existential issues or accept major change.

Personally I’m a strong believer in the science and rail at what I see as the propagation of misinformation in the media, in books and in think tank reports. The prevarication of ministers and politicians who should know better incenses me. But in the end I’m just a believer not a scientist. Yet, common-sense, struggling to understand published research, and observations over a life time give me confidence that the threat is real.

The persistence of ignorance because of ontological security or agnotology or for whatever reason is not just retarding the necessary action on climate change. It is a threat to democracy. Unless policies are at their core firmly rooted in the best evidence and science, and unless the increasing volume and complexity of important knowledge can be packaged up in a way that policy advisors and politicians can digest and then communicate effectively to voters, and in a form that builds trust and overcomes fears, then democratic trust will continue on its downward spiral. Failed policies based on marketing undermine our political institutions. Morrison’s National Press Club address doesn’t cut it.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.


Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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15 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Democracy and Ignorance-climate deniers and climate believers

  1. As you mention Mike there is a very strong anti intellectual streak in the Australian mainstream particularly when money or change are stake holders in any issue and this seems to apply to even more so to the impecunious.
    In the fifties, deriding education was all the rage as, no doubt, it had been for previous generations and, possibly, resentment of Darwin’s impact on the Catholic Church was a part of that but no doubt intellectual laziness was more relevant. I well remember the big joke of the time at Catholic school: BS, MS, PhD = Bullshit, more shit, piled high and deep.

  2. Raymond Brindal says:

    Like Mr Scrafton “Personally I’m a strong believer in the science”.
    But i’m concerned about the article giving more than a passing nod to what i believe is a false equivalency between those who accept the science underpinning anthropogenic global warming and climate change and those who deny it.
    Accepting the science means accepting many objective facts. Those who accept these objective facts i deem rational while those who deny objective facts are irrational.
    In the world of science there can be no equivalence between rational and irrational.
    Why not just call a spade a spade: denial of climate science is irrational; acceptance of the science is rational. There is no equivalence.
    I’m also somewhat mystified about those who adopt climate change denial, but their main target is to obstruct rational policy making by govt and for them science is nothing more than collateral damage.
    As for me not holding a PhD in climate science, i like this quote by writer Glen Tsipursky: “Deferring to expert analysis is a critical component of truthfulness.”
    Not something climate change deniers are familiar with.

  3. Jerry Roberts says:

    “Science” is the issue. The noted scientists who object to Hansen’s theory of carbon dioxide do so on old-fashioned scientific grounds such as lack of reliable data and over-reliance on mathematical models. Kiminori Itoh is outspoken on these points and so are Will Happer and the grandfather of living scientists, Freeman Dyson, who was at Princeton when Einstein died there and the campus within hours was swarming with Israeli secret service officers collecting his papers.

    No. These are not “climate scientists” which is a new discipline within the scientific community and a new religion. I disliked Mike’s post because it says that people who disagree with him have a psychological problem. He and others are casting themselves in the role of the High Priest torturing heretics to death because they refuse to believe that the world is flat and God created little apples.

    Solar panels are popping up like mushrooms and they make sense but we have many more urgent problems to deal with than carbon dioxide — the financial system, religious fundamentalism and nuclear war, to name a few.

  4. Noel McMaster says:

    Thanks for the read. I like the phrase ‘ontological security’, right in
    there with the linearity of Newtonian absolutes of time and space. Poles
    apart from the flexibility in our thinking now required to survive in an
    evolutionary context that runs with relativity and quantum considerations.
    The notion of ignorance is worth keeping in mind, too, especially what used to be called invincible ignorance in moral contexts. Latter day social
    massification/individual atomisation (social media obsessions) invite entropy’s communication analogues of uncertainty and muddle to our daily surround. I hope you can continue to analyse of our modern fixations, scientific and otherwise, and so enable us to take our part as responsible communicants of the risk-taking Self-Communicator behind, beyond the singularity of the Big Bang.

  5. Jerry Roberts says:

    In my reading on this subject the major proponent of the carbon theory of global warming is James Hansen who studied physics in Iowa City where I was born and grew up and which is in the news with the remarkable results of the Democrats” Iowa Caucuses kicking off the Presidential race for 2020.

    Hansen says that coal is 80 per cent of the problem. He was not worried about motor cars because developments in manufacturing spread quickly across the industry and he has been proven correct on that point.

    The self-righteous indignation of Mike and the correspondents above is not helpful. If they take Hansen’s theory seriously they need to focus on coal mining and export and see how they go politically while leaving ontological matters to academic social scientists who don’t know how to write in plain English.

    Personally I don’t accept Hansen’s theory because it is too simple to deal with a complex subject, although I am fond of solar power and I think all the world’s health and pollution problems can be solved by a return to the bicycle.

  6. Felix MacNeill says:

    While I thoroughly agree with the article’s concluding paragraph, and respect the importance of balance, fairness and understanding, I still feel the article sails a little too close to a false equivalence between deniers and believers, merely because neither are practicing climate scientists and the subject is complex.
    I last studied science in high school and my distinctly unimpressive academic background is purely in the humanities, but I haven’t found any great difficulty in getting high quality information designed for the reasonably intelligent lay person – from introductory books by highly qualified writers through to summary reports by expert bodies. Just for example, the Royal Society’s report released a few years back could be read in an hour or so and was not hard to understand.
    Frankly I’m sick of intellectual laziness and democratic negligence being excused by the potential complexity of a subject.
    Most people are perfectly able to understand the basic workings of an internal combustion engine without needing to be mechanics.
    If people put the same effort into understanding what is probably the most important issue humanity has ever faced as they do into choosing a new washing machine they would be able to get a clear enough picture to move beyond denial and start to engage with the practicalities of what we should do

    • Mike Scrafton Mike Scrafton says:

      The issue is not whether it is possible to be persuaded by the science. I am. The real question is why everyone isn’t. Just saying they should be isn’t helpful. Neither is labelling deniers as showing ‘intellectual laziness and democratic negligence’. I suspect everyone knows someone who otherwise trusts medical and mechanical science and technology, and who is considered normally intelligent and interested, who doesn’t believe in climate science results. I’ve encountered this not just among family members and friends but also among business and professional acquaintances and in Cabinet rooms. Just telling deniers to get on board and calling them names when they don’t isn’t the way forward.

  7. Richard Barnes says:

    Mike, your views are clear (from the last para if one didn’t already know) but your article makes it sound as though there are two equally understandable belief systems: ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’. Most people in most parts of the world moved on from this a decade ago. The broad science is beyond dispute; the questions are how bad, how soon; what could be done to make things less bad; and what can be done to cope with the changes.

    We all ‘believe’ all sorts of science; I didn’t personally do research into whether seat belts save lives, but I’m certain they do. As it happens, the fundamental science of climate change isn’t too hard: we all understand how a greenhouse works; and we can all look at a graph of changing temperatures.

    No room – and no need – to discuss the many reasons why climate change denial continues to dog us here. You allude to some of them. But the forces which have been at work are far more systematic, far more cynical, far more powerful and far more evil than you suggest.

    • Jocelyn Pixley says:

      Quite right. Money for example, can only be a matter of belief: money involves mutual social relations of promises, which can be broken. Belief disappears. After Copernicus, who stopped mystical ‘beliefs’ into an indisputable scientific fact that earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, ‘opinions’ vanished. Not before the deniers burned a lot of people at the stake. There’s no need for individual torture today, and deniers will be burned with all of life. That is the indisputable end-game if deniers have their vicious self-defeating way.

    • Mike Scrafton Mike Scrafton says:

      Richard the problem is not whether the climate scientists are right. It is why some people can’t accept their views. I know, and I suspect you would too, otherwise intelligent and competent people who have looked at the graphs and still been unconvinced. I’ve been part of making detailed presentations to ministers who still could agree. Not everyone who is a denier is cynical, powerful, and evil. And although there are forces encouraging deniers,why does that work on them and not on the rest of us. In a democracy, to get the level of action required to address the crisis more people – especially in Australia – need to become believers.

      • Charles Lowe says:

        Mike – why “In a democracy, to get the level of action required to address the crisis more people – especially in Australia – need to become believers.”?

        We’ve got clear majorities of ‘believers’ every which way.

        What we haven’t had is an electoral system which is ‘fit for [this] purpose’. Last year, the outcome from our electoral system favoured the ‘denialists’. Central Queensland voters were frightened that they would lose their jobs (and their present values).

        Labor (and the CFMMEU) should have promised coal workers a transition program – at no cost to their otherwise indefensible level of remuneration (thanks to taxpayers’ acceptance of realpolitic).

        But no. No statesperson. No visionary. No coordination, consultation nor commitment.

        No Gough.

  8. Kien Choong says:

    It’s interesting to observe that in Asia, both governments and the media (at least those I am familiar with) do not doubt climate change.

    When Singapore’s Prime Minister was asked about climate change and what the Singapore government is doing about it, there was no discussion at all about whether Singapore’s efforts will make any difference. Rather, the Prime Minister said that (i) first, Singapore has to do its part to mitigate carbon emissions, and (ii) second, acknowledging that the global effort is likely to fall short, Singapore has to invest in adaptation.

    Why is it that Singapore’s government is able to have a serious conversation with its citizens about addressing climate change, while successive Australian governments* remain in denial?

    (* Admittedly past Labour governments were in “less denial”, but still seems not to completely face up to the challenge.)

  9. Michael Rogers says:

    “It is as unrealistic to expect believers and deniers to become experts on climate change”

    Its not ‘String Theory’, ‘Quantum Field Theory’ or ‘The General Theory of Relativity’, it is primarily observational science, with the employment of easily understood measuring apparatus. Certain gases in the atmosphere have an insulating effect, their percentage is increasing, a number of human activities release more of these gases than is normal into the atmosphere. Average global temperatures have been observed to be rising, rainfall distribution is changing, glaciers and ice sheets observed to be receding and melting, ocean levels observed to be rising, and oceanic acidification is increasing.

    The only actual scientific discussion concerns the modelling predicting how soon the Earth will be hot enough to present an existential threat to humanity and other life.

    Meanwhile this nonsense persists (Only one Koch Brother is down.).

    • Mike Scrafton Mike Scrafton says:

      Climate science might not rise to the level of theoretical physics, but there are leaps of faith involved. For example, the period in which measurements have been taken of the atmospheric gases is statistically insignificant in the life of the planet, so to validate the theoretical assumptions scientists draw of inferential evidence from ice cores, palaeobiological sampling, and other indirect sources. Not something I could critically examine.

      It is not unreasonable for someone sceptical to believe that the climate has always been changing and always will and mankind’s impact is small or insignificant. The history of extinctions and collapses of civilizations demonstrates that.

      People who don’t accept the science don’t just coalesce around one reason. And to be a believer requires a level of familiarity with science that vast numbers of people don’t have, having never had the time, opportunity or education perhaps.

      And there is ample reason from economics to doubt modelling and graphs. And the language of the IPCC reports is a bit opaque even for the avid reader!

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