Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fighting climate denial: the Akin line


Pity Todd Akin. It must seem to him as if the world makes no sense.

One minute he is living the life of a normal House Republican gunning for a vulnerable Senate seat, and the next he's a virtual pariah, with most of his own supporters saying he should drop out of the race. And all for making a comment not substantially different than those he and his colleagues make every day. Here is the line that turned his own party against him:
Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Instant pandemonium. But why should that be so? What did Akin actually do?

It's a five-step process:

1. You have a rigid ideology that is absolutely opposed to a given action (like abortion).
2. There are empirical facts that make your absolutist position untenable (sometimes women are pregnant not because they chose to be, but because they were raped.)
3. Find a crackpot scientist (one sharing your ideological idiosyncrasies) who will explain away the inconveint fact (Women who have really been raped don't get pregnant!)
4. Ignore the vast scientific evidence to the contrary.
5. Promote the conspiracy theory as scientific fact.

Why did Akin think he was going to get away with this sophistry? Because he and his party have been playing this game, routinely and increasingly blatantly, for years. How would he know that all of a sudden ignoring the scientific consensus and promoting pseudoscience would blow up in his face? Compare his remarks on climate change
AKIN: This whole thing strikes me if it weren’t so serious as being a comedy you know. I mean, we just went from winter to spring. In Missouri when we go from winter to spring, that’s a good climate change. I don’t want to stop that climate change you know. Who in the world want to put politicians in charge of the weather anyways? What a dumb idea….
Some of the models said that we’re going to have surf at the front steps of the Capitol pretty soon. I was really looking forward to that….
 His official website trots out some more old canards (h/t Grist):
Although some of the physics and meteorology surrounding climate is well understood, the question of predicting future climate trends as well as man’s ability to definitively influence them is still an active field of scientific research. Moreover, despite our desire for complete certainty, we must understand that global climate is very complex phenomena. No one variable can be taken as the sole driver of climate and there exist cycles within cycles of meteorological variability. Scientists state that the planet has gone through many natural heating and cooling cycles over the last thousand years.
While scientists understand that increased levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases work to trap heat, those gases are not the only variables when it comes to Earth’s temperature trends. For example, the sun itself has variable output, which affects temperature cycles. Currently, scientists are somewhat puzzled by a current-extended minimum in solar activity. Such a long-term lack of solar output in the early 18th century, referred to as the Maunder Minimum, is thought to have contributed to the last mini-ice age. Of course, factors such as solar variability — that could cause a mini-ice age — would probably not afford a man-made solution.
So here's the real question: why does the one public endorsement of pseudoscience spark outrage, while the other gets ignored? What's the difference? Where is the "Akin line" that separates comments like Michele Bachmann's, blaming the HPV vaccine for mental retardation, with these, from Akin's colleagues:
The committee’s chair, Ralph Hall (R-Texas), lumps “global freezing” together with global warming, which he doesn’t believe humans can significantly impact because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) thinks cutting down trees reduces levels of greenhouse gases they absorb. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) still trots out the debunked notion that a scientific consensus existed in the 1970s on “global cooling,” which he portrays as a scare concocted by scientists “in order to generate funds for their pet projects.”

Dan Benishek (R-Michigan) strikes that climate-scientists-as-charlatans note, dismissing contemporary research as “all baloney. I think it’s just some scheme.” Paul Broun (R-Georgia) says that “Scientists all over this world say that the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community.”
Watching the Deniers asks: How would you counter the denial movement? And I think the answer is very simple; we need to bring them across the Akin line. We need to gently and truthfully shape the public debate such that outrageous comments provoke outrage, that laughable ignorance provokes laughter, until we reach a point that those that advocate science denial get shunned by their own political allies as liabilities in the battle for electoral success.

So why did Akin and Bachmann instantly provoke national scorn, while Benishek and Broun have not?

A) In each case, there was a simple, testable scientific assertion. Vaccine = mental retardation. Rape = no pregnancy. It's easier to see why that more easily trips up a science denier as compared to "It's all very complicated" or "Climate models are unreliable."

B) The puppet strings are short and colorful -- there is no problem at all reading the minds of Akin and Bachmann and understanding why they are making stuff up. Akin wants abortion to be completely illegal, always, in all circumstances. That women get pregnant from rape is an awkward fact for him, so he tries to suppress it by invoking pseudoscience. Bachmann is against the HPV vaccine because it makes sex a little less dangerous for women, and in her mind, that encourages promiscuity.

In both cases the lies play into the speakers' established positions in culture wars that have been raging for a generation. Even the most low-information voter knows how conservative Republicans feel about abortion and safe sex. That makes it easy to connect the dots.

C) There is a clear scientific consensus, and the audience knows that, even if they don't know the details. Physicians and medical science have a much stronger presence in American life than does climate science or climate scientists. Most people know a physician personally. The science denial wing of the Republican party has not constructed a campaign to slander and defame physicians, attacking them as frauds or incompetent or self-interested rent-seekers. They would not find it easy to do if they tried. But in the absence of such preparation, voters have little reason to reject the scientific consensus. The total rejection by the medical community of these lies ends the debate.

D) These comments were deeply insensitive and hurtful to other Americans. Rape victims were insulted by Akin. People with actual learning disabilities or cognitive limitations and the families that care for them were insulted by Bachmann. This brought anger and contempt into the response to the speakers as well as mockery.

If we go back to the statements by Akin and friends on climate change, it's clear they are missing most of the attributes listed above. Take "Scientists state that the planet has gone through many natural heating and cooling cycles over the last thousand years." It's vague, not clear and testable (A). If you strongly connect Akin to fossil fuel interests, it could be said to meet (B). The public does not have a clear idea of the scientific consensus that the current global warming is orders of magnitude different from natural climate variations of the recent past (C). Those that do know this have also been exposed to a relentless campaign to undermine the scientific consensus by slandering the scientists themselves (C). The comment is deeply offensive to people who understand what Akin is trying to accomplish and what the actual state of affairs is, but they do not have the visceral offensiveness of someone blaming rape victims or the parents of the mentally retarded for their situation (D).

So, if we think Akin's pseudoscience about climate change deserves the same contempt as his pseudoscience about rape and pregnancy, how can we encourage the public to see things similarly?

A) In each case, there was a simple, testable scientific assertion. Focus on deniers' assertions about science. Don't let them get away with vague statements of doubt, and endless one-sided interrogations of others. Encourage them to explicitly state their beliefs.

B) The puppet strings are short and colorful -- there is no problem at all reading the minds of Akin and Bachmann and understanding why they are making stuff up. Highlight the connection between right-wing extremism and climate denial. Make the connection between science denial and other right-wing views. As entertaining as it is to show how climate denial relates to the conspiracy-theory-prone mindset, the critical driver of climate denial in politics is the broader radicalization of the Republican Party.

C) There is a clear scientific consensus, and the audience knows that, even if they don't know the details. The contempt of hardcore climate deniers for the concept of scientific consensus is born of fear. Despite deniers' whining and jeering and embrace of the Galileo gambit, the public knows very well that the consensus of the vast majority of scientists on a given issue is as close to the truth as anything we can lay hands on. And survey after survey shows that even "alarmists" vastly understate the strength of the scientific consensus on global warming -- the meaning the fact of the scientific consensus has not been "priced in" by the public.

So, while sticking to the stuff we clearly know to be true, and not venturing into unsupported speculation, it's important to highlight the contrast: Consensus vs. crackpots on the fringe.  Consensus vs. crackpots on the fringe. Consensus vs. crackpots on the fringe.

D) These comments were deeply insensitive and hurtful to other Americans. This one is hard -- I don't know it is achievable in the short term. It's difficult to "put a face" on global warming. But perhaps, as with "consensus," the deniers are giving us a hint, by vehemently attacking the arguments they most fear. And what is the single most jeered-at, eye-rolling, cliched picture in all of climate change? You know what it is. It's this:

Deniers jeer at what works.
When the deniers deny, they are insulting those that have already been hurt by climate change. They are insulting the other creatures we share the planet with. We have to make those people -- Inuits whose villages are being washed out to sea, elderly people without air conditioning dying in record-breaking heat waves, children in temperate climates suffering with tropical diseases previously unknown there -- we need to make them as real, as familiar, as indisputably linked with AGW as that bear on his shrinking ice floe. 

Compare the argument over gays in the military. While they were theoretical, people could say (and did) all sorts of ignorant and hurtful things, with little political fallout. But as the culture gradually changed, as gay service members dared to speak out more, as the ban was finally ended, gays in the military stopped being theoretical people, and they became actual, flesh-and-blood people with their lives on the line for their country. And suddenly as a social conservative you had to be very careful what you said. This social changed went very slowly, until it reached that critical point where it was hard to attack "gays in the military" as an abstraction without insulting the actual people you were talking about. Then the culture and the discussion changed more in six month than it had in the previous sixty years. And where is that debate today? Gone and virtually forgotten.

Even cuter than polar bears.
I've written about confronting climate denial before, and as before, I find a reasonable approximation of my views is to take all the well-meaning advice of the self-identified "moderates" in the climate debate, the Kloors and the Revkins and so forth, and do the exact opposite of what they recommend.

Don't be a free educational resource to people with no actual sincere desire to learn. Ask them questions -- be skeptical about their skepticism -- put their beliefs and opinions on the record and under the microscope.

Don't waste your time searching for a mythical middle ground. Climate deniers are in this in order to have an ideological battle. It is part of their war with modern life and Western civilization. You will not win them to your way of thinking with a clever compromise, any more than the NRA is going to wake up one morning at say "Wow, we've got all the pro-gun legislation we could ever need! Now, back to regional shooting competitions!" Instead, embrace the polarization of the debate -- among other things, this helps the public understand what motives climate deniers to lie and distort.

Don't try and convey uncertainty. If you have a complex message while your opponents have a simple one you will lose. Plain and simple. Deniers want us to spending our time trying to educate the public to grasp complex scientific ideas. They are delighted when they can provoke us into doing that by accusing us of oversimplifying the story. (They will just be at this little table over here on the other side of the room, saying FRAUD LIES FRAUD TAXES SOCIALISTS GREEDY SCIENTISTS NATURAL NATURE FRAUD FRAUD.)

So find a simple message, well inside the borders of the consensus, and hammer it home relentlessly. Show the people being hurt by global warming. Show them over and over again, until the public gets a visceral sense that deniers are denying not just the scientific understanding of where the climate is going, but of what is happening in the world right now. People are dying while the right-wing fringe lies and defames. When the public understands that -- understands it in their bones -- deniers will find themselves across the Akin line.


  1. Yep, this deserves developing further.

    Actually there is one very concrete link between denialism in climate science and in medicine: tobacco. Think about it.