Straw Men Don’t Fight Back: Exposing Science Denialism

A few years ago a study found that of the 56 books published on the topic of denying climate change in the 1990s, 92% of the them were produced by, or were linked to, pro-business foundations like the Heartland, Cato or George C. Marshall institutes (see Naomi Oreskes Merchants of Doubt). Organizations like the Heartland Institute receive funding from billionaires through funnels like Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund, and directly from corporations like ExxonMobil.

Personally, I like the Heartland Institute the best. Everything they touch they dumb down. They replace complexity with simplicity, thoughts with images, security with fear. The effectiveness of Heartland in convincing the public that some sort of debate on climate change is still raging among scientists speaks volumes about our collective gullibility and the effectiveness of propaganda to mold public opinion. Marketers early on recognized the power of the image over the idea. Take a quick look at the video below; it was produced by the Heartland Institute to disarm people about the relative risks of indiscriminately dumping CO2 in to our atmosphere and oceans.

The main premise of the video, assuming you watched it, is that we shouldn’t worry about the CO2 but focus our attention on the people who “oppose technology and the prosperity it brings” (24 second mark). Heartland’s commercial presents a classic “straw man” argument. A straw man argument is created when critics avoid tackling the real problem (because the true problem is too tough to take on directly) so they attack a second un-related issue (because the secondary issue, like a straw man, is too weak to fight back).

In the case of this video, Heartland avoids tackling the real problem, e.g. science has established a 97% consensus that “too much CO2 in the environment is contributing to climate change,” ( etc. by focusing viewers’ attention upon a secondary and unrelated idea which doesn’t fight back, e.g. “environmentalists, the media and Hollywood are against progress.” In Canada during the last election cycle, Conservatives used the straw man approach to misrepresent the NDP’s position on the development of oil pipelines. The official NDP position was “no new pipelines until more research is in” and the Conservatives presented it as “the NDP want to destroy jobs.”

In both the cases mentioned above, critics diverted the public’s attention from the real issue on to a secondary, simpler and irrelevant issue. All propaganda tends to boil down complexity in to simplicity making it easier for the public to consume. For decades scientists have been dealing with the misrepresentation of scientific facts from institutes like Cato and Heartland. These institutes don’t offer replicable research to disprove the research used to establish the scientific consensus; rather, Cato and Heartland practice intellectual gainsay and politicize scientific findings by branding scientists as public enemies, enemies of freedom–even mass murderers–on the basis of phony facts. For example, biologist Rachel Carson warned the world about the harm of using the pesticide DDT. Instead of being lauded for helping prevent an ecological catastrophe free market fundamentalists compared Carson to Hitler (for interfering with freedom…the freedom to die apparently).

George Orwell argued that he who controls history (and language) controls the mind of the people. In his novel 1984, Orwell’s fictitious dictatorial government went back periodically to re-write newspapers in order to make past events conform to current thinking. Neither thought nor value was given to the accuracy of the information; it was more important that knowledge simply reflect the ruling party’s aspirations. (For this reason Joseph Stalin had photographs doctored so no record would be left of his party comrades during the early days of the Russian Revolution whom he later had executed.) Orwell called this process of misrepresentation “Newspeak.” If science is about studying the world as it actually is—rather than as we wish it to be—then science will always possess the capacity to threaten authority by rendering Newspeak or propaganda ineffectual. Consequently, the elites in Orwell’s society all but erased science and critical thinking, replacing thought with buzzwords, propaganda and perpetual fear.

Haydn Washington, author of Demystifying Sustainability: Towards Real Solutions, asserts denialism appears when science presents information challenging the status quo or when it confronts people with “uncomfortable facts.” In the case of climate change, denialists present the evidence of severe global changes as “inconclusive.” In the Heartland video I linked to, if you go to the 59 second mark, information is presented that sea ice is actually increasing around Antarctica. Surface sea ice is in fact increasing; however, not because rising concentrations of CO2 isn’t a problem or things are “just fine” as they are.

The increase in sea ice is actually a prediction of various climate change models. Models predict glacial ice will melt and recede (which is happening globally). As glacial ice melts specifically around Antarctica the surface ice is increasing around the continent; surface ice is created by cold glacial water entering and rapidly cooling surrounding water thereby increasing the total area of surface ice. However, an increase in surface ice does not translate in to an increase in ice overall. Glacial ice is as thick as a thousand meters or more while surface ice thickness is typically measured in feet. Assuming Antarctica’s glaciers cannot melt indefinitely (and that there’s a finite amount of glacial ice), it’s safe to conclude if the current warming/melting trend continues there’ll eventually be no more glacial ice. Also, the water underneath the surface ice is warming. (Glaciers reflect sunlight back in to space acting as a cooling agent for the globe; no glaciers will mean a warming earth.)

The globe is, overall, losing ice despite appearances to the contrary; moreover, once the glacial ice either disappears or is reduced to insignificance, the mechanism responsible for increasing surface ice area will disappear, as well. Again, propaganda misrepresents and over-simplifies. Please follow this link for an explanation on how increasing sea ice around Antarctica is confirmation of, rather than proof against, climate change:

As an independent source of authority and knowledge, science has always had the capacity to challenge authority’s capacity to control people. Science is not partisan; however, its findings frequently have significant political implications, i.e. people who benefit from keeping things the same obviously want to keep things the same (and science throws a wrench in to that whole mindset). I’d like to encourage everyone who is interested in learning more about the historical context of why we’re getting blitzed by corporate sponsored propaganda to read the following books:

1). Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming by James Hoggan. This is an interesting read because Hoggan actually worked for corporations to help them spin science to suit their ends. He’s a marketer and understands what is at stake for both the future of the environment and democracy.

2). Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Oreskes is particularly important because she was the scholar responsible for going through thousands of articles on climate change produced by the scientific community over the past two decades and determined that 97% of those articles confirmed the consensus view, i.e. 97% of scientists (not working for or funded by the energy industry) accept climate change is happening and is the result of human industrial activity. If you’re not much in to reading, then you can watch the documentary of the same name.

I’ve included the link to YouTube where you can watch it here:

Here’s a link hosted by the University of Arizona to an article Oreskes wrote explaining the nature of scientific consensus and climate change:


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