Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Holocaust Denial and Climate Change Denial - part 1

Climate Change? - Its all down to sunspots, right
One thing that should be made very clear: any attempt to try to link the views of those who oppose the conventional climate science to Nazism in any form is misguided and unfair. Goodwin's law of Nazi analogies (sometimes stated as follows: as an online discussion grows longer, the probability involving a comparison with the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1) implies that such comparisons are overused and by trying to create guilt by association with the word "denial" is in my view an example of Goodwin's law and its corollary that we should avoid glib association of a point of view with the Nazis. Holocaust denial is often part of a strategy to disassociate the extreme right with the systematic murder of millions of people in order to make an extreme right wing or anti-Semitic agenda more attractive. Holocaust denial historians ignore evidence or rely on fabricated evidence and they imply the existence of huge conspiracy theory on the part of eye witnesses and conventional historians. Those who voice opposition to the conventional views of climate science do so for many motives, as I discuss elsewhere, but however superficially similar the methods of some opponents of the conventional climate science could ever be to those of holocaust deniers, they could never have the same sneer at suffering that exemplifies the nasty agenda underlying their falsification of history.  In short calling the opponents of the conventional view of climate science “deniers” as a smear strategy is wrong.

The reality, though, is that names matter, which is why name calling matters: coining the right name for your opponents, or the object of your opposition is crucial - in the UK the expression "Franken food" still resonates with the general public when considering genetically modified foods, and in the abortion debate, both sides control their image by stating they are pro something - and controlling your own name is an important part of controlling your image, which is why enhanced interrogation techniques are sanctioned, not torture, why politicians only ever misspeak, fudge or are economical with the truth, why the Climate Research Unit email controversy is framed as "Climategate" and why holocaust deniers prefer to be called revisionists. Pejorative names have been coined and applied to those who believe that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, including the climate scientists whose research illustrates a clear link: alarmists, warmists, true believers or team hockystick. The implication is clear: add a context to the opponents' view (alarm, warming rather than climate change, dogmatic, imply the hockystick graph is based on bad science) and extra ( negative) information is coupled to the label. Instead those who hold this view prefer the expressions "the consensus view" or express their beliefs in terms of the scientific consensus in general to indicate that the basic science is settled. The implication of this is also clear - the argument is over, the science says anthropogenic climate change is happening, reduce emissions or face the consequences.

This brings me to the theme of this article, if labels matter, shouldn't we protect labels that have an important value in science and in general. There is a real danger that the word "sceptic" will be appropriated by anyone who has an agenda for disinformation. If you don't think passive smoking is linked to cancer, that is OK, you are a cancer sceptic; don't believe the hype about HIV caused AIDS, that's fine you are an AIDS sceptic, don't believe that millions of people were murdered in concentration camps during the second world war, well that's OK, you don't need to claim you are revising history of the holocaust, you're just a healthy sceptic. The idea is a simple one: discredit the science or history, and conspiracy, propaganda and prejudice will be sucked in to fill the vacuum, and this process of discrediting is done first by claiming to hold no view yourself, but instead, being sceptical of empirical findings.

To protect the word "sceptic" from misappropriation, a correct label must be used for those who are not in any way sceptical - if the word "denier" is the appropriate word, it should be used but it should not be used lightly, nor used as a way of name calling to avoid engagement with those who oppose a particular viewpoint. It should certainly not be used as a way of falsely associating opinions on climate change with that of mass murder. In this way perhaps the words "sceptic" and "denial" can simultaneously be prevented from becoming too closely associated with one type of conspiracy or other. I prefer on first meeting someone to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I will assume at first that someone who says they are a sceptic (in a blog or who writes an article) are indeed sceptical, which will be confirmed or contradicted by their actions.  I will, though, use the expression the Denial Industry for the smear campaign of climate science and scientists and those who, through their deeds, contribute to this smear campaign or disinformation.  This is because smearing science, spreading disinformation, repeating arguments known to be based on falsehoods or debunked and spurious ideas, is a strategy of denying not engagement – and certainly not scepticism – and those who adopt a strategy are living in denial or worse, are knowingly fabricating evidence.  I don’t wish to confirm Goodwin’s law, though: smearing climate scientists and repeating arguments known to be false to serve an ideological interest is a very long way from Joseph Goebbels and anyone who implies it isn’t are, in my view, not being 100% honest.


  1. One notable thing that Holocaust denial and climate change denial have in common is that both tend to be attacks from the political Right, whilst most attacks on the social sciences stem from the political Left. A significant difference is that Holocaust denial is illegal in a number of (European) countries, whilst climate change denial is not.

  2. In 2004 Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, compared Bjørn Lomborg, author of 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', to Hitler in Jyllandsposten, a Danish newspaper, "What is the difference between Lomborg's view of humanity and Hitler's? [...] If you were to accept Lomborg's way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing".

  3. Thanks Martin - I wasn't aware of Rajendra's comments (is this an example of the looser version of Goodwin's law that suggests that once you compare someone to Hitler or the Nazis you lose the argument?) but as for the first comment, in Poland it is illegal to deny "communist crimes" between 1939 and 1989.
    I am against making views and opinions illegal, but I can understand how in certain countries it might have been strategic. As mentioned in the article, my view is that even where there is a campaign of disinformation to smear scientists and deny climate science evidence, isn't (to paraphrase the words of Jules from the film Pulp Fiction) the same ball park, the same league or even the same sport as holocaust denial. To me, those who imply it is are trying to smear ALL opponents to the conventional view of climate science, when there is the need for genuine sceptics and role for questioning statisticians.

  4. 'Dozens of Australian academics signed a letter Tuesday demanding a lecture by British climate sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton be axed after he compared the country's climate adviser to Hitler.'
    Australia academics blast UK lord over Hitler jibe

  5. 'World leaders who oppose a global agreement to tackle climate change are making a similar mistake to the one made by politicians who tried to appease Adolf Hitler before World War Two, a British government minister said on Thursday.'
    Planet Ark: Defying Climate Deal Like Appeasing Hitler: UK Minister