The Partisanship of Climate Denial


Earlier today Chris Mooney posted an off-air response to S.E. Cupp’s commentary on his appearance yesterday on MSNBC (video embedded below). The purpose of the interview was to discuss his new book The Republican Brain, yet the exchange quickly derailed into a criticism of climate science and scientists in general. In recent decades, the populist discrediting of science has overwhelmingly originated from the conservative camps. A study from the American Sociological Review found that since 1974 conservative denial of science has increased from 52 to 65%.



The long and storied controversy over global warming has produced a rather diverse tapestry of views from those unsatisfied with the findings we uncover by studying our world. The statistic above is most troubling. Even as evidence for the two most frequently controversial scientific theories—global warming and common descent—continues to stack, conservative trust in science is monotonically declining based on surveys from the last four decades.



S.E. Cupp targets climate science as a basis for conservative denialism, specifically citing the CRU study at the University of East Anglia as if it denotes the death knell for climate science. For those not familiar with this specific controversy, which climate skeptics have acrimoniously dubbed “Climategate”, the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of East Anglia in Great Britain came under fire after the release of questionable emails between the research teams. After five in-depth investigations, these emails and the CRU team’s research were questioned and examined rigorously but found culpable of no wrongdoing or fraudulent misconduct. The claims against the CRU study revolved mostly around issues of data transparency rather than authenticity, namely that the team could have done more to provide timely access to the data. However, CRU’s data and conclusions were found innocent of any unethical tamperings, were verified by the peer-review process and were consistent with data produced by other independent studies, including NOAA and NASA’s GISS.

It seems the only defense for science deniers at this stage is to seize upon raised instances of wrongdoing or questionable conduct in the scientific community. It’s as if a single instance of ill-advised behavior invalidates an entire body of science. We call this the exception fallacy. If the world were truly to operate in this manner, we would still be in the Dark Ages. If we were to rewind the wheels of time, and Galileo was found to have fudged his numbers in support of heliocentrism, it doesn’t follow that geocentrism is true. In the same way, even if the researchers at East Anglia were guilty of dishonest manipulation of the data (which, again, they were not), that doesn’t render the entire field of climate science null and void.

Mooney attempts to explain this during the interview, but there’s only so much one can say in 30-second sound bites. What’s important to keep in mind is there’s a herculean gap between blind trust in science and rational trust in science.

I’ll tinker with an analogy that’s been used in the past. Suppose that tomorrow a scientist, regardless of prior reputability, puts forth a theory that the moon is made exclusively of green cheese rather than the magnesium iron silicates to which we currently credit its geologic composition. The appropriate response to such a claim is unmitigated skepticism, not only because of the theory’s prima facie absurdity, but because there is just a single person or entity propounding it. But then suppose the research and data which guided the scientist to his or her conclusion are validated through the process of peer review. Next further suppose that additional, unaffiliated studies, including ones that sample the moon’s outer surface and mantle, also find the “green cheese” theory to be true, that what we originally thought was iron silicate was actually a type of green-colored cheese. As time progresses, more and more corroborating evidence pours in from separate groups in a number of scientific disciplines, all of which deliver a single consistent conclusion. To reject the theory at this point is to succumb to blind irrationality. Indeed, there exists a threshold of incredulity beyond which continued skepticism bleeds precariously into negligence of truth.

The “green cheese” theory, just like any other, would acquire credibility to the extent it acquired empirical support. A body of science like global warming is increasingly bolstered both by the independent attestation of unaffiliated research teams and the absence of falsifying information that would give us cause us to doubt it. The lockstep consistency among a comfortable number of global, regional and local climate studies hinges unequivocally on human-caused climate disruption.

Rather than clinging to anecdotal hearsay or personal objections, science deniers should instead seize upon the independent lines of evidence which concertedly ratify the truth claims of science. Extricated from political debate and internal appeals, this is the core tenet of science and the engine of progress. When rhetoric has long faded, the science still remains. Or as Neil deGrasse Tyson has put it, “That’s what’s so great about science; it’s true whether you believe in it or not.”


External Link: S.E. Cupp Attacks Climate Science and Climate Scientists on MSNBC

Feature image via Infonetion


  • klem

    “..suppose that additional, unaffiliated studies, including ones that sample the moon’s outer surface and mantle, also find the “green cheese” theory to be true..”

    But what has climate science got that is as equivalent and irrefutable like a sample of moon rock that turns out to be green cheese? Is climate science in possession of evidence so irrefutable? A sample of moon green cheese is the big hammer, the big proof. I don’t think climate science has that big hammer. They have lots of corroborative evidence but no big hammer, no big proof which slams the case shut, like an actual piece of moon rock green cheese. That’s the kind of evidence that climate skeptics are looking for, not merely a ‘preponderance of evidence’ , they are looking for the big hammer, that chunk of green cheese.

    A few months ago it was proved that there has been a warming trend over the last 50 years, based on analysis of ground based temperature records. But the skeptics were not impressed, they said that a warming trend is merely evidence that the climate changes, it is not evidence that CO2 is the cause. That wasn’t the big hammer needed to convince the skeptics, but it was more than enough for the believers.

    So what is the big hammer? I really do not know. Where is that green cheese.

  • Klem, thanks for the comment.

    Though it might not represent the satisfactory answer you are looking for, I would argue the “big hammer” you seek lies with the science itself. We’ve 1) long known the properties of CO2 and water vapor and their affects on climate, and 2) more relatively recently, we’ve known the excess of global CO2 today is unprecedented and that it is inseperably linked to anthropogenic GHG production.

    Consider the interplay between water vapor and CO2, the two major contributors to the greenhouse effect. As you may know, CO2 makes up but a small fraction of the Earth’s atmosphere relative to water vapor. CO2 accounts for only one in every 4000 molecules in the air, while water vapor accounts for one in every 20. Secondly, CO2 absorbs only a quarter as much energy from sunlight as water vapor, molecule for molecule. This seems to suggest that water vapor is responsible for the majority of atmospheric heating.

    However, altitude is a core consideration here. Water vapor concentration levels are inversely proportional to altitude, unlike CO2. Whereas water vapor concentrations taper off very quickly with altitude, CO2, methane and other greenhouse gaeses do not. CO2 retains the same concentration level in the upper troposphere as on the surface. The upper troposphere is the most salient variable here as that is where heat is released into space. Thus the amount of non-water vapor GHGes determines how much heat is trapped in the Earth’s carbon cycle.

    Perhaps the most convincing evidence is the simultaneous warming occurring in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, something that has not been observed in the last 20,000 years. Based on all of our historical data, hemispheric relationships are consistently discordant. That is, when temperatures rise in one hemisphere, they fall or remain unchanged in the other. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, both regions have been monotonically warming. Human carbonization best explains why this is occurring. Make no mistake; our current trend is an unnatural outlier.