The scientific community has been in a state of constrained panic during the last couple of years as the binding terms of the Kyoto Protocol approach expiry, as a replacement agreement to cut global greenhouse gases emission have foundered at international climate talks in Copenhagen and Cancun, and as the climate crisis continues to worsen. Because the doubts propagated by a few climate-change deniers seem to have been disproportionately effective in subverting corrective agreements and action, social scientists have been dissecting the dynamics of denial to understand what happened.
The inquiry has broadened from the refusal of a few people to accept evidence of climate change to the wider issue of how we humans confront new and disturbing information. The result could be called the psychology of denial. And, in the scientific tradition, the analysis is measured and rational, usually beginning with the distinction between skeptics and deniers.
Skeptics are inclined to examine claims one by one, weigh evidence carefully, attempt objectivity, and willingly follow where the facts lead. As personalities, they tend to be secure, open, adventurous and relatively immune to threat. Skepticism is normal and common, an essential attribute of adults, a guiding principle of science, and it tends to be the operating mechanism of people who are found on the “progressive” side of the political and ideological spectrum.
In contrast, deniers are inclined to weigh information with a “confirmation bias” that pre-judges on the basis of a tradition, intention or belief system. They change their minds more reluctantly than skeptics and tend to be closed, cautious and insecure outside the realm of the familiar. Deniers tends to be found on the more “conservative” side of the political and ideological spectrum. Generally, however, they are simply ordinary, well-intentioned people who are doing what they believe is right. But this is where the psychology gets more complicated.
Deniers tend to think of themselves “as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people” (New Scientist, May 15/10). They are most likely to be found in circumstances where “science must be taken on trust” (Ibid.). Thus deniers are usually associated with issues such as global climate change, evolution and tobacco use, and those issues in which the supportive evidence cannot be easily, immediately and tangibly demonstrated. For deniers, the trust issue gets entangled with their inclination to perceive scientists, doctors and technical experts as “arrogant and alien” (Ibid.). Perhaps this psychological dynamic is best illustrated by the 2009 comment of a Texan who was defending the teaching of creationism in schools because “…somebody’s got to stand up to the experts” (Ibid.).
Such a response is understandable in a world that is becoming more technical and complicated. People feel a loss of control. They want to reclaim the personal power that seems to be slipping away from them. A culture of individuality that has traditionally attempted to control the forces of nature can be expected to respond with frustration and anger when climate scientists argue that we are losing this struggle by unleashing forces beyond our abilities to manage. Deniers take this threat personally.
Deniers tend to be controllers. They also tend to have a larger than normal sense of their own importance and are inclined to be suspicious and intolerant of criticism and different opinions. While everyone needs some sense of control and self esteem in their lives, we all must concede to our limitations and dispensability. The world will not end with the loss of any one of us and we have no basis for believing that it should function according to our individual conception of it. Controllers don’t like to be controlled. Indeed, they may react perversely to any authoritative information.
Psychologists have also mentioned the “innumerate” problem, the inability of some people to grasp concepts such as probability. Not everyone who smokes gets cancer. Not every evolutionary change benefits the species. Although the average surface temperature on the planet is going up, climate change doesn’t mean that every place is going to get warmer. General trends cannot be deduced from isolated examples. Anecdotes and personal experience are coloured by subjectivity. The scientific method necessarily discredits such individual perception and helps to create the impression among deniers that scientists are elitists whose ideas diminish the importance of individuals and the validity of their awareness. So, in defense of their own experience, credibility and self-respect, deniers strike out against science, its theories and its practitioners. Regardless, denial is a common first response to things we didn’t want to happen.
Guilt is another important consideration that motivates deniers. Anthropogenic climate change means that we are all implicated in an unprecedented travesty against our planet’s ecology, the ultimate consequences of which are expected to be unimaginably disruptive and dire. The damage to our human reputation and dignity would be correspondingly disastrous. A squabbling, greedy, warring, destructive and irresponsible species is not the inescapable image we want to have of ourselves. Denial is a protective reflex against the discomfort of this censure and its ensuing guilt. If we can’t change the evidence inundating us, we can deny its validity by using complex and ingenious rationalizations.
So, what does the psychology of denial ultimately mean? Perhaps that we are a complex and ingenious species perfectly capable of undoing ourselves by our own complexity and ingenuity.