The political strategy of climate denial

Jeffrey Mervis has an interesting article within Science all about the insights gained by listening to what Lamar Smith (R–TX) says when speaking to a room full of his own tribe.

As chair of the U.S. House of Representatives science committee you might expect rationality and reason to prevail, but unfortunately he is very much a modern Republican, hence both of those items are very much off the agenda. His specific stance is that climate change is a grand conspiracy, a hoax, and that actually addressing it would greatly damage the US economy. Why he is highly motivated to think like this is of course clear. He has been personally funded by the oil and gas industry to the tune of $600,000.

Actually that funding number is a tad out of date, that is where things stood in 2015. Two years later it is more.

So what is the strategy that will be in play?

The redefinition of words

One aspect is to claim that the evidence-based science is not really science at all.

Emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, Smith appears increasingly comfortable dismissing those who disagree with his stance on any number of issues under the purview of his science committee, from climate research to the use of peer review in assessing research results and grant proposals. And one key element in his strategy appears to be relabeling common terms in hopes of shaping public dialogue.

“I applaud you for saying you’ll be using the term climate studies, not climate science,” said one audience member. His reference was to Smith’s embrace of a distinction made by a previous speaker, climatologist Patrick Michaels of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who argues that most climate scientists don’t deserve to be called “scientists” because they have manipulated their data and ignored contrary results. “But I also urge you to use the term politically correct science.”

“Good point,” Smith replied. “And I’ll start using those words if you’ll start using two words for me. The first is never, ever use the word progressive. Instead, use the word liberal. The second is never use the word ‘mainstream’ media, because they aren’t. Use ‘liberal’ media. Is that a deal?”

Why would a science journal publish such a political article?

Basically because Smith is now a direct threat to the neutrality, impartiality, and integrity of evidence-based science …

Smith also signaled that he plans to turn up the volume on his criticism of federally funded research that doesn’t fit his definition of “sound science.” In particular, he expressed support for writing legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that doesn’t fit standards of peer review crafted by Smith and the committee (although he didn’t say how that would be accomplished).

“I think that is a good idea worth our consideration,” he told the questioner, who was building off Smith’s long-running criticism of a study that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used in regulating air quality. “In fact, it’s one of several good ideas I’ve heard today. Let us see how we can accomplish that.”

In fact, as Smith told one audience member who worried that Trump might renege on some to his campaign promises, the sky’s the limit when it comes to dismantling the past 8 years of environmental regulations.


Rather amusingly, a few climate deniers turned up within the comments section and proceeded to try and befuddle with the usual arm-waving nonsense.

Your climate models are horrible.

Often people are out of their depth when faced with such nonsense, but this is a science journal, and so they are engaging directly with subject matter experts who utilise mathematics and statistics. Their comments are rather neatly sliced and diced.

One of the deniers even goes full tin-foil hat without an ounce of shame or event a hint of embarrassment. Apparently he avoids what he calls “pal-review”, because it is all apparently part of a grand hoax, and so he does his own independent publishing on the Internet …

I do however publish the build and run instructions for my empirical experiments on the Internet.

… peer-review has failed science. Peer-reviewed journals have failed science …. “hoax” … “justice”

Well yes, it is perhaps wise to simply roll your eyes, shake your head, and walk away.

Denier vs Skeptic

I do have one additional minor quibble. Sometimes you come across the term Skeptic being deployed to describe Climate Change denial. The article is an example of this in the first paragraph …

speaking yesterday to a like-minded crowd of climate change doubters and skeptics

That however is not really what is going on. One of the foundational aspects of the scientific methodology is skepticism. Climate change denial is all about the rejection of evidence-based conclusions and the embrace of wholly unwarranted assertions, hence neither the word “doubter” not the word “science” are wholly correct because the denial stance is an outright rejection of evidence-based science for what can perhaps be best described as political beliefs.

One last word

One further thought does come to mind. When politicians get into the game of deciding what can and can not be published within science journals, which is what Mr Smith is indeed proposing …

legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that doesn’t fit standards of peer review crafted by Smith and the committee

.. then the word that perhaps best describes that is “propaganda”.

Any journal that did actually decide to conform to his political “truth” standards should perhaps also consider a name change. With a pointer to a state that once did manufacture “truth” on an industrial scale, my suggestion for a new name would be “Pravda”.

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