“Bizarre and threatening” is the term U.C. San Diego political science professor David G. Victor uses to describe how many in the climate science community view what some call climate “denialism.”

But Victor thinks a big part of the problem involves just how scientists and their supporters approach the subject — beginning with the use of the term “denialism.”

“If you really want to understand what motivates these people and what motivates the captains of industry and voters who listen to them,” says Victor, “stop calling them denialists.”

Victor, author of the 2011 book Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet made his remarks at a series of Scripps Institution of Oceanography sessions on rejection — Note: no “denialism” here — of the so-called “consensus” climate science. (A hat-tip here to Andy Revkin and his Dotearth blog for flagging Victor’s presentation.)

Victor said he considers himself to be “part of the mainstream scientific community on climate change.” But he characterized as “naive” the approaches being taken by climate scientists and their backers to challenge those steadfastly resisting the consensus view on the science.

‘Shills, Skeptics, and Hobbyists’

Acknowledging the inevitable imprecision of such characterizations, Victor described what he sees as  “three species” in this ecosystem of climate science resistance: “Shills,” “Skeptics,” and “Hobbyists.”

He said “shills” pass themselves off as “dispassionate analysts but are actually on the payroll of big carbon.” More than a few have previously “shilled on other topics, as well, where the science had big policy and commercial implications,” such as tobacco use and health effects. “Omnipresent” through the 1980s and 1990s, this group has been “the easiest” to understand, but they now are “becoming a lot more rare,” in part because follow-the-money tracking has become much easier nowadays.

David Victor: Issues of broad agreement among scientists differ from issues most relevant to policy makers.

“Maybe it still exists but is less readily observed: my sense is that it has all but disappeared,” Victor said.

Victor said he finds current worry over the influence of money in climate discussions to be “probably over-stated.” He continues: “The kinds of dissent that matter for politics — namely, the ability to create some plausible reason why voters or other decision makers might not trust science — is [sic.] very cheap.”

Another point: “Real scientists are, frankly, bad bets for anyone who has a narrow commercial interest in the outcome. Even with a ton of money on the table, you never know what good scientists will actually discover.” But he allowed that “self-interested money” exists also in campaigns to support renewable power.

“And there’s now money — probably a lot of money — that comes mainly from foundations and is aimed at countering the denialists,” Victor said, there using the term he said should be avoided. “Like it or not, directed money is a feature of modern politics and has also now suffused through the interface between political self-interest and many aspects of academia.”

2+2=4. But Beyond That, All Bets Are Off

Victor’s second flavor of climate rejectionism, “skepticism,” benefits from the critical role of responsible skepticism for scientists. “Nobody has ever won a Nobel Prize by agreeing,” he said, and “excellence in science comes from being disagreeable and from looking at agreed propositions with fresh eyes.”

Scientists by their very nature are “a disagreeable bunch of people,” he continued, even involving “mundane topics.” He contrasted the approach of scientists with the get along/go along mentality he said thrives in much of the corporate world.

“That makes it hard for us to talk about skeptics,” Victor said. “There is a consensus that 2+2=4. After that, we are in shades of grey.”

All the same, Victor finds “impressive” the zone of agreement about climate science from scientists in the field. “But we must face the reality that those aren’t the questions that really matter for policy.” He pointed to various questions important from a policy perspective, and added “On these, we have few crisp answers.”

Want Consensus Builders? Go Hire an Accountant

He pointed to their “instinctual unease with consensus” as helping to explain why some scientists and some in the public aren’t on board with the consensus. “If you want to find people who agree, then hire an accountant,” and not a scientist, Victor said.

“Most interesting” to Victor among the three flavors of climate science rejection are those he calls “hobbyists … people who disagree because it gives them something to do,” because they “want to be relevant” by challenging the establishment and using the internet as a “megaphone.”

Climate change isn’t unique in this respect, according to Victor: “There are hobbyists in every walk of life.”

As Importance of Issue Grows, So Will Denialism

Overall, Victor said he finds views on the influence of climate “skeptics” to be “largely incorrect.” Data-driven scientists may well feel that public resistance to climate change science “drive[s] us nuts,” Victor said. But in his mind it relates much more to political attitudes and faith, or lack of faith, in government … and to motivated reasoning: “People hear about something they abhor and they find reasons to justify their dissent. Believing that the science is ‘uncertain’ is one of those reasons.”

“Denialism is here to stay,” Victor said, and “as the importance of the topic rises so will denialism.”

He concluded pointing to what he sees as “four implications” of his arguments:

  • “We in the scientific community need to acknowledge that the science is softer than we like to portray.” The science is “in” in important areas, “but not for the steps that actually matter for policy,” he said, pointing to impacts, ease of adaptation, mitigation of emissions, and other areas “surrounded by error and uncertainty.”
  • Dwelling on scientific “consensus” is itself “fundamentally unscientific” and can be counterproductive. He favors less talk about consensus and more about potentially “grave” consequences for human beings, and the “possibility of extreme catastrophic impacts … and about lower-probability but high-consequence outcomes.”
  • Those rejecting climate science evidence “are driven by different motivating forces, and they won’t go away just because we speak more loudly, more often, or with bigger decks of slides … their population won’t be swayed by the normal modes of debate we use in science.”
  • Again, “motivated reasoning.” Some hold views on climate science “that strike us expert scientists as totally irrational.” They do so “because they are actually afraid of the consequences of belief…. That’s a hard problem to fix because it means that dealing with denialism isn’t really about denialism at all — it is about convincing people that we can manage the climate problem in a way that respects boundaries on government, honors liberties, and keeps costs in check.”