Thursday, September 29, 2016

Again About the Word Denier

Some who are called climate "deniers" resent that word (a few embrace it) because, they claim, they're being compared to Holocaust deniers. But it can't be that simple, because even the Holocaust denier David Irving resented being called a denier.

I was lead to the quote below from a New York Review of Books article about the recently released movie Denial, which is about the David Irving vs. Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin books trial in the UK in 2000.

Lipstadt had published a book in 1993, Denying the Holocaust, in which she called the British amateur historian David Irving “one of the most dangerous spokesmen for Holocaust denial.” Irving actually confronted her in the middle of a class lecture at Emory University, and went on to sue her and her publisher. But instead of sueing them in the US where the book was published, he filed his suit in the UK, where those who make potentially libelous remarks must prove they are true. The trailer is a good introduction to the film, which came out about three weeks ago.

Lipstadt's lawyers attacked Irving hard, simply on the facts, and made Lipstadt stay quiet during the proceedings. She, being Jewish, was more emotional about all of it because she considered herself to be defending her people, but her lawyers opted, no doubt correctly, that the case would be won on the facts and not on emotions.

This is from Irving's opening statement:
"The book purports to be a scholarly investigation of the operations of an international network conspiracy of people whom the Second Defendant has dubbed "Holocaust deniers." It is not. The phrase itself, which the Second Defendant prides herself on having coined and crafted, appears repeatedly throughout the work, and it has subsequently become embedded in the vernacular of a certain kind of journalist who wishes to blacken the name of some person, where the more usual rhetoric of neo-Nazi, Nazi, racist, and other similar epithets is no longer deemed adequate. Indeed, the phrase appears over 300 times in just one of the Defendants' experts reports!

"It has become one of the most potent phrases in the arsenal of insult, replacing the N-word, the F-word, and a whole alphabet of other slurs. If an American politician, like Mr. Patrick Buchanan, is branded even briefly a "Holocaust denier," his career can well be said to be in ruins. If a writer, no matter how well reviewed and received until then, has that phrase stuck to him, then he too regard his career as rumbling off the edge of a precipice.

"As a phrase it is of itself quite meaningless. The word "Holocaust" is an artificial label commonly attached to one of the greatest and still most unexplained tragedies of this past century.

"The word "denier" is particularly evil: because no person in full command of his mental faculties, and with even the slightest understanding of what happened in World War II, can deny that the tragedy actually happened, however much we dissident historians may wish to quibble about the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae.

"Yet meaningless though it is, the phrase has become a part of the English language. It is a poison to which there is virtually no antidote, less lethal than a hypodermic with nerve gas jabbed in the neck, but deadly all the same: for the chosen victim, it is like being called a wife beater or a pædophile. It is enough for the label to be attached, for the attachee to find himself designated as a pariah, an outcast from normal society. It is a verbal Yellow Star.

"In many countries now where it was considered that the mere verbal labelling was not enough, governments have been prevailed upon to pass the most questionable laws, including some which can only be considered a total infringement of the normal human rights of free speech, free opinion and freedom of assembly."
We Americans take free speech for granted, and it's easy for us to question German and French laws against denying the Holocaust. But I'm sure we have little idea of the paroxysms and spasms that shook German society, or Europe, after the war.

Irving's attack on the word "denier" appear pompous and bombastic (as he came across in person, too). I've never seen anyone hint that their use of it was akin to "being called a wife beater or a paedophile." I see it as a word, with a definition that predated the Holocaust, that has a certain meaning that conveniently and accurately describes the cruder blunt dismissals of anthropogenic climate change -- denying the greenhouse effect, the enhancing greenhouse effect, basic measurements, ridiculing and attacking scientists, always finding an excuse to dimiss the evidence one doesn't want to hear, etc. I suspect it comes more from a mindset than anything else -- some climate deniers seem to be conservatives who disagree with the general direction of the USA & World, a mindset that has infected the GOP in the age of the Internet, or just like being contrary.

Some people deny basic climate change; wilder ones deny the Sandy Hook shootings. A few crazies still deny the Holocaust. But if Irving was so upset about the word "denier," then clearly complaints about the word don't simply spring from a simaliarity to Holocaust denial but have an earlier origin, and those now using it aren't "global warming Nazi's," a rather ironic turn of phrase.

Irving, of course, played the victim, as you can read thoughout his opening statement. He lost the case, and, on appeal a year later, the case was dismissed.
After the trial, he was asked, "Will you stop denying the Holocaust on the basis of this judgment?" Irving replied, "Good Lord, no."


Layzej said...

I don't often use the label 'denier' because it sounds like a diagnosis and I don't presume to know the heart and mind of anyone else.

Neither would I presume that a science denier was a Holocaust denier. The intersection of those sets is probably quite small, however the mechanisms of denial may be similar. Here's Michael Shermer writing on Holocaust denial. It may sound familiar:

"We [have now discussed] eighteen proofs all converging on one conclusion...the deniers shift the burden of proof to historians by demanding that each piece of evidence, independently and without corroboration between them, prove the Holocaust. Yet no historian has ever claimed that one piece of evidence proves the Holocaust. We must examine the collective whole."

Lewandowsky observes that contrarians often hold incompatible views. This piecemeal attack on the science may contribute. A contrarian may say "not A because Y and not B because Z" without regard to the fact that Y and Z are incompatible.

David in Cal said...

"Denier" is a poorly defined word, because "believing in climate change" is poorly defined.

What does it mean to "believe in climate change"? "Believing in climate change" may include any of the following:
1. The earth is warming.
2. Man's activity contributes to the warming.
3. Man's activity is the only significant cause of the warming.
4. The climate models are at least fairly reliable.
5. The planet is warming at a rate that will be catastrophic
6. Climate change is causing an increase in extreme events
7. The current Paris agreement will avoid catastrophe, or will at least go a long way in that direction.
8. Certainty of various points above.

So, e.g., Professor Curry doesn't deny any aspect, but she says there's lots of uncertainty in the models. So, she's sometimes called a "denier".


Richard Lawson said...

As a psychiatrist, I do use the word denial. It is a defense mechanism that denies painful and/or unacceptable thoughts, . truths, realities, facts, feelings and emotions. Denial comes with an aversion to dealing with same.

I regularly dealt with denial in my GP surgery. It happens with alcoholics who refuse to accept that they are alcoholics. With skeletal young women who refuse to accept that they have an eating disorder. We all do denial to some extent, for instance, in forgetting dentists’ appointments.

Anyone who knows an individual who is in denial can see that they have a problem, except such friends and acquaintances who have been sucked in to the individual's belief system.

Every argument, fact or emotional pleading is countered by the individual in denial with “No, but what about x y and z?”

The condition can be resolved, but it needs enormous investment of supportive care, knowledge, wisdom and patience on the part of the community, mediated mainly by psychiatric services.

The critical factor in resolution of denial lies with the subject experiencing the unpleasant reality that is being denied. The alcoholic may need to experience loss of job and family before they join AA. The smoker may need to experience his heart attack before he gives up.

So denial in individual psychology is generally accepted among scientifically trained psychiatrists as a recognisable mental condition.

Climate change deniers form a large and unduly influential group within society. Their influence suggests that their beliefs are resonating with a lot of people, so in this sense there is a social form of denial going on, just as there is with other social manifestations of denial such as evolution denial.

The key question for us is, how do we relate to climate change denial?

First, stay calm. Their style is almost universally provocative, and ad hominem. They are angry people, who feel that their core philosophy of personal freedom to do exactly as they bloody well choose is under threat. In the past, they have been secure in the knowledge that people like George W Bush was there to speak for them. Now they do not have that security. That is why they are angry. The anger belongs to them, not to you. Do not take it on board; stay above their anger. Imagine that you are a therapist dealing with an anorectic.

Second, be patient. Talking with a denialist is like discussing Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment with someone who is still having trouble remembering which way round his b’s and d’s go. It is frustrating and time consuming, but if done briefly and clearly, it may convince a bystander, if not the denier himself, that you are right.

Third, stick to the basic science, which is simple, even though the subject itself is exceedingly complex.

1 the greenhouse effect is real
2 CO2 is a greenhouse gas
3 CO2 levels have increased through our activities
4 already we can see changes attributable to our CO2
5 These impacts will increase to unacceptable levels in the future.

The denier will try to divert and obfuscate the argument because that is what denial demands that they do to avoid the unacceptable reality. They will never give way, but if we present the argument calmly and rationally, neutral bystanders will tend to come over to our side.

Layzej said...

I agree with DiC. Those of us who are not psychologists ought to identify what our target is denying before we assign that label. Judith believes anything and everything. Climate sensitivity could be as low as 1C or as high as 10C. Maybe burning fossil fuels has caused the observed rise in CO2, but maybe its the result of our warming planet. Maybe there is no consensus but possibly the fact that there is "is, itself, evidence of a lack of evidence for global warming." Etc.

That refusal to dismiss any outlandish idea may be a defense mechanism akin to denial, but most of us are unqualified to make that assertion.

Toby Joyce said...

David in Cal,

Agreeing to action on climate change is not a question of "belief", it is a question of accepting evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

There are well over a dozen pieces of evidence from global average temperatures to Arctic sea ice which all support the theory of global warming. Judith Curry, or anyone, can point to the uncertainties in each one, but the fact that ALL point in one direction is unanswerable, IMHO.

Even the two pieces of apparently contrary evidence that deniers harped on ad nauseam, the "pause in global warming" and Antarctic sea ice growth, have either ultimately failed, or (in the second case) shown to be consistent with global warming.

I use "denier" myself to describe people online who keep going back to the same discredited myths again and again and again. For example, after the Arctic sea ice minimum in 2007, deniers hyped an "amazing" sea ice "recovery" - until 2012, when sea ice extent crashed to a new minimum. Instead of questioning their own assumptions, the same sorry bunch just started the hype of a "new recovery" all over again, as no doubt they will once more after the next minimum. Such are Judith Curry's partners.



David in Cal said...

Richard Lawson -- I agree with your first four points. Your 5th point might well also be true, but is less certain. A quote attributed to both Yogi Berra and Niels Bohr says, "It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

People have sometimes gone wrong, when extending current trends into the future. An amusing example is the "Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894." In 1894, The Times newspaper predicted... “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” Of course, that didn't happen because horses came to be replaced by motor cars -- a change that was not evident in 1994.

Another possibility is that the planet may warm catastrophically very rapidly. In that case, the Paris agreement, the EPA, etc. could be inadequate to save us from disaster. Those of us who believe in climate change are only a little better off then the deniers. We know that some level of action is appropriate, but we don't know what that level is.

Steve said...

I don't use the word denier, as I don't want to get into a silly semantic argument.
I call opponents of the science climate "skeptics".
I have never had anyone object to quotes around skeptics.
I try to explain the science as I understand it, supplying sources.
I don't expect to change the opinion of anyone who is motivated enough to argue against the science online. I keep a civil tone because there is likely to be other people reading my comment, who might be open to the evidence.

Toby Joyce said...

David in Cal,

You post is as good an example of denial pathology as I have seen. Everything leads to the conclusion: We must do nothing.

You could challenge yourself by considering, not horse manure, but human faeces. In the 1850s, it was was discovered that contamination by human faeces of drinkable water was fatal to health. In large cities, dumping faeces into the nearest drain was a menace. Not just that, it was also disagreeably uncomfortable - try googling "The Great London Stink of 1857". Someone must have done a calculation and found that at the rate cities were growing, they would soon become almost uninhabitable due to endemic disease and noxious odours.

The solution was, as great expense, to retro-fit conurbations like London and New York with enormous underground sewage systems and pumping stations that were triumphs of Victorian civil engineering. Many opposed there on cost grounds, and perhaps argued that a cheaper solution could be found if the temporary discomfort, and the loss of life, could be borne patiently for a long enough period until solution could appear. No one complains about sewage treatment today, and in fifty years time no one will complain about renewable energy either.

David in Cal said...

Toby Joyce illustrates a common use of the word "denier" -- as an insult. He says I suffer from a pathology.

However, Toby got a few things wrong. My comment above didn't say we should do nothing. I don't believe we should do nothing. He didn't refute the point that we don't know what level of action is necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming. He mistakenly equated renewable energy with low carbon emissions energy.


Layzej said...

No longer just a river in Egypt, now also a major motion picture: - What you can't do is lie and expect not to be accountable for it.

Chris_Winter said...

Here's another zombie argument that should long since have been abandoned. But it won't be abandoned, because it's too handy a distraction. I'll just make three points.

1) There are all kinds of denial. If I claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, despite the documentation of his birth in Hawaii (not only the birth certificate but announcements in local papers at the time) and the testimony of his relatives, and someone calls me a president-citizenship-denier, am I justified in feeling insulted? Of course, just as would anyone whose beliefs are derided.

There are only two justifiable responses to being called a denier. The first is charge and counter-charge: "You're a denier." "No, you are!" It's not rational, but it's human, and justifiable on that basis (up to a point.) The second response, the rational one, is for both sides to marshal and present supporting evidence -- after which the side with the better evidence prevails.

2) To conflate being called another kind of denier (e.g. AGW-denier) with Holocaust denial is to attempt distraction by raising the specter of an unrelated but emotionally charged controversy. It is one form of straw-man argument, and making it is prima facie confirmation of the original denial.

3) Contrary to the claim "David in Cal" makes in the second comment, "denier" has a perfectly adequate definition. It refers to someone who refuses to accept facts which are well supported.