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The 'kettle logic' of climate denial cultists



In 1956, a team of American psychologists published When Prophecy Fails, on the response by a group of UFO cultists to the non-appearance of a promised flying saucer. The researchers chronicled how the failure of predictions did not lead to the cult's collapse. On the contrary, after a brief period of confusion, the members readjusted their beliefs and became even more fervent in proselytising their faith. The book comes to mind these days as the environmental crisis increasingly confounds the assertions of sceptics.

Vintage style 3-D rendering of flying saucer (oorka / Getty)Today, CO2 levers have reached 414 parts per million, a level not experienced on earth for millenia. The world's five hottest years have all occurred since 2014 — and 2019 looks set to continue the trend. Climate models have become sufficiently robust that the researcher James Annan has developed a tidy little sideline taking bets against those who tell him warming isn't real. Unprecedented fires rage across the Amazon, in Africa and the Arctic. In Australia, we have such fires, too — but we also have reef bleaching, mass extinctions and prolonged drought.

Yet Liberal frontbencher David Littleproud just explained that he 'didn't know' if humanity was responsible for climate change. With major rivers like the Murray Darling in a state of utter collapse, you might expect a Minister for Water Resources to have done some investigation into the key issue for his portfolio, especially given he's also supposed to manage the bushfires that might bear some relationship to a warming planet. But apparently not.

What was more, in his refusal to link intensifying fires with climate change, he was backed by Bridget McKenzie, the Nationals deputy leader, Matt Canavan, the minister for resources and northern Australia, and Sussan Ley, all of whom, according to the Guardian, 'denied knowledge of or downplayed the link'. 

The same phenomenon can be observed overseas. Trump, of course, calls climate change a Chinese plot, and appointed to his National Security Council the (now departing) physicist William Happer, who compared hostility to fossil fuels with 'the demonisation of the poor Jews under Hitler'. In the UK, the hapless Boris Johnson has assembled what some environmentalists have called the 'most anti-climate action' cabinet ever, while Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro promotes denialism even as the Amazon burns. Why aren't the denialists confounded?

In the Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud tells the story of a man who defends himself against accusations he had given back a borrowed kettle in a damaged state. Confronted by the aggrieved owner, the man sputters that, firstly, he had returned the kettle undamaged; secondly, it was already broken when he borrowed it; and thirdly, he had never borrowed it at all. 'A complicated defence,' Freud quips, 'but so much the better; if only one of these three lines of defence is recognised as valid must be acquitted.'

You'll find this 'kettle logic' in most of the denialist publications. In her new book, Naomi Klein writes of attending a conference of the Heartland Institute, in which the speakers regularly contradicted each other. She tries to puzzle out their arguments, asking sarcastically: 'Is there warming, or is there warming but it's not a problem? And if there's no warming, then what's all this talk about sunspots causing temperatures to rise?'


"Young people put no faith in flying saucers coming down to save the day. They recognise there's only one Earth — and they're determined to defend it."


Though the ideologues of denialism invariably declare themselves truthseekers wedded to facts and logic (so many invocations of Galileo!), the movement has always been more about politics than science. The fossil fuel companies that underwrite denialist thinktanks and conferences want to counter environmentalists and protect their profits. They don't care how they do so.

In an earlier period, in which the data wasn't as clear, the most effective technique involved a simple insistence that the temperature remained constant, that projections weren't accurate, that scientists fudged their results, and so on. But last July was the hottest month ever in human history. Under such circumstances, the old methods don't cut it and so the argument has changed.

The Littleproud position reflects that evolution. You'll note that the minister doesn't deny the rising temperature. Instead, he says we shouldn't be wasting time on airy-fairy scientific speculation about causes but must be 'making sure we give our people the tools to be able to go out and protect themselves in a changing climate'.

Expect to encounter this more often, in a number of slightly different guises. He could, for instance, have acknowledged human agency and still run more-or-less the same line. Climate change might be real, he might have said, and it might be caused by humans, but it's here now, and so rather than wringing our hands about carbon, we should just get down to the practical business of adjusting.

Barnaby Joyce used precisely that approach to denounce Richard Di Natale for 'politicising' the bushfires with talk of climate change. Rather than discussing energy, Joyce said, the Greens should be taking practical measures like enabling firefighters to take water from National Parks. That's not, strictly speaking, denialism, but it has the same political effect — it seeks to discomfort environmentalists and prevent any action to reduce emissions. Why, it's positively self-indulgent to worry about abstractions like carbon in the face of such an urgent threat!

Given the global emergency, why does any of this get a hearing? In respect of the die-hard audience for climate scepticism, that UFO cult provides a useful reference. The explanation in Why Prophecy Fails rests on the notion that the unsuccessful prediction caused a dissonance between belief and outcome, which many cultists sought to resolve in ways that maintained their beliefs. Having so publicly and seriously committed themselves to the UFO group, they found it easier to proclaim their faith with intensified fervour rather than to acknowledge any error, especially since new recruits helped them to believe they were right all along.

There's certainly something of this in the audience for climate denialism. Studies indicate that denialists find their core support among wealthy older white men, a demographic overwhelmingly represented at talks by Ian Plimer, Lord Monckton or other denialist stars. After long and successful careers, such people see attacks on fossil fuels as an assault on the business practices to which they devoted their lives. Their investment in the status quo leads to a public commitment to denialism (expressed through dinner party fulminations, the circulation of email chains, and subscriptions to the Australian).

Like the flying saucer people, they don't change their minds based on new material. Rather, the discomfort fresh edvidence causes them results in a renewed proclamation of their denialism, as they double down on their familiar identity. Where once they blamed environmentalists for not recognising the planet had been hotter during the Middle Ages, they now attack Greenies for preventing the adoption of carbon-free nuclear power. The rhetoric might change but the structure remains the same.

Yet it's important to recognise that the sceptics writing letters to Quadrant represent a small and declining minority. According to a recent report, 77 per cent of Australians believe climate change to be happening, and 81 per cent are concerned by the droughts and flooding they associate with it. A majority of Australians attribute extreme weather to climate change and two thirds want the government to stop opening new mines.

Furthermore, younger age groups show an overwhelming commitment to environmental action, as the remarkable school walkouts demonstrate. While the ranks of the denialists thin with every cold winter, the number of climate activists grows with each term's enrolment. There's no mystery there. Young people put no faith in flying saucers coming down to save the day. They recognise there's only one Earth — and they're determined to defend it.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Vintage style 3-D rendering of flying saucer (oorka / Getty)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, climate change, Covering Climate Now



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Existing comments

Being a UFO sceptic, I nevertheless took notice last week when the US Navy admitted that leaked “UFO Tapes” showing encounters between US Navy aircraft and “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” were real. But for some, it’s easier to simply silence critics. The academic site, The Conversation, declared on 17th September that it would no longer give climate sceptics a platform: “Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.” Now remember when the eminent climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann, published his Hockey Stick Graph which was enthusiastically embraced by the IPCC as a poster for its campaign to drastically cut emissions. Climate sceptic professor Tim Ball was not just unconvinced by the research, he famously declared that Michael Mann “should be in the state pen, not Penn State.” In 2011, Mann sued Ball for defamation. But after eight years Mann had failed to produce any data verifying his graph, and last month, The British Columbia Supreme Court dismissed his action. It would have been far more convenient for the litigious Mann (he still has another eight year action pending against another sceptic, Mark Steyn) to have dissenters silenced by having a “climate emergency” proclaimed.

Ross Howard | 20 September 2019  

Today's school strikes should be a wake-up call for all our politicians, including those who maintain they believe in human-caused climate change but still support new coal mines, like the Adani mine. History is against these politicians and history was made today!

Grant Allen | 20 September 2019  

To really appreciate how difficult it is to change the mind of people with fixed ideas you should read: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/04/denial-science-chris-mooney/

john slidziunas | 21 September 2019  

Spot on Jeff, For the life of me I can't understand how the sceptics reason, but your article has thrown a new light on the phenomena . I attended the Canberra Rally yesterday where there were around 10,000 people- not bad for a city the size of Canberra. What will it take for the pollies to realise they are not only backing the wrong horse , but are condemning our children and grandchildren to a life hardly worth thinking about. We are currently enveloped in a dense red dust haze as more of our valuable top soil is blown across the "Ditch" to coat the NZ Alps in red snow.

Gavin A O'Brien | 21 September 2019  

It is revealing that this long article provides no science showing that the mild warming since the little ice age of the 18thC is man made, only pop psychology attacking those who are well informed about geoscience and reject climate catastrophe alarmism.

John Wheelahan | 21 September 2019  

I have always suspected that the politicians we have are scientifically illiterate and that this is the root of the problem. Also I can't see why it matters that most people believe in climate change when they continue to vote in denialist politicians on the promise of tax cuts and support of a mega coal mine promising an illusory number of jobs. It's the voters who want to believe these lies even if they don't make sense and are inconsistent that are the problem. Teaching of science in schools should be given a higher priority.

Marie Belcredi | 21 September 2019  

Reply to Mr. Howard: The climate science research of Michael Mann and his colleagues is sound and upheld by other science research teams as well. He is attacked by fossil fuel interests. He was defamed by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy headquartered in Winnipeg, which has settled the case and apologised to Michael Mann. His defamation case against another offender is still ongoing. Neither case involves argument about climate science. The legal domain is not where climate science is conducted, although you have implied otherwise. The following articles flatly contradict your comment. https://cleantechnica.com/2019/06/17/michael-mann-wins-a-round-in-court-other-challenges-pending/ https://grist.org/article/michael-e-mann-took-climate-change-deniers-to-court-they-apologized/

John McKeon | 22 September 2019  

Also for Mr. Howard: The Conversation has defended it's revised policy out of a need to dispell the false "balance" induced by trolls attacking climate science in comments sections following articles. The ultimate inspiration for these attacks are fossil fuel interests. https://theconversation.com/theres-a-good-reason-were-moderating-climate-change-deniers-uninformed-comments-undermine-expertise-123857

John McKeon | 22 September 2019  

Wouldn't it be wonderful if children would finish their education, including higher education, rather than wagging school. The science is not settled and now it seems more research is needed on SF6, sulphur hexafluoride. Wouldn't it be wonderful if children started walking to school or catching public transport instead of being driven. Picking up rubbish lying around playgrounds would also help. Start a compost heap and plant more trees. Wagging school and hanging around a CBD is much easier than actually rolling up your sleeves to make the environment a better place.

Jane | 22 September 2019  

Fair go, Jane - they'd be missing out on flag flying, placard bearing, megaphone grasping and groupie photo ops, not to mention the chance to ape the demonstration antics of union mentors! All in a good day's work! And slogans are much easier to recite than engaging with maths theorems and their applications, or literary and historical interpretation and justification. Fortunately, the vast majority of students attended school.

John RD | 23 September 2019  

John McKeon, one can find almost anything on the internet to bolster one’s arguments. I read the piece by Steve Hanley, and immediately found an article by a scientist ridiculing it: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/08/23/media-reaction-to-tim-balls-court-victory/ Michael Mann sued Dr Ball for defamation. Ball asserted truth as a defence, and in that jurisdiction the rules state that parties must make available to the other party documents that reasonably bear on the issues of the case. After refusing to produce his documents, Mann was ordered by the court to produce them, because the documents would help to show whether Ball’s statement about him—that he belonged in the state penitentiary and not Penn State University—was true or false. Mann still refused, and the court dismissed his case. The logical inference is that if produced, the documents would support Ball’s claim that the hockey stick graph was a deliberate fraud on Mann’s part. And I wouldn’t bet against Mark Steyn. In 2007, he was taken to the Canadian Human Rights Commission by the Canadian Islamic Council. Steyn won the case and the Canadian Government repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Ross Howard | 23 September 2019  

''Belief" has no place in the world-wide debate on climate change: it demands rigorous study, intellectual understanding and an openness to new information. Those like David Littleproud, Bridget McKenzie, Matt Canavan and Sussan Ley who claim they 'don't know' are at best placing their ignorance of relevant research on public display.

Jenny Holmes | 25 September 2019  

Hmm..ok, now a "denialist" is in a cult and their position equated to some Freudian failing. Even Southpark recognizes that in the case of two opposed views on polarizing issues that both sides need each other to debate; a single social mindset might be convenient but then what would journalists write about? There'll be few pens and even less journos in Elysium. Dismissing a group think to "kettle logic" seems unfair; perhaps climate activists thinking could be described as "Kanut logic", attempting to hold back an overwhelming tide? I enjoy the article and appreciate the frustration of the author with the tide coming in and the liklihood he'll get his feet wet...but unlike the king, at least Jeff can say "I told you so...". Very satisfying; people pay for dopamine but it's free when you're right. Rather than critisize those in power and influence who "know differently" perhaps the better avenue is to try to urge their cooperation while saying sooth. It worked on royalty for hundreds of years until the free press chose to confront those in power...

Ray | 07 November 2019  

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