Climate denial: more Machiavelli than Derrida

Writing in Eos, the house journal of the American Geophysical Union, Kenneth Verosub, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, portrays climate denial as a manifestation of “postmodernism”. In doing so, Verosub displays an ignorance of postmodernism, and appears to hold to an out-dated, positivist view of science.

Basing his thesis on a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Daniel Henninger, Verosub claims that postmodernists see truth as a relative concept. Perhaps Henninger and Verosub are confusing postmodernism with post-structuralism: a style of literary criticism made popular by once trendy intellectuals known for paying more attention to their coiffures than their arguments.

Postmodernism is a wide philosophical framework within which one may fit old school science’s favourite philosopher Karl Popper, as well as more radical figures such as Paul Feyerabend. The basis of postmodernism is that truth is limited, or at least provisional and approximate, and evolves with our cumulative understanding of the world.

Only the silliest of cultural critics claim that everything is ‘relative’, and that therefore anything goes. Few scientists would dare argue with Popper, at least in general terms, and Feyerabend’s critique of the classical scientific method continues to gain traction within the research community.

Verosub is concerned more with the use and abuse of climate science by non-scientists, but even there I think he gets it wrong in associating denialism and scepticism with a postmodern outlook on the world. The contrarianism of climate sceptics and deniers has more to do with cold, hard politics, and as such it is frighteningly rational.

There is a cynical view of life which says that a statement repeated often enough becomes true by virtue of its dominance in the media marketplace of ideas. It is for this reason that Verosub’s argument has a greater ‘truth’ to it than this blog critique, read as it is by few more than three old men and a dog. In our electronic, networked age we have a virtually unlimited choice of information sources, and the danger is that we self-censor our exposure to knowledge in filtering to avoid information deluge.

Climate scepticism and denialism’s strength derives from their skill with PR and spin. Forget postmodernism; scientists would do well to study Machiavelli if they wish to understand and combat the anti-scientists currently dominating the public debate on climate change.

Further reading

Kenneth L Verosub, “Climate science in a postmodern world”, Eos 91, 291 (2010) [subscription required]

Daniel Henninger, “Climate: science is dying”, Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2009