The Mind Of A Climate Change Denier

Brain - photo by Michael Hanscom

It’s simply unlikely you will successfully change the mind of a climate change denier if they aren’t open to changing their mind in the first place. If someone has a firmly held belief and is unwilling to give up that belief it becomes a near impossible task to collect and present enough data and evidence to change that person’s mind.

Deeply embedded ideas about how things work and emotional reactions to those who would challenge these ideas will in many cases severly impact the ability to deliberate on the facts and use logic and reason before rendering a final verdict. Someone with a firmly held belief, when faced with a challenge, will retrieve memories that support this cherished belief and push aside any arguments supported by empirical data. An article on Mother Jones – The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science – explains it like this:

“They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” says Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

Can an analogy work? How about this doctor-patient example. The patient has never had any health problems and believes he’s in perfect health but for the sake of his wife he agrees to have a routine checkup. At the conclusion of the checkup the doctor states he has found a problem that requires immediate attention. The patient says he feels fine and visits a second doctor just to make sure. The second doctor finds the same problem so the patient sees a third doctor and so on. After 100 doctors, 99 of them have found the same problem and just one doctor gives the patient a clean bill of health. The patient, because he feels fine and has always felt fine, believes the 99 doctors must be mistaken and in each case “finds” something in the character of each doctor that he didn’t like and uses that as confirmation that they must be wrong. The patient goes along with the 1 doctor who most closely aligned with his pre-existing belief. Oh, and by the way, the patient also happens to think this 1 doctor is a swell guy who would never steer him wrong. I don’t need to tack on a sad conclusion to this story for you to see the point.

A possible response to this analogy by a climate change denier is that it’s not equivalent to the climate change debate. They probably will say that more than 1 out of 100 climate scientists are skeptical of climate change and it’s cause. They probably believe the debate has equal amounts of evidence on each side because that’s what they’ve read or heard. Because this person so strongly believes climate change is a hoax he will likely seek out people with similar beliefs. He is also likely to question the authority of the very people who study climate change because why would someone seek such a profession if there isn’t a changing climate to study in the first place?

It is indeed an uphill battle to change the mind of a climate change denier. Meanwhile much of the developed world knows that climate change is a serious problem and is taking steps to combat it. This includes corporations, which aren’t known for being the most liberal of entities. It also includes the United States military, also not known for it’s liberal tendencies, which has deemed climate change a serious threat to national security.

But that’s ok climate change deniers, you keep on believing your “opinion” matters more. At least the rest of us now have a scientific understanding of why you think your opinion matters more.


photo by Michael Hanscom via Flickr

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  • By the way, this directly relates to any number of challenges you get from the Right on any number of issues from income inequality to same-sex marriage to health care reform, it doesn’t matter. In all cases there is a pre-existing belief that is unshakable and it requires rigorous defending. Sometimes the defenses used become untenable and require a new defense that is sometimes in direct conflict with the first defense. This contradiction is easily glossed over in the mind of the believer because the focus is on making the case for a belief that is not supported by facts.

  • I came to my senses just a year ago.

    • CIA Jon: I have a secret to share, there was a time when this article applied to me as well. 🙂 At the time I simply wasn’t engaged in the issues of the day but like anyone else I still had opinions. Of course everybody has opinions on any number of things but do they have the evidence to support their opinions? Climate scientists do, and therefore it’s not their opinion. Instead it’s scientific fact, which is as good as anything humans have ever come up with in order to know something is true.

  • Steve Schuler

    What are the two things people say one should never bring up in polite conversation? Politics and religion? Maybe that’s because they both have so much in common…

    • Steve: Correctness governs this website more than politeness. 🙂 People can have a disagreement on any number of things and it’s not considered offensive but disagree on politics (and even more so) religion and suddenly differing viewpoints are considered toxic and offensive. And I say to that, get over it.

  • Steve Schuler

    Well said! I completely agree – all ideas should be discussable and debatable in a civil tone, regardless of topic. Getting back to politics, I think this is a big part of what’s gone wrong in our nation’s political discourse over the past 10-15 years. Civility and rational discussion of logical ideas has been usurped by hyperbolic appeals to emotion rather than reason. I’m holding out hope that this is a pendulum which is about to begin swinging back in the opposite direction any time now. It can’t keep getting worse forever, can it? Can it?? 😮

    • This is my hope as well. Sometimes I think it’s always been this way and I just wasn’t engaged and paying attention until the last 5 or 6 years but I get the impression from most rational people that they too feel things are different now. So hopefully it is a pendulum as you stated. I look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, and wonder why that took so long. Maybe that is part of the catalyst that starts to change the discourse. At the very least it has started a discussion on income inequality that wasn’t there before. Maybe it can extend to other topics as well.

  • klem

    So you have to go to some bad research to understand why deniers don’t believe in ACC. Wow you people are deep, remind me not to come back to this web site.

    • I do appreciate your comment. Oh, and this will serve as your reminder.