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5 types of climate change deniers, and how to change their minds
Talking about climate change doesn't have to be an argument over Thanksgiving dinner. Some people, though maybe not all, can be persuaded.
- Climate change is easily one of humanity's greatest threats, and a mountain of data and evidence support this assertion.
- Despite the evidence, only 71% of Americans believe that climate change is real and primarily driven by human activities.
- People can and do change their minds about climate change. Trying to convince people to change their minds is often more about picking the right target than it is providing the right arguments.
Do facts matter? In an objective sense, yes, of course they do. It's a fact that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and no amount of hemming and hawing will change that. A better question might be: Do facts matter to people?
When we look at topics with seemingly straightforward, fact-based answers, the disheartening conclusion is that no, facts do not matter to people, at least not more than belief. The rate of deadly diseases dropped precipitously after the introduction of vaccines, but a highly anti-vaccination community in North Carolina just had a sizeable outbreak of chickenpox. Eratosthenes used some fairly simple math to demonstrate the Earth is a globe 2,000 years ago, but plenty of people still believe the Earth is flat. Through multiple discrete sources of evidence, 97% of climatologists agree that the Earth is warming, and human behavior is to blame, but only 71% of Americans believe that global warming is happening at all, let alone human-driven global warming.
Reality doesn't care about people's beliefs; it will continue to behave as it will regardless of its polling numbers. So, part of the necessary work in preparing against reality's variety of risks and threats is convincing people that those risks and threats exist in the first place. Can you change the mind of a climate change denier? And if so, how?
Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, recently changed his mind about climate change.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Reconsidering the evidence
To answer the first question, it does appear that people's minds can be changed. Maybe not everybody, but some people certainly do. The 71% of Americans who believe in climate change is a record high—it may be troubling that the number doesn't match the 97% of climatologists who believe in climate change, but at least its moving in a positive direction.
As the founder of the Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer makes his living debunking bad science and educating the public on scientific skepticism. Like any good skeptic, Shermer was initially uncertain of climate change, especially the idea that humans were its primary driver. But he changed his mind.
"What turned me around on the global warming issue was a convergence of evidence from numerous sources. […] Because we are primates with such visually dominant sensory systems, we need to see the evidence to believe it, and the striking visuals of countless graphs and charts, and especially the before-and-after photographs showing the disappearance of glaciers around the world, shocked me viscerally and knocked me out my skepticism."
Richard Cizik, an evangelical reverend, also changed his mind after attending a climate change conference:
"I heard the evidence over four days, did a fist to the forehead and thought, 'Oh my gosh, if this is true, everything has changed.' […] I liken it to a religious conversion, and not just because I saw something I'd never seen before — I felt a deep sense of repentance."
A Reddit thread titled 'Former climate change deniers, what changed your mind?' offered a variety of different reasons, including a sense of responsibility for the Earth ("I'd rather unnecessarily make the world a nice place to live than unintentionally contribute to making it less livable for many"), noticing weird weather ("Winters have been unusually warm, with flash major snow storms scattered throughout, and it's gotten to the point where something just blatantly feels wrong about it"), and that climate change deniers don't seem trustworthy ("I realized that many of the other people denying anthropogenic climate change were being funded by the fossil fuel industry").
But the number one reason expressed in the Reddit thread and by the previous examples was a greater understanding of the science behind climate change. Michael Shermer is a skeptic, but skepticism requires paying attention to evidence. The Reverend Cizik attended a climatology conference. In the Reddit thread, 47% of responses attributed their change of mind to the evidence. As one Reddit user put it "… it's just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it. From what I've learned about the process it just makes too much sense to sound fake."
The backfire effect
Based on the above, it seems like providing evidence is the best way to change minds. In an ideal world, evidence would change everybody's mind, but its actually more complicated than that. The above sample has a selection bias—we only heard from people who have successfully changed their minds about climate change. It's much harder to get a clear answer by asking "Climate change deniers, what would change your mind about climate change?"
Anybody who has ever gotten into a political argument is probably familiar with the backfire effect even if they didn't know to call it that. Often, after hearing one factually inaccurate statement, somebody will provide a correction ("well, actually…"). This is referred to as the "information deficit model" of communication; the other side is misinformed, so you'll provide a correction or further evidence they had lacked, and because the other side is a perfectly rational human being who are not under the sway of powerful emotions and beliefs central to their identity, they'll change their mind. It may have worked for the people cited earlier, but it doesn't work for everybody.
In fact, providing corrections and contrary evidence entrenches people in their beliefs: the backfire effect. Researchers have demonstrated this by showing study participants fake news articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, like the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Then, researchers showed a true news article, like the fact that there was no evidence of WMDs in Iraq. For study participants who supported the Iraq war, seeing the second article made them believe there were WMDs more strongly than they had prior to starting the study.
The backfire effect isn't the only bit of mental gymnastics we do when confronted with contrary evidence. Dr. Tali Sharot, a cognitive scientist, explains how people react to different kinds of evidence and how intelligent people are particularly susceptible to twisting facts in the video below:
Picking your target
So, providing facts—following the information deficit model—doesn't always work. What does? In an article for Yale Climate Connections, Karin Kirk points out that often the most important aspect of persuading a climate change denier lies in picking the right target. She identifies six types of people when it comes to persuadability: the informed but idle, the uninformed, the misinformed, the party-line follower, the ideologue, and the troll.
It will save you a lot of effort to understand the first lesson of the internet: Don't feed the trolls. Trolls don't debate somebody because they care about the topic. They care about the vitriol, the adrenaline, and "winning". Your energy is wasted there.
It can be easy to feel equally frustrated when debating ideologues and people who follow the party line. If the stakes were lower, leaving intractable people alone would likely be the best response, but reversing climate change will take broad support. Ideologues and followers of the party line, though, are highly susceptible to the backfire effect. Instead, take a parallel approach: Discuss the job growth that investing in green energy can provide, remark on how whichever nations don't do so will be left behind in the future, describe how green energy essentially means free energy for all intents and purposes. Not everybody has to believe that climate change is real, and if we all work towards the same purposes for different reasons, what does it matter?
For the misinformed, it's important to describe climate science in a conscientious way. Susan Hassol, the head of the nonprofit organization Climate Communication, says, "Good communication is a conversation, rather than a lecture." Using the Socratic method—asking questions to test a debater's underlying assumptions—can be a respectful way to expose a flawed understanding of a subject.
As for the uninformed, describing the broad, abstract, and globally catastrophic consequences of climate change isn't likely to persuade them to learn more. They've already heard those angles. Instead, focusing on the personal impacts of climate change will be more effective. Will their children be able to enjoy the same climate they did growing up? Will the future economy help make them prosperous?
Informed but idle
The group we should focus on the most are the informed but idle. Often, these people fit into the 71% of Americans who do believe in climate change, they just don't feel the urgency. Here's where you can unleash your doom and gloom. Go nuts! Just don't make it seem like nothing can be done. On the contrary, quite a bit can be done. Climate change is affecting everybody today, and there's still time to make a difference. There's certainly not enough time to permit easy and comfortable inaction, and often people simply lack the motivation. Climate change is nothing less than the complete and utter transformation of our society; if that doesn't offer motivation, what else will?
Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit: Improve your critical thinking
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.