McKibben on Why Climate Change Denial Is Like the O.J. Trial

For Craig, Part 2: Bill McKibbon’s excellent article on the basic mechanism behind climate-change denialism: Why It’s the O.J. Moment of the 21st Century.

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial…

The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian et al. decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt, and doubt, of course, was all they needed. Hence, those days of cross-examination about exactly how Dennis Fung had transported blood samples, or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs when talking to a screenwriter in 1986.

If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.”…

Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.

Indeed, the IPCC managed to include, among other glitches, a spurious date for the day when Himalayan glaciers would disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated — a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it’s more or less obliterated another, undeniable piece of evidence: virtually every glacier on the planet is, in fact, busily melting.

Similarly, if you managed to hack 3,000 emails from some scientist’s account, you might well find a few that showed them behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climate-gate” scandal from an English research center last fall. The English scientist Phil Jones has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

This is the same phenomenon that Sputnik talked about in the Tank Riot podcast about the Zapruder film: Having lots of evidence doesn’t prevent conspiracy theories — it breeds them. The Internet is, or is well on its way to becoming, a universally available, indexed compendium of all the facts ever assembled by the human mind. Paradoxically, that doesn’t make us smarter. Or maybe it does, under certain circumstances. But it also makes us more deluded.

It all comes down to epistemology. If you only seek confirmation for your existing views, you will always succeed. More than ever, we need the methods of science — multiple working hypotheses, repeatable testing, and a disconfirmation bias — to make sense of the world. But the scientific method has always run counter to human nature — even for scientists. It’s hard to be willing to be wrong.

All that assumes that you’re motivated by a desire to learn the truth. In the case of O.J.’s lawyers during the trial, or the fossil fuel industry trying to stave off the changes mandated by global warming, they’re actually trying to obscure the truth, so the scientific method doesn’t really come into play. It’s up to us, though, the would-be consumers of the disinformation they’re peddling, to use a little caveat emptor.

3 Responses to “McKibben on Why Climate Change Denial Is Like the O.J. Trial”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    I agree fully jbc, and have over the past few months more than ever been reviewing the pillars supporting my beliefs.

    It would be so comforting to be able to cast off suspicions about the motives that make me very cautious about the messages / conclusions emanating from “the establishment.” I’d like that. Especially as it relates to you-know-what. Sadly though, the more carefully I’ve employed caveat emptor and assessed the criticisms of both sides in a wholistic manner- and yes that also includes criticisms of process & mandates of the commission even by the people supposedly supporting the process & mandates – the more I’ve concluded that there is more than plenty of room for doubt about you-know-what; and also sufficient facts revealed through scientific study to expose the existence of a big lie. For example, it took years and several confrontations to get NIST to admit the simpple fact that building 7 fell at freefall speed, they vehemently denied that until faced with incontrovertable proof from AE911.

    I would ask that you also recognize that the “us” in your last line means you too.

  2. Climate: OJ and the Haystack | Dangerous Intersection Says:

    […] Why Climate Change Denial Is Like the O.J. Trial is an interesting article. The essence is that the climate denialists are using the same techniques as the OJ defense team: Find anything resembling a needle in a vast haystack of data, then claim that the presence of the needle casts doubt on the character of the haystack itself. […]

  3. Craig Says:

    True, some skeptics will focus on one weakly-constructed study and try to make a sweeping indictment on global warming. But many people, including some serious and studied thinkers in relevant fields of study, are questioning the way science has apparently been used at CRU, even if they aren’t yet ready to proclaim the body of work done as false.

    A scientific committee arm of Parliment is gathering opinion from sources such as the one above, to discover the true extent of any real data manipulation that the e-mail controversy may allude to.

    My only point is that, with so much in the balance regarding global warming’s practical results, it would be smarter to welcome a fresh viewing and study of the data being used, to try to reverse the very real perception problem that currently exists, and will not be simply going away at this point.

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