Of Creationists and Climate Deniers

It is accepted as common knowledge that climate change denial is in the very same boat at creationism.

Both the climate denier and the creationist argue that the overwhelming majority of scientists are either simply wrong, or have deliberately conspired to deceive the masses. The creationist has an older pedigree, of course, with legal challenges to the teaching of evolution in public schools going back to at least the time of the Scopes “monkey “ trial of 1925. Climate change denialism is a more recent phenomenon, since it has arisen only in opposition to theories of climate change that became the consensus view around the mid-1980s (a mere thirty-or-so years ago). Thus, both the creationist and the climate denier are taken to have erred for simply denying what the overwhelming consensus of scientists say is the case. This is a popular, but dangerous, way to characterize the situation and it may have devastating consequences for science in the long run.

Consider the the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE), which was founded in 1983 as a consolidated effort to counter the spread of creationism, and especially to assist and coordinate in legal battles to keep creationism and Intelligent Design theory out of public schools. The organization was vitally important during the court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), in which the teaching of Intelligent Design theory in public schools was ruled unconstitutional. This trial is often regarded as the final nail in the coffin for creationist legal challenges to the teaching of evolution in the American public school system. For this act alone, I have great admiration for the organization.

The NCSE takes itself to be the primary defender of scientific reason against irrational faith. In the battle against the creationist, the NCSE is right to think of itself in just this very way. After all, what is special about science is its method of justification, which relies on appeals to intersubjectively accessible evidence, about which all or most investigators agree. Scientists appeal to public evidence. They respond to criticism by pointing to this public evidence. And they come to conclusions about how the world might be which are better justified, the better the evidence is. They do not simply bang their fists on the table and claim victory. They do not fallaciously argue from peer consensus. Evidence supports theories, and the evidence is, in principle, open to anyone. A critical person might challenge the validity of the evidence, and rightly so, and it is the responsibility of the scientist to defend their claims against such sceptical attacks. In contrast, creationists do not appeal to public evidence, but rather they appeal to personal revelation and Biblical exegesis. They do not welcome criticism of creationism, since there is no evidence available by which they can convince the atheistic evolutionist who does not accept the personal salvation of Jesus Christ. The two theories, evolution and creation, are diametrically opposed in this respect. Evolution is supported by public evidence which is then subjected to sceptical criticism. In contrast, creationism is supported by private evidence and therefore not amenable to sceptical criticism. Thus, when the NCSE fights the good fight for evolution, it is quite literally defending science from non-science (or anti-science, perhaps). Creationism is not simply failed science or unpopular science; it isn’t science at all. The evidence that creationists consider valid is not evidence that the evolutionist takes seriously.

However, in 2012, the NCSE widened its scope. It would now expand its activities to treat climate change denialism as another enemy in the battle between reason and faith. This battle would be more challenging than the battle against the creationist. As Eugenie Scott said of the issue: “The forces arrayed against climate science are more numerous and much better funded” than the forces defending the Bible. But in expanding its scope thus, the NCSE stepped beyond the battle between reason and faith, into much murkier territory.

The climate denier typically argues that the public evidence provided for climate change is insufficient to support at least some of the claims made by climate scientists. Sometimes, the denialist challenges the extent of the warming we ought to expect in the near or distant future. Sometimes, the denialist challenges the mechanism of warming. Sometimes, the denialist challenges the possible effects of warming, and whether increased atmospheric CO2 would help or hinder the human species. The denialist of climate change, just like the proponent, is dealing with the very same set of public evidence. If the denialist has any particular fault, it is in remaining too sceptical about the extent to which the evidence for climate change supports the theory. The proponent and the denier agree about what the evidence is, but they disagree about its evidential strength, or its interpretation or its validity.

While creationism is non-science, climate denialism is, at best, excessive scepticism. Putting the two claims in the same boat is a very worrying thing. Arguing that both share the very same basic mistake of pushing against the consensus of scientists is a troubling mantra of news media, the general public and high profile organizations such as the NCSE. The two are not making a mistake by going against the consensus of scientists. So far as I was aware, this doesn’t count as a scientific mistake at all. Instead, the creationist is making a mistake by taking the Bible as a reliable source of evidence. In contrast, the climate denier, if he is making any mistake at all, is remaining unconvinced by evidence which should have the power to persuade him. This kind of excessive scepticism is a healthy attitude in science. We may not want every scientist to be excessively sceptical, but we certainly need a decent-sized minority to be.

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