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Answering the Climate Inquisition


By H. Sterling Burnett,  The Heartland Institute

Climate realists or skeptics like me are constantly beset by a variety of logical fallacies and malicious labels cast about by researchers, politicians, and members of the mainstream media who long ago abandoned loyalty to the scientific method in discussions of climate change. I will hereafter refer to such people as the Climate Inquisition (CI).

Instead of thinking critically, the CI repeats already disproven critiques of our position on climate change, questions our motives (rather than addressing our arguments), and calls us names, acting more like ignorant schoolchildren than educated adults with a modicum of civility. Having closed their minds to evidence and even the mere possibility that humans might not be causing a climate catastrophe, the CI not only refuses to debate or engage climate realists, they try to deny us the ability to speak on the topic.

Among the most-offensive labels the CI calls climate realists is the term “climate denier.”

Examples of the CI’s malfeasance and name-calling arrived in the form of articles recently published by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Grist, both of which were widely republished.

In the AFP story, “Politics, cash, fame: what motivates climate change deniers,” Roland Lloyd Parry jumped proudly onto the ad hominem bandwagon, claiming climate skeptics are motivated purely by greed and fame.

Parry and the people he interviewed falsely asserted climate change realists are in the pocket of Big Oil and other corporations in quest of fame and fortune. These claims lack any basis in truth and in fact have been refuted repeatedly, which is why evidence of such a connection is rarely, if ever, provided.

Climate realists, such as The Heartland Institute and the other organization dedicated to the promotion of sound policy founded in solid science, receive a negligible amount of funding compared to the great mountain of money invested in doomsaying climate research and climate-related political causes. Most accusers are unable to look at themselves in a mirror and see that if anyone is being bought and paid for in the climate debate, it is they.

The major CI people Parry quoted in his article—John Cook and Stephan Lewandosky—have a long history of pulling slimy, unscrupulous shenanigans to smear climate realists.

Cook, a former cartoonist and now a postdoctoral research fellow with the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University, tried to sneak into a 2019 Washington, D.C. climate conference hosted by The Heartland Institute. Cook falsely claimed to be representing The Weather Channel. His ruse failed. When he was ejected, his film crew recorded the faux outrage he expressed at being rightly denied entrance to a venue he was not cleared or qualified to attend as a properly registered journalist.

The behavior of Lewandowsky, a professor of psychology at University of Bristol, in the enforcement of climate orthodoxy has arguably been even more nefarious than Cook’s. Lewandowsky has abused his credentials as a professional psychologist by remotely “diagnosing” the motives of climate skeptics, asserting realists suffer from a variety of mental disorders without ever actually interviewing them or disclosing his own biases. That is a clear violation of the canons of the ethics of psychological practice.

Lewandowsky’s misbehavior was so egregious that science journals twice retracted papers he wrote on the psychology of climate realists. In one paper, Lewandowsky compared climate sceptics’ ideas to the false beliefs held by moon landing deniers. Other scientists responded with scathing reviews of Lewandowsky and his methods.

After Lewandowsky publicly suggested “threats” were the reason one journal withdrew his paper, rather than shoddy science, the journal took Lewandowsky to task for spreading misinformation.

Parry violated journalistic ethics by failing to interview any climate skeptics to get their thoughts on claims that money and fame drive their efforts. Parry’s story is nothing more than a litany of logical fallacies piled one on top of the other. Facts need not apply.

The Grist story, “Climate denial campaign goes retro with new textbook,” is only slightly less slipshod. It was written in response to The Heartland Institute’s mailing of 8,000 copies of our Climate at a Glance for Students and Teachers (CAAG) booklet to high school science teachers across the country. The book covers 30 climate topics often discussed in science classes, to be used as supplemental material to the standard curricula, providing data and peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating the Earth is not experiencing a climate crisis.

Grist maligned Heartland right out of the chute by labelling the mailing as part of a “climate denial campaign,” yet nowhere in the story does it identify any facts the book supposedly denies.

Grist did get one thing right: Heartland went retro. We stubbornly cling to the “retro” idea that testing, observation, debate, and intellectual exchange are hallmarks of scientific, and thus societal, progress. We embrace quaint, old-school ideas such as that facts matter and when data and theory conflict it is the theory that must be reconsidered, not the data. Sadly, the CI rejects these traditional hallmarks of scientific practice, replacing them with the postmodern perversion of science which places power, politics (in this case, enforced consensus), and climate model simulations in pride of place above data and evidence. For the CI, if enough of one’s colleagues disagree with certain findings, the research is ipso facto wrong.

The CAAG book readily acknowledges climate change is happening—nothing new there, as its authors always have done so. The authors also acknowledge humans are probably playing some role in the current iteration of climate change—again, no denial there. The only part of the CI-endorsed narrative the book disputes is the one that has the least scientific support: that current climate change poses an existential threat to human survival or is even a crisis. Instead of simply asserting no crisis is in the offing, moreover, the book provides hard data rebutting the CI’s claims.

As Wyoming’s Cowboy State Daily accurately notes in its discussion of the book and Grist’s article in response,

The textbook is raising alarm among those who want children taught that the planet is becoming uninhabitable as a result of climate change and that anyone who questions that position is denying that climate change is happening at all, says an author of the textbook.

The Grist article couldn’t find any actual inaccuracies or unscientific sources, but rather complained the textbook doesn’t point out more frightening information.

The article also claims the institute received “hundreds of thousands” of dollars from libertarian billionaires of the Koch family. According to the Heartland’s website, the Charles G. Koch Foundation made one donation to the institute in 2012 for $25,000 in support of free-market health care solutions.

Of course, to challenge factual claims made in CAAG, one must first describe the claims and present evidence why they are wrong. Grist never does this.

To the credit of the story’s author, Grist did interview me for the piece. However, the quotes they include from me are truncated and sharply limited in column inches compared to the lengthy, off-point quotes of the so-called experts the author interviewed criticizing the work. I’m afraid their bias was showing.

One of the most outrageous takeaways from the Grist story is the low regard in which the publication and its preferred experts apparently hold the nation’s science teachers. Grist quotes Glenn Branch, deputy director of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, saying, “What Heartland is hoping for is to catch those who haven’t been equipped to understand climate science well enough to realize the highly misleading nature of the materials.”

Indeed, in interviewing me for the story, Grist asked me something to the effect of “How do you respond to claims that science teachers may not be equipped to understand the climate issue and its nuances well enough to weigh the claims made in CAAG?” That’s not an exact quote, but it conveys the idea. My initial response was if a teacher is unable to address the scientific issues of a topic they are teaching, they shouldn’t be teaching it. In contrast to Grist and Branch, we at The Heartland Institute believe science teachers and their students are fully capable of examining alternative arguments and doing simple online searches to check the data, especially because CAAG helpfully and transparently provides links to all the scientific sources for the points made in the book.

Sadly, the CI all too often tells anyone who might approach papers, articles, presentations, or statements by climate realists with an open mind that the science is too complex for them to understand, and that they should trust the experts when they say it’s settled and scientists have proven an anthropogenic climate crisis is in the offing, so the commoners should shut their ears and eyes, close their minds, and not bother to check the data.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and that is certainly not how science works. Hundreds of articles posted at Climate Realism and dozens of brief, informational “fact checks” posted at Climate at a Glance show the evidence—meaning measurable, recorded data—does not support claims that climate change is making the world less livable, causing more severe or more frequent bouts of extreme weather, or has caused an increase in weather- or temperature-related deaths. In fact, the long-term trend data shows just the opposite is true.

Rather than address the evidence and arguments climate realists present, participants in the CI deploy the tactics of dogmatists and authoritarians. When not just hurling names or using ad hominem attacks to discredit climate realists for daring to dispute “their truth” about climate change, they call for censorship, threaten careers, and even propose imprisonment for skeptics.

A quote from the great physicist Richard Feynman describes the CI’s limited grasp of the scientific method in general and climate science in particular, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” It’s sad the climate inquisitors have so deluded themselves, and it’s unconscionable that they continue to try to fool other people.

In truth, if there are any climate deniers, it is the Climate Inquisition.


H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is the director of The Heartland Institute’s Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. Heartland Senior Fellow Anthony Watts contributed to this essay.