Dissecting The Science Denier

Cognitive bias of the day:

Confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions independently of whether they are true.

Closely related to confirmation bias, denialism is a psycho-social syndrome often combining a number of other cognitive biases (such as selective attention/inattention, appeal to false experts, conspiracy seeking, etc.) common in individual psychology but also including social aspects such as in/out group  bias.  Examples are holocaust denial, AIDS denial, and the wildly popular climate change denial.

Several motivations for denial have been proposed, including religious beliefs and self-interest, or simply as a psychological defense mechanism against disturbing ideas.

Denial is perhaps most typically found as a defense against cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

The amateur anthropologist, philosopher of self-development, and social gadfly G.I. Gurdjieff (died 1949) used the intuitively satisfying term “buffers” (as in “buffer zone”) as a catch-all concept for any automatic (unconscious) psychological defense mechanism for reducing cognitive dissonance and other kinds of mental trauma or stress.


An alternative (though not mutually exclusive) hypothesis for denialism is that public deniers are psycho-sexually immature narcissists trying to attract undeserved adult attention.


I found the following material about anti-science bias at scienceblogs.com. It has a lot of relevance to the increasing phenomena of “greenwashing” (green whitewashing) and “astroturfing” (fake grassroots organizing), which are fast-growing corporatist public relations practices.

Poor Richard


Reposted from a comment by John Mashey on scienceblogs.com:

[Bracketed insertions for clarity, especially for abbreviations- PR]


Thanks to Barry & also Ruddiman PPP, Chapter 18.

The usual caveats apply, i.e., this is not about normal scientific skepticism and arguments, but where the science is denied/attacked for extra-science reasons.


Economics, ideology, politics, psychology

ECON -1, -2, -3 (professional) -4 (public)

IDEOL -1 (professional), -2 (public)

POL -1 (professional), -2 (public)

PSYCH -1 (professional), -2 (public), -3 & -4 (either), -5 (professional)


ECON-1 long-term major direct economic interest

Some fossil fuel [FF] companies and some family foundations whose wealth was derived from them.

Do not usually write/speak directly, but through ECON-2 and ECON-3. FF companies have mostly stopped direct public claims against [Anthropogenic Global Warming] AGW. FF companies vary widely, and should not all be tarred with the same brush.

This is a special case of companies that want to “privatize the benefits, socialize the costs”, starting with asbestos, cigarettes, some chemical companies, sometimes extractive industries (especially coal).

ECON-2 long-term, less direct economic interest, but get some funding from the some of the previous.

Thinktanks & front organizations.

Funding may be used to start an organization, or an existing organization may seek these funding sources. Some of these clearly compete for funding.]

ECON-3 personal, direct economic interest

Consulting, writing, speaking, lobbying.

This is for someone who has some relevant experience; money from ECON-1 or ECON-2.

ECON-4 fear (reasoned or unreasoned) of personal economic impacts from CO2 regulation

Many people in the public.

IDEOL-1 “Anti-regulation” professionals, i.e., sometimes get called free-market fundamentalists*

Some thinktanks, economists, some editors/writers, i.e. like WSJ [Wall Street Journal] OpEds, but not news, so far. May or may not get money from ECON-1. This should not be read as the business community in general, but emphasized by that subset described in ECON-1.

IDEOL-2 “Anti-regulation” public

Many people. As far as I know, nobody likes higher taxes or dealing with cumbersome regulation… the legitimate argument is about the appropriate levels, and reasonable people can disagree.

POL-1 “X says it,therefore it’s wrong”, professional

Some politicians & IDEOL-1, used as a wedge tactic, in their own self-interest, sometimes helps raise money.

Common are “Al Gore says it” or “job-killing left-wing greenie tree-huggers say it”. This is slightly different from IDEOL-1, in that it’s a negative tactic.

POL-2 “X says it, therefore it’s wrong”, public

Many people, in this case, some of whom may well be acting in ECON-1’s self-interest, but against their own.

PSYCH-1 “I like publicity, and being contrarian helps, especially if my career isn’t what I want it to be”, professional.

This is what Barry hypothesizes for BC, and akin to Bill Ruddiman’s descriptions in Chapter 18 of PPP. It might well fit Bjorn Lomborg, who didn’t really get much attention until TSE.

PSYCH-2 “I like being a contrarian”, professional or public

Many people, in extreme cases verging on conspiracy theories.

For public, it is ego-gratifying to believe you know more than supposed experts, even if you don’t get a lot of publicity for it.

For the professional, it may just be a personality trait, as opposed to a “get attention” trait, and of course, sometimes contrarians are right. [Thomas Gold, on some things.]

PSYCH-3 “High-bar, low bar”, professional & public

Serious work in science ~ pole vault in track.

One can be contrarian by stepping across a line on the pavement.

For a professional, this maybe related to PSYCH-1.

See my favorite Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In general, many people want to believe their expertise is higher than it is, and resent the idea that others’ expertise might be much higher.

As per how to learn… and following discussion, I said I was a 2 of 10 on my whimsical climate expertise scale. I’ve refined the scale a little, and I now think I’m a 3, although having had dinner with James Hansen this week, maybe not :-)]

PSYCH-4 ambiguity-intolerant personality

See ambiguity tolerance, which says:

“The converse, ambiguity intolerance…was defined in 1975 as a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

With appropriate reservations on personality theory, it is some people are are comfortable with fluid, ambiguous ideas, and quite often view propositions via probability distributions, error bars, etc.

Other people are very uncomfortable with this, needing “It’s A or B”, sometimes called all-or-none thinking. In really weird cases, people can flip between A or B without spending time in between!

PSYCH-5 Retired scientist off the rails. Professional.

Rarely, even brilliant scientists near/at retirement, start opining (but not in peer-reviewed journals) about some other domain, directly opposite the mainstream. This is sad, and seems to happen for any of a variety of other reasons. Fortunately, many top scientists remain quite sharp, and if they shift areas, go study first.


I’d suggest that a relatively small number of people [ECON-2, ECON-3, IDEOL-1, maybe POL-1] actually get paid for this,and actually, I (weakly) conjecture that more of the money for thinktanks comes from the family foundations, although it’s really hard to find out.

In some cases [PSYCH-1], I think the dominant motivation is that, although some may hope to also manage ECON-3.]

I conjecture that most people with anti-science websites, incessant anti-science posts, etc are in one or more of {ECON-4, IDEOL-2, POL-2}, not getting paid for it, and possibly with some of the PSYCH attributes. I’ve discussed this with psychologist friends, who mentioned the ambiguity-intolerance thing.

If you draw a graph: a) funders b) thinktanks/fronts c) individuals & some politicians d) public

$$ flows from a=>b=>c, and sometimes from d=>c) politicians

Mis/disinformation flows (b+c) => d, usually not publicly emitted by a).

Of course, lack of knowledge helps anti-science views, but clearly, even people who have knowledge can argue against science for such reasons.


There is a wide mix of reasons for anti-science positions, and very few people actually get paid for it. Most do it for free. Some pay to do it.


  • And before somebody says “Anti-free-market, leftwing, greenie, fellow-traveler dedicated to downfall of American capitalism” (don’t laugh, someone has said something like that :-)…

If that fit me, it would fit most of Silicon Valley, including a lot of business people and venture capitalists that I know / work for / invest with in the world center of high-tech capitalism 🙂

Posted by: John Mashey | December 19, 2008 8:57 PM

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