How Many Climate-Change Deniers Do You Know?

Count em up. Or, if you’re a denier yourself, do it backwards: How many climate-change accepters do you know? A recent interview with sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund shows that the real issue with science denialism isn’t knowledge or ignorance. It isn’t religion or science. It’s something else.ecklund religion science

Ecklund is talking these days about her latest research. In the past, she asked elite academics how much they knew about religion. In her new book, she’s sharing her data about religious people. How many scientists do they know? What do they think about science?

In this interview, Professor Ecklund offers a compelling description of the real problem with climate-change politics. As she puts it,

Scientists tend to think that it’s all about knowledge. It’s not actually about teaching people better—there’s good science out there, there’s nearly total consensus that climate change is happening and that humans have something to do with it. But certain groups of constituents really need to build relationships with a scientific community. Once you have a relationship with someone, and you don’t think they’re crazy, then information can pass over that relational tie. [Emphasis added.]

Do religious ideas matter? Sure. Is scientific training important? Of course. But the real issue is trust. When people don’t trust all those “Al Gore” scientists, it doesn’t matter how much talking and outreach scientists do. As Ecklund suggests, if you thinks someone is crazy (or “ignorant,” or “wicked”), it doesn’t matter how many charts and graphs they show you. If you think someone is crazy or evil, you won’t believe what they tell you, no matter what.

And though it hurts to admit, the trust question goes both ways. For those of us who want to see more and better climate-change education, resistance can seem sinister. Indeed, in this very interview, the interviewer criticized Ecklund for being too naïve. The real problem with climate-change denial, the interviewer wrote, comes not from distrust or dissent, but from

well-documented lobbying and misinformation campaigns by fossil fuel interests—which target religious conservatives and the politicians who represent them with cultural kowtows…

In other words, it’s easy to see climate-change denialism as nothing but a dangerous mix of the ignorant and the wicked. For the interviewer, Ecklund’s research is suspicious because it goes against something “the general observer” knows full well. The irony is palpable.

People like the interviewer (and me) are just as susceptible to trust issues as are climate-change denialists. We don’t trust oil companies and their lackies, so we assume that climate-change denial must result from self-serving cover-ups. When research like Ecklund’s disrupts what we think we know, we’d prefer to deny it.

It’s easy to do, because most of us don’t generally hang around with people from the other side. Aside from the annual awkward Thanksgiving dinner, that is, most of us don’t interact with people who disagree about climate change or other tough topics. As Ecklund suggests, many climate-change denialists don’t have productive, healthy relationships with mainstream climate-change scientists. And those of us on the other side don’t know any real live denialists.

The result? We don’t trust one another. We don’t trust the other side’s motives. For denialists, accepting human-caused climate change can seem like a sucker move, a capitulation. For the rest of us, denying the well-founded scientific evidence for human-caused climate change seems the same.

Does ignorance matter? Yes. Does religion influence these issues? Sure. But beyond and behind those sorts of things, as Professor Ecklund points out, the real question is TRUST.