Changing Deniers' Minds

07 September 2019

How do we change the minds of climate deniers? Could learning about the science of global warming ever persuade a skeptic? Or are humans just too irrational to be persuaded by facts and evidence? These are some of the questions we’re asking in this week’s show.

With the ice caps melting, forests burning, extreme weather conditions becoming more and more frequent, and temperatures rising at record levels around the globe, the urgency to act has never been more clear. And even though 98% of all climate scientists agree, there are still people—some of them with a lot of power—who deny climate change. 

Given these startling facts, you might wonder what is going on and why we’re not doing more to avert, or at least, manage the crisis. What explains why, despite the fact that the last five years have been the hottest ever recorded and there is scientific consensus that this is caused by human activity, there are still many who think global warming is a hoax? Are people just too irrational to respond appropriately to evidence? That certainly seems like a plausible explanation.

Maybe it’s not that people are irrational—maybe they simply don’t have all the relevant facts. And it’s no surprise people may not know the facts when we have professional “Merchants of Doubt,” hired by the fossil fuel and chemical industries, who spread skepticism and create the false impression that the science isn’t settled. And they’ve also bought off a bunch of politicians who do their bidding, regardless of their disastrous effects on people and the environment.

It’s clear that those who sow the seeds of doubt don’t care about the long term survival of the human species, or indeed any other species. Or, if they do care, they don’t care as much as they care about their own short term monetary gains. We might ask if prioritizing their short term gains in this way is rational, especially if these merchants of doubt have children or grandchildren they care about. But it’s clear their actions are at least instrumentally rational. That is, given their priorities (to make massive profits), then it is rational for them to spread these lies and sow doubt. These merchants may be morally deficient, but they’re not particularly rationally deficient.

But what about all the suckers who believe the merchants of doubt? Shouldn’t they know better than to believe the propaganda? We already learned how the tobacco industry paid for so-called “experts” to testify that nicotine was not additive, when they knew full well that it was. So of course the fossil fuel industry is up to the same kinds of tricks! (What’s that saying about “fool me once”? Seems relevant here…) Isn’t it a failure of rationality to fall for those tricks once again?

These days, people are inundated with information from many different sources. We have the internet and social media, and hundreds of TV channels when before there was only a handful. It can be hard for ordinary people to figure out what’s true and what’s false. And if your trusted news source is telling you climate change is not real, or that it’s not caused by human activity, is it irrational to believe them?

Moreover, certain outlets, like Fox News, that sow doubt about climate change also tell their viewers that the mainstream media, i.e. the media that does report on climate change, is the real “fake news.” No doubt CNN, NSNBC, and the like are part of that global conspiracy, orchestrated by China, which somehow managed to convince 98% of the world’s climate scientists to participate in the global warming hoax without a single whistleblower coming forward to snitch on everyone else. Because that sounds completely rational.

Here’s the problem I am confronted with: I want to find a way not to dismiss the climate deniers as either irrational and ignorant, or knowing and wicked, but it’s hard. I also recognize that if we do want to reach these people, treating them like they’re stupid or evil is not going to work. That’s not the way to persuade people. So how do we get everyone on board before it’s too late?     

Here’s a radical idea. Give them the facts! Give them the scientific evidence that global warming is real and that it’s caused by greenhouse gases that we generate with our agriculture and industry.

You might think, good luck with that! People are simply not responsive to facts and evidence. If they were then no one would ever take up smoking in 2019. Granted, smoking is highly addictive, so that goes some way towards explaining why it’s hard to quit once you’ve started.

But it’s not a stretch to say that we’re also addicted to fossil fuels and the kind of lifestyle they support. We like our big cars, our long-haul flights, our air conditioning and our heating, and everything delivered to our homes. We know there’s an impending crisis but we just can’t give up the fossil fuel consumerist lifestyle.

There are some people changing their habits—they’re buying solar panels, electric vehicles, reusable batteries, and carbon offsets. They’re voting for laws that protect the environment. Here in San Francisco, we just banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles. So there is some progress being made. But California is a leader in the climate movement and unfortunately not representative of the rest of the country. We already believe the climate scientists. But what about the rest of the country?

Until we get money out of politics, I am not hopeful that we’re going to see the kind of widescale change that we so desperately need. And if we don’t do it soon, it’s going to be too late. As for the deniers and so-called “skeptics,” maybe we don’t actually need to change their minds. We just need to move forward with a progressive climate agenda and make the radical structural changes we need to protect the future of this planet. They can thank us later.

Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, September 7, 2019 -- 11:02 AM

I just responded to a query

I just responded to a query from the editor of The Humanist magazine, regarding this topic (under my civilian name, of course). I proposed that the climate change issue is a non-starter for politicians and would-be politicians, rhetorically asking : why? I then replied by saying that no matter what position one takes, there is no political will to do anything about it. There are simply too many other 'more important' matters for wonks to argue about, including personal gaffes; scandals; and whether or not Joe Biden's hemorrhaging eyeball means he is a poor risk, health-wise. Hopelessly irrational? You folks said it, not me. Money out of politics? When pigs fly. I'm mostly a skeptical pragmatist (which is probably pretty clear, by now). Can philosophy bring about substantive change in a relativistic world? I would love to see it, Laura. Love to.
My Totality of Circumstances was more optimistic than realistic. I realize that now. But, it sounded good at the time of authorship...'s picture


Saturday, September 7, 2019 -- 12:35 PM

This site has information

This site has information that has been shown, through controlled experiments, to increase (even very conservative) people’s acceptance that human-caused global warming is occurring and/or concerning:

The information is also unknown to most people who already accept global warming, so it increases one’s ability to persuade others. Again, the site is How Global Warming Works:

MJA's picture


Sunday, September 8, 2019 -- 8:57 AM

The way I see it, we are all

The way I see it, we are all on a ship called The Earth with a captain that suddenly and continuously announces: The Earth is sinking, everyone must grab a pail and start bailing immediately!" There is a large group of passengers that believe the ship is unsinkable, and pails unnecessary. Another group of Earthlings refuse to heed the warning because they are entitled to enjoy the cruise. They paid good money for this ride and bailing is for the crew. Then we have the religious group that believe heaven is their future and The Earth something else. But to hedge their faith decide to all convene at the highest part of the ship as the ship begins to list, to be closer to God they say, and rather than bail, knell for a prayer.
Then there is a small minority of passengers who heed the warning, I would be one of these, we grab a pail, and bail as fast as they can. But no matter our efforts the water continues to rise. At some point, one of the balers says, this aint workin, how about we all go have us a beer. And down the ship we went. ='s picture


Sunday, September 8, 2019 -- 3:55 PM

The problem with just having

The problem with just having a beer is that the bailers who give up would do a disservice to younger people/organisms who will suffer ill effects should elders (who pumped lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on their watch) shirk thus their duties to make things as good as they can be. Acting as vigorously/quickly as possible with the sustainable solutions already available can rapidly begin to make future lives better on five different dimensions (temperature, health, environment, jobs, economy, etc.) and future generations may praise us rather than what they might do otherwise.

AlbyThinkin20x's picture


Thursday, September 12, 2019 -- 3:17 PM

Let's suppose there are 1,000

Let's suppose there are 1,000 climate scientists on the planet and 98% of them agree that global warming is the result of human-produced CO2. It follows that there are 20 scientists in disagreement with that claim. According to the Italian physicist, Galileo Galilei, “[i]n questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” That is, the veracity of a scientific claim is not determined by (scientific) consensus but rather on the available evidence. Thus, it would be crucial to carefully and critically evaluate the available evidence that may potentially undermine what the majority believe in relation with the climate change debate. (There's always another side to a debate). For example, scientific studies from climatologists have challenged the idea that human-produced CO2 is the primary cause for climate change. Even so, it is argued that all of the CO2 is re-absorbed by oceans and forests and other "carbon sinks", thereby cancelling climate change effects. Others have argued that the Earth’s climate has always warmed and cooled, and that our current global warming period is the result of a natural 21-year temperature oscillation, and we’re expecting a cooling period in the 2030s. This is just a few of the available countervailing factors or evidence that challenge the “scientific consensus”.

I’m surprised that a philosopher who wrote this blog, and who should be fully aware of the various forms of fallacious reasoning, actually believes that the truth of a scientific claim is determined by what a large number of people (scientists) accept. Again, it only takes a single individual to provide substantial evidence to refute what the masses believe. If I recall correctly, Ptolemy and the scientific community once widely believed, and in fact mathematically justified, a geocentric model! I'm quite sure there are many scientific theories that were once held to be true but disproved based on factual evidence.

Also, I'm not too fond of your non-intellectual fascist tactics. The fact that you would consider promoting a "progressive climate agenda and make...radical structural changes" without a rational debate is quite disturbing, to say the least.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 26, 2019 -- 12:36 PM

Harry, the Duke of Sussex, or

Harry, the Duke of Sussex, or Essex or whom ever, is pretty sure about climate change. Harry believes in science. He also believes we are remiss in not doing more about it.(climate change, I mean...) Good lad, that. I'm with you Harry. Tell the Queen mum I said so.