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On ‘belief’ and ‘denial’

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 27 December 2012


I grew up attending the Methodist church a block away, and continued that attendance in another Methodist church until I went to university. My earliest academic prize was a certificate for Catechism, but I was never drawn to religion, and since I didn't seem able to properly 'believe' in God or Jesus, it didn't take long for this undergraduate to leave his Methodist background behind. I didn't become an atheist – that seemed to me to be another sort of belief – just an agnostic, someone who imagines that given the right kind of evidence and perhaps experience he could believe. Agnostics wait.

My intellectual development pushed me further and further into the camp of logical positivism, an avoidance of belief statements and a focus on what can be observed – in short, an attitude that seeks to ground what we think we know in what I would call good data and good argument.

In the world of political science that led me rather to dismiss neo-Marxist claims for the importance of 'class' in Australian politics. I couldn't find any clearly evident 'classes' in the survey data I had available to me, and those who asserted the primacy of class did not bother with evidence. They began with theory, and their struggles were with getting the theory right, not in testing it against the real world. From their perspective the importance of 'class' in Australian politics was obvious. If I couldn't see it I was plainly deluded, and the data I was pointing to were simply irrelevant.

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To me they were 'believers' of a new kind, and I have come across their counterparts in the 'climate change' world. They abound in the blogosphere and in the environmental NGOs, and their belief is exemplified in their insistence that humanity is doomed unless we agree to end the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. It seems to me that believers always have in mind some kind of doom or paradise that justifies their actions, and makes them want to whip the rest of us into a like mind.

Now while it is true, as one of my sons likes to point out to me, that we all believe in lots of things that we don't examine at all closely, like the arrival of dawn early tomorrow, there are different sorts of 'belief', and the insistence of the AGW doomsayers strikes me as being akin to a religious belief.

Further, the doomsayers accuse old-fashioned empiricists like me of being 'deniers' or 'denialists' because we do not accept their faith, and the use of those terms has a strongly religious overtone. Even sillier is the notion that people like me are 'denying climate science', as though science too was a body of religious doctrine. Science isn't like that. It muddles along testing hypotheses against observations, gradually getting closer to a confident statement about something. Even then, that confident statement can be overturned later on. Religion it isn't, and the scientists I know are pragmatists, not believers.

What makes the use of these terms so odd is the remarkably equivocal nature of the real observations about the world's climate(s). They suggest warming and cooling and stasis over the past century or so. These shifts don't suggest any strong connection with human activity, though the likely increase in temperature over that time is consistent with the increase in carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere. It is also consistent with a recovery from the Little Ice Age, the causes of which we still do not know, any more than we know the causes of the Mediaeval Warm Period, or the earlier warm period when Rome was at its most powerful. To be a doomsayer you have to overlook all the shifts, and believe in a strong positive feedback from water vapour, and in some kind of tipping point ahead where all this warming gets out of control. All that is conjecture, but for believers it is Truth.

And people like me find all that so puzzling. An agnostic responds, 'I guess it's possible, but there's nothing like enough evidence to support your case. Why don't we find out more first?'

'No, no, no! There's no time! We must act now! And if you don't agree you must be a denier who is indifferent to the fate of your own grandchildren, or in the pay of Big Oil, or a dupe, or someone greedy, complacent …'

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There is no arguing with people like this. Professor Lewandowsky feels that we ought to examine the minds of deniers to find out why they are sick. My own feeling is that, since there seem to be many more doomsaying believers, it might be more worthwhile exploring why the believers believe as they do. Agnostics like me are at least part of a central tendency in academic life over the past half-century.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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All articles by Don Aitkin

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