Friday, January 01, 2010

Understanding the Mind of the Denialist II - The Ratchet Hypothesis

Following on from my past look at understanding the mind of a denialist - another thought occured to me that I'd like to share - the Ratchet Hypothesis. In discussions with denialists you often see the idea that the whole global warming thing is about to collapse. Here's a typical example:

And with Copenhagen just around the corner – there will be GOOD journalists NOT in the pay/pocket of the spin loving gravy train riding so called “scientists” that will, right now be gearing up to ask the questions that NEED to be asked.

Now compare this predication to the actual press reports and google searches on the email hack story the denialists like to call 'climategate' (but I think swifthack is a better title). What you can see on Google Trends is a brief spike in interest and then a rapid drop-off (the top bit is internet searches and the bottom bit is articles in Google's news aggregation). You can clearly see that the impending collapse is nowhere to be seen; the news and people's searches have moved on.

So what's going on psychologically here? I think that it might be that the self-enclosed theory of the climate conspiracy also acts like a ratchet - a device that only allows movement in one way. So when evidence that disputes their idea arrives (as it does weekly) the 'self-sealing' mental construct that thy have built simply dismisses it:

The substantive content of a political conspiracy theory is often completely irrelevant to the underlying purpose of the theory and, in any event, there is no possible way to refute or disprove most such theories to the satisfaction of its authors or adherents because most political conspiracy theories are constructed to be self-sealing so that contradictory data can be instantly dismissed, ignored, or de-valued.

Yet when news arrives that seems to back their ideas - mentally, the theory moves forward. This means for the denialist, it only ever moves forward. So to the denialist must seem that with so much 'evidence' for the huge hoax accumulated, it must break into the concious of the mainstream any time now. As each new piece of denialist propaganda arrives, so the denialist thinks, "This is straw that will finally break the camel back of AGW..."

Yet just like tomorrow, that day never seems to come. I am calling this bit of the mental construct, the Ratchet Hypothesis.

(Interestingly is is not only climate change denailism that we see this 'about to collapse' idea - it is also prevalent in it's pseudo-science cousin, creationism).


Anonymous said...

It is a neat concept, thank you for that.

I've wondered for a while now how the denialist community manage to present such a united front given the huge disparity in their pet theories, e.g.

It's cooling
It's all down to the PDO
It's cosmic rays
It's the Sun
It's the planets
It's volcanoes
(etc. etc.)

If these guys were real scientists they would spend some time attacking each other's claims, but even at the likes of Heartland Institute conferences they all get along amicably.

Click, click, click ...


anarchist said...

A good point, thanks. I think they can present a united front because they all have a strong emotional bond in being against the mainstream view rather than for a positive view of what is happening and doing the science to prove it.

More on the contradictory positions they take at:

richard pauli said...

Of all the readings on climate denialism, yours offers the best explanation. Thank you for your insight.

Now what do we do?

Gail Zawacki said...

I have been having an amusing dialog with a couple of deniers at Buffalo Beast, here:

It's been funny because they really are so formulaic and predictable, the trot out the same old discredited canards as though they are clever when really they are just dupes for well-funded industries.

What motivates them and enables them to deny scientific fact is interesting, as you describe.

However I sometimes think that deniers are closer to the truth because why else would they spend so much time and energy? If they really thought climate change was a global conspiracy, they would just laugh at it, like fake moon landings. Instead, they engage the debate because deep down, they are terrified of the truth (who isn't?)

Almost worse to my mind are the Ignorers. I am surrounded by them. They have babies and go shopping like nothing is ever going to change and boy, are they in for a hell of a surprise.

Great blog!

rpauli said...

Oooh Gail.. great idea... how about the Top 10 Ignorers..

Bill Gates is Numero Uno.

Unknown said...

Bill Gates: Denier numero uno.

Or not: