Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

I. Introduction.
This is the fourth and last entry in a series that has examined the climate change disinformation campaign as an ethical matter. The purpose of this series has been to distinguish between responsible scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often deeply ethically offensive.

The first entry in this series, explained:

(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change causes and impacts.

(2) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change.

(3) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.

The second and third entries explained what is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign and then examined in separate sections tactics used by this campaign including: making statements with a reckless disregard for the truth, foregrounding uncertainties while ignoring what is well-settled, specious claims of “bad” science, the use of front groups, public relations campaigns, the funding and use of think tanks, PR firms and strategies, Astroturf groups, and finally the deeply, ethically obnoxious practice of cyber-bullying.

The first entry of this series acknowledged that not all who have made skeptical claims about the mainstream scientific view are guilty of the tactics discussed in this series. Many who describe themselves as climate change skeptics simply articulate what they believe. Given this, it is not the intent of this series to discourage responsible free speech or reasonable skeptical inquiry. In fact, as we have said many times, responsible skepticism about the mainstream scientific view of human-induced climate change should be encouraged rather than vilified. The tactics of the disinformation campaign, however, may not be classified as responsible skepticism. They are methods of deceiving in order to protect economic interests or radical free-market ideology. Skepticism is a valued approach in science to find the truth whatever it may be.

The lessons learned from the climate change disinformation campaign discussed in this series point to the need to establish new societal norms that encourage responsible skepticism but protect society from disinformation disguised as skepticism. For reasons discussed in this series, all the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation machine are ethically offensive, although some are more odious than others.

In this entry, first we examine who may be blameworthy for the use of the tactics discussed in this series, and then we identify norms needed to prevent irresponsible skepticism.

II. Assigning Moral Blame.
One might ask whether anyone engaging in the tactics discussed in this series is ethically blameworthy. Some skeptics, for instance, who engage in the ethically dubious practice discussed in the second entry of this series of stressing unknowns while ignoring the large body of well-settled science are simply expressing their opinions or their interpretations of what they know about the science. If people have a right to free speech, it follows that people should be able to express their views on climate science freely even if their views are based upon incomplete knowledge of the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view has been based. Very frequently ClimateEthics encounters skeptics who appear to be sincerely stating their views about whether humans are responsible for climate change, but who at the same time display great ignorance about important elements of climate science on which the consensus view is based, such as the fingerprint and attribution studies that are strong evidence of human causation.

Also, sometimes, climate change policy advocates make assertions about likely impacts of climate change that display ignorance of climate science, such as the claim that everything is settled in climate science, a conclusion that is inconsistent with the fact that there are some scientific climate issues about which uncertainty is acknowledged by mainstream climate scientists. These issues include, for instance, how clouds will be formed in a warming world and whether hurricanes will increase both in intensity and frequency.

The structure of future cloud formation is one of the unknowns that has led to uncertainty about climate sensitivity and an example of issues that are not yet fully settled.

In cases where individuals make claims that are inconsistent with well-settled science, can it be said that individuals are acting unethically? To this question we would argue that for people who are simply stating their individual views and are willing to revise their opinions in light of previously unconsidered evidence there is no ethical problem in expressing an opinion about the risks from human-induced climate change provided they are willing to have their views tested in the crucible of peer-review.

Debates about climate change very frequently take place among people on both sides of the argument who are obviously ignorant of a great deal of the vast peer-reviewed literature on which the consensus view is based. In fact, the scientific literature relevant to climate change is so voluminous and multi-disciplinary that very few people are knowledgeable about that the breadth, scope, and extent of the climate science literature on which the consensus view is based. Nor do most people have the intellectual skills to form an educated opinion about this vast literature.
When it comes to specific issues like the reliability of the climate models on which projections of future climate are made, only a handful of people around the world understand the assumptions and limitations of the models. In addition few people have been trained to evaluate the reliability of the models, and for these reasons almost everyone engaging in public discussions of climate change science are taking positions based at least in part on faith.

In addition, the climate change consensus position is based upon a synthesis of evidence from physics, chemistry, ecology, biology, meteorology, geology, mathematical modeling, botany, geology, oceanography, paleoclimatology, geophysics, geochemistry, hydrology, and carbon cycle sciences. For this reason, even the best of our climate scientists often must rely on the expert opinions of others scientists who have the intellectual skills to evaluate evidence from their disciplines. And so, final conclusions about the state of climate science must rely upon a collaborative effort among scientists from different disciplines and involves some amount of faith in the veracity of some elements of climate science.

This extraordinary complexity, however, does not mean that people who have some basic understanding of science may not engage in critical thinking about climate science claims if they are willing to: (a) be guided by a critical thinking process that is evidence-based, (b) adjust their opinions on the basis of new relevant evidence, and (c) make no final claims about their skeptical views until the views have been tested by peer-review. For this reason, those who choose to express opinions about climate change should agree to be guided by an open, transparent, and evidence-based process that they will rely upon to formulate conclusions about the threat of human-induced climate change.

This requirement of being responsive to evidence is applicable to any public policy question that needs to be formed in light of scientific understanding of harms that might be created by human actions. Yet, because predicting how the climate might respond to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases is so scientifically complex, rests on synthesizing evidence from so many scientific disciplines, and is about a problem that could create extraordinarily harsh impacts on human health and well-being worldwide, climate change is a problem that particularly requires that those who choose to express opinions on the magnitude of the threat caused by it base their opinions on evidence that has been subjected to rigorous and careful scientific scrutiny. For this reason, skeptical claims about mainstream climate science should be expressed with great care and acknowledged as provisional until they have been subjected to peer-review.

Because peer-review is the process in science designed to check scientific claims for errors, peer-review of scientific claims about climate change is a minimum expectation that should be met before scientific claims about climate change impacts are relied upon for expressing the truth about climate change threats. As we shall see, peer-reviewed evidence is only a minimum requirement for scientific conclusions because peer-review is not a perfect process for avoiding all scientific errors and some peer-reviewed scientific conclusions must be reconsidered in the face of new evidence and the large body of human-induced climate change evidence. And so, final conclusions about the nature of climate change caused harms should be reviewed by experts from all the disciplines relevant to drawing conclusions about the nature of dangerous climate change.

For these reasons, although there are no initial ethical problems with people expressing their opinions about the extent to which human activities are affecting the environment, individuals must be willing to modify their opinions if there is an evidentiary basis for so doing, subject any claims to peer-review, and abide by other norms for responsible skepticism discussed in this entry. This fact makes several of the tactics discussed in this paper deeply, ethically problematic if they are engaged in without the willingness to revise the claims in response to contradictory evidence including the tactic of stressing unknowns and ignoring what is known about connections between human behavior and climate change, manufacturing bogus scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review while claiming that the opinions are entitled to scientific respect, and making claims in reckless disregard for the truth. Corporations are particularly ethically blameworthy if they finance people or organizations who deploy these tactics without any recognition of the need to abide by the norms of reasonable scientific skepticism because their motivation is to undermine mainstream science to protect economic interests.

A few of the tactics discussed in this series are always ethically troublesome including: creating front groups, PR campaigns, and Astroturf groups whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind the claims, and cyber-bullying. Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public or intimidate mainstream scientists or journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.

And so, not all people who publicly make erroneous skeptical claims about human-induced warming are ethically blameworthy, but some are. In addition, some of the tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign are always ethically troublesome and those who engage in these tactics are ethically blameworthy.

As we have said throughout this series, responsible climate skepticism should be encouraged not vilified. However, lessons learned from a review of the climate change disinformation campaign lead to norms that should guide responsible climate skepticism. A discussion of these norms follows.

III. Norms To Guide Responsible Climate Skepticism.
A. The Duty of Skeptics to Subject Their Conclusions to Peer-Review

Frequently, some skeptics have attacked the assumptions of mainstream scientists by offering their own non-peer reviewed claims about global warming. A strong ethical case can be made that climate skeptics should publish their scientific conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals before claiming that the science that they rely upon demonstrates that the consensus view is in error.

There are several reasons for this.
First, scientific claims usually are not entitled to respect by the scientific community until they withstand the scrutiny of peer-review. As we have seen, peer-review in science is the process designed to weed out bogus scientific claims. If climate change skeptics are offering their scientific conclusions as evidence that the consensus view is in error and have not subjected their claims to the scrutiny of peer-review, they may be misleading the public that climate change is not a threat. Because climate change harms could be catastrophic to many vulnerable people around the world if the main stream scientific view is correct, inaccurate scientific claims made to prevent policy has potential significant harmful consequences. Therefore, peer-review of skeptical claims is ethically mandatory because people have a particularly strong duty to not mislead people if the misinformation could lead to great harm.

If, for instance, there is reason to believe that that there is a train coming down a railroad track that could greatly injure a child who is lying on the tracks and someone erroneously tells the child that there is no train coming, the misinformation could lead to great harm. It is perfectly acceptable for someone who is skeptical that a train is coming down the tracks to check to see if a train is actually headed in the direction of the child, but before telling the child not to worry, the skeptic has a duty to be very sure that the train is not coming.
Second, given that the consensus view of climate change is based upon a voluminous amount of peer-reviewed science and has been examined by almost all scientific organizations with expertise over climate change science, the conclusion that business-as-usual releases of greenhouse gases will greatly harm some of the poorest people in the world is entitled to respect until credible, peer-reviewed evidence establishes a basis for overturning the mainstream scientific view. Without peer-review, the skeptical scientists have no basis for concluding that the science they rely on is truthful. If skeptics make claims not based upon peer-reviewed science, they simply have not fulfilled their duty to be careful about scientific claims.

On the other hand, the IPCC and many mainstream scientific organizations that have issued statements in support of the IPCC conclusions have based their conclusions on the peer-review science. Because there is a strong scientific basis for concluding climate change is a significant threat, those who want to claim that no climate change-caused harm will occur should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate there is no danger from continued releases of greenhouse gases because the harms could be catastrophic for those who have not consented to be put at risk. The duty to shoulder the burden of proof by those who want to claim that a potentially dangerous activity is safe is particularly strong when the harms that could be caused by the activity include loss of life and the destruction of natural resources on which life depends. For this reason, climate change skeptics should subject their skeptical claims to peer-review.

B. The Duty Of Skeptics To Subject Any Broad Claims To Review By Organizations That Have Appropriate Expertise.

As we have seen, the science of climate change is comprised of an extraordinarily interdisciplinary mix of scientific disciplines and a huge body of scientific literature. According to one internet source there were well over 21,000 peer-reviewed studies quoted by IPCC in its 2007 assessment. (Mannpollo Project, 2010) In other words, there are numerous scientific studies on which the consensus view is based.

Some skeptics have made claims that specific individual scientific studies demonstrate that climate change is not a great threat to human flourishing or the environment in cases where, at best, the scientific study only raises questions with one line of evidence on which the consensus view rests. Yet, many conclusions reached by the IPCC and other scientific organizations that have issued statements in support of the consensus view rely on multiple lines of evidence often from different disciplines. For instance, the conclusion that the Earth is warming is not only based upon the surface temperature measurements but also ocean and atmospheric temperature changes, the disappearance of ice and snow cover, the movement of plants and animals, the early flowering of plant species, the increased intensity of storms, the appearance of droughts in places that are expected to become drier as the planet warms, and rising sea levels. In other words, conclusions that Earth is warming is based upon multiple lines of evidence.

Similarly, the IPCC conclusion that the warming Earth is experiencing is very likely human caused, as we have seen, is based upon many robust lines of evidence including such things as the carbon isotopes of CO2 measured in atmospheric, the differential warming being experienced between upper and lower atmosphere, differences in night time versus day time high temperatures, the warming pattern visible in the oceans, the inability to explain the warming by natural forcing, and the numerous attribution studies, among other lines of evidence. Given these numerous lines of evidence, no one study that shows such things as some local cooling or ice expanding in one glacier can be used as a basis for concluding that the planet is no longer warming. Because there are often multiple lines of evidence that support IPCC conclusions, only claims that are considered in relationship to the entire body of robust lines of evidence that have formed the basis of the IPCC conclusions are entitled to respect. For this reason, before making general claims about climate change skeptics should subject studies that they want to rely on to review by institutions that have the breadth of scientific expertise to competently evaluate these studies in the context of the larger scientific literature For this reason skeptics should not only subject their claims about climate change science to the scrutiny of peer-review, they should refrain from making claims about the nature of the overall threats from human-induced climate change until their claims are evaluated by an organization or group of experts with the breadth of scientific expertise relevant to the claim before drawing ultimate conclusions about the meaning of individual studies.

This is precisely the role expected of the Academies of Science around the world, including the United States Academy of Science. The US Academy of Sciences has reviewed the peer-reviewed evidence at least three times over the last thirty years and concluded that human releases of greenhouse gases is a huge threat. (Charney, et al, 1978; National Research Council, 2001: US Academy of Sciences, 2011) Given that no known scientific organization with expertise over climate change science has supported the skeptical view that climate change is not a threat to human flourishing and ecological systems, skeptical claims that deny the huge threat of climate change are not only unwarranted but constitute ethically problematic behavior until a full consideration of the evidence on which the claim is based is reviewed by organizations or groups of scientists that have the breadth of relevant scientific expertise need to synthesize scientific conclusions about climate change.

C. The Duty To Not Overstate Conclusions That Can Be Inferred from Any Individual Study.

Frequently some ideologically driven skeptics have made claims that the consensus science position that humans are causing global warming has been completely debunked. In supporting this claim some skeptics will often point to one study or fact about climate change such as the claim that Antarctic snows have increased. They make this claim either ignorant of or willfully ignoring numerous fingerprinting and attribution of studies that are the basis for the consensus position that human activities are the likely cause of the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing. And so these skeptics are making claims that go far beyond what any one scientific study could prove even if the science on which they are relying is sound. To properly understand what’s happening to our climate, scientists must consider the full body of evidence.

As we have seen, some skeptics frequently cherry-pick the climate science. “Cherry-picking” means picking out of a lot of possible facts only those facts that support a predetermined conclusion while ignoring other facts. Most arguments that support climate skepticism, according to the website have one thing in common – they neglect the full body of evidence and cherry-pick just the select pieces of data that support a particular point of view. (Skeptical Science, 2012) In so doing these skeptics are overstating the potential significance of the scientific fact or study on which they rely. For this reason, climate change skeptics have a strong ethical duty to limit any claims they make about the meaning of any one study or fact to only those inferences that can be made from the study or fact on which they choose to rely.

D. The Duty to Restrict Claims To Those That Have Adequate Evidentiary Support.

Particularly troubling from an ethical point of view is the behavior of some of the ideologically driven skeptics that make claims such as that the science of climate change is a complete fraud an a hoax and try to convince others of this. They swat down the unprecedented and widely respected expertise that has weighed in on climate change, such as the world’s Academies of Sciences, the IPCC, and most major scientific organizations that have expertise over climate change by claiming that the scientists that work for these organizations are corrupt without identifying evidence of the widespread corruption that would be needed to support such a sweeping claim. Such wild behavior would be ethically problematic on any public policy controversy, but in the case of climate change, a threat that could cause great potential harm to the most vulnerable around the world, claims that there is no scientific support for human-induced climate change are ethically reprehensible. It is too absurd on its face to think that any reasonable observer can seriously conclude that climate change science is a hoax or a fraud, for it to be true, thousands of scientists who work with the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world would have to be corrupt. To support the claim that those thousand of scientists who support the mainstream view of science are corrupt, no evidence is offered other than the wild speculation that mainstream climate scientist must be corrupt because they need to draw conclusions from their research that support the human-induce climate change hypothesis to get grant monies. The other justification for fraud or hoax charges made about the consensus view are generalizations drawn from single issue controversies such as the hokey stick or email gate controversies discussed earlier in this series. Many engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign use these single issues controversies as justification for their claim that mainstream science is corrupt and a hoax over and over again. As we have seen, not only have these controversies been thoroughly investigated by prestigious scientific organizations who have found no improprieties, but even if charges about these controversies made by the disinformation machine were upon investigation found to be accurate examples of fraud or distortion, these individuals controversies would not undermine the mainstream scientific view of climate change because the mainstream view is not built upon the issues raised in the controversies.

And so as a matter of ethics, skeptics must not generalize from single issue controversies to make broad comprehensive conclusions about mainstream climate change views. Skeptics must limit conclusions about climate change science to those that are supported by specific evidence under consideration. This is a moral imperative. There is too much at stake not to do otherwise.

E. The Duty To Acknowledge That It Is Not “Bad” Science to Rely on Less Than Fully Proven Scientific Claims.

As we have seen, one of the tactics deployed by those engaged in the disinformation campaign is to claim that scientific conclusions that are not based upon high levels of scientific proof are “bad” science. Yet as we have seen, when stakes are high and decisions are urgent, waiting until all the proof is in may make catastrophic harm inevitable. To not act in such circumstances may have serious practical consequences. Therefore, in such circumstances, there may be a duty to act before high levels of proof have been demonstrated. For this reason, scientists must often make policy related recommendations using tests for the reliability of the scientific claims that are based upon criteria such as “the balance of the evidence,” criteria on the quantity of proof necessary to satisfy a burden of proof that may be less stringent that scientists should expect in other kinds of research such as 95% confidence levels. Ethics would require different criteria for establishing the quantity of proof necessary to satisfy the burden of proof depending on such issues such as what is at stake, can uncertainties be resolved before the harm is experienced, have the victims of the potential harm agreed to be threatened by the risk, does waiting for the uncertainties to be resolved make the potential problem worse. Therefore, it is not “bad” science to make recommendations on lower than ideal levels of proof. Scientific skeptics, therefore, should openly acknowledge that there are some problems that require protective action despite scientific uncertainty.

The climate change disinformation campaign demonstrates that some of the disagreement about how to deal with uncertainty is actually a difference about what norms should be applied to uncertain scientific conclusions when scientists are making recommendations to policy-makers. Skeptics should not attack climate scientists that identify potential but “unproven” harms from human-induced climate change provided that those who identify unproven harms clearly state that these are potential harms. Yet many climate skeptics attack mainstream scientists who identify potential harms from human-induced climate change as being engaged in “bad” science. Climate skeptics should acknowledge that for some public policy questions making decisions on the basis of on less than ideal levels of proof is not engaging in bad science.

IV. Conclusion.

Throughout this series we have identified ethical problems with the climate change disinformation campaign. These ethical problems are particularly disturbing because they have led to inaction for over twenty years by some largest emitting countries including the United States, Canada, and Australia and in so doing have put millions of poor people at greater risk. And so, some of those engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign are responsible for endangering people and ecological systems around the world and appear to have been motivated primarily by economic self-interest or protecting a radical free-market ideology rather than a search for the truth that would be a goal of responsible scientific skepticism.

As we have seen, not all who have engaged in the disinformation campaign are equally ethically blameworthy, but many can be accused of deeply irresponsible and often knowingly deceptive practices to protect economic interests. There is no clear ethical problem with corporations sponsoring rigorous scientific research. However corporations engage in ethically troublesome behavior that sponsor organizations that manufacture bogus scientific claims, that make claims that must be understood as examples of reckless disregard for the truth, that highlight unknowns while ignoring settled science, or that have been created to deceive people about who the real parties in interests. Without doubt, corporations or philanthropic foundations that sponsor organizations that encourage cyber-bullying of climate scientists and journalists are engaging in particularly odious behaviors.

ClimateEthics has in this series made a clear distinction between responsible skepticism and the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign. Responsible climate skepticism should be encouraged but skeptics must play by the rule of science and abide by the norms discussed in this series.


Charney, Jule et al., 1979, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, Report of an Ad-Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979 to the Climate Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC: National Academy Press,

National Research Council, 2001, Climate Change Science:An Analysis of Some Key Questions, The National Academy Press
Mannopollo Project, 2010, 20, 897 IPCC References,

Skeptical Science, 2012, Three Levels of Cherry-Picking In One Argument

US Academy of Sciences, 2011, America’s Climate Choices (2011),

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University.

8 thoughts on “Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

  1. Thank you for this summary. I do not consider myself a climate expert, but I am a layperson who is better informed than most on climate issues.
    When reading or watching disinformative ads or the pronouncements of political candidate or talk-show hosts, my first reaction is to send a scathing email replete with unprintable epithets.
    I feel Professor Brown’s hands on my shoulders, keeping me in my seat and bringing me back to objectivity.
    Though appeals to the culprits’ consciences are unlikely to change things, those of us who are working quietly through responsible groups or by writing responses to news and views found on Internet outlets and in our own publications, blogs, emails and conversations can refer back to Professor Brown’s posts for clarity and a renewed sense of orientation as we move through this matrix of time/space/matter and energy. We must recommit to our own personal journey. We must view each micro-decision we make – to turn down the thermostat or turn off a light as perhaps giving one future child just one bore breath of life. We cannot undo the forcings driving us toward chaos, but each of us can mitigate its effect or delay its arrival measures in fractions of a nanosecond while we continue our academic or social efforts to counter the work of those who cling to wrong-headed behaviors.

  2. your side is losing
    Why Global Warming Still Considered Target Of Skepticism For Americans
    Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, doesn’t share the same optimism. Combining various public opinion polls, including Krosnick’s, he sees a downward trend in the percentage of Americans believing in global warming since 2007. Further, in a new open-ended poll, he’s found that the first thing that came to the minds of 23 percent of people when they thought about climate change was a naysayer thought, such as a recent record snowstorm or a conspiracy theory.

  3. dennis baker: that means that 77% don’t have a negative thought. Strange how you think that that means your side is losing
    I find it strange that “a record snowstorm” is considered a negative thought. It shows that people don’t understand the basic science. This is reinforced by the following from the article: Scott Brophy, a philosophy professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, agreed that politicians are “out of touch” with the thinking of their constituents. Yet the problem remains, he said, that “1 in every 3 or 4 Americans doesn’t believe in a basic fact.”

  4. What a silly notion it is to think that global warming is influenced by words or ideology. Or even by “debate” We do not take a poll on whether gravity is real – we understand it or we face a downfall.
    Continued global warming and catastrophic climate events will occur more often and will be more powerful. Measures of popular opinion mean nothing. We either discover our plight or one may quietly decide not to know.
    Ethically, I have to agree that it is wrong for ideologues to impose an anti-science political agenda on the rest of the world. But no matter, because global warming of atmosphere and oceans will proceed as it must according to physical rules.
    We should be free to choose to learn climate science. It is wrong of people to obstruct science and data collection.
    And it is more wrong, almost criminally wrong, to advocate denial – because it gets in the way of securing our future. Every sane person wants to mitigate future suffering. Deny all you want, but get out of the way – nobody has a right to inflict harm by actively promoting ignorance.
    Thanks to Prof Brown for framing this as an ethical dilemma.

  5. Are the disinformation tactics really a surprise? These types of propaganda campaigns have prevailed since the dawn of civilization. Kudos for spotlighting it though – without an opposing voice disinformation can easily become public record.

  6. I am glad to visit your website.. This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality and it is very useful one and gives in depth information. thanks for this sharing this article.

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