Denialism as an Anxiety Disorder

My wife is a psychologist specializing in obsessive/compulsive disorders. Sometimes she deals with very extreme cases. She is careful not to share names or identifying information with me, but occasionally discusses cases with me on the same basis she might to a roomful of colleagues.

I am struck by the confusion of the cerebral and the visceral in the more extreme cases of OCD, and in that way it reminds me of science denialism. In fact, you could argue that it is exactly the same thing.

A person in the grips of severe OCD will have certain rituals that they perform to avoid certain threats than they have greatly exaggerated in their own minds. An OCD sufferer may, for example, be afraid to touch doorknobs for fear of catching AIDS. Even though it is likely that nobody has ever gotten AIDS from a doorknob, and even though one can get the patient to acknowledge that this is the case, the fear of AIDS-infected doorknobs has been so firmed up in the patient’s mind that rational evidence to the contrary will not change the doorknob-avoidant behavior.

The treatment, as I understand it, is threefold. Convincing the patient that doorknob use is less detrimental than doorknob avoidance is necessary but it is not sufficient.

Getting the rational understanding is only the beginning.

The second step is to get the patient to actually touch doorknobs, despite their fear: this is the phase where the rational side stops cowering under a virtual table, stands up, and confronts the irrational.

The third step is to actually calm down about doorknobs through becoming reaccustomed to them, this happens purely at the emotional, limbic level. The cure is never perfect; a person who has been in the grips of such severe emotional gridlock will never be entirely comfortable around doorknobs, but can learn to tolerate the discomfort and act normally around doors.

What strikes me about this, is that there has to be cerebral collaboration in the development of the fear in the first place. After all, typically the person has never been injured by a doorknob and clearly has not contacted AIDS. The fear reaction must have been mediated through a thought process, albeit not a very clear-headed one. It is the sort of thing you might come up with in a dream, an AIDS-vector doorknob, not something you would take seriously in the light of day. But you aren’t fifteen and unusually anxious. (I hope. If you are, you have my sympathies and best wishes. I’ve been there myself.)

Irene says the way it works is that the anxiety comes first. Then the cerebrum does what it does, which is to interpret the information it has at hand. It tries to evaluate where the anxiety comes from, and latches onto something random. (“That doorknob I just touched! Could it be contaminated with a disease?”) If the attribution is sufficiently satisfactory, (“I know what to do. I’ll never touch such a filthy doorknob again!”) the cerebral process is reinforced.

Modern society is deeply disturbed. Anxiety prevails everywhere. People want to explain their anxiety and discomfort in the face of unprecedented wealth and comfort, exactly the things they were raised to desire and work for.

Most of us (except those few who still think things are going swimmingly) settle on social and historical forces to blame. Some of us are less sophisticated than others, and develop social theories that are less informed by history, geography, and (dare I say it) biology, chemistry and physics. We develop blame attachments that have something in common with the doorknobs. It’s Exxon! It’s the United Nations! It’s the Gringos! It’s the Mexicans! It’s Monsanto! It’s ACORN! etc. etc.

Look, there is such a thing as a dirty doorknob. I don’t think any of the groups mentioned are entirely blameless or harmless. They’re just collections of people doing their best to get by, sometimes cutting corners or ignoring their own flaws.

Amazingly, a group that finds physical climatology (the discipline, not the process) a key factor in their conspiracy fantasy is emerging.

Our heads are spinning in trying to deal with this.

Climate science finds itself in an exceedingly awkward position as it is being used as a proxy for the battle between these two increasingly mutually hostile and suspicious tendencies. You constantly see talk among our symparthizers of climate scientists “standing up for the cause”. Usually the suggestion is complete nonsense.

The cause of the field, that which unites the members, is simple enough. Climatologists want to be left alone to study the stuff that fascinates us. Many of us want other things, but that is the main cause which unites us.

Unfortunately climatology is obligated to explain the extent to which plausible scenarios over the next few decades could lead to severe consequences. We would like to fulfill this obligation and be left alone after the fact, since most of the work in coping will be done by others (except in case of geoengineering).

The correct thing for society to do is to take our advice into account and develop policies that reasonably account for the risks and costs associated with this circumstance. It becomes a problem in energy engineering, social policy and economics.

But people are terrified of the implications. Capitalism always operates on thin margins and does not like large disruptions. Yet we collectively must impose various large disruptions on ourselves. This feeds into various fears and hostilities, including, in America, the paranoia and racism deployed toward Obama.

So we are being door-knobbed. Significant numbers of people believe ridiculous things about us. The Murdoch press and a few likeminded media stir this up. We become a target of habitual fear and paranoia.

The mainstream press feels compelled to tell “both sides” of the story. Are we a deadly AIDS-infected doorknob, or just an ordinary, imperfect but functional doorknob? The truth must lie somewhere between.

It has gone too far. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. Except we have no clue what to do.

People like Fleck and Yulsman and Revkin tell us our cause is hopeless, that people simply do not make decisions based on evidence, and that so the windmill/jobs program approach is the best we can do. This is perfectly silly advice because it does not actually account for the interests of the scientific community at all. We do not need to argue for emissions cuts. We need to argue for science. Emissions cuts are just a consequence of reason.

Almost every scientist will agree that a carbon policy is much better than no carbon policy, but a carbon policy is not the point of science. The point of science is to discover and report truth, most consequentially in areas where the truth actually matters to the health of civilization.

When an individual has an anxiety disorder, the first thing to do is to work around the anxiety and get the person to acknowledge that their anxieties are dysfunctional.

It seems to me that the first step when soicety has an anxiety disorder is to do the same.

The second thing to do is to get them accustomed to the idea that their behavior will have to change. Eventually some healing can happen.

The journalists and PR folk are right that conveying the state of science is insufficient in getting political support for a sound policy, but I am convinced that they are absolutely and demonstrably wrong that it is unnecessary. If we are to behave rationally as a global collective, we sort of have to have some respect for the information that we need to apply our reason to.

The problem is that people grew up in a world where there was no global collective, and the idea threatens them. The fact that practically any reasonable reading of the implications of climatology presents a very clear case for the necessity of global governance connects that fear and hostility to a science.

Those who give us this advice to let it slide, that facts are not relevant, misconstrue our jobs as much as do the people who have the irrational hostility. This tragicomic “climategate” farce illuminates the problem, once you see past the pathetic behavior of the press.

The first step in treating an anxiety disorder is to convince people that their anxieties are irrational and dysfunctional. It’s not enough. But that is the only place we can start.

Update: I am NOT saying that everyone who propagates denialism is actually paranoid; some are ideological difference-splitters who simply cannot believe that the truth might not lie in “the middle” of the extremes they perceive. A few are simply psychopathic, though I think that most psychopaths tend to find other games to play.

Of course, the main problem is that they are wrong. The point here is that they can make the case by appealing to visceral as opposed to rational responses in the public.

In this view the Murdoch press et al have been functioning to make people upset and paranoid. Even if it isn’t entirely deliberate, that is how it is working. This is, of course, the opposite of helping. If the real purpose is just to sell newspapers, the psychopathology of it all is mind-boggling.

What I add here is perhaps some new insight into why it has been so easy to trick people (and so easy for people to trick themselves) and why it will be so difficult to set enough of them straight.

Our friends, especially the habitual difference-splitters in the press, tell us that we cannot realistically overcome this gap; that climate is now irrevocably a partisan issue and that people’s positions are irrevocably set by culture rather than reason. I think there is a chance that the advice is right. If so, the PR disasters of the past few months may reverberate for millenia. How tragic and how absurd!

I think we have no choice but to try. If we can’t do it soon, that doesn’t mean we can stop trying.


21 thoughts on “Denialism as an Anxiety Disorder

  1. Tom says:

    Well, since you made the journey over to my site, I'll respond to your post. I am assuming you would include me in your elaborate metaphor drawn from your wife's casework. If not me specifically, you would I think include Anthony Watts, Steve McIntyre, etc. Please correct me if I'm wrong.However, they and I do believe the following:Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Human emissions of CO2 contribute to warming of the atmosphere. The earth has warmed appreciably since 1975.What do you drive, Michael? Anthony Watts has driven an electric car for quite some time. I quit driving in 1990 as my lifetime 'green statement.' I believe it is convenient for you to reduce the entire range of opposition to you to one category–deniers. This makes it unnecessary to look at some of the choices you make and validates your own sense of self.I do not believe we disagree on the physics of climate change. I think we disagree on the level of uncertainty attached to current measurements and I think we disagree on the proper course of action. But it's so conveeeenient for you to paint with a broad brush and insist that we ignore or deny the science. I don't. I know that Watts and McIntyre don't. Neither of the Pielkes ignore or deny it. It's our disagreement on non-scientific issues that makes you classify us as science deniers. Maybe you should speak with your wife about that.

  2. Tom says:

    More to the point, you seemed to understand the proper course of action much better last month, when you were just as angry but more willing to speak on the science yourself.Quite blaming journalists for your problems. Write about the science. You had a golden opportunity to do so at my site just some hours ago. You could have walked through the various issues regarding the lifecycle of CO2.You could have started by making the obvious point that concentrations are what we're worried about, not emissions per se. I would have happily agreed, and contacted you and asked if you wanted to write a guest post or participate in an interview on my site. You would have said either yes or no.You could have elaborated on the idea that CO2 concentrations don't revolve around individual molecules and their happy destiny. You could have talked at length about the various carbon sinks, and what we know (and don't know) about their capacity and what triggers ocean outgassing, etc.You could have talked about lag times–how long the residual concentrations of CO2 will last even if we quit emitting today. Instead, look at what you did and how you did it. Quite being part of the problem Tobis, and be part of the solution. Write about the science, not about how me or some other journalist isn't doing it justice.Quite whining. Want an interview? Want a guest post?

  3. The problem is that this is a runaway metaphor. Social anxiety about climate science is not really like an individual OCD sufferer's anxiety about a doorknob. The OCD sufferer does not have people shouting at him all the time that doorknobs are dangerous.Your larger point about science I mostly agree with. The point of science is not to support a carbon policy. The point of science is to tell the truth. If a carbon policy seems to be the best way to take action, given our scientific knowledge, well and good.But I don't understand how this is consistent with your long-term project. If I ever wrote something like "science is irrelevant at this point" then you'd presumably be hailing the statement, in your usual DFH-ing manner, as an example of how both sides are wrong somehow. But really, given the extent of current scientific consensus, science is irrelevant at this point. Scientists have pretty much done all that they can do, as scientists, to inform society. No further scientific refinements appear likely to change the overall picture, banning some surprise. The rest is a political problem.So, are scientists willing to participate in the political process? As citizens, with any citizen's interest in politics? Perhaps they should, perhaps not. But the idea that scientists need some kind of special communications channel where they speak for science seems to me to miss the point. The barriers to the public hearing science are political and deliberate — in the sense that they are fostered by political interests — not a matter of anxiety fastening on some random object. How are scientists going to deal with that? Well, their experience as scientists is not particularly going to help.

  4. I am going to assume that all of the above was written with your tongue rammed firmly into your cheek. Were I not to do so, I might be forced to accept that you really believe that the people who oppose your opinions are actually psychotic and in need of, er, re-education. I was instantly transported (no pun intended!) back to one of my favourite plays:Doc: Next! (Alexander goes into the office) Your behaviour is causing alarm. I'm beginning to think you're off your head. Quite apart from being a paranoid schizophrenic. I have to consider seriously whether an Ordinay Hospital can deal with your symptoms.Alex: I have no symptoms, I have opinions.Doc: Your opinions are are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent. Your kind of schizophrenia does not presuppose changes of personality noticeable to others.Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard.Take it all back, Michael, you are upon the edge of a very slippery slope.David Duff

  5. Martin says:

    One variant is called 'Monckton-by-Proxy'.

  6. Martin says:

    But it's so conveeeenient for you to paint with a broad brush and insist that we ignore or deny the science. I don't. I know that Watts and McIntyre don't. Neither of the Pielkes ignore or deny it.The stated beliefs of you or any of these folks don't interest me a bit. It's all politics to them. To find out what belief system drives their power games though, all you have to look at is their comments section. Case closed.

  7. guthrie says:

    I totally disagree with Tom as to Watts and others denying science, but I have no idea who he is nor what his blog is.That aside, it could be that common or garden denialism is rather that they feel disempowered (How often has the likes of Duff ranted on about money wasted on lost causes, or kids these days) and here is this huge complex topic which they can say no to, they have the power to do so, and get involved in ranting on the internet and writing letters. This kind of behaviour can of course be seen across the entire political spectrum, and does not explain all denialists. (Other reasons for denialism include religion, in the case of YEC's, money, in the case of Tobcacco lobbyists, and stupidity on the part of some proportion of people)

  8. Tom — Have you read Mark Lynas's "Six Degrees"?

  9. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Two things:1) Such anxiety is primarily a symptom of those who *don't* believe that the doorknob is dirty.2) Climate science's dirty doorknobs can be made clean if a few simple hygiene rules are observed:a) Abstracts should be fair summaries of what follows.b) Press releases should say only what can be justified by the research.c) When questioned about their research, researchers shouldn't go further than their research can justify.d) The review process shouldn't favour alarmism: if reviewers say that part of a study is overly alarming, don't always delete the whole section; if reviewers say that part of a study is insufficiently alarming, don't always expand the whole section.e) Researchers should be as keen – and be seen to be as keen – to challenge alarmist misrepresentations of their work as they are to challenge denialist misrepresentations.f) Etc.So let's clean those dirty doorknobs! Together, we can do it! (But where will it lead?)

  10. Andy S says:

    I too sometimes wonder whether denialists who distort climate science are mad, bad or both. So, I sympathize with your viewpoint, but…Tactically, your ideas would be counter-productive since it would immediately be seen as a patronizing, doctor-knows-best approach by the very people who are already mad about being talked down to by pointy heads in white coats.Ethically, I also believe it's wrong to medicalize dissent, which I assume is the point that David Duff is making. Already, some denialists make absurd claims that climate scientists are part of a totalitarian project; if we were to argue that the people who make these claims are in need of therapy, then we would be inviting comparison with the Soviet Union's disgusting use of psychiatry to quash dissent.I think that the target of advocacy has to be the people who don't yet know enough about climate change to care, in other words, the confused and apathetic majority of our population. Let's forget about trying to change the minds, literally or figuratively, of the hard-line contras, they are a lost cause.

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    Fuller: "I do not believe we disagree on the physics of climate change."Seriously. Try this thought experiment, TF: Holding all else equal, apply a forcing to the climate system. What's the response curve look like? Now compare that to the assertions in your post.Offhand, I can't think of a more fundamental misunderstanding of climate physics. Possibly other terms could describe how you're managing to get it wrong, but certainly denial is one of them. Given that, having the details of CO2 behavior explained to you is a waste of time, especially as that material is readily available (on RealClimate, e.g.).

  12. The "Tom" on this thread is Thomas Fuller, and some of his comments refer to this thread on his Examiner site.

  13. manuelg says:

    > Quite whining. Want an interview? Want a guest post?Thought experiment: if I wish rid my neighborhood of prostitutes, I guess I could negotiate myself into the Lady's room, to break her red bulb. Or I may choose not to. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.I, personally, find the merchants of obscurantism uninteresting. And their forums.Michael Tobis:> The problem is that people grew up in a world where there was no global collective, and the idea threatens them. The fact that practically any reasonable reading of the implications of climatology presents a very clear case for the necessity of global governance connects that fear and hostility to a science.Consider John Brown, Bleeding Kansas, 1855. Humans work on a pace that can be describes as glacial, without hyperbole. That does not remove the importance of John Brown's actions in 1855. Thankfully, the best course of action is constructive and non-violent, in the case of human caused global warming. But a lot of land will be under water before the effects of human correctives is felt.

  14. Tom Yulsman says:

    Michael: You've put words in my mouth. I've never said that "people simply do not make decisions based on evidence." Here is what I have actually said: Whether we like it or not, evidence is not sufficient by itself to drive people to one decision or another. Decision-making is based on a mix of evidence and values. So, if above all else you value free markets and a limited role for the federal government, you are probably going to discount the evidence about climate change.If your goal is substantive action on climate change, simply focusing on scientific evidence and expecting it to drive a decision — without considering how values enter the equation — is a recipe for continued frustration.

  15. Kendra says:

    What condescending drivel.I don't know a single person on either side of the issue that's suffering at all from social anxiety about global warming.We have great discussions about it – all of us are agreed in not "wasting" resources, of course. In fact, I don't know anyone opposed to "thriftiness" except some hypocritical celebrities I see on the news.Although I happen to actually know the most about the science involved, that doesn't cut much ice when emotions get involved. But those emotions are aroused more by political ideology than fear of warming, or simply frustration that someone else just doesn't "get" what they're trying to express. And it certainly never boils down into two distinct categories, where a term such as denier could even distinguish one of two black and white groups. Or maybe we're just too grownup to bother with such absurdities. 10 people, 10 different shades of opinion. This is typical of all discussions in real life I've ever taken part in. The only anxiety I've seen is that video clip showing what in appearance seem to be adults keening and carrying on over a few old, dead trees in the woods.That's where we all, no matter our opinion, have a good laugh. Thank goodness, of all the people I know, with all their myriad opinions, not a one descends to the level of name-calling and pseudo-psychobabble. Imagine, grownups spending time arguing about the definition of "deniers" or how to "reframe narratives."Grow up.

  16. Pangolin says:

    This is an interesting post. The first thing one needs to do to sell something is to get the customer to identify the product as desirable. Implicit in this is the assumption that the current state of affairs is less than optimal. So what much of media advertising does is promote anxiety among individual consumers. Advertising declares that dirty doorknobs need special chlorinated doorknob wipes instead of the perfectly useful, white vinegar and water, solution. The more Rupert Murdoch promotes general anxiety about life the more stuff his advertising clients sell, the more ads they buy, etc.. Climate Change anxiety is just a parcel of the overall picture. The implication of excess CO2 emissions is that there must be a general reduction in same, therefore a general reduction in economic activity. Less stuff sold; less profits for Rupert and incidentally less money kicked towards Anthony Watts. So to address your original hypothesis I don't think denialism is an anxiety disorder per se. I think it is an effect promoted by the marketers of generalized anxiety. Without ramping down the importance of advertising and mercantilism in our culture we may not get very far with addressing climate issues.

  17. Harrywr2 says:

    "Given that, having the details of CO2 behavior explained to you is a waste of time"I guess I'm mentally ill then.A doubling of atmospheric CO2 will result in an increase of the equilibrium temperature of the earth of 1.2 degrees C, all other things being equal.Then one has to ask the question of whether or not there is sufficient economically recoverable fossil fuel to double the levels of CO2.The answer is only in the imagination of Climate Scientists.The definition of 'economically recoverable' is 'before something else just as useful becomes cheaper.At current 'world prices' for Coal, Oil and Natural Gas, nuclear is already cheaper.Hence, the only way I can believe in the Global Warming Crisis is if I believe that in a selfish world, people will use a more expensive product.When someone can point me to 'cheap' fossil fuels that will make possible the emitting of 100 gigatons of CO2 as envisaged by the IPCC I'll become a believer.The World Energy Organization doesn't believe it exists, the EIA doesn't believe it exists…but Climate Scientists believe it exists.So when Climate Scientists start looking at a realistic emissions scenario peaking at 40 gigatons a year in 2030 and then come back with the 'crisis', I might listen.

  18. guthrie says:

    HarryWR2 – There are several things that confuse me about your post. For starters, the 1.2C increase in temp from a doubling of CO2 is merely from that gas, whereas in reality we have feedbacks such as water vapour which push the expected temperature to around 3C global average increase, which is more than double you rmeasly 1.2C. Secondly there are other greenhouse gases apart from CO2, such as methane and CFC's. The question about economically recoverable fossil fuels being enough to more than double CO2 levels has been asked, and answered in the affirmative, last I knew, because although you claim nuclear is cheaper, such is the wonderful state of the world economy it does in fact prefer to burn coal and oil….Hence I have trouble understanding what point you are trying to make. Regarding the amount of carbon left, I estimate around 5.9 x10^11 tonnes of carbon required to produce a doubling of CO2 alone, without any oceanic absorption. Global proved coal reserves are apparently 9×10^11 tonnes. A rough estimate for carbon in oil suggests that there's something like 1.1×10^11 tonnes of carbon in the oil we may end up burning until it runs out (Low end estimate from data on wikipedia). Natural gas, maybe twice the amount of carbon from oil.So yes, even back of the envelope calculations suggest we could double CO2, probably by the end of this century.

  19. Hank Roberts says:

    > sufficient economically > recoverable fossil fuel > to double the levels of CO2.Rephrase:> sufficient fossil carbon to > double the levels of CO2.Your mistake: counting only fossil carbon that can be "fuel" and move through the economy. Do you know what you're ignoring?

  20. Tom Y., perhaps we agree. I concur that "If your goal is substantive action on climate change, simply focusing on scientific evidence and expecting it to drive a decision — without considering how values enter the equation — is a recipe for continued frustration."However, I also believe that failure to focus on scientific evidence is also inadequate. Indeed, without respect for the facts of the matter how can there be hope for a democracy getting to an effective policy?

  21. Great post! Bring in more psychologists, psychiatrists and criminologists. These are the right experts needed in today's climate "debate".(Re Update: I'd say most sincere denialists today are indeed psycho challenged, just like the Darwin deniers. Refusing to look at reality. It may be a characteristic of the Late Homo S "Sapiens", esp. in the U.S., still it's psycho.)

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