On Deniers, Warmistas, and Watermelons

By Keith Kloor | March 24, 2011 4:14 pm

Nothing seems to shake the climate rafters like a fierce debate over the labels that combatants use to smack each other around.

Although this thread from yesterday is still going strong, I thought I would break out a comment that rises above the scrum:

My belief is that those who are affected most negatively by the use of name-calling (denier, denialist, warmista, watermelon etc) are in fact those that spout them.

Presumably, a major reason we come to these message boards is to debate others and try to persuade them to see our particular side of an issue. Lacing an argument with language that is perceived by others as antagonistic immediately weakens your argument and guarantees escalation rather than meaningful back and forth because people become defensive and less receptive to your perspective.

Imagine an attorney:
“Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I am going to present you evidence that confirms my case and if you don’t believe it 100% you’re probably stupid or willfully ignorant.”

Now if all you want to do is score high fives from the people who already believe what you believe then by all means, keep it up but it’s my opinion that there are plenty of people out there who are malleable to a good argument and it isn’t productive to start lumping everyone in with the most partisan members of a particular side.

  • JD Ohio

    I am a lawyer who has tried a large number civil jury trials.  Menth is half-right.  You don’t persuade people by calling them names. However, he overestimates the ability of reason to change minds.  Trial lawyers know this because they can choose to remove a limited number of jurors, and they always try to remove the jurors most predisposed against their case.  Lawyers have no illusion that they can persuade people with strongly held beliefs.

    Two examples.  1. In 18 years of workers compensation trials, not one (and I mean literally one) farmer or insurance agent ever voted in favor of a claimant in any of my workers compensation trials.  These people, for partly legitimate and partly illegitimate reasons, simply hate workers compensation.  2.  Jurors are continually told that in criminal cases, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  There is no burden upon the accused, and the accused is not required to produce any evidence.  Nothwithstanding this and the fact that jurors verbally agree that they will not impose any burden upon the defendant at the beginning of their service, they routinely apply the principle in practice (without really thinking about it) that the defendant is required to prove his innocence.  In fact in Southwest Ohio, a nationally known murder trial (Ryan Widmer the accused), recently ended with a conviction.  (Third trial of Widmer.  One was overturned on the ground of juror misconduct)  After the trial, one of the jurors was interviewed and part of his reason for the conviction was that Widmer did not prove his innocence.  The juror’s own statements, the past publicity concerning juror misconduct, and the general notoriety of the case did not get through to the juror.

    Why blog then?  I have no illusion that I will convince anyone with strongly held beliefs to change them.  My only goal is to chip away a little at the unyielding certainty of those people who disagree with me.  Maybe they, even though disagreeing with me, will come to the conclusion that my position is to a certain extent reasonable.
    JD

  • kdk33

    Not sure why this is even interesting.

    In kidergarten I learned that name calling reflects on the name-caller.  But I went to a really good kindergarten.

  • Tom Gray

    re 1

    There was a famous case in Canada is which a person named Steven Truscott was wrongfully convicted of murder. I read a magazine article in which one of the jurors was interviewed. Truscott was 14 at the time of the trial. The juror noted his young age and said that her heart went out to him and that she really wanted his lawyers to prove his innocence

    In a much more recent case, the police and, prosecution were convinced that a nurse was murdering babies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. One piece of evidence that they presented was that she had asked fro a lawyer in her police interview. The trail judge at her preliminary hearing dismissed teh case without hearing any evidence from the defense. He said that there was no evidence against her and that what little evidence there was tended to exonerate her. The case moved on and the justice establishment then fixated on another nurse. Her treatment was much worse than that the Nelles received whcih is unbelievable but true. Again the justice establishment’s case collapsed in shambles. In the end, there is only very tenuous evidence that any babies were ever killed. It was more likely that the n police and prosecutors took some meager evidence of babies dying in a critical care ward and made of it what was not there.

    So it is not just laymen who can let their emotions defeat the rational judgement that is required in these cases. Professionals can become fixated on a conclusion as well. I don’t see why some academic climate scientists would be immune to this.

  • Tom Gray

    re 2

    I’m rubber; you’re glue …

  • mondo

    The problem with the use of terms such as “denier”, or “alarmist”, or “believer” for that matter is that they are in a different class than the term “sceptic”.

    The first three terms can be described as arm-waving generalist terms, attributing motives to those who you think might not agree with your view of the world.

    As an aside, I have long felt that one should try to avoid the use of the term “I believe”, since its meaning (to me) is that I don’t really know from the facts of the matter, but I take on board and accept the view of someone that I trust on the matter.  That is, it is a second hand kind of understanding.

    It would be useful in these discussions to avoid generalisations and get down to specific issues on which each party can marshal facts, papers and other evidence in support of their position.   Careful, objective assessment of that evidence might allow a conclusion to be drawn, or not.

    For example, I would like to see evidence that anthropogenic CO2 is causing adverse climate change, and evidence that natural processes or land-use factors, or other factors are not also involved, and may even be primary influences.  I find Roger Pielke Sr’s point of view persuasive.  That is, climate is very complex.  Also, we can confuse local and regional climate changes that we think we observe, and perhaps don’t understand that these are caused by, say, deforestation, interference with natural hydrological cycles, monoculture industrial farming or other factors.

  • Bob Koss

    JD #1
    You say: “In 18 years of workers compensation trials, not one (and I mean literally one) farmer or insurance agent ever voted in favor of a claimant in any of my workers compensation trials.”
    I’m curious.
    Unless no farmers or Ins. agents were ever empaneled in any case that went to verdict how do you know that to be true?
    Was secret ballot never allowed?
     

  • JD Ohio

    Tom Gray #4

    I agree that legal “professionals” can be just as biased and irrational as jurors.  Don’t want to leave the impression, I was picking on jurors.  Menth referred to trials, and I used jurors as an example.  My point applies to all people in all situations.

    JD

  • JD Ohio

    Bob Koss #6.  “Secret Ballot” in jury trials
    In Ohio in a civil case, 8 jurors are seated and to win one party must get 6 out of 8 jurors.  Many cases are 8-0 decisions, so you can tell that if the jury votes against a claimant that an insurance agent, for example, voted against the claimant.  Most judges will allow lawyers in Ohio to talk to the jurors after the verdict, and usually someone will tell you what happened.  As a claimant’s attorney, in exercising peremptory challenges, I tried to avoid having insurance agents or farmers seated [and the opposition, for instance, tried to avoid having disabled people seated).  At the end of the trial based upon the verdict and discussions with the jury, I could determine how jurors voted.  Also, would add that if there were multiple questions, the jury was sometimes sent jury interrogatories that had to be answered in writing.
    As an example of the way that Ohio farmers think, in one of my first cases, the jury initially voted 5-3 in my favor.  A farmer persuaded the juror to vote 6-2 against my claimant client, arguing that lifting a heavy object and injuring your back was not an accidental injury and not compensable under Ohio law.  The farmer’s interpretation of the law was wrong, but Ohio’s statute did refer to an accidental injury, so there was some logical justification for the farmer’s argument when viewed in a vacuum.
    JD

  • Dean

    I think the basic point follows from JD. The question is who you are trying to convince. I used to be involved in a lot of political campaigns, and learned very well that the key is figuring out who to campaign to. And it usually isn’t the person who comes looking to debate you.

  • JohnB

    JD, I think that what you’ve noticed about proof of innocence is worldwide. If there is a bad crime and after a well publicised investigation an arrest is made, listen to the bar talk.

    You’ll hear comments like “They got the bloke that did so and so”. I used to say it myself until I realised that this denied the assumption of innocence and stopped. But there is a general assumption of guilt once a person has been arrested. 

    An arrest simply means that an accusation has been made by the authorities against a person. Their guilt is established at the trial.

    I think it comes from people knowing that the cops have to prove beyond reasonable doubt and people figure that they wouldn’t arrest if they didn’t have enough evidence to win the case. this assumption is of course wrong.

  • StuartR

    I don’t think insulting lables are ever used in the game of persuading someone. Maybe there is some hope the labels will shame some into changing their minds, but I think the use of provocative epithets, labels used as shorthand, is seen as necessary for fellow users to identify like-minded people and bond together. The provoking of outrage from an opponent can often seem to be just a pleasant by product for the users.

    I haven’t got research data but I think you see provocative epithets used more often on the more crowded, milling forums, where names pop in and out. Sharp, insulting epithet usage is needed to establish the user is from an orthodox position without troubling either to write anything meaningful, or risk others being bothered to read anything meaningful.  It’s like shrieking bird calls in the jungle.

  • Hannah

    #1, very interesting on many levels. The question that springs to mind is why is it so difficult to change people’s minds? Let’s break it down.

    1.       People draw conclusions and form opinions based on their own individual, personal experience. If you see something repeated, then you start to see a pattern and you think that you already know the answer. If you already think that you know the conclusion then you don’t feel the need to look at every detail and/or you will view the facts selectively in that you view them in the light of what you know from your experience. You might be right but it is by no means a certainty hence why I personally often feel like kicking people who make loud, generalising statements based on their own experience and try to pass it on as “wisdom” when in fact it might be based on entirely different circumstances to whatever they pass judgement on.  

    2.       A lot of people mentally stop at the “headline”.  We simply often rely on other people’s thoughts. The thoughts of the police or journalists etc. Ex.: A friend of my family recently found himself in the headlines. Based on the perception of the group of people he belong to (varying from race to profession), the headlines and people in general relying on authorities to get it right, I have so far not come across one person who did not “believe” that he is guilty and who wasn’t happy to say so. On the other hand nor have I come across one person who has actually sat down and read the details of his case. In fact sometimes the less people know about a subject the firmer their opinions on the subject seems to be.

    3.       People, in general :o ), like certainty. Camus even speaks of the human “longing” for certainty. Keeping an open mind means that you might have to change your mind repeatedly and/or  admit that you were wrong. Most of us rather dislike being “wrong” :o )
     

  • harrywr2

    We all like black and white. Lumping people into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ piles makes ‘fixing the blame’ so much easier. Members of ‘X’ group are evil and it’s all their fault.

    Unfortunately, it makes ‘fixing the problem’ so much harder.
    But then fixing the problem has always been harder then fixing the blame.

  • Hannah

    #13 agreed, goes with the longing for certainty I guess and possibly also insecurity. The other approach is of course Montaigne’s great skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je? :o )

  • Menth

    @Hannah 12
    “ People, in general  ), like certainty. Camus even speaks of the human “longing” for certainty. Keeping an open mind means that you might have to change your mind repeatedly and/or  admit that you were wrong. Most of us rather dislike being “wrong” ”

    I have recently read a good book that very much discusses this point: ‘Future Babble’ by Dan Gardner http://amzn.to/f3UfXL.
    This longing for certainty has evolutionary roots and tends to lead people into placing undue amounts of trust in ‘experts’ who make bold predictions about the future.
    I don’t think it’s a mystery that the default setting for the human brain is not to seek the truth but to confirm what it already believes. This to me is the beauty of science minded people; to try and circumvent and be vigilant against this perpetual creeping bias. One of the most effective tools in this is to have an opponent, someone to critique your perspective, because try as hard as you might you’ll never be as good at it as someone else. In the words of social psychologist Jon Haidt: ”
    My research, like so much research in social psychology, demonstrates that we humans are experts at using reasoning to find evidence for whatever conclusions we want to reach. We are terrible at searching for contradictory evidence. Science works because our peers are so darn good at finding that contradictory evidence for us. Social science “” at least my corner of it “” is broken because there is nobody to look for contradictory evidence regarding sacralized issues, particularly those related to race, gender, and class. I urged my colleagues to increase our ideological diversity not for any moral reason, but because it will make us better scientists. ”

    I recognize that ardent partisans of both sides are unlikely to be persuaded by reasoning but I believe that there are people on both sides who are committed enough to the pursuit of “truth” that they are more willing to examine their beliefs if they are given a thoughtful, snark-free critique.
    My favorite take on the Enlightenment is that it was born in the coffee shops; quarrelsome, raucous coffee shops where opinions and ideas collided and synthesized. I believe the internet is the modern incarnation of this and well….I think it’s pretty neat.

  • Hannah

    Menth, pretty neat comment and the book that you mention looks seriously interesting so I have just bought it. I already like the conclusion: “The future is always uncertain, but the end is not always near”. Given the times that we live in it seems that the World better be ready to embrace some uncertainty.

  • NewYorkJ

    Has the repeated use of the terms “socialist”, “socialism”, and “death panels” to describe U.S. Democrats and their policies had a more negative effect on the labeler or the target?  One could argue that if it’s spouted by enough people, it’s very effective and weakening the target.  Perhaps it weakens the labeler too, but not as much.   Frequent use of “AGW Hoax”, “Global warming fraud”, “ClimateGate scandal”, “Alarmist”, etc. might sound ridiculous to a reasonable and informed person engaged on the issue, but what about the more passive and less informed or qualified observer?

    Such a discussion shouldn’t be limited to labels.  Many people spout rhetoric far more wrong, worse, and offensive than a single label could capture.  Such rhetoric includes repeating claims, without basis, of scientific misconduct/fraud.  Others more passively insinuate it.  This is Steve McIntyre’s general strategy.  While he does occasionally throw out labels (he’s described Hansen’s behavior as “jihadist”), the bulk of his regular rhetoric is more subtle.  The idea is to get the ball rolling and let his various admirers take the the rhetoric to different levels, which happens in the press and in blog comments.

  • Menth

    @NewYorkJ
    You make good points. I probably should have qualified it better that I personally find that people lose credibility when they insult me and not necessarily make overarching statements about human nature.

    @Hannah
    Thanks! It’s an entertaining read. There’s an excerpt in the nytimes today, thankfully before the soon to be paywall :http://nyti.ms/fHopxF

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    What JD said.  Eli was recently on a jury (scary, yes).  There were two counts, one was a slam dunk, guilty.  The other had a lot of doubt and to be frank was a question of definition.

    The initial vote was 10-2 to acquit.  Took about a day to get to 10-1 (some people CAN be persuaded and it came down to the judge clarifying a point about the law). The one who held out was a lawyer, basically on the grounds that the police can always be trusted even tho the evidence was very mixed on that.  It was somewhat amusing.

    So Eli guesses this makes it a 1-1 tie with JD.

  • Menth

    I’ll take a page from the book of Keith and punctuate this thread with a song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcG47CpsU6c

  • Keith Grubb

    Dude I love Pink Floyd. But let me puncthttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmALA8miQY8uate this thread.

  • Keith Grubb
  • Menth

    @21 LOL! Awesome.

  • WTH

    I think the attorney analogy misses the mark.  Those resorting to name calling are not looking to sway the people they are calling names but rather to paint them negatively to a third party.
    A better attorney analogy might be like this:
    “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I am going to present you evidence that confirms that the puppy-hating defendant is in fact guilty”
    Its much like negative political campaigns – they don’t slime the voter, they slime their political opponent with the intent of influencing the voter.

  • David Palmer

    Mmm, where I live it’s 12 jurors and they all have to agree, otherwise it’s a retrial.
    The problem we struggle with is on any given issue where people take opposing positions, you need words to describe the two groups and their respective positions. With football we can name the team according to their chosen designation. With ideas, propositions, hypotheses, etc it is more difficult.
    With the climate debate so feral, people too often go for the jugular, hence the use of ‘denialist’, a rhetorical tool designed to denigrate which does nothing to win the sceptic over. (I think use of words like sceptic and critic much more neutral and therefore acceptable.)
    This morning in my devotions I was reading in the book of Proverbs. Here are a couple of good ones:
    “A soft answer turns away wrath, harsh word stirs up anger”
    “Those who are hot tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention”
    Both are from Proverbs chapter 15.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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