Should RSA tolerate climate change deniers?

Vicki Caulfield / 27 September 2019

In September 2019, the university-backed news website, The Conversation, decided it would no longer tolerate climate change denial comments on their site. 

They argued “Climate change deniers, and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation, are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet. We believe conversations are integral to sharing knowledge, but those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science are nothing but dangerous.

It is counterproductive to present the evidence and then immediately undermine it by giving space to trolls. The hopeless debates between those with evidence and those who fabricate simply stalls action.’’

The RSA has long been of the view that the scientific method is the most effective means by which humans develop knowledge and understanding of the physical universe. We believe human progress and well-being is best achieved by the careful and consistent use of science and evidence-based reasoning. RSA supports ‘evidence-based policy making’ by the public service and the use of robust, reliable and defensible evidence in public debate about controversial social and scientific issues.

Evidence-based policy making requires the collection of good data, the selection of appropriate methods for analysing the data, openness to professional and public scrutiny, independence from vested interests, and a commitment to resist ideological quick fixes, personal biases or ‘conventional wisdom’.

At the same time, the RSA supports freedom of thought, freedom of religion (as well as freedom from religion), freedom of speech (within reasonable limits), and freedom of information. We consider these basic rights to be essential for the development of a resilient, pluralistic and compassionate society.

Ever since the exposure of Big Tobacco, it has been known that powerful vested interests use social media to spread FUD (‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’) to advance their interests by sowing the seeds of doubt, undermining scientific facts, and demanding equal representation in the media where equality of scientific opinion does not exist.

Faced with a genuine conundrum, we sought advice from our members and subscribers. Should the RSA tolerate climate change deniers on our social media? Here is what our members and subscribers said.

No, because denialists go against the scientific evidence

About a third (32%) of respondents said climate change denialists should not be tolerated on the RSA Facebook page. Their reasons included:

  • The science is settled, and debate should focus not on whether or not anthropogenic climate change is real, but instead on how best to tackle this problem. “Now is the time for action. Having to continually argue the case against those who simply won’t accept reality detracts from what should be the key focus.”
  • Some respondents argued that climate change denialists were operating in bad faith, seeking to “use the free speech argument to demand equal status with climate change advocates”, and making arguments “that are often deliberately fabricated to create destructive dissension & uncertainty”.
  • Some compared debating with climate change denialists to debating with “those who would argue there is no conclusive evidence that smoking tobacco is bad for one’s health” or “people who believe the Sun goes round the Earth” and that “The reasons they don’t want to accept climate change has nothing to do with facts or reason.”

One respondent explained:

“I remember watching an interview program on the ABC in the 1970s when an Auschwitz survivor was unexpectedly confronted with a Holocaust denier. The Jewish woman explained, just before she walked off the set, that to sit and ‘debate’ her experience against his belief was to elevate his position to an equality with hers. 

I feel the same way about climate-change deniers (and anti-vaxers for that matter): people who effectively consider that science is a belief system and that science is a series of opinions only, of equal standing to their own. Giving them airtime or space is tantamount to saying that their views are credible and worthy of serious debate despite the scientific evidence to the contrary. 

It is not an equal position worthy of debate. It is wilful ignorance, even delusional, and takes energy and attention away from efforts to arrest climate change and in the process (intentionally) diminishes social respect for science and scientific principles of evidence. In the process, it also corrupts our political institutions.”

Yes, because we should value freedom of expression

One fifth (20%) of respondents preferred that RSA allow denialist comments, on the basis that we should be committed to freedom of thought and expression. These respondents argued that:

  • By allowing a platform, a voice, for denialist comments, they could then be challenged and refuted in an open forum, where others may be convinced by well-reasoned arguing. “Daylight is the best disinfectant – if views are incorrect you may not change the person’s mind but arguing why they are wrong, using facts and evidence is fair more convincing to the onlooker than denying the sceptic a platform”
  • Right or wrong, all should have the freedom to express their opinions and beliefs, and that it is “appalling” to “censor those whose opinions we don’t share”.
  • And some recalled that banning certain views is tantamount to political dogmatism: ‘’It is the equivalent of burning books. Some of the most useful outcomes that do not support creationism has come from creationists themselves. Not infrequently zealots come upon valuable evidence that they may, or may not recognise.’’

As one respondent said:

Scientific enquiry must always allow the freedom to be sceptical and challenge the orthodoxy. Today’s consensus may be judged by history to have been wrong, this is the story of science (Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin eg al). Banning dissenting views actually gives ammunition to the conspiratorial as it is often taken as proof that there must be some substance to the claims – ‘see they are scared of the truth’.”

Yes, as long as the moderation guidelines are enforced

Almost half (48%) of all responses thought climate change denialists should be tolerated as long as the following be added to the RSA’s Moderation Guidelines:

3. Be constructive

If you disagree, explain why and back up your views with credible references – peer-reviewed sources, not just someone’s opinion. We reserve the right to delete posts we judge to be deliberate misinformation or recognisable campaigns of science denialism.

What we will do

We reserve the right to remove comments that breach these standards and / or ban people who repeatedly breach them. Replies to comments that have been deleted may themselves be deleted if they don’t make sense out of context.”

These respondents reasoned that:

  • Freedom of expression is important and all should be allowed to voice their opinions/beliefs, but that voice “must be supported by credible sources” as “it puts the onus on the denier to make a valid and supportable argument.”
  • Others welcomed the balanced approach: “My starting position is as a free speech absolutist.  So, I do not support shutting down any views, with the exception of incitement to violence.  However, your third option strikes an acceptable balance.’’
  • A few recognised the additional burden of work that active moderation of our Facebook page will place on RSA volunteers: ”Tolerating people with different views is a significant challenge. It will often end up with the paradox of tolerance, and in reality, somewhere a limit does need to be made. Freedom of expression is fine, but The Rationalist Society should not be expected to host and support irrational activities and speech.’’

As one respondent said:

We will not change people’s minds by telling them “you are not allowed to say that!”.  However, as rationalists, it is perfectly reasonable, even essential, to say “you can’t say something without evidence to back it up – post your evidence and then we can debate that”.

So, the balanced approach was favoured by a clear majority of our members and subscribers. We will proceed to update our Moderation Guidelines and try to enforce them as fairly as we can.

If anyone out there is willing to help with this task, please let us know!

Thanks to all who took the time and made the effort to respond.

All the more reason.