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Is the Holocaust Denial/Climate Change Denial Comparison Apt?

Alex Constantine - May 18, 2012

By Mark Hoofnagle

Denialism Blog, May 18, 2012

Many of the climate change denialist sites have been up in arms by comparisons of climate change denial to holocaust denial. In particular Marc Morano at climate depot has had multiple articles attacking and expressing hysterical outrage at these comparisons.

We know they don't like the comparison, but the question is, is it apt?

One article in particular from Micha Tomkiewicz, who is himself a holocaust survivor, has earned the ire of climate denialists around the web because in addition to the comparison of the tactics of global warming denialists and holocaust deniers, he additionally creates a moral comparison.  While not saying it's as bad a holocaust denial, Tomkiewicz does suggest they might be denying the possibility of a future holocaust:

I make my "climate change denier" claim for one reason. It's easy today to teach students to condemn the Holocaust, but it's much more difficult to teach them how to try to prevent future genocides. There are different kinds of genocides and they don't repeat themselves; they come to us in different ways. I am not suggesting that the Holocaust is just like climate change. But what I am suggesting is that even though it's hard to see a genocide - any genocide - coming. The future is hard to predict, but we can see this one coming. This genocide is of our own making, and it will effect everyone, not just one group or country.

don't know that I would state the problem in these terms but then I have a very different background from Dr. Tomkiewicz.  In general people who engage in denialism are ideologues who use similar rhetorical tactics, and that's where my comparison ends.  The commonality is denial, and all those who engage in denial aren't automatically morally comparable to Holocaust deniers.  After all, the ideology fueling denial comes from all sides of the political spectrum, and ranges from hateful (anti-semitism) to political (libertarianism vs global warming) to even well intentioned compassion (animal rights extremism vs biological science).  Usually, the desire to make the comparison to Holocaust denial comes from the denialists themselves, as they wish to create a straw man argument to distract from their dishonest rhetoric.  When we describe denialism we are describing the use of conspiracy theories, cherry-picking, fake experts, moving goalposts and logical fallacies to argue against legitimate science.  It is nota description of people who might disagree with a scientific theory or even a scientific consensus, as scientists routinely disagree over interpretation of data and it is possible for consensus to be overturned.  However, legitimate debate occurs in the scientific literature, and not by alleging fantastical conspiracy theories and denial of data.

Worse, using the Holocaust itself to score rhetorical points is a slimy tactic, and it is insulting to those who survived the Holocaust to raise petty disputes to the level of the worst crime in history.

The comparison between climate denialists and other denialists should come from the fact that they argue the exact same way, and it should end there.  Holocaust denial and climate change denial share many features, as does evolution denialism, HIV/AIDS denialism, vaccine crankery, 9/11 trutherism etc., that is they use rhetorical tricks to deny a body of evidence that contradicts an ideological position.  In fact, Deborah Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory is an excellent book to read because in rigorously exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of Holocaust denial, she also uncovers the tactics used by other denialists.

Holocaust deniers have conspiracy theories to explain away the documentary evidence and personal experiences of holocaust survivors.  The first Holocaust denier Paul Rassinier alleged a zionist/soviet conspiracy to invent the Holocaust.  They latch on to minor inconsistencies in the historical records of extremely complex events to suggest that the records are flawed, or that vastly fewer Jews were murdered by the Nazis.  They cite historical evidence from revisionists like David Irving, a fake expert who was very publicly castigated for shoddy and outright false scholarship after he made the mistake of suing Deborah Lipstadt for libel in Britain over her book (a classic silencing move by denialists).  Holocaust deniers create impossible expectations for the level of evidence required to prove the holocaust occurred.  Finally, logical fallacies, like David Irving's attempt to create a moral equivalency between the Allies and the Nazis for the allied bombing of Dresden is a classic tu quoque.

Climate change denialism shares all of these features.  Denialists like Inhofe (Morano's boss) allege a global warming "hoax".  This conspiracy theory suggests that thousands of scientists worldwide are all operating from the same playbook (the Protocols of the Al  Gore), falsifying data for the purpose of creating regulations to restrict business, and secretly working to create one world government.  Or that somehow peer-review and grant rewards only go to those who back the consensus, the classic "grantsmanship" conspiracy theory that is contradicted by the fact that scientists encourage and reward revolutionary results as long as they are well-grounded in data.  It sounds ridiculous, but these are their arguments.  How one could possibly manage to make thousands of people fabricate evidence for peer reviewed journals all to say the same thing and not be detected is beyond belief.  And before the cranks show up and suggest the East Anglia emails are of any significance, let's move on to number two:

The cherry picking of papers, often from journals that are overrun by cranks like Energy and Environment, and even the cherry-picking of individual data points or time periods is rampant.  The theft of the East Anglia emails, which were then cherry-picked and quoted out of context to create the false appearance of deception on the part of scientists is another excellent example.  Despite the actions of the involved scientists being cleared by multiple investigations of the emails (context is everything), denialists still harp about climategate as if it's actually a thing.  Instead it's excellent evidence of their willingness to engage in dishonest editing to serve their ideological goals, just as creationists will attempt to misquote Darwin or other evolutionary biologists out of context to suggest they're really skeptical of evolution or racist.

Global warming denialism is rife with fake experts.  The Oregon petition and various other lists generated by climate change denialists are full of MDs, meteorologists, and the occasional AC repair man.  These are not climate experts.  Similarly, I am not an expert in climate change despite having degrees in physics, medicine and physiology.  I don't contribute to the literature, and I don't have the technical expertise needed to challenge real climate scientists that are the true experts in this field.  I am something of an expert in crankery though, so when you have cranks like Christopher Monckton, who asserts he's a member of parliament when he's not (they even had to send him a letter telling him to stop), who routinely makes the same debunked arguments over and over, and makes other bizarre claims like that he's discovered a cure for HIV, then I'm going to weigh in and call bullshit.  Part of the problem is the Dunning-Kruger effect, people who are incompetent have a great deal of difficulty recognizing competence in others, while inflating estimates of their own competence.  Cranks and denialists are probably incapable of judging whether someone is a legitimate source or authority.  This is where crank magnetism comes from, as long as an "expert" agrees with them, their otherwise ludicrous views and behavior have no bearing.  Intellectual consistency and expertise in the field in question has no relevance in their eyes as long as they spout out BS that fits with their ideological biases.

Global warming denialists are excellent at moving goalposts, they're still arguing about the damn hockey stick graph after all, despite its validation by multiple other methods.  Some early criticisms which actually enetered the literature might have represented a legitimate attempt to debate the findings scientifically, but after being affirmed by the NAS, replicated by other investigators, and expanded upon using other methods, the denialists still are not satisfied.  They still will never accept the conclusions.  No additional data, no worsening trend, no publication in the legitimate literature will ever make a dent.  They reject the research because of ideological conflict, not because they have a legitimate scientific beef with the data.

Finally, logical fallacies are rife.  From the appellation "warmist", to crowing that Al Gore is fat and has a big energy wasting house, fallacies are not rare with this movement.  The holocaust denier comparison itself is a straw-man argument, as most of us who are attacking their tactics emphasize that the similarity is in their actions, not their motivations.  My favorite piece of nonsense comes from Inhofe, who argues God made the earth and is the only one who can destroy it (he's not the only one who has argued this).  Where to begin with such nonsense?  This is the type of argument that people use and believe to argue against actual data and scientific papers.  God made the earth!  Science can't be right because God said otherwise!  Really?  It's sad this blog is even necessary when that is the level of debate from one of global warming's leading critics.

The reason these arguments are denialist isn't because they disagree with theory, and it isn't because they disagree with scientific consensus.  It's because they're challenging scientific theories and consensus with conspiracy theories, quote-mining, crank experts, and rhetorical tricks.  It's perfectly acceptable to disagree, it's when you use these tactics to disagree that you're engaging in denialism, and these tactics are indefensible.

Ultimately I disagree with Tomkiewicz, respectfully.  I do not think that a moral comparison need be made between holocaust deniers and climate change denialists.  The only comparison needed is between their tactics, which are dishonest and intellectually bankrupt.  The suggestion of moral equivalence will only serve to alienate those that identify with these arguments because of their ideological affinity with the libertarian cranks promoting it.  Libertarians, after all, truly believe the path to happiness is unregulated industry, and some Randian ideal of unfettered supermen whose unenlightened self-interest will lead us to greatness.  They don't want to let global warming spin out of control because they hate humanity and want the world's population to suffer.

The real way to win over the undecided is to attack the tactics of the denialist, to educate people that denialist rhetoric is not legitimate debate, and to mock the fools that think that "God will protect us" is a legitimate scientific argument.  Debates should have minimal standards, including intellectual honesty and substance, and scientific debate should have even higher standards including reliance on peer-review and publication in legitimate scientific journals.  Climate change denialism does not meet the standards for legitimate debate, it relies on conspiracy theories, bogus experts, cherry-picked data, crank journals, and appeals to the almighty.  Climate change denialism is rightly criticized for being denialist, but moral comparisons of these denialists to the anti-Semitic deniers of the Holocaust is a distraction, and will not help sway anyone to the side of science.

Mark Hoofnagle has a MD and PhD in physiology from the University of Virginia, and is now a general surgery resident.  His interest in denialism concerns the use of denialist tactics to confuse public understanding of scientific knowledge.


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