Against Denial: Just Say Know

Denial—or writing about it—seems to be all the rage these days, with a New York Times op-ed by Adam Frank entitled "Welcome to the Age of Denial" coming along shortly after Time published a piece by Mary Pipher—“We Are All Climate Change Deniers”—as well as a look at the psychological research on addressing climate change entitled “The Battle Over Global Warming Is All in Your Head.”

The article by Pipher mentions the research of sociologist Stanley Cohen, whose work on atrocities and suffering such as genocide has influenced a generation of social science research. Cohen details three primary forms of denial in his 2001 book States of Denial, all of which may come into play in classrooms and other educational settings: literal (it’s not happening), interpretive (it’s not what you think), and implicatory (denying the implications and responsibility for what is occurring).

Science denial is a huge social problem. NCSE is dedicated to countering literal and interpretive denial about current science, especially as it relates to climate change and evolution, in education. But the third flavor of denial—shirking the responsibility and implications of facts—is much more daunting and difficult to address, especially in a science classroom, where the focus must be on mastering the scientific content, context, and skills.

The recent NPR interview with Judith Curry is a case study in implicatory denial. A climate scientist at Georgia Tech, Curry accepts that climate change is happening and that carbon dioxide from human activities is at least partly responsible for the warming, but she invokes claims of uncertainty about the science and concerns about possible economic repercussions of taking action as a rationale to do nothing. Admitting that doing nothing to control carbon emissions is actually doing a lot, she shrugs off the implications.

Curry, who has indicated she doesn’t think climate change should be taught in K-12 schools other than as controversy, is certainly not the only one unwilling to accept the implications and responsibility for climate change, opting instead to “just say no” to taking action. Pipher suggests that many of us "minimize or normalize our enormous global problems," especially when it comes to climate change. She alludes to the core motivation for denial, which Cohen describes as a “need to be innocent of a troubling recognition.”

If we are all in denial about climate change on some level, as Pipher suggests, this raises some uncomfortable issues about the nature of denial, implying that on some level those of us who accept the science are still complicit in denial if we are not taking meaningful action. It also requires some self-reflection: am I in denial myself, perhaps blaming others (including the deniers!) for the lack of progress on the climate front, glossing over my own contributions and responsibility to the problem?

But what actions can we take? At NCSE, we feel that one thing we can do is to do everything possible to educate young people about the causes, effects, and risks of, and possible responses to, the climate and energy challenges we face. Articulating what is possible along these lines was one of the goals of our Climate and Energy Literacy Summit last December.

Properly educating students about climate and energy will require cutting through denial—whatever the form—and making climate and energy literacy a high-level priority, especially for the 76 million students in the US who now, all too often, are being denied the opportunity to be truly prepared for the known and unknown challenges of the 21st century.

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.