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Study: ‘Imprisonment’ for Climate Deniers is Too ‘Blunt and Risky’ – Jailing skeptics ‘has overtones of Big Brother’

by Eric Worrall

Scientists discussing the pros and cons of different means of coercing society into the correct climate beliefs, including imprisonment of climate deniers.

26 June 2020  8:00

Guest post: How climate change misinformation spreads online

Kathie Treen, PhD candidate in the computer science department at the University of Exeter

Dr Hywel Williams,associate professor in data science at the University of Exeter

Dr Saffron O’Neill, associate professor in geography at the University of Exeter

The rapid rise of social media over the past two decades has brought with it a surge in misinformation.

Online debates on topics such as vaccinationspresidential elections (pdf) and the coronavirus pandemic are often as vociferous as they are laced with misleading information.

Perhaps more than any other topic, climate change has been subject to the organised spread of spurious information. This circulates online and frequently ends up being discussed in established media or by people in the public eye.

But what is climate change misinformation? Who is involved? How does it spread and why does it matter?

In a new paper, published in WIREs Climate Change, we explore the actors behind online misinformation and why social networks are such fertile ground for misinformation to spread.

In the context of climate change research, misinformation may be seen in the types of behaviour and information which cast doubt on well-supported theories, or in those which attempt to discredit climate science.

These may be more commonly described as climate “scepticism”, “contrarianism” or “denialism”.

In a similar way, climate alarmism may also be construed as misinformation, as recent online debates have discussed. This includes making exaggerated claims about climate change that are not supported by the scientific literature. There is a negligible amount of literature about climate alarmism compared to climate scepticism, suggesting it is significantly less prevalent. As such, the focus for this article is on climate scepticism.

Then there are responses and regulation – bringing in a correction or a collaborative approach after the misinformation has been received, or even putting in place punishments, such as fines or imprisonment.

Regulation has been described as a “blunt and risky instrument” by a European Commission expert group. It is also potentially a threat to the democratic right to freedom of speech and has overtones of “Big Brother”.

Read more:

The abstract of the study;

Online misinformation about climate change

Kathie M. d’I. TreenHywel T. P. WilliamsSaffron J. O’NeillFirst published: 18 June 2020

Edited by Irene Lorenzoni, Domain Editor, and Mike Hulme, Editor‐in‐Chief: 

Funding information: Economic and Social Research Council, Grant/Award Number: ES/P011489/1; University of Exeter: Kathie Treen is funded through a University of Exeter PhD scholarship

Policymakers, scholars, and practitioners have all called attention to the issue of misinformation in the climate change debate. But what is climate change misinformation, who is involved, how does it spread, why does it matter, and what can be done about it? Climate change misinformation is closely linked to climate change skepticism, denial, and contrarianism. A network of actors are involved in financing, producing, and amplifying misinformation. Once in the public domain, characteristics of online social networks, such as homophily, polarization, and echo chambers—characteristics also found in climate change debate—provide fertile ground for misinformation to spread. Underlying belief systems and social norms, as well as psychological heuristics such as confirmation bias, are further factors which contribute to the spread of misinformation. A variety of ways to understand and address misinformation, from a diversity of disciplines, are discussed. These include educational, technological, regulatory, and psychological‐based approaches. No single approach addresses all concerns about misinformation, and all have limitations, necessitating an interdisciplinary approach to tackle this multifaceted issue. Key research gaps include understanding the diffusion of climate change misinformation on social media, and examining whether misinformation extends to climate alarmism, as well as climate denial. This article explores the concepts of misinformation and disinformation and defines disinformation to be a subset of misinformation. A diversity of disciplinary and interdisciplinary literature is reviewed to fully interrogate the concept of misinformation—and within this, disinformation—particularly as it pertains to climate change.

Read more:


Eric Worrall comments: 

The main study mentions the need to distinguish between permissible skepticism and disinformation, but like other similar efforts does not provide a clear methodology of how to distinguish between the two.

It is clear that skepticism, contrarianism, and denial are concepts often associated with climate change misinformation. It should be noted that this is not skepticism in its original meaning as an integral part of the scientific method, but in its frequently applied usage to mean those who doubt climate change or reject mainstream climate science.

In my opinion, it is impossible to create a definition of scientific “denial” which would exclude climate skeptics, but which would permit radical revisionists whose theories were later accepted, like Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, or scientists like Barry Marshall, the courageous medical researcher who overturned decades of medical consensus on stomach ulcers by deliberately giving himself a stomach ulcer.

The difference between many skeptical positions and IPCC climate science is too narrow to differentiate by any reasonable methodology, and in some cases is non-existent.

The IPCC fifth assessment report estimated climate sensitivity as likely being between 1.5-4.5C, but also stated it is extremely unlikely to be less than 1C. Lord Monckton estimates climate sensitivity at 1.17C, close to the bottom boundary of the IPCC range of plausibility, but most definitely inside that range. Lord Monckton is frequently described by the press as a climate denier, but how can Monckton’s estimate of climate sensitivity reasonably be described as climate “denial”, if even the IPCC acknowledges climate sensitivity estimates above 1C are remotely plausible?

The inability to clearly define the difference between skepticism and denial is a major stumbling block for attempts to punish the spread of climate “disinformation”. But I doubt this will stop activist politicians from trying.

Calling imprisonment for climate deniers “Blunt and risky” is not the same as describing this horrible policy option as “ineffective”.

Severe sanctions for climate wrongthink are no longer a hypothetical risk – the “anti-Greta” Naomi Seibt was recently fined and sanctioned by the German government, for the crime of mentioning the Heartland Institute in one of her climate videos.

Even the USA is not safe from this kind of tyranny.

The USA has a constitutional right to free speech, but there are limits on that right; the right to free speech does not include a right to deliberately spread false information which leads to harm. Someone who falsely shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre to cause a stampede is not protected by the right to free speech. Some green academics argue the principle of prohibiting speech which causes harm should be applied to climate deniers. Al Gore called for climate deniers to be punished in in 2015.