The Greatest Wicked Problem: The Psychology of Denialists

Hot Air by Peter Stott review – the battle against climate change denial
A personal account of one climate scientist’s struggle to promote facts in the face of contrarian prejudice

We are approaching a point where those denialist efforts are more than cynical, irresponsible and self-interested: they are starting to look like crimes against humanity.

This is very much a personal account of one climate scientist’s journey, with little analysis or synthesis. Climate-change deniers appear merely as a succession of obstacles to the truth, not as a phenomenon that needs to be understood. It is not hard to fathom the motives of the oil companies, nor those of the conservative thinktanks they have funded, such as the George C Marshall Institute or the Koch Foundation. But in the UK such denialism is kept in the public eye by a small band of professional contrarians including James Delingpole, Sherelle Jacobs and Peter Hitchens via outlets such as the Telegraph, Spectator and Mail on Sunday – the same people and media that have argued against life-saving measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Venn-diagram overlap on these two unrelated issues is so complete that we’re clearly looking at a psychological issue – a phobia, perhaps, of anything deemed to constrain personal liberty. Perhaps some “sceptics” are genuinely in denial, in the psychoanalytic sense of refusing to accept or confront aspects of reality so as to avoid potential feelings of discomfort. The pandemic really is scary, and climate change even more so.

Already, Covid sceptics and climate sceptics are converging. These trends can’t be tackled just by more and better information, but by an understanding of the psychology involved.

I remember asking myself a questions a long time ago. “How do you help people who don’t want your help?” It was in relation to the problems I was seeing culturally within organizations and how most management didn’t see that their approach to work was part of the problem.

Today, the context for this question has gotten so much bigger to society itself. How do you help people who don’t want your help because they’re undergoing a mental health crisis and are denying reality itself? Wicked problem indeed. In fact, I think this is THE WICKED PROBLEM. Why? Because solving this one transforms the perception of what’s possible for ever other one (ie pandemic, climate change, inequality, etc).

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