The 5 tactics used to cast uncertainty on well-established science.

By Serena Balani and Grace Lovins
11/26/2023 • 01:54 AM EST

Senator James Inhofe addresses the U.S. Senate on climate change.

On January 21st, 2015, Senator James Inhofe took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to cast uncertainty on the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is the primary driver of modern-day climate change and global warming. To do so, Inhofe employed the same strategy that was pioneered in the early 1950s by the tobacco industry, when it spent decades sowing doubt on the connection between smoking and cancer. And while the context in each case was different, the tactics used to undermine well-established scientific consensus are the same.[1]

Senator Inhofe's 14-minute presentation on the Senate floor showcases four of the five FLICC tactics.

Cherry Picking: Inhofe begins his speech by presenting a chart representing "thousands" of scientists that he says refute the IPCC findings that human activity is the primary cause of global warming. At 2:58, of all the scientist, Inhofe appears to randomly pick out atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen, who he claims is "considered by a lot of people to be the foremost authority" on climate change. While Lindzen is a scientist, he also happens to be one of its most outspoken and publicized climate science skeptics.[2] In retirement, Lindzen became a distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.[3] It's worth noting that, from a list of thousands, Inhofe only chooses to quote Lindzen.

Later in his presentation, Inhofe makes the case that the scientists ringing the alarm on global warming are "cooking the science." At 10:43, he does this by cherry picking a sentence from an email between two scientists where the word "trick" is used. The scientist involved claims the "trick" he learned from a fellow scientist was a clever way to make a scientific calculation.[4] It's worth noting that, from the mountain of evidence Inhofe implies exists, the only evidence he presents is a single statement from an email, which is open to more than one interpretation.

Fake Experts: Science denialism is often rich with appeals to false authority or appeals to compromised authority (also known as fake experts). Inhofe employs this tactic numerous times throughout the presentation. For his list of "scientists that cannot be challenged," it's unclear how many on his list are actual scientists or simply have a vested interest in denying the link between the burning of fossil fuel and global warming.[5] Moving on from the chart at 4:57, Inhofe shares an opinion poll of weathercasters, which also aren't climate experts, while not presenting a single peer-reviewed research study disputing the IPCC's findings.

Logical fallacies refer to flaws in reasoning that can render an argument invalid. With science denial, techniques like ad hominemsee definition - attacking the character or motive of the person making an argument, rather than attacking the argument itself.
, false equivalencysee definition - implying that two things are essentially the same, when they only have anecdotal similarities.
, and straw mansee definition - misrepresenting an opponent's position or argument to make it easier to attack, usually by exaggerating, distorting, or just completely fabricating it.
are commonly used to obscure an otherwise clear argument. With climate change in particular, science denialists often create a false equivalence between weather and climate, saying things like "the climate is always changing." Denialists also create straw men of the scientific consensus opinion to make it seem more unreasonable or extreme. At 5:20, Inhofe says, "when they say that 97 or 98% of the SCIENTISTS agree, that just isn't true," he leaves off the word CLIMATE. While it's true that support among all scientists for human-caused climate change is below 97%, the rate among climate scientists is within that 97-98% range.[6]

He then creates another straw man at 6:03, when he says "how arrogant is it for people to say that man can do something about changing climate." Here he seems to imply that believing human activity is causing climate change is synonymous to believing that someone can singlehandedly change climate simply by choosing to do so.

Conspiracy Theories: Inhofe closes his speech by suggesting the whole idea of climate change was cooked up by the United Nations and IPCC scientists. To prove the conspiracy, Inhofe cites the one email (the one where the word "trick" it used) and spends the next two minutes quoting headlines, but presents no further direct evidence of a worldwide scandal. It's worth noting that all official investigations into what became known as "Climategate" resulted in no findings of scandal or wrongdoing.[7][8]

Inhofe ends his presentation by concluding "the science is not settled."

Tucker Carlson interviews Bill Nye on climate change.

Impossible Expectations involves demanding unrealistic expectations for precision or certainty from science, which, when not met, invalidate the whole scientific argument in the denier's favor. Tucker Carlson uses this tactic repeatedly to undermine Bill Nye’s argument validating human-caused climate change. He first introduces the impossible expectation by asking Nye “to what degree” is human activity causing climate change?  He continues pressing Nye to be more precise throughout the interview, all the while characterizing the impossible expectation as just a “simple question” that Nye should be able to answer. At one point towards the end of the interview, Carlson even seems to acknowledge that he's using the tactic by telling Nye "You don't actually know because it's unknowable." Like Inhofe, Carlson ends the interview by concluding that the jury is still out and Nye is just pretending it's not.

In the 1950s, the tobacco industry spent decades using these same five tactics to create a false sense of scientific controversy and debate around the connection between smoking and lung cancer.[8] Their efforts effectively delayed regulatory measures for decades and cast uncertainty on the validity of anti-smoking campaigns. Inhofe lays the same groundwork, manufacturing controversy around well-established scientific facts by identifying, soliciting, supporting and amplifying the views of skeptics, mischaracterizing the actual consensus opinion, and framing it all in a global conspiracy theory. His efforts demonstrate that the real goal of science denial is not to disprove the overwhelming scientific consensus, but to leave the public with the impression that there is still enough doubt to warrant doing nothing at all.

4. "Researcher on Climate Is Cleared in Inquiry". The New York Times. Published: February 03, 2010.

5. "Debunking Inhofe’s 413". Energy Smart. Published: January 11, 2008.

7. "‘Climategate’". Published: December 10, 2009.

8. "'Climategate' review clears scientists of dishonesty over data". The Guardian. Published: July 07, 2010.

9. "Tobacco industry: decades of deception and duplicity". World Health Organization. Published: January 01, 2019.