Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Holland on ‘Nate Silver Truthers’

Friday, October 26th, 2012

From Joshua Holland at Alternet: Republicans Desperate to Spin Romney as the Front-Runner Are Becoming ‘Nate Silver Truthers’. The T pretty much SIA, but the details are still pretty fun.

Kloor: More on How GMO Fear is the Climate Denial of the Left

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Another in a continuing series of posts by Keith Kloor on the similarities between science denialism by those on the right (who deny the scientific consensus on climate change) and the left (who deny the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods): A tale of two sciences.

Changing One’s Mind

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Keith Kloor posts today with some examples of people who were sailing along with one belief and then, despite the headwind created by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, managed to tack and sail off in a completely different direction: The Conversion.

Among the examples:

  • Confessions of a Climate Change Convert – D.R. Tucker, a Republican who went from skeptical to alarmed about global warming after he read the latest IPCC report.
  • Prominent atheist blogger converts to Catholicism – Leah Libresco, who went from having a loudly outspoken belief that there is no God at all to believing that in fact there is one, and Catholicism is the faith that brings her closest to Him.
  • Mutation Butts and Schooled! – Dan Piraro of the “Bizarro” comic, who posted a strongly worded warning on his blog about the dangers of genetically modified food last Saturday. Some commenters on his blog expressed disappointment and encouraged him to educate himself more about the GMO issue, and two days later (yesterday), Piraro posted an item in which he retracted his earlier comments.

From Piraro’s mea culpa (which I guess is the wrong phrase, since he didn’t actually apologize):

I’m not embarrassed that I was wrong and had to change my story. That’s the best thing about being an open-minded, reason-based person instead of, say, a politician; you don’t stick to erroneous beliefs in the face of new evidence for fear that people will think you are fallible. If everyone lived this way, the world would be much less ignorant, as I am today thanks to information given to me by some of my Jazz Pickles. Thanks!

“Jazz Pickles” is Piraro’s term for his regular blog commenters. Go Jazz Pickles! :-)

The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick – Part 1, Preliminary Hearing and Arraignment

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be (strictly from a gossipy obsessive’s self-interested point of view) if the Peter Gleick / Heartland affair were to end up in court. It would be great to have all the arguments laid out pro and con, with a referee and rules of evidence and all that.

It seems unlikely we’ll be getting that any time soon, so I thought I’d pretend. This is the result. I put it in screenplay format, since that seems as good a way as any to represent a fake courtroom drama.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. It features characters based on real people and evidence based on real events, and is as close to reality as my whim and imagination allow. But it’s completely fake.

I plan to use public writing (magazine articles, tweets, blog posts, comments, and online reviews) by the various witnesses in an attempt to have them give testimony that is more or less true to their stated views, but I assume I’ll also be taking some creative liberties. I’ll provide sources for the witnesses’ statements, so you can verify how well (or poorly) I’ve done at keeping things real.

I’ll send the witness testimony to the witnesses themselves privately, via email (assuming I can find their email addresses) prior to posting it, so they’ll have a chance to correct anything they think is being incorrectly attributed to them. I’m also willing to correct testimony after the fact if any witnesses object to the words I’ve put in their mouths. No idea if anyone will actually want to take advantage of that.

Anyway, here goes.



All rise. The Imaginary Court of the Internet is now in session. The honorable Judge Mumble K. Mumbles presiding.

The JUDGE enters the courtroom from a door behind the bench. He or she is imaginary, and looks more or less like you would expect a judge to look, depending on how judges look in your part of the world. The Judge takes his or her seat.


Be seated. Bailiff, what do we have on the docket today?


Your honor, preliminary proceeding and arraignment in the matter of the Internet vs. Peter Gleick.


Are the parties present? Prosecution?


Here, your honor.




Defense counsel present, your honor. The accused is not in court, and will not be appearing today.


Will not be appearing?


That is correct, your honor.



Hm. Given that this proceeding is imaginary, I suppose I must allow it. Let the record show that the accused is being tried in absentia.

The Judge glances down and goes through some papers.


Defense counsel, please rise.



Yes, your honor.


Your client, Dr. Peter H. Gleick, stands accused of the following charges: That on or about January 27, 2012, your client did knowingly and with malice aforethought impersonate a board member of the Heartland Institute, entering into an email correspondence with a person or persons within that organization. That as a result of that deception, your client caused a representative or representatives of Heartland to email your client confidential Heartland information, including documents relating to the organization’s donors, activities, and budget. That your client subsequently used that illicitly obtained information to forge an additional document, the so-called “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy”, taking the form of an internal Heartland memorandum but with language specifically crafted to paint the organization in a negative light. That on or about February 14, 2012, your client sent these documents via email to a group of recipients, identifying himself only as “Heartland Insider”, with the intention that the recipients would publicize the documents, including the forged strategy memo, leading to public outcry against Heartland and embarrassment for its board members, staff, and supporters. Defense counsel, do you understand these charges as I have read them?


I do, your honor.


Are you prepared to enter a plea on behalf of your client at this time?


I am, your honor. My client, Dr. Peter H. Gleick, pleads not guilty.


Very well. I accept your client’s plea of not guilty, and hereby set a court date of some date in the future when this blog’s operator has time to write the next installment. A quick procedural note: In keeping with the imaginary nature of these proceedings, we will be skipping all that boring pretrial stuff: no witness lists, pretrial motions, or jury selection. I assume there are no complaints about that. Anything else?

The Judge glances around the courtroom. No one speaks.


(bangs gavel)

Court is adjourned.

Next: Part 2: Prosecution Opening Argument.

Recent Heartland/Climate Items

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Here’s a roundup of the newest cruelty:

Kloor writes:

The views (the facility overlooks the Hudson River) are stupendous, the food is excellent (mostly vegetarian and locally produced), and the vibe is … well, weird: Part new age, part science, and part rah, rah, as in, let’s all pool our brain power and figure out a way to get people to pay more attention to climate change and reduce their carbon footprint.

From Kahan’s summary:

I was also genuinely shocked & saddened by what struck (assaulted) me as the anti-science ethos shared by a large number of participants.

Multiple speakers disparaged science for being “materialistic” and for trying to “put a number on everything.” One, to approving nods of audience, reported that university science instruction had lost the power to inspire “wonder” in students because it was disconnected from “spiritual” (religious, essentially) sensibilities.

  • Polluter Arguments Rebuffed In ‘Scopes Trial’ On Climate Science – Josh Israel writing at ThinkProgress. A panel of federal appeals judges is hearing a consolidated challenge to the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding (and related rule-makings, which would, if left unaltered, lead to the regulation of atmospheric CO2 as a pollutant). Apparently the judges’ questions during the first day of oral arguments do not bode well for the industry groups and conservative politicians arguing that the EPA is being ridiculous.

I’m interested by this idea that by putting issues like this into a court setting, we can bring to bear the mechanisms we have evolved for determining truth in difficult circumstances. More on that in a future post, maybe.

Moutal appears to be buying into the “strategy memo is authentic” meme (or maybe the “Joe Bast forged it personally” meme; hard to tell). At least, he (Moutal) quotes the infamous “dissuading teachers from teaching science” line from the strategy memo without mentioning the problems with its provenance. I find that unfortunate, for the same reason I find it unfortunate that DeSmogBlog maintains that the strategy memo is legitimate: I can no longer trust their information without independently verifying it.


One of the most troubling aspects of the leaked Heartland Institute documents was the revelation that they were planning to create a school curriculum for K-12 students that “that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science“. This was seen by many as the most controversial aspect of Heartland’s attempt to ‘influence’ the debate on climate change, because it is one thing to confuse political leaders (they almost seem to enjoy it), but quite another to spread misinformation to students.

Update: In response to a question I raised in the item’s comments, Michael Tobis said he had contacted Moutal, verified that the inclusion of the quote from the strategy memo was accidental, and revised the text accordingly. “P3 takes no position on the origins of the disputed memo,” wrote Tobis in his comment.

Laframboise summarizes some of the most excessive Glieck apologists, and concludes with this:

It will be fascinating to see how this story develops. In the meantime here is a question for all of the above apologists. For Greg Laden, Michael Tobis, John Horgan, Stephan Lewandowsky, Patrick Lockerby, Mark Alan Hewitt, and James Garvey. Here is a question for all of those individuals who expressed similar opinions on news websites and blogs during the past two weeks. Where do you draw the line?

I get it. Lying and stealing and misleading are OK so long as they help advance a good cause. What else is acceptable? Old fashioned burglary? Arson? Car bombs?

Where is the line?

Good question.

More on the Heartland Document Leak

Friday, February 24th, 2012

I have a substantive post on the Heartland thing that I plan to write shortly, but in the meantime here’s another massive roundup of the latest stuff I’ve been reading, including some quoting of myself from various blogs’ comments.

Climate stuff unrelated to Heartland:

  • Understanding the Global Warming Debate (Warren Meyer in his Forbes blog) shcb pointed this out in the comments to a previous item, and I have to admit: I liked it. It was lucid, informative, and even if I don’t necessarily buy into all the conclusions he comes to, I appreciated his approach. So thanks, shcb. I learned something.
  • Concerned Scientists Reply on Global Warming (Wall Street Journal) This is the response of the original group of 16 scientists who had the contrarian op-ed in the WSJ, responding to some of the letters to the editor questioning their more-dubious statements. Definitely worth reading, and in the alternate universe in which I am not consumed with the Heartland strategy memo I would totally have things to say about their graph purporting to show IPCC projections versus actual temperature rise.
  • Bickmore on the WSJ response (Barry Bickmore writing at RealClimate) Fortunately, Barry Bickmore had time to say some of the things I would have said about the graph in the WSJ, along with a bunch of other things.

Mainstream media (and media-related) stories:

Information from Heartland itself:

  • Heartland president details curriculum questioning climate science (Politico) News item about a video interview Joseph Bast (Heartland’s president) did with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal about the education program revelations in the document leak. Besides making some statements that I have a hard time interpreting as anything but bald-faced lies, Bast says a bunch of more-reasonable stuff. He also accuses Peter Gleick directly of forging the strategy memo. Here’s the video itself: The Purloined Climate Papers.
  • Heartland Institute Releases Peter Gleick Emails Detailing Fraud, Identity Theft (Heartland press release)
  • (Heartland) A website that includes redacted versions of the emails in which Gleick impersonated the Heartland board member in order to obtain the legitimate documents. Interesting stuff, and helps put a specific timeline in place for at least some of the events. Interestingly, the phishing operation by Gleick came in the wake of an email exchange in which Heartland unsuccessfully solicited Gleick’s participation in a debate at their anniversary benefit dinner.


  • Peter Gleick: Climate Hero? (Marc Gunther) Excellent summary of the situation, including what I think was a very insightful take on the problem represented by those Gleick supporters who are going overboard in his defense. (More on that in the aforementioned upcoming post.)

From a comment I put on Gunther’s blog post:

Can you elaborate on why you believe Gleick’s account of the events strains credulity? I’ve been intrigued by the “honeypot” theory from the beginning of this story; the first thing I thought when I heard Heartland’s response to the leak (in which they focused their outrage on the forged “2012 strategy memo”) was, “Oh, just like the Killian documents” (those being the forged documents allegedly showing George W. Bush malfeasance in his National Guard days, the publication of which ended the career of Dan Rather). I dismissed the thought just as quickly, though, because it didn’t seem to make sense: I could see the forged strategy memo being leaked by a Heartland-connected trickster in order to attack the recipient for using a forged document when it became public, but I couldn’t see them also including the legitimate documents, which really were embarrassing and probably made their donors quite unhappy.

When Gleick made his confession the following week, though, it suddenly became a viable theory again, because it matched up nicely with his version of events: The anonymous source who supplied him the forged memo did not anticipate that Gleick would have been enterprising enough to obtain the legitimate documents via his phishing attempt. Of course, given that Gleick was no doubt feeling the heat by this point, it could be that his version of events fitting nicely with the honeypot theory is just another layer of deception, in which he attempts to construct a plausible villain to deflect (some) culpability from himself.

Your other comments, I think, were spot on. Thanks for being a beacon of reason in the midst of what is becoming quite the stormy sea of its opposite.

Gunther replied via email with a thoughtful response, but since he didn’t choose to make it publicly I’ll keep it private.

Kloor gave a good summary and list of links relating to the strategy memo, and ended with this:

For those inclined to take Gleick at his word–that the memo was mailed to him by a Heartland insider–what do you make of Otto’s musing about about it being a Heartland set-up? Lastly, what would it take for Gleick himself to end all this speculation?

I responded in the lengthy comment thread with this:

I agree that the “Gleick’s fingerprints are all over the strategy memo” meme has been overstated by some. People taking Heartland’s side in this have been quick to dismiss the “honeypot” scenario out of hand as preposterous. But if Gleick had received the memo in the mail as he said, and if it had been forged by someone with access to the internal Heartland documents who was carrying out a scam targeting Gleick, then the facts that the memo contained errors (making it easily deniable as a forgery by Heartland) and Gleick-esque “fingerprints” (making Gleick easily “discoverable” as the source) would be unremarkable. Those would be exactly the things that such an attacker would want to include in the forged memo.

I’m not saying that exonerates Gleick. That would be as ludicrous as those currently arguing that the strategy memo is, in fact, legitimate. All I’m saying is that given that the memo is a forgery, either explanation (it was forged by Gleick to “sex up” the release of the phished documents, or it was forged by someone with access to internal Heartland documents who was targeting Gleick) can account for the characteristics of the memo more or less equally.

For Gleick to end this speculation would take one of two things: confess to being the forger, or produce compelling evidence to support his version of the timeline, in which he received the forged memo before he obtained the phished documents from Heartland.

See also BobN’s comment, which includes this:

Now, on the final theory of it being some sort of “honeypot” or “false flag” ploy to sucker Gleick, I first thought such an idea was out-of-hand crazy, but upon further reflection don’t think it can be fully ruled out. Now I don’t think such a ploy would have been done with the knowledge or approval of Heartland (including Joe Bast), but could have been done by an individual within Heartland.

If we accept Gleick’s statement that he received the document via mail before he went phishing for the board documents and that he made no alterations to the document, then it had to have been written by someone with access to drafts of the board documents. Now let say you’re a blogger that has been in a bit of back and forth with Gleick so you know his hot button issues, and are communication professional that can pick out writing styles and idiosyncrasies. You think “Let me gin up a fake document sure to get Gleick riled up and see if I can get him to release it to the press”, with the idea that Heartland will then be able claim it is a fake document, perhaps even proving it by releasing appropriately-redacted versions of the real documents and making Gleick look bad. But, unexpectedly, Gleick doesn’t just release the fake document, he goes one better and fraudulently obtains the real documents and releases the whole thing, not only making himself look bad, but basically putting his entire career and credibility at risk. Definitely seems somewhat far-fetched, but I believe that it is at least plausible. Let’s face it there are just so many things about this whole affair that are hard to explain logically.

My first comment on Kate’s post (slightly edited to clean up some mistakes and poor word choices in the original):

Given the current climate (hah! pun!) surrounding this issue, it’s probably worthwhile for me to preface what I’m about to say with the following: 1) I accept the scientific consensus on climate change, 2) I’m a regular reader of your blog and a fan of most of what you have to say on the subject, and 3) I think the Heartland Institute is populated by ideologues with a demonstrated willingness to lie in the service of their agenda, which I think is a misguided and dangerous one.

With all that said, I think you should take a closer look at a few aspects of the position you’ve taken in this post.

First, you appear to be accepting as factual Peter Gleick’s account of his own actions. Under the circumstances, more skepticism might be warranted. He’s acknowledged behaving unethically (at least) in impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain their internal materials, then releasing those materials anonymously. He faces the possibility of criminal and/or civil legal jeopardy as a result, and is presumably receiving skilled advice on public relations and the crafting of his public statements in order to achieve the strongest possible legal position going forward. Given that, I think it’s worth treating his account of those aspects of the situation that cannot be independently verified as being at best provisionally true.

Second, I’m very dubious about the claim coming from DeMelle and Littlemore at DeSmogBlog that the “2012 Strategy Memo” is authentic. A lot of people have looked closely at that document, and while there is predictable divergence in the ways that supporters and detractors of Heartland tend to view it, I think the claim that the document is an actual internal Heartland document created for the purpose of planning their strategy for addressing climate change is very hard to support. I recommend the comments written about the document by Megan McArdle last week as a starting point, but in summary, the document has a number of factual errors, some odd phrasings, and an odd focus on Gleick himself and his role at Forbes, all of which are very hard to reconcile with the document being what it purports to be.

DeMelle and Littlemore’s analysis does show something that I think is obvious: Whoever created the document had access to the real Heartland documents that accompanied it in the leak, since there are many correspondences, and whole passages copied word for word, that are in both. But I think the claim by Heartland that the 2012 strategy memo is in some sense a fake is very likely to be true.

If the strategy memo is a forgery, and was created by someone who had access to the real internal Heartland documents, why was it created, and by whom? There are two possible explanations that I think can account for the known facts adequately:

1) The strategy document was forged by Gleick after he received the legitimate documents via his phishing attack on Heartland. He created it in order to have a more dramatic, quotable version of Heartland saying the kinds of things that would be damaging to their reputation, and that would enhance his own. In effect, he “sexed up” the document release.

2) The strategy document was forged by someone connected with Heartland with the specific intent of leaking it to Gleick. The hope was that Gleick would believe the document was genuine, and would either release it openly or leak it anonymously. Once that had happened, Heartland could expose it as a forgery (pointing to the subtle but significant factual errors it contains) and accuse Gleick himself of being its author (based on their knowledge that he had, in fact, been the recipient, and with the added support of the Gleick-specific information included in the document). Note that in this scenario it is not necessary for the Heartland-connected trickster to have intended that Gleick would obtain the legitimate documents via his phishing attempt. I think it very unlikely that the forger would have done that. I assume that the plan, if there was one, was limited to leaking the strategy memo to Gleick.

If Gleick has compelling evidence to support his stated version of the timeline, in which he received the strategy memo first, and only obtained the phished documents later, I would conclude that scenario #2 is probably the truth. If he can’t produce that evidence, I think either scenario is equally likely.

Aside from those two things (your assumption that Gleick’s account is true, and your endorsement of the idea that the strategy memo is authentic), I found your post interesting and informative. Thanks for posting it.

A user named Miken commented later:

I think it is more likely that Gleick is lying, and he is the author of the fake memo.

This prompted the following comment from me (again, slightly edited to clean up some mistakes):

Gleick-as-forger certainly has fewer moving parts than Gleick-as-victim, and might be preferable for that reason alone, all else being equal. But I’m bothered by a few things.

To believe Gleick-as-forger, we need to believe that Gleick, having obtained the real documents, would have thought it was a good idea to forge the strategy memo and release it along with them. He would have to have realized that Heartland would immediately know the strategy memo was fake, and would prominently denounce it as such, shifting the media narrative in the way that has actually happened. Would he have considered that a worthwhile risk? Also, with the forged memo’s prominent mention of Gleick, he would have been planting a neon-sign piece of evidence pointing directly at himself as possibly being connected with the leak. Wouldn’t that have seemed like a bad idea to him? I can’t know what would have been going through his head at that point, but to the extent I try to imagine how I would behave in those circumstances, planting evidence that mentioned me specifically would have been the last thing I would have wanted to do.

In the Gleick-as-victim scenario, these particular problems go away (though other problems take their place). He included the forged strategy memo in the release because he believed, based on the confirming facts in the phished documents, that it was legitimate. We still have to believe that Gleick overlooked those aspects of the strategy memo that quickly raised questions as to its authenticity when it was made public. But I have an easier time accepting that than accepting that he would have knowingly run the risk of forging the document and including it in the release.

There’s another, more subtle problem that I have with the Gleick-as-forger scenario. It doesn’t seem to fit the little I know of Gleick’s personality (though granted, even the behavior he’s admitted seems shockingly out of character, as others who know him have said). To believe Gleick-as-forger, we need to believe that he decided, on his own and without provocation (other than Heartland’s history of known activities), to impersonate a Heartland board member, obtain their internal documents, forge a sexier version of the information contained in them, and leak all that anonymously to the public. That doesn’t sound like what a scientist would do. I know that what he’s admitted to doesn’t sound like what a scientist would do, either, but it’s not nearly as over-the-top scheming and dishonest as this.

Now consider the Gleick-as-victim scenario: He is taken out of his normal day-to-day habits by the receipt of the forged memo. What does he think? He is dubious about its authenticity, but if legitimate it is truly shocking information that really needs to be made public. But how can he corroborate it? He frets, tries to weigh the options in his mind. Under the circumstances, would attempting to obtain confirming documents from Heartland be justified? He agonizes, and eventually concludes that yes, it is. So he does that, and succeeds in obtaining the real documents. He goes through them, looking for corroboration. And it’s there! Numerous specific pieces of information in the strategy memo are present in the legitimate documents. Oh my God! The strategy memo is real!

In his excitement he overlooks the discrepancies, and doesn’t stop to consider the possibility that he’s being conned. He is, after all, someone who really isn’t experienced with those sorts of political dirty tricks. He’s naive. He’s flustered. He’s out of his comfort zone. And he decides that since he has this smoking gun, he really should release it. So he does.

For me to believe Gleick-as-forger, I have to believe Gleick was stupid. For me to believe Gleick-as-victim, I only have to believe he was naive and showed bad judgement under pressure. The latter is more consistent with my (possibly stereotyped) notions of how a prominent scientist might behave in these circumstances.

Granted, Gleick-as-victim requires a Heartland-connected operative willing to initiate a fairly elaborate dirty trick. Maybe it’s because I’m cynical and have been kind of a collector of political dirty tricks like this for a number of years, but that sounds credible to me. And maybe it’s due to my stereotyped view of the kind of people associated with Heartland, but again, they seem to me like the kind of people who might include someone who would come up with a plan like that.

Again, Gleick-as-forger has fewer moving parts, and I need to consider that my own sympathies tend to be with Gleick, rather than Heartland, which distorts my own judgement in his favor. So that’s how I come up with my current sense that either scenario is equally likely. Your mileage (obviously) will vary.

Sorry to ramble on. I’ve been thinking about this too much, probably. But it’s the kind of thing I find interesting.

More Gleick / Heartland Developments

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Another day, another harvest of Heartland-gate catnip:

The Megan McArdle pieces, especially, really made me think. As much as anyone, she’s directly addressing the wacky conspiracy theory I’ve been unable to let go regarding the forged strategy memo. Here’s what she had to say in the first of the two pieces I linked to above (with my own comments interspersed):

The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties. Let’s walk through the thought process:

You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute. It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion. Do you:

A. Throw it in the trash

B. Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance

C. Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.

As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.

It’s a gross violation of journalistic ethics, though perhaps Gleick would argue that he’s not a journalist–and in truth, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Heartland, given how gleefully they embraced the ClimateGate leaks. So leave ethics aside: wasn’t he worried that impersonating board members in order to obtain confidential material might be, I don’t know, illegal? Forget about the morality of it: the risk is all out of proportion to the possible reward.

Some of the climate bloggers are praising Gleick for coming forward, and complaining that this is distracting from the real story. And I agree that it’s a pity that this is distracting from the important question about how fast the climate is warming, and what we should do about it.

But that is not the fault of Heartland, or the people who are writing about it. When a respected public figure says that a couple of intriguing pieces of paper mailed to him by a stranger somehow induced him to assume someone else’s identity and flirt with wire fraud . . . well, that’s a little distracting.

Gleick has done enormous damage to his cause and his own reputation, and it’s no good to say that people shouldn’t be focusing on it. If his judgement is this bad, how is his judgement on matters of science? For that matter, what about the judgement of all the others in the movement who apparently see nothing worth dwelling on in his actions?

I think McArdle is pretty much right on the mark here. It’s a measure of how far apart the two sides have been driven that the reality-distortion field arising from the mutual hostility has reached this extent.

When skeptics complain that global warming activists are apparently willing to go to any lengths–including lying–to advance their worldview, I’d say one of the movement’s top priorities should be not proving them right. And if one rogue member of the community does something crazy that provides such proof, I’d say it is crucial that the other members of the community say “Oh, how horrible, this is so far beyond the pale that I cannot imagine how this ever could have happened!” and not, “Well, he’s apologized and I really think it’s pretty crude and opportunistic to make a fuss about something that’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.

That last line is a little long for a bumper sticker, which is a shame. And it applies to both sides in this war, obviously.

The other thing one must note is that his story is a little puzzling. We know two things about the memo:

1. It must have been written by someone who had access to the information in the leaked documents, because it uses precise figures and frequent paraphrases.

2. It was probably not written by anyone who had intimate familiarity with Heartland’s operations, because it made clear errors about the Koch donations–the amount, and the implied purpose. It also hashed the figures for a sizable program, and may have made other errors that I haven’t identified.

Did someone else gain access to the documents, write up a fake memo, and then snail mail that memo to Dr. Gleick? Why didn’t they just send him everything?

If an insider was the source of the memo, as some have speculated, why did it get basic facts wrong? (I have heard a few suggestions that this was an incredibly elaborate sting by Heartland. If so, they deserve a prominent place in the supervillain Hall of Fame.)

Heh. I think McArdle overstates the degree of Evil Genius required to specifically target Gleick, forge a memo based on the real documents but with enough deniability that it could be quickly denounced as a fake, and send it to him, hoping he’d release it. As McArdle almost certainly knows, this kind of dirty trick has been the specialty of a certain low stratum of political operative in this country at least since Watergate. This would be a fairly impressive example, but not so much as to make this an implausible scenario.

Why did the initial email to the climate bloggers claim that Heartland was the source of all the documents, when he couldn’t possibly have known for sure that this was where the climate strategy memo came from?

Yeah, even in the Gleick-is-telling-the-truth version of the story, this one pretty much has to be a failing on his part, and one that does add to the “what was he thinking?” conundrum.

Why was this mailed only to Gleick? Others were mentioned in the memo, but none of them seem to have been contacted–I assume that after a week of feeding frenzy, anyone else who was mailed a copy would have said something by now.

To me this doesn’t really present a problem for the Gleick-as-victim theory. If that theory is correct, the perpetrator of the dirty trick wasn’t casting some kind of wide net aimed at multiple people. This would have been a narrowly focused attack aimed at Gleick himself. Sending the forged memo to multiple people would have rendered the attack ineffective for exactly the reason McArdle hints at: If anyone else came forward with a copy of the forged memo, it would immediately tend to exonerate Gleick of the charge of having forged it.

How did his anonymous correspondent know that Gleick would go to heroic lengths to obtain confidential material which confirmed the contents, and then distribute the entire package to the climate blogs?

I think this is attributing too much super-villain genius to the alleged trickster. I don’t think he or she (if he or she exists) had any idea Gleick would pull off the social engineering attack on Heartland and obtain the real documents.

How did the anonymous correspondent get hold of the information in the memo?

Clearly, whoever forged the strategy memo had access to the legitimate Heartland documents. That means it almost certainly had to be Gleick, acting after he tricked Heartland into releasing them, or someone who already had access to the documents (presumably a Heartland insider or someone close enough to them to have access to the Board of Directors packet).

If he didn’t write the memo, how did Mosher correctly identify his involvement? A good portion of Mosher’s argument was based on the similarity in writing styles. Is this an amazing coincidence? Was the author of the memo engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to destroy Gleick?

I’m not buying the “amazing coincidence” theory. Having gone back and looked through much of Mosher’s commentary on the question of the authorship of the strategy memo (see his comments on Tell me what’s horrible about this on Lucia’s blog The Blackboard, for example), I’m leaning toward his just having been smart enough to actually spot the similarities between Gleick’s writing style and the strategy memo, and to have picked up on the oddities of the memo’s content, such that he figured it out on his own.

So yeah, once you accept that clues pointing to Gleick’s authorship really are present in the strategy memo, the only two viable explanations I can see are that 1) they’re there because Gleick wrote it, and he’s lying about having received it from an anonymous source, or 2) they’re there because the forger put them there intentionally in an attempt to frame Gleick. And yeah, as conspiracies go it would certainly be noteworthy, but it’s not like the really crazy impossible conspiracy theories that have so many moving parts and independent conspirators as to be ludicrous on their face. All it really requires is a single reasonably intelligent, resourceful, ethically challenged individual who is heavily invested in the climate wars and has access to the real Heartland documents. (And yeah, I realize that Gleick himself satisfies all those criteria once he’d tricked Heartland into the document release.)

I’m sure crazier things have happened, and as someone who has had an unbelievable encounter or two in her life, I always err on the side of believing people. But I would like more details on this story. When did Gleick receive the memo? Was there a cover letter? From where was it postmarked? Presumably he has saved the envelope and the original letter, so will he turn them over to a neutral party for investigation? I’m sure Heartland can come up donors for some forensics.

McArdle hits it on the head here. If Gleick can prove that he received the strategy memo before he obtained the legitimate documents from Heartland, it would come close to being smoking-gun evidence that he was the victim of a scam by someone else who had access to internal Heartland documents. If he can’t produce that proof, well, that’s unfortunate for him. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the forger, since I can imagine him being inexperienced enough at all this cloak-and-dagger stuff that he didn’t establish that proof at the time. But it would be an opportunity lost, and I’m sure would push many people farther into the “Gleick is probably the forger” camp.

McArdle published the above post yesterday. Here’s some of what she wrote today:

Scientists and journalists are held to higher standards than, say, your average computer hacker. Trust in our work product is dependent on our personal integrity, because it can’t always be verified independently.

Impersonating an actual person is well over the line that any reputable journalist needs to maintain. I might try to get a job at a Food Lion to expose unsafe food handling. I would not represent myself as a health inspector, or the regional VP. I don’t do things that are illegal–at least, not things that are illegal in the stable western democracy in which I live.

Nor would I ever, ever claim that a document came from Heartland unless I had personally received it from them, gotten them to confirm its provenance, or authenticated it with multiple independent sources.

All of this sounds quite wise and reasonable to me. The thing is, though, Gleick isn’t a journalist. Like a lot of scientists who’ve been caught up in the climate wars, he comes off as being very much an amateur when it comes to these kinds of shenanigans. I’m sure in hindsight he recognizes the truth of all the points McArdle makes here. But he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when he did what he did.

And ethics aside, what Gleick did is insane for someone in his position–so crazy that I confess to wondering whether he doesn’t have some sort of underlying medical condition that requires urgent treatment. The reason he did it was even crazier. I would probably have thrown that memo away. I might have spent a few hours idly checking it out. I would definitely not have risked jail or personal ruin over something so questionable, and which provided evidence of . . . what? That Heartland exists? That it has a budget? That it spends that budget promoting views which Gleick finds reprehensible?

The “medical condition that requires urgent treatment” stuff is pretty heavy artillery. I’m sure the people on the denialist side are going to love quoting it. McArdle can make the case that she means this sincerely, and maybe she does. And maybe she’s right; I wouldn’t be shocked to find that Gleick’s judgement was in fact warped by something, and that it contributed to the bad decisions he made. But again, I don’t think it’s necessary to posit mental illness or some kind of judgment-crippling dependency when simple naiveté and emotional over-involvement in the ongoing battles over climate science could have led to the same sort of lapse.

On that note, a few more questions about Gleick’s story:

How did his correspondent manage to send him a memo which was so neatly corroborated by the documents he managed to phish from Heartland?

Clearly, as McArdle already wrote the day before, the forger had access to the documents. If Gleick’s story about receiving the forgery from an outside party is true, then whoever forged the memo had access to those documents.

How did he know that the board package he phished would contain the documents he wanted? Did he just get lucky?

In the Gleick-as-victim theory he didn’t know. I’m not sure what she means, exactly, by “Did he just get lucky?” Clearly it was extraordinarily unlucky in terms of the eventual consequences it brought upon him. And it wasn’t necessarily some extraordinarily unlikely happenstance; in the Gleick-as-victim theory it would have been important that the documents be enough like the real Heartland documents to be credible to Gleick (while retaining enough clues to be easily exposed as fake if and when they came to light).

If Gleick obtained the other documents for the purposes of corroborating the memo, why didn’t he notice that there were substantial errors, such as saying the Kochs had donated $200,000 in 2011, when in fact that was Heartland’s target for their donation for 2012? This seems like a very strange error for a senior Heartland staffer to make. Didn’t it strike Gleick as suspicious? Didn’t any of the other math errors?

Yeah, clearly this is a problem for the Gleick-as-victim theory. I think the theory remains viable, mostly because it only requires us to believe that Gleick was acting somewhat addled and erratic throughout the incident, feeling pressured and out of his depth and betraying poor judgment. Which isn’t a stretch, since it’s actually a feature of both of the competing theories (and was acknowledged by Gleick in his confession).

Anyway, that’s all the obsessing I have time for today. Who knows what developments will arrive tomorrow?

The Great Media Conspiracy

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Speaking of alleged scientific conspiracies, I came across a cool item yesterday: A recent study published by the British Journal of Social Psychology: Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire. Here’s the abstract:

We advance a new account of why people endorse conspiracy theories, arguing that individuals use the social-cognitive tool of projection when making social judgements about others. In two studies, we found that individuals were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories if they thought they would be willing, personally, to participate in the alleged conspiracies. Study 1 established an association between conspiracy beliefs and personal willingness to conspire, which fully mediated a relationship between Machiavellianism and conspiracy beliefs. In Study 2, participants primed with their own morality were less inclined than controls to endorse conspiracy theories – a finding fully mediated by personal willingness to conspire. These results suggest that some people think ‘they conspired’ because they think ‘I would conspire’.

I wonder if this is a factor in things like the Republican propensity to argue that we need poll restrictions (that just happen to benefit Republicans) because of voter fraud (that turns out not to exist), whilst the cases of actual voter fraud that turn up frequently involve Republicans rigging the game for their own benefit. In other words, they may be inclined to believe there is a Democratic conspiracy to cheat them at the polls precisely because they know that they themselves are willing to cheat.

I suspect this is a factor in the Great Media Conspiracy as well. You probably heard about that recent poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP) that gauged respondents’ trust vs. distrust of different media outlets. Kevin Drum ran a nifty chart last week that highlighted a key part of the results: that Republicans tend to trust Fox News and distrust every other media outlet, while Democrats and Independents believe the opposite, that media outlets are generally trustworthy except for Fox. I liked Kevin’s chart, but I wanted to see the Democrat and Independent numbers in the same format, so I made my own version:

The numbers show, for each media outlet and party affiliation, the percentage of respondents who trust that source minus the percentage who distrust that source. I’ve arranged them in descending order of Independent-voter trust. There are a few interesting things that strike me about this:

  • Independents really like PBS. Apparently Jim Lehrer’s reassuring drone really works for them.
  • Most Republicans these days apparently buy into the grand conspiracy theory of Sarah Palin’s “Lamestream Media”: It’s not just that a particular media outlet is biased against them; it’s all of them (except Fox).

All of which brings me back to that study I was talking about at the beginning: I wonder if Republicans are willing to believe that all those different media outlets, with their hundreds of nominally independent reporters and editors and producers, are engaged in a colossal conspiracy against them, mainly because Republicans themselves (or at least, the people who run their preferred media outlet) are so clearly willing to twist the truth in the service of ideology.

Moran on the Stages of Climate Change Denialism

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Daniel Keys Moran (heh) on the stages of climate change denialism.

I enjoyed the comment thread, too. +1 your favorites!

Was Kennedy Killed by Accident?

Friday, June 17th, 2011

In a Tank Riot podcast from a while back, they talked about how the widespread access to unmediated information about the Kennedy assassination (in particular, the Zapruder film) led to the rise of a million conspiracy theories. But here’s an interesting one I’d never thought of: that Kennedy was actually just collateral damage, because Oswald’s real target was John Connally: A New (to Me) Theory about the Kennedy Assassination: It Was an Accident.

Via Michael Troller, via Boingboing.

What Will Birthers Do Now?

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Now that Obama has released his real, official, long-form birth certificate, how will birthers handle the resulting cognitive dissonance? Based on previous experience, I’m betting that it actually strengthens their belief in their rightness. Things I expect high-profile birthers to be saying in the next few days:

  • “It was our insistence that Obama come clean that led to this desirable outcome. We have been instrumental in defending a fundamental principal of democracy: that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The people are the ultimate source of authority, and no government official is above them. By forcing Obama to release his birth certificate, we have saved the Republic.”
  • “We have always known that there was something in the long-form birth certificate that Obama did not want the public to see. Now that he has revealed it, we can clearly see that X [not sure what X will turn out to be; I’m not crazy enough in that particular way, but there will be some actually-benign aspect of the certificate that will be seized upon] was the thing he has been trying to hide.”
  • “How do we know this is the actual birth certificate? Why are the media so trusting? Wake up, sheeple!”

Things I do not expect any high-profile birthers to be saying in the next few days:

  • “Huh. You know what? I was — we all were — completely wrong about this. Obama actually is a natural-born US citizen, and there’s nothing damning in his long-form birth certificate. He wasn’t trying to conceal it for some nefarious reason. Apparently he resisted releasing it so long only because realistically, he had already complied with the requirement that he demonstrate his eligibility for the office to which he was duly and legally elected, and the insistence by a minority that he must do more than that to satisfy their delusional (and probably racist, in many cases) paranoia was ridiculous on the face of it. I will have to think carefully about what this new evidence reveals about my own reasoning, and take a hard look at other views I hold that have been challenged by the same people who challenged my birtherism.”

Novella on Truthers on the New 9/11 Footage

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Here’s an interesting commentary by Steven Novella on the release, nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, of new police helicopter footage of the burning towers, and in particular on the reaction of 9/11 Truthers in the videos’ online comments: New 9/11 footage.

In addition to faulty logic, the comments give insight into the emotions of the typical conspiracy theorist. In a word – they are smug. Everyone who does not accept their raving paranoia is naive or idiotic, part of the “sheeple.” Anything short of the maximally cynical interpretation of every piece of evidence, in their view, is naive. Conspiracy thinking is pattern recognition and hyperactive agency detection gone wild, sometimes unhinged by impaired reality testing. At the milder end of the spectrum there are those who simply employ flawed logic – who have fallen down the rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking.

I’m not looking to wind up Knarly or anything. Nobody here but us sheeple, right?

Novella on Anecdotes, Anomalies, and the Importance of Context

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Steven Novella has thought a lot about thinking. I offer in evidence the following post from his Neurologica blog: The Context of Anecdotes and Anomalies.

The problem with anecdotes is that they are subject to a host of biases, such as confirmation bias. They are easily cherry picked, even unintentionally, and therefore can be used to support just about any position. For every anecdote, there is an equal and opposite anecdote.

I really liked it, and heartily recommend the whole thing to the friendly local conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, I also predict that they will fail to recognize it as a valid indictment of their epistemological shortcomings. Oh, well.

Cooper vs. Berman on Obama’s Birth Certificate

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Fun stuff:

How Do You _Know_?

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

A word I like to throw around (especially when someone believes something different than what I believe) is epistemology. That’s the branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, or how it is that we know what we know. When I think about epistemology I tend to think about the operation of my prefrontal cortex, as it carries out the so-called “executive function” of my brain: The evaluation of information gathered by the senses (these days, often via the distance-shrinking “perception engine” of the Internet), the use of logic, the rational weighing of evidence, and so on. There is also bias, including the predisposition to believe certain things because they match my a priori belief (see confirmation bias), but here I assume we’re still talking mostly about the prefrontal cortex.

But there is another aspect of knowledge that I too-frequently ignore. That’s the feeling of truth, the sense of certainty that accompanies knowing something. Here I suspect we’re moving beyond the prefrontal cortex into evolutionarily older structures. Where does that feeling come from?

An interesting disorder that may shed some light on this is prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, in which a person has an inability to recognize faces, even if their ability to perceive the specific differences between one person’s face and another’s remains intact. Even more interesting (at least to me) is the somewhat-related disorder called the Capgras delusion, in which a person becomes convinced that someone they know well (like a close relative or loved one) has been replaced by an identical-looking stranger. In an NPR story from earlier this year (Seeing Impostors: When Loved Ones Suddenly Aren’t), Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich spoke with neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran about a possible explanation for the Capgras delusion:

According to Ramachandran, when we see someone we know, a part of our brain called the fusiform gyrus identifies the face: “That looks like mom!” That message is then sent to the amygdala, the part of our brains that activates the emotions we associate with that person. In patients experiencing Capgras, Ramachandran says, the connection between visual recognition and emotional recognition is severed. Thus the patient is left with a convincing face — “That looks like mom!” — but none of the accompanying feelings about his mother.

Ramachandran holds that we are so dependent on our emotional reactions to the world around us, that the emotional feeling “that’s not my mother” wins out over the visual perception that it is. The compromise worked out by the brain is that your mother was somehow replaced, and this impostor is part of a malevolent scheme.

I see this as tying in with Justin Barrett’s notion of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device. The idea is that humans have evolved to experience a deep-rooted, powerful sense of “agency” when perceiving certain kinds of phenomena, and (this is important) to do so even in cases when there is no agent. As just one example, in evolutionary terms it may have been beneficial for us to believe that that rustle in the bushes was a large, hungry predator stalking us, rather than the wind, and to believe that viscerally, on an emotional level, rather than treating it as a passing supposition that we might or might not be bothered to act upon. The energy our ancestors wasted by overreacting to windblown leaves was more than made up for, the theory goes, by the survival benefit conferred by being hyperalert to actual threats.

Having evolved this generalized mechanism for “knowing” things that are not necessarily so, we now experience all kinds of interesting consequences: A propensity to believe that the universe was created specifically for us by an imaginary, omnipotent being or beings. A belief that intelligent aliens from other worlds are kidnapping people, taking them aboard invisible spaceships, and subjecting them to anal probes. A belief that some dramatic, emotionally traumatic event (the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks) must have been the result of a conspiracy in which our own government was complicit. For a significant subset of the population, these and other conspiracy theories are not merely things that they suspect. They are things that they know.

Jonah Lehrer blogged yesterday about a recent study examining the role of a brain structure called the insula in mediating between physical sensations (like the feeling of warmth or cold one receives from holding a hot or cold object) and a willingness to extend trust to a trading partner: Trust and temperature. I especially liked this part:

We like to see ourselves as Promethean creatures, mostly liberated from this sack of meat we have to carry around for support. (John Updike, as usual, said it best: “We think we are what we think when in truth we are upright bags of tripe.”) But what the insula and these studies of embodied cognition demonstrate is that our mind is impossibly intertwined with carnal changes we can’t explain or comprehend.

I know what I know because my rational mind has analyzed facts and evidence, sure. But that’s not the whole story. The sensations delivered to me by my body — by chemical cues, sensations of warmth and cold, and the murky actions of older, deeper mechanisms that reach me as visceral emotions — play a large part. Perhaps the major part.

I just know it.

Toles Stares into the Abyss

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Tom Toles gets snarky: Fall weather.

The economy of the 21st century will be based on an educated workforce. This will entail a familiarity with science and technology and the ability to recognize that peer-reviewed scientific work is a conspiracy. Employers will be looking for people to compete against foreign workers by having the skills to look online and find a Web site that tells them that entire fields of science are a hoax.

Why Science and Reason Matter

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Here are three videos that came through my newsreader in the past few hours. Taken together, they tell a little story, which I can summarize like this: It’s all good fun mocking stupid/misguided/delusional people. But when those people end up in positions of power it’s not so funny, because sometimes the limits of human foresight come back to bite us, and when kids’ lives are at stake we need to take this stuff seriously.

I leave the deeper meanings of this story up to the reader.

And now, on with the show!

From RT America (a Russian-government-sponsored news outlet that has been accused, according to Wikipedia, of providing a platform for conspiracy theorists), here’s an explanation of what was really going on with that sunset contrail over southern California the other day:

Next up, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), who is currently campaigning to be appointed the new chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce:

Finally, the demolition of a 275-foot stack at the Ohio Edison Mad River Power Plant, complete with a group of assembled schoolchildren there to enjoy the spectacle, and to receive an unforgettable lesson in the importance of careful engineering:

xkcd: The Flake Equation

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

xkcd is so awesome: The Flake Equation.

More awesomeness courtesy of Steven Novella’s NeuroLogica Blog: The Flake Equation.

Steven Novella on Hyperactive Agency Detection

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Remember my new man-crush, neuroscientist and skeptic Steven Novella? He’s got a great item on his NeuroLogica blog today: Hyperactive Agency Detection.

When HADD is triggered and we think we see the hidden agent, it speaks to us in a very primal way. For some people the perception of hidden agency becomes overwhelming, dominating all other thought processes. We know these people as conspiracy theorists. But there is a little conspiracy theorist inside each of us.

He talks about the evolutionary underpinnings of humans’ tendency to partition the world into two classes of entities — agents and objects — and the possible role this may play in our collective tendency toward conspiracy theories and religion.

In Which I Confess to the Onset of a Sudden Man Crush on Steven Novella, MD

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Barbara Tomlinson pointed out to me that Phil Plait (of the Bad Astronomy blog) linked to me today in Two posts about denialism, climate change and otherwise. That was pretty cool, given how much I like the Bad Astronomy blog. The post reads a bit like Plait is crediting me with having come up with the O.J. Simpson/climate-change denialism metaphor, when of course it was Bill McKibbon who did that; I just quoted from and linked to him. But I’m not proud; I’ll take the traffic, and will secretly cherish the thought that Phil Plait linked to! Yay!

Even better: By linking to me he made sure I’d pay extra-close attention to the post in which he did so, thereby bringing my attention to someone I’ve inexplicably never read before: Steven Novella, MD, of the NeuroLogica Blog.

Wow. Just wow. This is serious pay dirt.

Here’s the NeuroLogica post that Plait thought my McKibbon theft was worth sharing a post with: Scientific consensus, climate change, and vaccines. After quoting Robert Kennedy Jr. on the strength of the scientific consensus on global warming, Novella continues like this:

But Robert Kennedy is not always a fan of the scientific consensus – for example he rejects the scientific consensus on vaccines, choosing to believe that the consensus is a deliberate fraud (exactly what global warming dissidents say about the climate change consensus). This makes Robert Kennedy a hypocrite – he accepts the scientific consensus and cites its authority when it suits his politics, and then blithely rejects it (spinning absurd conspiracy theories that would make Jesse Ventura blush) when it is inconvenient to his politics.

But Kennedy is not alone – this seems to be what most people do most of the time. In fact I would argue that we need to be especially suspicious of our scientific opinions on controversial topics when they conform to our personal ideology (whether political, social, or religious). That is when we need to step back and ask hard questions that challenge the views we want to hold. We also need to make sure that our process is consistent across questions – are we citing the scientific consensus on one issue and rejecting it on another? Are we citing conflicts of interest for researchers whose conclusions we don’t like, and ignoring them for researchers whose conclusions confirm our beliefs?

Did I already say wow?

Here’s another item from Novella: Letters from a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I’m going to let you go read that yourself. And I think you know who I mean by you. :-)

Finally, Novella is the host and producer of a weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, that is currently on its 240th episode. Looks like my commute just got booked solid.