Archive for the 'Denialism' Category

Denial of Climate Change About to Get a Lot Harder

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Behold the death spiral of Artic sea ice:

Have you ever seen a frozen lake thaw? There’s a gradual thinning, a few open patches and a lot of mushiness, and then bam! Ice-free lake. The transition seems sudden when it comes.

I think a similar transition is coming for those who don’t believe in climate change. Instead of mushy ice giving way to dark, open water, it’s going to be mushy thinking giving way to dark, horrified clarity: Oh, shit.

Climate change is real. It’s here. This is our generation’s Pearl Harbor, and the bombs are falling.

Update: I neglected to link to it originally, but this piece by Dan Farber was actually what got me thinking about the metaphorical similarity between a thawing lake and Republican denial of climate change: Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water: Crossing the Partisan Divide on Environmental Issues.

Laden and Romm on Goldenberg on Gleick

Monday, May 21st, 2012

I’m not sure that anyone else besides me actually cares about the angst I suffered during the whole Heartland/Peter Gleick saga. But for me at least, it was fairly angsty. One of the main things I took away from it was this: Some of the people I’d considered credible sources, people on my “side” of the issue, were revealed to me as being willing to peddle bullshit in the name of scoring points against their ideological opponents.

I’m not just talking about Gleick, though his dishonesty was the most prominent example. I’ve been giving the whole “mock trial of Peter Gleick” thing a rest, but I may revive it. It sounds like there are going to be some new developments to hash over.

Suzanne Goldenberg has an article in The Guardian today alleging that Peter Gleick has been “cleared” of forging the strategy memo: Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose. The article itself is quite thin on details, but as best I can tell Goldenberg is claiming to have access to the results of an investigation commissioned by the Pacific Institute (the think tank Gleick previously headed, and from which he stepped down in the wake of the scandal), and the investigation reportedly will conclude Gleick did not forge the strategy memo.

A review has cleared the scientist Peter Gleick of forging any documents in his expose of the rightwing Heartland Institute’s strategy and finances, the Guardian has learned.

Gleick’s sting on Heartland brought unwelcome scrutiny to the organisation’s efforts to block action on climate change, and prompted a walk-out of corporate donors that has created uncertainty about its financial future.

Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute and a well-regarded water expert, admitted and apologised for using deception to obtain internal Heartland documents last February.

He has been on leave from the institute pending an external investigation into the unauthorised release of the documents, although it is not entirely clear what the investigation entailed. That investigation is now complete, and the conclusions will be made public.

It was not immediately clear the findings would allow Gleick to make an early return to his job at the Pacific Institute. However, despite the official leave, Gleick has remained professionally active, appearing at public events and accepting speaking engagements. He delivered an Oxford Amnesty lecture on water in April.

It seems likely, given Goldenberg’s willingness to run with the story, that there is a report, and that it will offer the conclusion that Gleick did not forge the memo. But how strong will the report’s actual language be on that point? What evidence will it cite? Who are the report’s authors? What is their relationship to the Pacific Institute, and how credible are they as representing an independent perspective, given the Pacific Institute’s interest in findings that minimize Gleick’s wrongdoing?

All this is obviously very preliminary at this point. But you wouldn’t know that from Greg Laden’s blog post: An important revelation regarding Heartland Gate (global warming denialism). I’m not going to bother excerpting from Laden’s post. It’s basically anti-Heartland, pro-Gleick propaganda, treating the Goldenberg article as an excuse to trot out a one-sided recapitulation of the whole affair.

Similarly, Joe Romm (and Rebecca Leber) at Think Progress go for maximum spin: Heartland Institute Hemorrhages Donors And Cash For Extremist Agenda, As Coal And Oil Step In. Their piece begins with the following triumphant banner linking to the Goldenberg article:

Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose

Sigh. I’m not a defender of Heartland (far from it). But this stuff reinforces a decision I made recently to remove Laden and Romm from my newsfeed. It’s not that I’m in the denialist camp that disputes the science of global warming. But just because one champions scientists doesn’t make one’s own assertions scientific. Laden and Romm have let their adopted role as advocates carry them past the point of being honest brokers of information. They’re peddling self-serving spin as truth, selecting what to pass on not on the basis of skeptical inquiry, but simply on the basis of which untested hypotheses paint their enemies in the worst light.

With a universe of information sources available and my own time a scarce and precious commodity, I don’t need their bullshit polluting my information stream.

Two Stopped Watches

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Everyone knows the old adage that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Then there’s that saying (which I’d always thought was a quotation from Mark Twain, but which turns out, at least according to some thinly sourced web pages, to be a quotation from someone named Lee Segall):

A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.

Lately I’ve found both metaphors fighting for dominance as I read various climate change blogs. I’ve got my stopped clocks: blogs by committed partisans on one side (like Joe Romm) or the other (like Steve McIntyre), whom I’m used to reading with a grain of salt, since I recognize that, like a trial, I’m only hearing one side’s case at a time. Maybe they’re misleading me (well, they’re almost certainly misleading me, at least in the sense that they are going to exclude or de-emphasize truths damning to their case), but they still might be right, at least sometimes.

But in my post-Gleickian reading of a wider range of opinions, I’m now the man with two watches. And since they’re two stopped watches, with ideologically embedded opinions resistent to change, those stopped watches are never going to tell the same time.

It’s all quite bothersome, metaphorically speaking. Anyway, here are a few examples from my last few days’ reading.

I’ve been reading about Singer lately as I work my way through Oreskes’ and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. For decades, according to Oreskes and Conway, Singer has made a habit of taking up contrarian scientific positions (on ozone depletion, the health risks of secondhand tobacco smoke, and global warming), then made use of media “fairness” policies to get himself lots of camera time (and corporate research funding). So yes, I’m sure the extreme denialists make it more difficult for Singer to stake out his contrarian-but-science-y-enough-to-be-credible positions. But I also suspect him of promoting a false equivalence by claiming it’s the extremists on both sides who are wrong, and lonely him in the middle who’s right.

Enough with the fighting over hockey sticks. How about a nice, non-contentious topic?

Breakthrough is the think tank founded by Nordhaus and Shellenberger to push their politically liberal attack on what they view as the failures of environmentalism, more or less. Anyway, they’re big on the idea (also articulated fairly persuasively by Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia, which I recently read and enjoyed) that environmentalists (and the public generally) greatly overestimate the risks of nuclear power, and that a major commitment to nuclear fission is the only way for us to replace our electrical generating capacity in the short term without wrecking either the economy or the climate. (Not sure if that last is really a Breakthrough position. It’s certainly Lovelock’s position.)

  • Prospects for Nuclear Power – A paper by Lucas W. Davis in the American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives (the link is to the abstract, but the full text is available as a PDF).

Davis argues that even if you could overcome the sorts of irrational nuke fears described by Lovelock and exacerbated by Fukushima, nuclear plants would still not be economically viable, due to the recent drop in price for natural gas due to techniques like fracking.

I don’t have an ideologically opposed “second watch” for this item, but I don’t feel like a post is complete these days if it doesn’t have a Gleick link. In this piece, Zasloff makes the case that Gleick’s actions may have been ethically justified under the tradition of people using deception to achieve a good end in cases where those ends can’t be achieved without the deception. I raise a question in a late comment (so far unanswered by Zasloff) as to whether he (Zasloff) was taking the account from Gleick’s confession at face value. That is, would the equation still show Gleick’s actions to be ethical if it turned out that he forged the strategy memo himself in an effort to mislead the public about how bad Heartland is?

So, that’s all I’ve got for now. Time ticks onward (or doesn’t, depending on whether your watches — either of them — are stopped). I’ll see what dissonance-inducing contradictions await me in the new day.

The Cytokine Storm

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

After the season 2 finale of Downton Abbey on PBS last week, there was a “making of” featurette that touched on the 1918 flu outbreak that was part of the plot. They mentioned a fact I’d heard before but had forgotten: In severe flu pandemics, a disproportionate number of those who die are otherwise-healthy young adults. They’re prone to a particular kind of immune system response known as a cytokine storm. From Wikipedia:

When the immune system is fighting pathogens, cytokines signal immune cells such as T-cells and macrophages to travel to the site of infection. In addition, cytokines activate those cells, stimulating them to produce more cytokines. Normally, this feedback loop is kept in check by the body. However, in some instances, the reaction becomes uncontrolled, and too many immune cells are activated in a single place. The precise reason for this is not entirely understood but may be caused by an exaggerated response when the immune system encounters a new and highly pathogenic invader.

A healthy immune system is a good thing, normally, but the positive feedback loop of a cytokine storm can lead to fever, fatigue, nausea, and death. In the 1918 pandemic, between 50 and 100 million people died, making it one of the deadliest disasters in history.

While obsessing this week over the events of the Heartland leak, it occurred to me that in a way, we’re going through the cultural equivalent of a cytokine storm. For those of us who accept the mainstream scientific views expressed in IPCC reports, climate change is an existential treat. For Heartland to be working to forestall action on climate change makes them, in the eyes of climate activists, the equivalent of a “new and highly pathogenic invader” that provokes an exaggerated response.

Ignore for the moment the fact that the released documents show Heartland to actually be a pretty small, and in some ways unimpressive, cabal of supervillains. For Peter Gleick and his more ardent supporters, the stakes are so high that when combatting Heartland virtually any ethical breach (including lying) is permissible, even heroic. Like Barry Goldwater addressing the 1964 Republican convention, their view could be summarized as: Extremism in the defense of climate is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of consensus is no virtue.

I first thought of the cytokine storm analogy while reading this post by DeMelle and Littlemore at DeSmogBlog: Evaluation shows “Faked” Heartland Climate Strategy Memo is Authentic. Having studied the contents of the strategy memo, and the arguments for and against its authenticity, my reaction to DeMelle and Littlemore’s argument was immediate and unequivocal: they’re wrong, and obviously so. They must either be actively lying or passively bullshitting (that is, willfully disregarding the truth to assert a position they favor, without bothering about facts).

The argument about the strategy memo’s authenticity began last week, before Gleick’s confession. Heartland’s first public response to the leak, on February 15, denounced the strategy memo as “fake.” McArdle argued against the memo’s authenticity in her February 16 column, Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir – but Is One a Fake? At DeSmogBlog, Littlemore wrote a piece the same day asserting that Heartland was trying to change the subject from their own wrongdoing by focusing on the forged memo, and saying the onus was on them to prove it was a fake.

McArdle followed with more criticism the next day: Heartland Memo Looking Faker by the Minute. And really, she was right. The deeper one dug into the document, the harder it became to believe it was genuine.

All of which made DeMelle and Littlemore’s February 22 post a real eye-opener for me. Whether they were knowingly lying or were merely burrowed so deeply into their ideological bunker that they no longer recognized the truth, they were fatally compromising their credibility in the eyes of anyone other than their most committed followers. As McArdle wrote of Gleick in her February 21 column (Peter Gleick Confesses to Obtaining Heartland Documents Under False Pretenses):

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.

It was true in the case of Gleick, and it’s true in the case of DeSmogBlog: The overreaction to their ideological opponents has had the effect of destroying their credibility. It’s the cytokine storm. Faced with the threat of the Heartland pathogen, the DeSmogBlog bloggers’ impassioned immune response has carried them beyond the point where they can effectively win the hearts and minds that their larger mission requires.

Greg Laden, an anthropologist blogger at Science Blogs, quickly endorsed DeMelle and Littlemore’s defense of the strategy memo’s authenticity. He linked to it from this item: “Faked” Heartland Institute Doc is Authentic, writing:

This memo is so embarrassing that Heartland has been insisting that it is fake, but a new evaluation of the document demonstrates that it is not.

It doesn’t demonstrate that, and by endorsing that view Laden undercuts his own credibility. He’s simply accepting DeMelle and Littlemore’s characterization at face value, because they are on the same side in the fight against Heartland, and they share the belief that a vigorous immune response requires them to attack the Heartland infection uncritically.

Commenters questioned Laden’s position. I enjoyed this comment, by jumm33:


and now this.

(Knarlyknight, in particular, will appreciate the second link.)

I weighed in as follows:

So, are you asserting that Heartland actually did prepare the strategy memo for internal distribution, and distributed it? That seems extraordinarily unlikely to me.

I think this might be a case where the willingness to engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to defend an untenable position (“the strategy memo is legitimate”) ultimately will do damage to the reputations of those who engage in it. It would be a tragic irony if this became another incident like Climategate in terms of actually lessening public support for action to address climate change, but I see a real risk that that’s where this will end up if people on the science side indulge in defenses of Gleick’s actions that are perceived as irrational by the general public. And that’s how a defense of the strategy memo as legitimate is going to be perceived, I suspect.

Another user made a comment about people “trolling” (without singling me out, but I assumed he was including me). I wrote this in reply:

I’m not trolling. I’m a sincere advocate for taking climate science seriously. I believe, though, that taking it seriously includes thinking about how we’re going to deal with the sizable chunk of people who are politically conservative and get much of their information from dubious sources like Fox News. If we can’t peel off a significant number of those people and get them to recognize the truth about climate change, we don’t have a chance of implementing the kind of collective strategy climate change requires any time soon.

We’re not going to get those people with dubious arguments like this. And dubious it is: If we can’t divorce ourselves from what we want to believe long enough to appreciate the evidence in the strategy memo that argues for it being a fake, then in my view we are falling short of the requirements of honest skepticism.

Yes, the denialists (the worst of them, at least) are legitimately villainous. It’s understandable that the combination of fear and anger that their actions provoke would push anyone toward a polarized position and a desire to push back against their lies with assertions like the one being linked to here.

It’s an understandable temptation. But the temptation must be resisted. If Peter Gleick’s mistakes teach anything, it is that the consequences of succumbing to an ends-justifies-the-means erosion of principles can be severe. Yes, we need to confront the fallacies, mistaken beliefs, and outright falsehoods coming from the denialist side. We are in a battle for hearts and minds. But if we get so caught up in the battle that we are willing to treat the flimsy arguments offered by DeMille and Littlemore as compelling, we will lose the war. The vast majority of currently-undecided third parties are not going to look at the evidence and conclude that the strategy memo is authentic. They are going to conclude that we are irrationally committed to our position, and that the denialists are probably right when they say that the scientific consensus is a sham produced by people who are being similarly irrational.

They will be wrong to conclude that. But by the time the climate has worsened enough for them to realize it we will have lost valuable time to address the problem.

I see the response to the denialist’s dishonesty as being analogous to a cytokine storm. We’re like an immune system reacting to a pathogen. But in the case of Peter Gleick’s actions, and of those who now defend him to the extent of calling his actions heroic and arguing that the faked strategy memo is authentic, our reaction threatens to do more harm to the patient than the pathogen ever could.

I recommend what Megan McArdle has written about the strategy memo. I don’t agree with everything she’s written about it, but she’s got a good take on the degree to which the defense of Gleick’s actions by climate activists threatens to undermine our position in the larger debate.

I don’t know if Gleick forged the strategy memo himself. But I think it’s clear that someone forged it, and that whoever committed the forgery had access to the legitimate documents. I remain intrigued by the idea that this was a false flag operation, in which someone who had access to Heartland’s internal documents leaked the fake memo to Gleick hoping he would release it, after which he could be denounced and neutralized as an opponent. I don’t think that scenario is nearly as far-fetched as McArdle seems to think. But I don’t actually know. And neither do most of us, at this point.

The only people who know for sure whether Gleick is telling the truth about the fake strategy document are Gleick, and, if Gleick is telling the truth, the person or persons who forged it and sent it to him. If this ends up in court, and if Gleick has evidence to corroborate his account of the timeline, this could get really interesting, since that would mean he could mount a pretty convincing case that he was, in fact, set up by someone with access to internal Heartland documents.

I don’t know what the chances of that are. But I know that being skeptical means I need to keep an open mind about the competing explanation favored by the denialists: That Gleick is just lying, and that he forged the strategy memo himself as a way to try to make the document leak “sexier”.

MikeB made a substantive response, but I took exception to this part:

Stop pearl clutching – at best it looks weak, and at worst it looks like concern trolling.

This prompted me to respond as follows:

I’m not sure what pearl clutching or concern trolling are, but if I’m engaging in them I apologize. From where I sit, I’m just being as honest as I can about how I see the issue.

I haven’t “made my mind up” about the strategy memo, except that after considering it carefully, I do believe McArdle’s assertions about its implausibility are compelling. The specifics of what it says and the way it says it don’t pass the smell test. It simply isn’t credible as an actual internal Heartland document intending to lay out their actual strategy for some sort of limited internal distribution. There are plenty of good analyses of this question out there already, so I don’t think I need to go into them. If you disagree, that’s fine, and it’s your prerogative, obviously. But if you haven’t examined the question in detail, I encourage you to take another look, beginning with McArdle’s arguments from last week.

I’m not simply crediting Heartland’s claims that it is “fake”. But their willingness to make that claim, early and often, does factor into my thinking in this way: If the document were legitimate, and was actually prepared for its described purpose, then it would presumably have been distributed to multiple people within Heartland. That raises the stakes for Heartland to denounce it as they have. If there are other copies of it, perhaps other versions of it, floating around within Heartland it becomes a much greater risk for them to make the statements they have, since at any time one of those copies could come to light.

The people running Heartland disagree with me, and are willing to baldly assert things that are untrue; I’ve seen them do it. But they’re not stupid. Taken together with the content and style problems of the document itself, their willingness to put themselves out there calling it a fake and making it the centerpiece of their response to the leak is enough for me to conclude that yeah, they’re probably telling the truth, at least in a very narrowly construed sense, when they say that.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I think the question is still very much open as to who it was who forged it, and for what purpose, so in that sense my mind isn’t made up about the document at all. But I do believe that the position being endorsed by Greg Laden in the item above is dubious. So I guess you’re right about my mind being made up on that point. I’d be interested in hearing counterarguments, but I don’t think those made by DeMille and Littlemore in the linked-to item are compelling. I think their confirmation bias is showing.

I think I had convinced myself that we were making progress toward some kind of collective shared insight. (Heh. On the Internet.) The next comment, by user elpsi, brought me back to reality:

John Callender…

See Douche, that is what actual skepticism looks like

Sigh. I realize it’s just one person, and random drive-by nastiness is a fact of life online. But it bugged me, in part because I’d thought (naively) that I was among the like-minded, on a blog sympathetic to “my” side.

The item he (or she, though I think the balance of evidence strongly favors he) linked to was one I’d already read, in which Laden reproduced Shawn Otto’s experiment with content analysis as a means of identifying the strategy memo’s author (which itself was inspired by Anthony Watts’ post on WUWT). As I wrote in a previous post, I found the “methodology” employed by both Otto and Laden to be fairly ridiculous. The results were kind of funny, but not anything to be taken seriously. I assumed that was the spirit in which Otto made his post, but with Laden I wasn’t sure; coming off his credulous endorsement of DeMelle and Littlemore, it seemed like he may have thought the analysis was actually significant.

The cytokine storms of the climate debate operate at multiple levels. I just finished reading James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia; Lovelock would argue that the planet itself is a metaphorical superorganism, and that the warming feedbacks we’ve triggered are the equivalent of a planetary cytokine response. In more human-centered terms, the warnings of scientists like Mann and Hansen are frightening to people like me, producing a reaction in which we organize and pressure government to act quickly, without waiting for a broader societal consensus. On the other side, pressure for carbon pricing is viewed as a profit-threatening pathogen by the fossil fuel industry, and the big-government programs that would implement those policies as freedom-killing pathogens by free-market advocates. So they activate their political T-cells and macrophages (e.g., Heartland, and legions of snarky online deniers) and rush to the site of infection.

Gleick saw the Heartland Institute as a deadly infection, and ramped up his immune response to a breathtaking degree. Those who defend his actions by asserting ridiculous things are doing the same: responding to the threat with a fervor that I fear will lengthen the time until we can act on the climate problem with a common sense of purpose.

The only way we will successfully combat climate change is if we act in unison. Not just as one ideological camp, or as one nation; in Lovelock’s view, not even as one species. We need to unite as one planet, or at least as one planet-wide superorganism, with a willingness to balance human needs against the needs of the larger biome’s climate-regulation function. Which is… a daunting requirement.

We’re not going to get there like this. We’re not going to get there as long as those concerned about the problem are willing to sacrifice their credibility in the name of fighting the other “side.”

Medical researchers are working on ways to counter cytokine storms. From an article by Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist, New flu drug calms the ‘storm’:

To dampen down the immune reaction, the researchers targeted a specific molecule present in the inflammation response called OX40.

Normally, when the lungs are under attack from a virus, the body’s T-cells are activated. These migrate to the lungs to attack the microbes but they also initiate a second immune system attack called a “cytokine storm”. This surge of chemicals causes inflammation and when severe can seriously harm or even kill the patient.

“After one or two days, the T-cells increase production of OX40,” explains Hussell. “This molecule gives the T-cell a ‘survival signal’ – which makes them hang around in the lungs for a lot longer.” But new cells are arriving all the time, says Ian Humphreys, who led the study, so this prolonged presence is not needed, and exacerbates the cytokine storm.

The new drug, an OX40 fusion protein called OX40:Ig, works by binding to the OX40 receptor and blocking activated T-cells. OX40:Ig, supplied by the company Xenova Research, stopped the symptoms of flu in mice.

We need to dampen our over-the-top immune response. We need to be less strident, less virulent, in response to the other side, so we don’t close off the conversations that need to take place in order for us to build consensus and take action.

I’m saying “we” and “our”, but I’m mostly talking about me. I’ve lost my cool in the comments here a few times lately, saying some nasty things to a certain global warming skeptic that I would never have said to his – or anyone’s – face. It wasn’t Gleickian in degree, but my willingness to treat shcb as a second-class citizen on a blog where he’s probably contributed more content than I have was certainly Gleickian in tone.

I’ve spent time over the past few weeks on web sites I wouldn’t normally visit, places like and Judith Curry’s blog and even WattsUpWithThat. There are views and attitudes being expressed there that are as misguided as anything I’m criticizing here. But there are also a lot of thoughtful discussions by people who are clearly quite rational and interested in getting to the bottom of things.

Here’s a post I made at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog:

I’m very interested in the question of whether Gleick forged the strategy memo, vs. his having received it anonymously via mail prior to the phishing attempt (as he said – or at least strongly implied – in his HuffPo confession). I realize that there are lots of fingerprints in the memo itself pointing to Gleick as the author. And I realize that there are enough similarities between the fake strategy memo and the legitimate documents to make it implausible that the strategy memo could have been forged without the forger having access to those documents.

Basically, I’m looking to list the evidence for and against the “honeypot” scenario, in which someone other than Gleick who had access to the internal Heartland documents forged the memo, intentionally inserting real information, fake information, and clues that would tend to implicate Gleick as the forger, then mailed it to Gleick hoping he’d publicize it, after which it could be used to discredit him.

I’m not trying to suggest that the honeypot scenario is more or less likely than the more straightforward explanation, that Gleick forged the document himself in an attempt to “sex up” the document release. But I’m interested in the arguments for and against both explanations.

I’ve got some commentary on my blog at that explains more of where I’m coming from. Disclosure: Anyone going there will quickly discover that I have a history as a warmist liberal who complains about people ignoring the “scientific consensus”. For which I actually want to express a certain amount (but only a certain amount) of sincere chagrin. This whole incident, and some of the actions by my warmist fellow travelers (including, but not limited to, Peter Gleick) have created what might be termed “a teachable moment”.

Anyway, I’m looking to be taught, and I’m impressed by the quality of analysis I’ve been finding in threads like this one on a bunch of blogs I never paid much attention to before. So feel free to cut me a new orifice if you feel the need. But if you’d also be willing to comment on the question I ask above, along with your reasons for thinking the way you do, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

I was bracing myself for a hostile reaction, but it didn’t come. Instead I just got people politely offering me their views. Elsewhere in the same thread I came across a comment by Richard Betts that included this:

But I guess maybe the whole thing is just symptomatic of how this so-called “Climate Wars” business is getting completely out of hand. The militants on both sides need to rein it in before someone actually gets hurt (I mean for real, not just their reputation).

We now need Radical Moderates to step forward and distance themselves from the extremists (at both ends). Let’s talk it all through like grownups instead of banging on about alarmists, deniers and conspiracy theories. It’s all very childish.

In response, Steve McIntyre wrote:

I agree that the situation has gotten out of hand.


If I were the CAGW sales manager, I would view one of my key missions as focused marketing to the precise sort of people that make up the audience at Climate Audit, Lucia’s, Jeff Id and to a portion of Watts Up: highly educated professionals, including scientists from other fields, who are interested in the climate debate, who are technically competent and who haven’t reached an opinion on whether climate is a big, medium or small problem (including me.)

The audience has to be treated more like investors than high school students i.e. if you’re pitching to investors and they don’t invest, you can’t “fail” them or tell them that they’re stupid or tools of the fossil fuel industry; you have to think about why your pitch failed and what you can do better, and leave on good terms with the investor and maybe you’ll have another chance later on. It’s madness to condemn this audience as “deniers” or “ground troops” of the fossil fuel industry – madness both on the part of the activists who do so and madness on the part of the broader climate “community” that tolerates and even honors such conduct from its activist wing.

Also too many of the self-appointed sales people for CAGW are too wrapped up in their own self-importance and are unlikable to an extended audience. Indeed, if I were CAGW sales manager, I could hardly imagine a sales force more unlikely to succeed. This is quite aside from whether the message is right or wrong. If it’s important to actually persuade someone on the fence that CAGW is an imminent danger, then it’s important to talk to people on the fence or even in opposition (to get them on the fence.) It’s also probably important to retire some of the self-appointed sales people – thank for their service politely but get spokesmen who can build trust with a wider community.

I think Betts and McIntyre have a point.

As I was sitting down to write this, I saw a new post by Michael Tobis on his Planet 3.0 blog. Tobis has been one of my favorite voices commenting on this whole affair from the perspective of “my” side. I can’t really summarize his post adequately; you really have to read the whole thing to get the feel of his confused, exasperated, but oddly liberated tone: What a shiny damn penny! Here’s a taste, at least:

What a couple of weeks! Amazing stuff everywhere!

I have rethought it and I concede that the Wattsians and McArdle are right. The disputed memo is not plausibly from Bast or directly from Heartland. Nobody who speaks English would plausibly use “anti-climate” to describe themselves under any circumstances.

But Peter Gleick. Who? You’re joking, right?

I have thought some more about it and this is what I think. When he was first accused, and as I and many others thought, wildly and implausibly accused, I expected a strong performance from Peter Gleick in the mode of Santer or Mann. Really better than Santer or Mann, who didn’t expect it and didn’t have the personality to easliy endure it. It didn’t cross my mind for a second that Peter was guilty.

But he is guilty, so now the question was, was it worth it? My first response was, along with everybody else’s, no, no way was it worth it, but surely Peter didn’t compose the Disputed Memo.

The publication of the emails by Heartland on have changed my mind. Peter made no attempt to be anonymous. As soon as they realized they were being spoofed, it was obvious. They looked ridiculous and got a lot of eyes trained on them. Then totally unexpectedly, Peter confessed!

Actually, he had to yank their chains pretty hard before they even noticed. What a transparent hack! Nitwits!

I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusion Tobis arrives at; read it yourself and see what you think. But I’m impressed at the mere fact of his movement. Speaking from experience, changing one’s views is hard. If Gleick’s self-destructive cytokine storm makes it so people like Tobis (and me) are forced into an honest re-evaluation of our deep-rooted beliefs, maybe there will be some good that comes out of this after all.

Gleick on Cherrypicked Climate Trends

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Not to beat a dead horse, but here’s a nice piece from Peter Gleick in Forbes about how deniers cherrypick data in their effort to show that the climate isn’t warming: “Global Warming Has Stopped”? How to Fool People Using “Cherry-Picked” Climate Data.

The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has not stopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.

So, deniers, which is it: Are you lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth? There really aren’t any other options.

BS and Anti-BS

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Kevin Drum talks today about the inherent silliness of people spouting bullshit economic theories, and other people debunking it, and how the whole process just goes on forever without actually getting anywhere. But he thinks it’s still necessary: Fighting the bullshit.

So sure, it’s kabuki. All of us who write about politics for a living understand that 90% (at least) of what we do is just shadow boxing. Controversies are invented, then debunked, then invented all over again, and debunked. Sometimes the inventors know perfectly well what they’re doing, while other times they’ve talked themselves into actually believing their own nonsense. In either case, these things are mostly just proxies for the issues that really matter.

But so what? The Reichstag fire was wholly invented too, and look what happened after that. As demeaning as it is, fighting back against bullshit is every bit as important as fighting back against the real stuff.

I think I was on-board with Mr. Drum all the way up to the last sentence, at which point I balked. “Every bit as important”? Really? I’m not convinced of that.

Which isn’t to say that fighting back against bullshit isn’t important. Case in point, the recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece claiming global warming is a sham. It’s exceedingly dishonest, and worthy of being fought back against. But is fighting back against it as important as fighting against the real stuff? I think maybe it’s only 38% as important. The real stuff, after all, is real.

Anyway, I know from The Debunking Handbook that I’m at risk of reinforcing the bullshit in your minds just by mentioning it, but so be it. I think that ship has already sailed, as least as far as is concerned. I’ll try to prominently flag it, at least, as they recommend.

For what it’s worth, then, here’s the (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS BULLSHIT!!) original WSJ opinion piece:

And here is the first in an ongoing batch of reasonable, well-informed, honest debunkings to fill the hole in your brain left by the removal of the previous bullshit. NOTE: NON-BULLSHIT:

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.

Shearer on Fossil Fuel Companies’ Liability for Disinformation

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Christina Shearer asks an interesting question: Will fossil fuel companies face liability for climate change? She’s not looking at the question of whether they’re liable for selling fossil fuels, but rather at the question of whether, by funding and disseminating research that they know to be false, they’re guilty of a tort, and can be held liable for damages.

…while people and companies enjoy the First Amendment right to free speech, legal scholars have argued that right does not extend to influencing people under false pretenses. According to former tobacco industry lawyer Stephen Susman, when it comes to fossil fuel companies and supporters funding their own research on climate change, if “they knew the information they were spreading was false and being used to deliberately influence public opinion — that would override their First Amendment rights.”

This question may soon be playing out in the courts.

USA Today Editorial Board vs. James Inhofe on Climate Change

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Dale McGowan explains (in an otherwise worthwhile piece that I’m not going to focus on here) how he helped his 9-year-old daughter deal with the fear that resulted from her having heard about Christian radio-show host Harold Camping’s (latest) prediction that the world would end soon:

I looked her in the eye. “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason.”

We can apply this approach to the question of whether human activity is altering the climate, and whether that alteration is dangerous. For example, today USA Today ran an editorial (Our view: America, pick your climate choices) that basically equates climate change deniers with birthers:

Late last week, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group, the National Research Council arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report called “America’s Climate Choices.” As scientific reports go, its key findings were straightforward and unequivocal: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.” Among those risks in the USA: more intense and frequent heat waves, threats to coastal communities from rising sea levels, and greater drying of the arid Southwest.

Coincidentally, USA TODAY’s Dan Vergano reported Monday, a statistics journal retracted a federally funded study that had become a touchstone among climate-change deniers. The retraction followed complaints of plagiarism and use of unreliable sources, such as Wikipedia.

Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the “birthers,” who continue to challenge President Obama’s American citizenship – a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.

Nothing much new here (as the editorial points out). But they also did something interesting: They ran an “opposing view” piece by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) arguing the opposite position. See Inhofe’s view: All pain, no gain.

Not too long ago, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress proudly announced that America would lead the fight against global warming by passing a cap-and-trade bill. But despite overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 2009, Democrats barely found the votes to get the proposal through the House, and Senate Democrats never even brought it up for a vote.

The reason is simple. Cap-and-trade is designed to make the energy we use more expensive. Consider President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who said in 2008, “Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” That’s about $7 to $8 a gallon.

What the Democrats have since learned is that the American public is more skeptical of the science of global warming than at anytime over the past decade. Frank Newport of Gallup stated earlier this year, “Americans’ attitudes toward the environment show a public that over the last two years has become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence.”

I encourage you to read Inhofe’s whole piece. There are some additional arguments in it, mainly that if the US pursues cap-and-trade pricing on carbon it will simply shift carbon emissions to other countries and actually increase those emissions.

So, I put it to you: Just on the basis of these two pieces, which side in the debate is making the stronger argument?

USA Today editorial board: the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group is straightforward and unequivocal in stating that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.”

Jim Inhofe: Congress has failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation, despite Democratic majorities, because the electorate is worried about the effect it would have on gas prices. Meanwhile, the American people’s concerns about global warming have diminished over the past decade.

Hm. I wonder which argument should carry more weight as I try to assess whether climate change poses a significant risk? I could listen to the scientists who study climate. Or I could listen to politicians who receive massive campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and consumers concerned about the price of gas. I wonder which of those groups has a better take on what’s going to happen with climate?

Lewindowsky on How Ideology Trumps Fact

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

In some ways Australia is ground zero in the climate change catastrophe. For whatever reasons, human-caused perturbations of climate are falling especially hard and especially early Down Under. Which means their politics are probably in some ways a predictor of what we can expect in other parts of the world as things get climatically weirder.

Anyway, I really liked this piece by Australian Stephan Lewandowsky:
The truth is out there. It’s more about American politics than Australian politics, but I still get a sense of the Australian reality seeping through:

The late Stephen Jay Gould referred to a fact as something that it would be “perverse to withhold provisional assent.” Notwithstanding the Academy’s clear statement about the existence of global warming and its human-made causes, recent surveys reveal that the majority of US Republicans do not accept this scientific fact.

Indeed, tragically and paradoxically, among Republicans acceptance of the science decreases with their level of education as well as with their self-reported knowledge: Whereas Democrats who believe they understand global warming better also are more likely to believe that it poses a threat in their lifetimes, among Republicans increased belief in understanding global warming is associated with decreased perception of its severity. The more they think they know, the more ignorant they reveal themselves to be.


What motivates people to reject trivially simple facts – such as the President’s place of birth – as well as more complex facts – such as insights from geophysics and atmospheric science?

The peer-reviewed psychological literature provides some insight into this question. Numerous studies converge onto the conclusion that there is a strong correlation between a person’s endorsement of unregulated free markets as the solution to society’s needs on the one hand, and rejection of climate science on the other. The more “fundamentalist” a person is disposed towards the free market, the more likely they are to be in denial of global warming.

But what do markets have to do with geophysics or the thermal properties of CO2?

The answer is that global warming poses a potential threat to laissez-faire business. If emissions must be cut, then markets must be regulated or at least “nudged” towards alternative sources of energy – and any possibility of regulation is considered a threat to the very essence of their worldview by those for whom the free market is humanity’s crowning achievement.

It is this deep psychological threat that in part explains the hyper-emotionality of the anti-science discourse: the frenetic alarmism about a “world government”, the rhetoric of “warmist” or “extremist” levelled at scientists who rely on the peer reviewed literature, the ready invocation of the spectre of “socialism” – they all point to the perception of threat so fundamental that even crazed beliefs can constitute an alluring antidote.

Mooney on Science and Its Opposite

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve been following Chris Mooney’s blogging and podcasting really closely for a while now; he’s digging into subjects that I find fascinating, and I like his take on them.

He has an article in the upcoming issue of Mother Jones that covers some of the most interesting stuff he’s been into lately: The science of why we don’t believe science. It discusses recent research that Dan Kahan (among others) has been doing — see Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus (PDF) — that discusses how a person’s deeply held values influence his or her perception of scientific opinion. So, for example, if you are a politically conservative/libertarian-leaning person (in Kahan’s formulation, someone who values hierarchy over egalitarianism and individualism over communitarianism), then you will resist the (truthful) idea that there exists a scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, and poses a grave risk, presumably because you fear that such a consensus, if it existed, would be used to advance a government regulatory regime that would restrict free enterprise.

But the same sword cuts the other way, too. Kahan’s research shows that those on the progressive end of the political spectrum (in his formulation, those who value egalitarianism over hierarchy and communitarianism over individualism) are similarly likely to question the (truthful) idea that there exists a scientific consensus that radioactive wastes from nuclear power can be safely disposed of in deep underground storage facilities.

Mooney interviewed Kahan for his Point of Inquiry podcast a few months ago (Dan Kahan – The American Culture War of Fact), and it was a great interview; highly recommended. I was actually kind of disappointed that the article in Mother Jones didn’t go into as much detail as the podcast (see my griping here, for example). But for a broad-but-shallow overview of some intriguing aspects of the issue, it (the Mother Jones article) is definitely worth reading.

Kate on Climategate

Monday, November 29th, 2010

From Kate of the ClimateSight blog comes this really awesome summary: The Real Story of Climategate. The whole thing is good, but I especially liked this part:

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

I found ClimateSight via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, in his post today in which he linked to A firehose of global warming news, both good and bad. Huzzah for inbound links!

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.

Staniford on Denialism, Drought, and Politics

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

My latest man-crush is Stuart Staniford. He has a PhD in physics from UC Davis and is currently chief scientist for FireEye, a company that develops security software. As a hobby, though, he obsesses about longterm risks to humanity, and in his most-recent bloggy incarnation he writes Early Warning, which I just came across last week when Kevin Drum linked to it.

I don’t always do this when I come across a new blog, but in this case I’ve gone back to the beginning and am reading the whole thing in chronological order. It’s really good stuff. I enjoy following along as Staniford works his way through a problem; he’s logical, intelligent, and has a real knack for conveying the technical details of an issue in terms that neither overwhelm nor talk down to a non-technical reader.

Here’s one item I liked: The Elephant in the Room, in which he reviews the book of the same name. Staniford actually doesn’t think much of the book, but his comments on the subject itself are very cool:

When something is scary, people have an incentive to somehow avoid dealing with the facts, and a variety of creative strategies are available to them.

And in the alternative, if you commit yourself in some way to the idea that a particular risk is a big deal, (eg taking a public position, making career choices based on your assessment), you have a psychological incentive to deny evidence that maybe the problem is not so severe after all.

I think it’s these dueling incentives that create the structure we so often see around major global risks – one side is busy either ignoring the problem, or if that is no longer working, minimizing it, attacking the integrity of the proponents, etc. Meanwhile, the other side is at risk of exaggerating the seriousness of the problem, ignoring countervailing evidence or important context and of course attacking the integrity of the deniers. Both sides are often sincerely convinced of their own rightness (though there certainly can be scope for cynicism and deliberate dishonesty as well, and both sides will be very quick to point to the evidence for this on the other side, and very slow to examine it on their own side).

Staniford has a recent series of posts on the future of drought that were especially good. They basically concern his emotional and intellectual reactions to this graph:

It’s fascinating stuff. Staniford basically freaks out in response to seeing the graph and trying to wrap his head around what it means, then settles himself down and says, in effect, hey, I’m a scientist. I need to engage with this thing rationally. And then he does just that, and takes the reader along with him as he does his research and fits the pieces together. Highly recommended.

If a seven-part series of posts is too much of an investment, here’s a recent piece of Staniford’s that might pique the interest of this site’s readers in particular: A few election throughts.

What I see happening is this: the public is aware, rather inchoately, that things are going badly wrong and that the life they are accustomed to is under threat, but they have no idea what to do. The parties, by and large, have failed to diagnose the roots of the problem, and instead are reflexively proposing to relive their greatest hits of the past. Since the problems of the past are not the problems of the present, these approaches are not working. This is leading both parties into a cycle of over-promising what they can deliver, thus leading to bitter disappointment.

He goes on to detail just how it is that he sees the two major parties failing, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Like Jon Stewart talking to Rachel Maddow, the thing that strikes me the most, I think, is just how refreshing it is to read the take of someone who doesn’t feel the need to be throwing monkey poo at one side or the other, but is willing to stand back and say look: monkeys throwing poo.

Novella on Germ Theory Denial

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Man-crush Steven Novella writes awesomely on germ theory denial:

Denialism is always fascinating – the bold-faced denial of facts that are fully in evidence and easily verifiable. It is a testament to the profound psychological effect that ideology can have on the human brain, and the mechanisms by which it is maintained. And before we wax too self-righteous as skeptics in this regard, we must always remember that we are all susceptible to these psychological mechanisms. We are all human. That is precisely why we need the rigorous, transparent, and self-critical process of science to sort through complex questions such as disease and immunity.

I’m stealing his conclusion here, but the whole thing is very much worth reading.

How Deep the Climate-change Denialism Rabbit Hole Goes

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

I think he attributes too much influence to the right-wing noise machine in terms of eroding respect for institutions generally, but I liked the conclusion of this piece by David Roberts: The right’s climate denialism is part of something much larger.

Consider what the Limbaugh/Morano crowd is saying about climate: not only that that the world’s scientists and scientific institutions are systematically wrong, but that they are purposefully perpetrating a deception. Virtually all the world’s governments, scientific academies, and media are either in on it or duped by it. The only ones who have pierced the veil and seen the truth are American movement conservatives, the ones who found death panels in the healthcare bill.

It’s a species of theater, repeated so often people have become inured, but if you take it seriously it’s an extraordinary charge. For one thing, if it’s true that the world’s scientists are capable of deception and collusion on this scale, a lot more than climate change is in doubt. These same institutions have told us what we know about health and disease, species and ecosystems, energy and biochemistry. If they are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they’ve generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything! Here we are hip-deep in postmodernism and it came from the right, not the left academics they hate.

MacKenzie on Denialism

Friday, June 4th, 2010

Writing in New Scientist, Debora MacKenzie has an article that is right up my alley: Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.