Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Separate the Science of Climate Change from the Non-Science of Climate Deniers



Whether we think about it or not, we live in a scientific world. But with so much information out there it's sometimes difficult to separate the actual science from the pseudoscience, or worse, the crock. Especially when there are people out there who intentionally mislead the public on such important science issues as man-made climate change. 

The science is clear - human activity is causing our climate system to warm. The support for this is voluminous and unequivocal. But, you say, "I saw on a blog that said it was all a hoax. How do I know who to believe?"

A reasonable question, and one easy to address. Take, for example, the following video by Michael Shermer, an actual skeptic. In something he calls the "Baloney Detection Kit" he lays out ten questions everyone should ask themselves as they evaluate various claims. This interesting and informative video can help us understand the world of climate denialists, so watch it and then check out the text below.


As the video shows, there are 10 questions to ask ourselves when someone offers a new theory or opinion. Let's apply these to man-made climate change, also commonly called global warming.
 
1) How reliable is the source of the data?

The scientific consensus: Sources are tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over more than three decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world. 

The denialists: Sources are mostly non-science bloggers, Op-Eds in business newspapers, and a handful of skeptic scientists associated with free market and fossil fuel lobbying groups.

2) Does the source make similar claims?

The scientific consensus: Science is always open to new ideas.  That is how science works.  All new ideas undergo the same tests of evidence and scrutiny.

The denialists: The phrase used in the video, "heretic for the sake of heresy," comes to mind. Most denialists will argue for the sake of arguing, even if contradicting themselves.

3) Have the claims been verified?

The scientific consensus: All claims must meet the test of scrutiny - peer review, replication, many other experiments looking at the issue from many different angles. Claims of man-made climate change have been verified through multiple lines of evidence. 

The denialists: Any single "data" point is touted as the truth that upsets the established understanding, even long after the "data" has been shown to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or an outright fabrication.

4) Does this fit with the way the world works?

The scientific consensus: The idea that CO2 could have the effect that was discovered is entirely logical and consistent with how the world works. It has been demonstrated through experiment and empirical evidence.

The denialists: Some of the claims are so bizarre and so divorced from the way the world works that the logic is hard to follow, e.g., the claims that the well known greenhouse effect is somehow false despite nearly 200 years of evidence.

5) Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

The scientific consensus: Scientists constantly are looking at alternative explanations. The author and/or every other scientist in the field will try to test whether other explanations would also explain the phenomena being observed.

The denialists: This is best summed up by a direct quote by one denialist: "I and all of skeptic science has [sic] cherry picked the facts that disproves that man made C02 is the cause of global warming. We don't need any others."

6) Where does the preponderance of the evidence point?

The scientific consensus: Tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over many decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world have led to the overwhelming conclusion that has become the scientific consensus on climate change.

The denialists: Bloggers and skeptic scientists associated with free market lobbying groups who suggest one study is enough to invalidate the preponderance of the evidence.

7) Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

The scientific consensus: Science is all about using the scientific method, assessing corraborative evidence, testing, using logic, etc.

The denialists: Tendency to ignore any data that do not support their predefined view, including all the information presented that demonstrates their "data" are false.

8) Is the claimant providing positive evidence?

The scientific consensus: Climate scientists have provided many decades of positive evidence in tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies, corroborated by observations of ice melting, glaciers receding, temperature changes, etc. The most recent IPCC assessment reports summarize this positive evidence in detail.

The denialists: Most of the "evidence" provided is unsupported by the data, usually unverifiable, and contradictory. Often what is presented as evidence is not actually evidence but rather a political or economic viewpoint, e.g., global warming is a hoax because cap-and-trade will cost companies money

9) Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?

The scientific consensus: As noted, climate scientists have compiled many decades of evidence that account for the changes we have been observing.

The denialists: Mostly focus on anomalies and seem to think that these few uncertainties explain everything, when in fact they simply ignore anything that seems not to fit their predetermined ideas.

10) Are personal beliefs driving the claims?

The scientific consensus: As the video notes, scientists are people too. Which is why we have peer-review and the scrutiny of other scientists who may view the issue from a different perspective.  The data tell us which conclusions are supported.

The denialists: Mostly begin with a distaste for one of the policy remedies and then decide to "fight the science" as a lobbying tool to avoid regulation. They then cherry pick to find any information that they think supports their crusade to avoid regulation (by denying the science). This helps explain why the most cited "skeptic" scientists are all associated with free market lobbying groups, and why we routinely hear denialists say things like "climate change is wrong because cap-and-trade is just a tax on business."

Feel free to go back and view Shermer's "Baloney Detection Kit" again. These ten questions should be asked by every citizen evaluating for themselves the claims made by scientists and denialists. In fact, that last line is a good indicator of the veracity of the claims - virtually all climate scientists (along with the realities of physics) concur that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly support the conclusion that human activity is warming the planet. Those who claim man-made climate change is a hoax? Mostly they are non-scientists and free market/fossil fuel-supported spokespeople.

That says a lot.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Climate Denialists Argue Even When It’s Clear They Are Wrong



Duty calls
From xkcd.com
It seems every scientist has been through it a million times. We see some climate science denier saying something that is so incredibly divorced from fact that we can’t believe they would so blatantly show off their ignorance. So we explain, we correct, we demonstrate their lack of understanding, and yet they continue.
Why? Do they not notice their ignorance, their lack of logic, their devolution into pedantic proselytizing? Are they so wrapped up in their belief systems that the very act of admitting actual facts would damage their self-worth? Or are they just trolls, thriving on their self-delusional belief that they are smarter than a fifth grader, not to mention every climate scientist in the world?

The answer, of course, is yes, all of the above, though not necessarily all at the same time in the same person. Since denialist positions are so often based on what they want to be true rather than what the facts demonstrate to be true, they cannot give in. To do so would result in such psychological discordance as to completely destroy their self-value.

However, the psyches of amateur denialists can be left for another essay; this one is about professional denialists. Why do the paid lobbyists and their designees continue to write Op-Eds and other opinion pieces in non-science, non-peer reviewed venues even when they know they will be immediately debunked?

The answer is actually self-evident in the question. Denialists know that they have no valid scientific argument; if they did they would present it in scientific journals, conferences, and debates. Their goal isn’t to demonstrate science, it is to manipulate public opinion. That is what lobbyists do, and they do it well. Their goal is to create the illusion of debate, the fa├žade of uncertainty. By continuing the “discussion,” such as it is, in the media, they win. They know that a majority of the public won't understand the intricacies of the science, either by choice or by its complexity. Denialists know that the public will get an overall sense of whether the science is settled or not, and that it is on this vague feeling the public will make judgments as to whether immediate action is needed. Perception is more important than fact, and illusion of reality is much more powerful than actual reality.

The goal of the game

As Sherlock Holmes might say, “the game is afoot.” To professional climate deniers, the game is keeping the public confused and giving cover to politicians wishing to avoid taking positions (see "I am not a scientist").

A good example of this is the recent back-and-forth over an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal by computational physicist, Steven Koonin. The Op-Ed follows the usual pattern of being written by someone who is not a climate scientist, repeating misperceptions and misinformation already demonstrated to be false, and drawing conclusions not supported by the premises presented, faulty as they usually are. It’s the same spiel offered dozens of times before by Heartland Institute lawyer/lobbyist James Taylor and other designated denialists of the month. In each case the opinion piece presents a straw man to attack while ignoring all of the actual science and previous rebuttals of the same faulty premises repeated ad nauseam. The denial lobby knows their arguments don’t hold water, so why do they keep offering them?

Because they get rebutted. Immediately, repeatedly, and demonstrably. Every single time.

To scientists this might seem crazy. We think that constantly being shown to be wrong would be a persuasive reason not to say the same false thing over and over. We expect people to learn from their mistakes, not simply repeat them as if doing so would somehow make falsehoods true. That’s because scientists are used to arguing the science; professional denialist lobbyists, on the other hand, are arguing the public opinion. What is critical in this game is not what the science tells us, it’s the fact that to the public it appears as if there are two sides arguing with each other. Two sides + arguing = not settled. 

Lobbyists, aka, professional climate deniers, know this. The act of continued “discussion” is conflated with disagreement. It doesn’t matter that one “side” says something that has been repeatedly proven false while the other “side” presents actual facts; all that matters to the public is the appearance of disagreement. Some of the public will interpret this as meaning the science isn’t settled, others will use it as convenient reinforcement for an ideologically motivated position. In both cases, reality isn’t the driver – the manufactured doubt is the driver. 

That is the game being played by the denialist industry, one that they will always win. Scientific-reality-be-damned.

So should scientists take the time to rebut opinion pieces in politically motivated media outlets? Alas, the answer isn't a simple yes or no. We'll explore options in future posts, but scientists should consider whether their reply dowses a few few smoldering embers noticed only by foxholed fanatics, or fuels a wider conflagration that, in the end, further confuses the public. The latter, of course, is exactly what the professional denialists want.


[Graphic from http://xkcd.com/386/]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Googling the Internet - How Climate Deniers Get Their "Science"


Often, on the internet, you'll find a breed of amateur climate denier who, to be kind, boggles the mind. Some time ago one such person left a series of comments adamantly avowing that I was uninformed about climate science. With what turned out to be irrational self-confidence he asserted that he was more informed than I and could demonstrate "the truth" about the science by simply “Googling the internet.” Always curious, I asked for examples.

After a few days of requests he finally admitted that he was “doing some research in his spare time to find some urls” that would prove that there were thousands of climate scientists out there who disagreed with the scientific consensus. A week later he finally returned with his examples - a list of “urls” that he had trouble posting because they kept getting cut off from the screen view (so much for technical expertise).


Before taking a look at the “urls” he posted, let’s stop for a second and examine what we have so far, which, frankly, is a lot of exclamation without much of a point. Scientists who study climate are considered to be uninformed, and amateur denialists know this is true because they can “google the internet.” Yet, despite boasting of superior knowledge, it appears there hasn’t actually been much googling going on prior to all that boasting. 

Okay, so we have someone who feels that all one needs to do is a quick Google search to find scads of valid scientific information from climate scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus. And voila (a week later), we now have a list of URLs. In fact, 30 URLs were offered that, individually and cumulatively, could supposedly demonstrate that thousands of climate scientists refute the scientific consensus. One might assume this was an impressive list except for one major drawback - lack of science. What he provided was simply a jumble of miscellaneous links to blogs, newspaper articles, and a fraudulent fake survey. In technology terms, this is what is called a "data dump," or more accurately, a "Google and Go." To give you an idea of this treasure trove of information, the 30 URLs break down as follows:

 - 4 cite Senator Inhofe/Mark Morano’s “Minority Report,” a compilation of highly edited snippets mostly from a variety of politicians, lobbyists, and scientists in other fields with no actual climate research knowledge

- 6 cite the Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine (OISM) “petition project,” the fraudulent list of undocumented people who signed a one-paragraph pledge based on a faked article produced by a survivalist book seller


- 14 cite various lawyers and non-science lobbyists who work for fossil fuel and/or free market lobbying organizations

- 1 cites the hastily constructed “Climate Swindle” movie by Martin Durkin, who admitted to rather sketchy misrepresentation of the data and state of the science

- 4 cite blogs that actually support the scientific consensus (which he obviously hadn't read beyond the blog title)

- 1 cites an actual climate scientist

Wait, that last one actually cited a climate scientist? See, there is one climate scientist that disagrees with the scientific consensus (97% agree with the consensus). All those scientific data and virtually all active climate scientists must be wrong, because, hey, one climate scientist disagrees. Well, not disagrees, really. The only scientist cited in 30 URLs offered is Dr. John Christy, who admits that the planet is in fact warming and that human activity such as burning fossil fuels is a cause. So Christy actually admits that the scientific consensus is right, he just thinks it will be slower than do the vast majority of climate scientists. Not much of a refutation, even though he tries.

So 30 URLs, all but one to blogs and online newspapers and fake lists of mostly non-scientists.  That’s it. That’s the sole result of a week of “Googling the internet” to come up with "thousands of scientists" who disprove man-made climate change.

All of this explains why the professional climate denier organizations spend so much time writing Op-Eds, supporting misinformation blogs, and attacking scientists despite knowing that their misinformation will be immediately debunked. Because they know most amateur climate deniers either don't care about the science or simply don't bother to understand it (or, usually, both). Falsehoods and misdirections will still saturate the internet long after they've been found lacking in accuracy or honesty. Doubt is their product. And they know how to sell it.

Future posts will continue this series exposing climate denialism. Stay tuned for more of the tactics and tall tales of the climate denial industry.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Climate Denial Tactic - Repeat a Falsehood Enough and Maybe It Will Become True

This page recently started posting a series of articles exposing climate denialism, for example, this one about the kinds of unreliable sources used by denialists instead of science, and this one differentiating between professional and amateur deniers. A comment left on the post just prior to those highlights yet another denialist tactic - repeating falsehoods as if saying it over and over would somehow make it become true.

The post itself discussed a defamation lawsuit filed by climate scientist Michael Mann, the target of an unending stream of personal attacks since the publication of the "hockey stick" graph 15 years ago. The graph (and the dozen or so graphs just like it by myriad independent researchers since that time) represents a threat to those who would prefer not to deal with the science. So professional denialists have targeted it, and more directly, Mann.

As such, the amateur denialists eagerly repeat the falsehoods, usually in a way that demonstrates their ideological bent and ignorance of the actual science. I'll parse the comment here as representative of how amateurs work. The full comment can be viewed on the original post. Italicized portions below are verbatim from the comment:

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous" and his cousin "Fake Screen Name" are prolific commenters.

Mann became famous, of sorts, as a critical link in the chain that unequivocally demonstrates human activity is warming the planet.

Here the commenter is repeating a line from the first paragraph of my original article. It shows that he at least started to read the post, though the rest of his comment suggests that may be as far as he got. This is actually very common. Mention of Mann's name, much like the mention of Al Gore's name, tends to elicit a Pavlovian-like response among ideologally-motivated deniers. That response immediately initiates a fixed action pattern. The commenter goes on:

Unequivocally?

Yes, unequivocally. This has been voluminously detailed in the latest IPCC reports and dozens of other reports, not to mention all the thousands of scientific studies on which the reports are based. Adding a question mark allows the commenter to dismiss the reality without having the burden of actually explaining why.  

But here the rant begins to get a bit rabid. Using a technique often called the "Gish Gallop," he offers a series of rapid-fire falsehoods in the hopes their sheer weight will cause them to become true.

From a Mann who refuses to show his work? From a Mann who lied about being vindicated. From a Mann who lied about winning Nobel Peace prize. From a Mann who left MWP out of is HockeyStick. From a Mann who conveniently didn't chart Decline at end of his HockeyStick.

Okay, breathe. Another breath. Good. Now, each of these assertions is false. I'll address each in turn below:

1) Mann has, in fact, shown his work. His papers have all been peer-reviewed and published in top scientific journals, where he and his co-authors explain in detail his work. He has even made available his data. His work is some of the most scrutinized work in science. So the commenter's assertion is patently false.

2) Mann also hasn't lied about anything. As noted, his work has been reviewed by hundreds of other scientists and a variety of academic and scientific panels, including the National Academy of Sciences. That work, and Mann's statements, have all been validated, vindicated, and verified over and over again. Again, the assertion being made is patently false (and, in fact, libelous).

3) Likewise, your assertion about Mann lying about winning a Nobel Peace prize is absolutely false. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was "shared, in two equal parts, between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change." Mann, along with all other "scientists that had contributed substantially to the preparation of IPCC reports," [was presented] with a personalized certificate "for contributing to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC."

4) Also false is the assertion that Mann left the MWP out of his "hockey stick" graphs. Most often this falsehood stems from a profound ignorance of the science. Many denialists like to cite one early, regional, schematic (not even real data) and ignore all of the actual data collected and analyzed on a global basis over the last 35 years. Mann correctly applies the data. Skeptical Science has a nice overview of the MWP for anyone who would like to dispel their ignorance.

5) The assertion that Mann failed to chart "Decline" is, not surprisingly given the commenter's track record, false. It also suggests profound ignorance of the data and use of proxies. Mann charted the actual instrumentally measured temperatures in years since we had reliable measurements. These are overlaid on the proxy metrics often used. The commenter seems to want scientists to plot proxy data that had been found to be unreliable and ignore all the actual measured temperature data. That would be scientifically indefensible.

To recap, every one of the rapid-fire statements made in that one ideologically-infused diatribe is false. All. False.

From here the commenter reveals his motivation for the divorced-from-fact rant:

AGW is an elaborate ruse by elitists to make them richer marketing Green products and supported by AGW Climatologists for lucrative funding.

Notwithstanding the obvious unfamiliarity with scientific research, this implies somehow all of the world's scientists, one hundred years of scientific research by thousands of independent groups, more than 100,000 peer-reviewed studies published in hundreds of scientific journals, every major scientific organization, every National Academy of Sciences, and millions of data points have all conspired to make a few elitists richer. Even physics has somehow joined this conspiracy.

Discussion of fantasy conspiracies will have to wait for another post. This post has focused on one basic tactic of climate denialists as so clearly illustrated by a single comment. Repetition of falsehoods doesn't make them true to anyone but the person repeating them, and that person usually has willfully chosen to remain ignorant of the reality.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Climate Denial on the Internet - Who are the Deniers?

Virtually every climate scientist agrees - the planet is warming and human activity is the cause. This is the unequivocal science. Yet there are people out there who go out of their way to deny that science. They are called deniers, or denialists, or sometimes just, trolls. But who really are the climate deniers?

The term "climate deniers," of course, is simply shorthand for people who deny the man-made causes of our current warming of the climate. One of the common tactics used by climate deniers is to rattle off the platitude "I'm not denying climate," or its corollary, "Climate has been happening for millions of years." So when we say "climate denial" we are referring to the active denial, misinforming, or ignorance of the undeniable body of data unequivocally demonstrating the planet is warming and that humans are the main cause. The science is clear; denial of that science is climate denial.

What deniers are not

But climate deniers come in multiple flavors and a good place to start understanding how to deal with deniers is to know who they are. One thing that is clear, however, is that the vast percentage of climate deniers are not skeptics. While they often label themselves as skeptics, like virtually everything else they say their use of the term is incorrect. Skeptics are those with knowledge of the field who look at the evidence (all of it) and remain incompletely convinced. Scientists are by nature skeptics, always questioning their own and others findings. It's how science works, so in those rare cases when virtually all scientists agree it's because the evidence is multifaceted and overwhelming. Climate deniers, on the other hand, are a particularly unskeptical crowd, accepting every non-science blogger's diatribe (and defending it even after it is summarily debunked) while simply denying all the actual science from actual scientists because it is inconvenient.

So deniers are not skeptics. That's the first thing to understand. The second is that there are two broad groups of climate deniers - the professionals and the amateurs.

The professional deniers

The professionals are those who are paid to deny climate science. The names most associated with climate denial are the Heartland Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute (as documented in the book, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway), a series of lobbying organizations associated with the billionaire Koch brothers, and a variety of other front groups whose names keep changing while their staff and paid spokespeople tend to overlapped considerably (denial organizations get a lot of mileage out of a very few people).

"Doubt is our product," as one tobacco executive so infamously put it in a memo that wasn't intended for public consumption, unlike the cigarette smoke that the industry was denying caused health effects. So too is this the primary goal of the climate denial industry. Some of the same players who once denied the tobacco/cancer connection, such as Heartland Institute and Fred Singer, now are paid by the fossil fuel industry to manufacture doubt about the unequivocal science of man-made global warming.

These professional deniers accomplish their creation of doubt by a variety of means that I'll go into in future posts, but the key tool they use is the internet. It is these professional denial lobbyists who create the content that they know will be plagiarized and shared unskeptically by the more ideological non-science followers, aka, the amateur denialists.

The amateur deniers

Once the professional denial lobby has seeded the internet via their paid bloggers (e.g., Climate Depot, WUWT, etc.), they rely on the amateur deniers to saturate the blogosphere with every sciencey-sounding, but already debunked, misinformational tidbit. Actual science by NOAA, NASA, the IPCC, and every other scientific organization is dismissed as "unreliable," while a blog post by some non-scientist with his pet conspiracy theory is taken as gospel. No matter that the blog post was already shown to be in error and largely in ignorance of the science. No matter that the post was plagiarized in its entirety from another blogger with no science background. No matter that that blogger had plagiarized it from some conspiracy nut blog, who stole it from someone else. The blogger says what the ideologue wants to hear so it by default, in the deniers mind, must be true and all those science organizations must be wrong.

Such is the rationale of amateur deniers. The combined information of nearly every climate scientist, every climate science organization, every National Academy of Science in the world, a hundred thousand peer-reviewed scientific studies, more than a century of research, millions of data points, and the realities of basic physics can all be washed away by an anonymous blogger posting easily debunked misinformation on a blog by a non-scientist receiving funding by lobbyists.

Such is the power of the internet.

Future posts will take a closer look at both professional and amateur climate deniers as we continue this series of periodic posts exposing climate denialism. Stay tuned for more of the tactics and tall tales of the climate denial industry.

[Graphic from Skeptical Science]