It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Opinions Expressed by My Employer

My opinions aren't necessarily those of my employer, and the opinions of my employer aren't necessarily mine, either.

My employer, the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, has invited Fred Singer to give a talk this Thursday to a public lecture series that has required student attendance. The lecture is entitled "Nature — Not Human Activity — Rules the Climate".

I feel rather lucky that I will be out of town and unable to attend. I would be tempted to make a scene. I intend to say nothing further about this event, except for the easily surmised fact that this is not an invitation I would have made.

Any opinions out there?


gravityloss said...

Why don't you make a big fuss out of it?

It's probably contrary to the mission of the faculty to promote lies.

It's also an insult to all the scientists working there.

Dr. Lemming said...

You have four days to prep your students after informing them that they get an extra credit point each time they stump him.

Anonymous said...


What is wrong about trusting the critical thinking capabilities of what is presumably a well educated audience??


guthrie said...

Compulsory attendance surely suggests its supposed to be science that is talked about.
So what has Singer got to do with science again?

I like the idea of dropping lots of counters to Singer amongst your students etc.

David Duff said...

What's your problem, Michael, afraid of views from an emminent scientist that you, presumably would have no difficulty refuting? Please don't tell me you are in favour of closing down free speech - I thought your constitution had something to say about that sort of thing!

Anonymous said...

Right Said Fred Singer is Too sexy for your school.

Aaron said...

My guess is that the “Rules of Engagement” will include invitations to the press and no questions from the audience.

Thus, someone should send out a press release on the background of THIS speaker.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

When I see the name "S. Fred Singer" I think of three words:


Now really, black helicopters are always fun. Especially when contrasted against Douglass et al. (2007, yawn).

gravityloss said...

I guess one can't discuss or make cases with anything without the traditional "Freedom of Speech" kneejerk reaction.

An hypothetical example: Say, if I was a known crank that went around the internet saying that David Duff was a dangerous criminal, it would not be nice to invite me to speak to his workplace to give a mandatory lecture to the employees. Then David would have to go around and tell everyone and correct the lies after that, resulting lots of bad spirit, frustration and at the very least just unnecessary work for him.

So, freedom of speech is no excuse for disseminating lies.

The "are you afraid?" and "Freedom of Speech!" are just argument rhetorics.
It's also economical to argue like that since they are nice one liners to throw and take long to refute since one has to expose the complicated underpinnings.

John Mashey said...

Weirdly enough, I think it is worth:

a) Teaching students real science.

b) Exposing them to non-science (i.e., exaggeration, leaping on speculation, over-interpretation of early studies or too-short data).

c) Exposing them to the cleverer anti-science so they can recognize it, but with the right preparation.

Unfortunately, much university education in a) doesn't necessarily prepare one to be good at c), although it may help with b).

This was often seen in saying "If you want to figure out what someone claiming paranormal powers is doing, you can bring scientists if you want, but you'd better bring a stage magician (like James Randi). The former doesn't expect the universe to purposefully fooling them."

Of course, some scientists are both, or have gotten good at debunking, but it's a slightly different mindset.

Given that it is always easier to create confusion&doubt than insight, dealing with this sort of presentation is always difficult. I'd be tempted to do something like:

a) Give students a printed list of Skeptical Science arguments, and offer a small prize to whoever finds the most. This will need someone to attend who can actually record that, but is certainly trivial.

b) Maybe put together a list comparing "Hot Talk, Cold Science" and "Unstoppable Global Warming", and hand that out as a checkoff as well.

But it's too bad you'll be away. It would be *really* helpful if people knew what to look for beforehand, i.e., preemptively, than trying to repair it later.

Of course, were someone able to get a copy of his presentation beforehand, that would be even better.

John Mashey said...

Oops, two more:
I'd be tempted to suggest to students that they:

a) Go to the SEPP website and Search for tobacco.

b) Watch Naomi Oreskes' American Denial of Global Warming, preferably beforehand.

With the right preparation, this could indeed be a very good learning experience.

tidal said...

This is a bit of a tangent, but for anyone in the Greater Toronto Area, there is an outstanding series of "Distinguished Lecturer" seminars hosted by the UofToronto:

Gavin Schmidt, Bill Ruddiman have been recent presenters. They are well attended, a lot of students... Don't expect to see Dr. Singer added to the list.

Marion Delgado said...


Dano said...

Actually, Michael will not be surprised to learn that I disagree.


If your Uni's leaders are doing a good job, they have created an environment where students learn to hone their critical thinking skills. What better way to test them out than to listen to the words and watch the body language of one of the preeminent anti-science (thus anti-thought) denialists?

You need to assign a gobbet for this event. Your students need - need - to attend to get the points for this assignment, and they need to deconstruct the argumentation.

There is no need to be afraid of this event - it is a teachable moment and your students (esp undergrad [caveat: I don't know what mt teaches]) need to think critically about these presented arguments.

Gobbet/essay/analysis. 750-1000 words. Deconstruct. You have one week. Good luck.



Anonymous said...

Can't possibly let the dudes listen to the proponents from each side, and decide for themselves how the stream flows.

No. Lets dictate to them how they should think. We obviously can't trust them to make up their own minds.

rcram said...

Michael, the kind of fear you are showing only breeds more skepticism. If you are truly confident of the science, do not try to control public discourse. Shutting them out only makes it look like you are trying to hide something.

According to Wikipedia, Fred Singer is an award winning atmospheric physicist. If you thought he was going to be spouting non-facts, the invitation could involve both a lecture and a panel discussion afterward. In this way, you could put three scientists up against Singer and let them all try to put holes in his argument. Singer would probably accept that invitation.

By the way, you have never come by to comment on the thread "Will climate models ever be predictive?"

We would love to have you come over and present your point of view.

Also, I am trying to learn more about climate models. Specifically, I want to know what outputs the models produce in addition to GMST. Does the output include OHC, sea ice extent, glacial retreat, changes in water vapor and cloud cover? Do the models predict when ENSO will flip? Do they predict when the PDO will switch between its warm and cool phases? Where can I go to learn these answers?

gravityloss said...

Rcram, you could perhaps start your learning from Pinatubo.

The ignorance coupled with confidence shown in that thread is so profound that it's likely that the proponents don't have a honest desire to learn much, just write a lot of nonsense (whether or not they realize this themselves).

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Tobis said...

Wikipedia points us to a document by the same name as Singer's talk at

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

rcram, David Duff, Anonymous 1:57am:

Funny that all you 'skeptical' proponents of 'free speech' and 'free thought' don't seem to have any issue with the fact that student attendance is compulsory. I guess freedom only matters when your side has something to gain, eh...

"We would love to have you come over and present your point of view."

*cough* town hall meetings *cough*

* * *

Michael Tobis:

Yep, it's the infamous "NIPCC Report" that was presented at last year's Heartland 'conference'.

Also, for how long will you be out of town? There's nothing in the Rules(tm) that say that you're only allowed to react to Singer's talk before it has started. How about doing something with it after you're back?

Dano said...

Lubos is a contributor to Singer's little book. Faaaaascinating.

I stand by my assertion that students must deconstruct the argumentation.



ourchangingclimate said...

Regarding letting people make up their own minds:
Don’t underestimate the gullibility of people, especially when a suave talker like Singer tells them what they want to hear.
The large differences between the public’s and the scientists’ perception of climate change is perhaps evidence of this gullibility. And it’s successfully (ab)used by people like Singer.

I wrote a reply to Singer in a Dutch newsletter, the English translation is on my blog:
Climate “skeptics” out of touch with reality

Dano said...

Don’t underestimate the gullibility of people, especially when a suave talker like Singer tells them what they want to hear.
The large differences between the public’s and the scientists’ perception of climate change is perhaps evidence of this gullibility. And it’s successfully (ab)used by people like Singer.

Thus the mandtory exercise for students to deconstruct the argument.

Teachable moment here.



tidal said...

Even more tangential, but it is a university lecture!

Again, for anybody in Michael's vast readership that is the GTA:

Climate Change Through the Media Lens: An Assessment of the Role of Mainstream Media in Forming Public Opinion on Climate Change
Feb 25, 4 - 5:30 pm


ABSTRACT: Most media organizations are above all else businesses. In some cases businesses with an agenda, no doubt, but nonetheless businesses preoccupied with making payroll and creating shareholder value. They are organizations accountable through the (often daily) choice of consumers and advertisers, operating on ever-shrinking budgets. Indeed, resource constraints and the commercial realities of reader preference define today’s media environment and can lead to lapses in journalistic standards and a tendency to sensationalist reporting. As the economic downturn bites, this lecture examines how these intensifying pressures on media organizations affect reporting on climate change issues. And in turn how the traits of modern media define public opinion on climate change and the implication for policy making. Specifically, the talk will cover, trends in news reporting, fact checking for climate science, personality culture in climate change reporting, climate change sensationalism, conflict, opinion and balanced reporting on climate change.

BRIEF BIO: Stefan Reichenbach is Global Head of Environmental Markets at Thomson Reuters, the world's leading provider of financial news and information. Under his leadership, Thomson Reuters has emerged as a leading business media company for the environmental finance sector. Stefan introduced innovative online initiatives that inform the global carbon market and bring the market's buyers and sellers together...

thingsbreak said...

Fred Singer is a warrior of epic proportions* on this issue.

*According to Heartland

Chuck said...

I'd just like to point out that at many departments, student attendance is compulsory at the seminar series.

John Mashey said...

We await with bated breath news of what happened & student reaction...

Michael Tobis said...

Since I (and my spies) missed the event I have little information, and most of what I have is after the fact in internal communications that I shouldn't share.

All I feel comfortable in saying is this:

The event was extremely well-attended. The question period was short, and everybody went home.

As a consequence of the event, there are ongoing discussions of various aspects within the geosciences school, including about whom to invite to speak and how such decisions are made.

Also, somewhat ironically but not surprisingly, the social cohesion of the nascent climate group has been advanced.

Beyond that, I regret that you'll have to use your imagination or find some other informant.