The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

For the Second Day in a Row

For the second day in a row Mark Morano has issued a press release from Senator Inhofe's office essentially reporting that I make an equivalence between criticizing Al Gore and responsibility for 1000 deaths. Unfortunately for me I said something vaguely like that, but it's being oversimplified.

How did Morano make a second press release out of it? Well, he announced that Glenn Beck had made a story out of it, a story that wasn't much different than Morano's first press release. Talk about an echo chamber.

Here's Glenn Beck's TV version (note the strategically placed egghead-mockery):
He's appalled that Pielke would equate George Will and the almighty Al Gore. He says, quote: As for the scope of the ethical risk, let's consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a near part per billion and a percent of a percent and a percent. Oh, I love my beakers. Hang on. Sometimes I just like to hold them. I cuddle with them. This one I've named Ronald, Ronald my friendly beaker. I'm sorry, got to go back to typing. The expected mortality from this is 1,000 people. Is that mortality equivalent to actually killing 1,000 people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't.

Wait a minute. So you're saying comparing George Will to Al Gore as somebody who exaggerates about global warming is equivalent to killing 1,000 people? "Yes, pretty much. You like my lab coat?" Scientists believe that saying Al Gore exaggerates is equal to killing 1,000 people. Well, if that is true -- you know what, we should keep track of the Glenn Beck death count because I have a feeling if we counted all the times that I made fun of Al Gore, I might be equal in deaths with Stalin.
Haha. Stalin humor.

Here is what I actually said, deep in the comments to the thread about Roger Pielke. Now I wish I hadn't said it, since it blew up in my face like this, but see if you think that was a fair representation:
Implying an equivalence between Gore, who is constantly treading a fine line between effective politics and truthful description of risks, and George Will, who is wrong from beginning to end in conception, detail and emphasis is unacceptable because it perpetuates this dangerous skew.

As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't.

In practice one can and must excuse oneself behind all the myriad realistic uncertainties. We don't know, after all, which butterfly will cause the hurricane. Most likely if we do find our way to hell, we will have trodden on many good intentions along the way.

But the point is that we really are playing with fire here and we shouldn't be putting our own careers or our own self-worth (like a clever and easy column for the Times) ahead of the enormous scope of the problem, because mortalities on the order of a billion are by no means excluded.
Update: It was not enough to interject some idiocy into the middle of the quote and get the details wrong. Beck cut me off in the middle of the argument. Then he summarized my position quite wrongly.

The "pretty much, yeah" was already a stretch. I only posed the question, I didn't provide the answer. And if you look further up the thread, you'll see I stipulated that the person making the comparison did not actually believe it.

Then Beck announced that "Scientists believe that saying Al Gore exaggerates is equal to killing 1,000 people". This has become the headline propagated hither and yon around the world. It has no resemblance to my actual beliefs and is a very unfair representation of what I said. To make matters worse, the accompanying commentary usually comes attached not only to myself but also to the name of my employer, embarrassing and damaging the institution along with myself.

Please. How would you like to have something like that hung round your neck on national TV?

I never said or believed that. Nor did anybody else as far as I know.

I note Beck issues it in the plural. "ScientistS"??? I suppose if pressed Beck will have to come up with somebody else who never said it too.


Late Update (March 10) For those interested in the sequence of events that got me in such trouble, these are the key events. I realize it's more than anyone would want to take in in one sitting, but there are fascinating nuggets all through the saga.

1) The the George Will Controversy was just about everywhere. I piled on, myself.

2) meanwhile, Roger Pielke Jr's criticism of the Gore slide

3) Andy Revkin's false balance column

4) my critique of Andy's column

5) Brad Johnson's critique of Andy's column

6) My ill-fated attempt to defuse Brad's sideswipe at Pielke . I get into trouble deep in the comments, as quoted in the article you are now reading.

7) Keith Kloor's oddly timed attack on me (I like Keith but: 1) I believe he misunderstood my statistical use of the word "expected" 2) I had never heard of him before this, nor, I suspect, he of me.) Keith truncates my argument in the middle as well as missing the point.

8) Pielke's view of my explanation of moral implications of Revkin's false balance. (Can Pielke also not have understood the statistical argument? He has an undergrad in math and grew up around climatologists.) Also truncates my argument in the middle, at best misses the point, even though he has read the original. Concludes provocatively, in response to my query "I’d sure like to know how I gave ammunition to my enemies”, "Anyone care to give him an answer?"

9) Glenn Beck's attack based on Morano's press release, presumably based on Pielke's article.

10) I admit that Pielke has demonstrated that my comments contain ammunition for my enemies.

11) Arthur Smith's eloquent defense of me

12) my first stunned reaction

13) my second stunned reaction

14) recapitulation at Kloor's

see also

15) Joe Romm's defense of Gore

16) Eli Rabett's defense of Gore

17) Arthur Smith's retelling of the story

18) John Fleck's comparison of Gore and Will

19) my own comparison of Gore and Will


Yes, a veritable treasure trove of blogstorming!

38 comments:

Penguindreams said...

For the 'what else to do' -- while the 15 minute clock is running, take the time to put forward some of the messages you've been wanting to get out to larger audiences.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, to be sure, blog traffic has tripled, but that still doesn't amount to much. So far my phone isn't ringing off the hook.

Dano said...

Michael,

ya'll need ta make lemminayd.

Make note of the noise machine antics. If you ever get the chance, bring it up. This is a wonderful opportunity. I know you aren't geared like I am, and that's fine, but there's the chance to make hay here, don't back down because its distasteful, step up to your comfort level and use it. You never know what might happen. Be humble about it and approach it with a sense of wonder, for that's what it is. Who knew? Who frackin knew? Even wordpress says 'inscenu'...

Best,

D

coby said...

Pretty remarkable. But these guys are such idiots they keep quoting enough of what you said that anyone intelligent can see their paraphrase "criticizing Gore = killing 1000 people" is not right. Plus Glenn Beck just looks like a fool because he thinks arithmetic is Too Hard.

I hope this is not causing you undue stress.

Michael Tobis said...

They have to quote all of it, methinks, and then stretch what they just quoted.

I've never been litigious, but if this isn't defamation it's awfully close. If they put words in my mouth they cross the line.

Scruffy Dan said...

Given what I know of Morano, I can't say I am surprised that you have been so badly misinterpreted. This may even be honest by Morano's standards (though still dishonest by any other definition of the word).

Perhaps the best thing to do, is understand that the dishonest elements of this debate will try to twist our words to make us sound foolish. We need to ensure that we make that as difficult as possible. Unfortunately given the dishonesty of Morano and his ilk, that wont be an easy task.

Hank Roberts said...

> what can I do besides

Try this: bump the International Polar Year headline to the first screen. Keep climate news on your first screen. Leave the disgusting stuff for those who want to PageDown.

Feed the traffic that comes here the news about climate change -- the news the septic bogosphere wants to bury by making noise.

Lots more International Polar Year stuff coming out, tne ANDRILL reports are showing up in Scholar.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"How did Morano make a second press release out of it? Well, he announced that Glenn Beck had made a story out of it, a story that wasn't much different than Morano's first press release."

Draw a diagram to illustrate the cycle of communication. Diagrams are good, and they're hard(er) to twist.

Also, find a way to fit Rush Limbaugh in.

George said...

We're dealing with the future of humanity here, and a vastly different and more dangerous world. People react violently when they're told that what they're doing is wrong and harmful - it's the last thing they want to hear.

Unfortunately, time is running out, the science has never been so explicit about the urgency of serious action. The time for gentle words is over, and all acting politely does is give the extremists more space to claim they're acting with moderation.

Give him hell. You put quite a few if's in there - it wasn't a bold assertion of fact, but an expression of a possibility. If he's saying you said it as fact, he's lying. Which is what you would expect.

Belette said...

Micahel, I think PD's advice is good: don't worry about being misrepresented, you always will be and no-one who matters will care.

Take the opportunity to put up a nice short post explaining your views on GW and what we should be doing, and perhaps (since you'll get a lot of them) some suggestions as to how Joe Public can find the truth.

ourchangingclimate said...

The media pick out words that resonate and focus on them in the absence of the original context. Even worse, they try to create their own context, in line with their (often twisted) ideas of the issues.

I share your frustration that even a highly regarded reporter such as Revkin puts Will and Gore on an equal level in the popular debate. And even worse, that your words are thereafter twisted to mean something ludicrous.

However, without wanting to sound patronizing, the advice you gave others seems to be quite apt to this situation:
http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2007/03/why-truth-is-losing-ground.html

We always have to aware of how our words can and will be used against us, and of how many people listen in without knowing the full context of how skewed the popular debate is.

Thus it's perhaps good to say things less blunt than we really want to.

Anonymous said...

Michael,it is almost impossible to anticipate every distortion these cretins will generate in order to entertain their dumb-ographic; you'd have to be as cynical and mendacious as they are even to have an inkling.

The fact that Morano does what he does with public funds is an indictment of Senate oversight.

nick

gravityloss said...

It's a thought experiment. "Let us consider the possibility."

I've heard theories that actually a large percentage of people lacks the skill of abstractive thinking.

Hence your argument is incomprehensible to them.

Perhaps the best way to make yourself understood would be through analogies?

Say, a chemical plant thinking if they should dump some mercury into the sea or not. And if a guy says that it doesn't do anything by criticizing established toxicity studies (and possibly even when he knows otherwise, but makes a profit) and they dump it and a lot of bad things ensue, that guy is responsible for a lot of bad things.

Does this mean toxicity study criticism is unscientific or shouldn't be done? No. But words have consequences and there must be responsibility taken for them.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minamata_disease

Craig Allen said...

For what it's worth, I concur with your argument.

These people make a living out of justifying the continuation of a path that is likely to lead to a lot of misery. They do so by knowingly distorting the science and misrepresenting scientists and others.

They are in roles where they are able to significantly sway public and political opinion.

They therefore bear a significant degree of responsibility for the anticipated suffering.

Their actions are immoral.

gravityloss said...

(The above comment was partly because I get sometimes a lot of knee-jerk "freedom of speech" comments from well-meaning intelligent people who actually defend lying.)

Michael Tobis said...

A very good point, Hank. Unfortunately the Blogger interface isn't that flexible. I've been reluctant to change because of the momentum of this URL. Locked in, by Google no less.

But your editorial point is interesting. On the other hand, as long as other people are making news out of me, it seems kind of silly for me not to cover it.

Magnus Westerstrand said...

It would be interesting to hear what kind of traffic the blog got from the links from the "dark side"?

ourchangingclimate said...

"some suggestions as to how Joe Public can find the truth."

I took a stab at that here

Bart

Hank Roberts said...

Agreeing with William and others (and myself, and you) -- can a one line link go near the top, maybe

What Really Matters Now?

Maybe above or at the top of your right sidebar 'best' list, and from that links pointing to the Arctic sea ice tipping point and others?

Dunno. Just hate to see the PeeJr stuff pushing your own writing out of your own top space.

Bob North said...

Michael -
Although I 100% disagree with you on the Revkin matter and think you really missed the entire point of his article (i.e., the hyperbole doesn't necessarily help ones cause), I do not think that your (intemperate) remarks in any way desrve the attention and derision that they seem to be getting.

Michael Tobis said...

Though I'll report news, this has never been an outreach site.

I have some thoughts about how outreach should work, which would be very different than twenty years ago when we had a clean slate. And I did make some attempt at Wired Science for a few months.

Also, note that the traffic here is not mostly coming from true neutrals (except KOTR, who is an old college buddy) but mostly from people pretty much committed one way or the other.

Michael Tobis said...

Bob, thanks so much for your kind note.

Regarding our disagreement, I will revisit the Revkin thing soon when enough dust settles to get a fair retrospective of this whole revealing soap opera.

I see your point, actually. I wonder if you see mine.

Marion Delgado said...

Someone earlier talked about the "posse" issue. I like to think I am instead the disreputable and extreme alternative that makes Michael Tobis look like Bjorn Lomborg :)

In that spirit:

Michael, you wimp!!


:)

Marion Delgado said...

also, and for the record, Revkin is, i think, aware and well-meaning. The CULTURE we're in now is the real problem.

When I was in J-School I really fretted about how it was all called "communication" - which started i think in the 90s.

So you had PR students, advertising students, marketing students, journalism students, all in one big pile and no distinction made whatsoever between the "branches" of "Communications" -- hey, you're all communicating!

I think that was both a bad sign and a furtherance of the bad culture. My fellow students when asked said covering a war your main duty is to support the troops. Doing a business story it's not to displease a source, upset the applecart, or disturb the local economy. etc. and those were, nominally, the journalism students.

Revkin isn't palpably evil, but the culture of he said/she said equivocation at all costs has palpably harmful effects, and nothing to recommend it except laziness and ass-covering. If you said it's a social ill that might express it better.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

Mike, this is how the deniers operate. Distort, quote selectively, and if necessary, lie. In fact, it's how the right wing in general operates in this country.

It's funny, there used to be decent thinkers in the Republican Party. If the GOP were still the party of guys like Gerald Ford, and even, God help us, Dick Nixon, I might be a Republican today. But I cannot ethically join the party of Rush Limbaugh and Senator Imhofe. Truth matters.

I highly recommend a book by the late M. Scott Peck: People of the Lie. It was promoting the idea of a psychological diagnosis of evil for some people, but the part that interested me was the observation that lying seems to be intrinsic to such people -- that they lie even when they don't have to; that they're all about not telling the truth. It's scary and it's sad.

Chris M said...

Dr. Tobis, I don't understand how Glenn Beck misrepresented you as you are claiming. You focus on the fact that he said "part per billion" where you really said "part per million", but how is that relevant? That's a red herring. He read the controversial part of your statement verbatim and provided the context. He did not take you out of context as you claim and he certainly did not defame you.

You claim that he should have quoted you fully, but you didn't quote him fully either. Could it be because the rest of the transcript is unnecessary to accurately represent what he said? Couldn't he say the same about your statement?

llewelly said...

Michael Tobis:

In practice one can and must excuse oneself behind all the myriad realistic uncertainties. We don't know, after all, which butterfly will cause the hurricane. Most likely if we do find our way to hell, we will have trodden on many good intentions along the way.



In practice one can and must excuse oneself behind all the myriad realistic uncertainties. We don't know, after all, which comment will be dishonestly quote-mined by those who would most likely have found a different set of words to cherry-pick if we had said something different.. Most likely if we do find our way to hell, we will have trodden on many good intentions along the way.

Marion Delgado said...

Meanwhile back at the ranch, this is what I would say was the most sensational find on the climate front.

(above link points to
http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2009/02/17/marc-morano-jokers/
)

WV: refacho Fr. noun, meaning someone who reverts to fascism.

Michael Tobis said...

Chris M. I suppose Beck may have garbled what I said inadvertently, though I don't think much that happens on national TV isn't carefully planned.

I suppose one can hope that nobody took the part about Ronald the test tube (???) too seriously.

But consider this: I provided a link to Beck's whole context, which you followed.

On the other hand Beck cut me off in the middle of the argument. Then he summarized my position quite wrongly.

I suppose the "pretty much, yeah" was only a stretch (I only posed the question, I didn't provide the answer).

But the "Scientists believe that saying Al Gore exaggerates is equal to killing 1,000 people." is totally a vile position, and completely has nothing to do with my beliefs or my argument, though it is the headline being flung around the net.

Please. How would you like to have something like that hung round your neck on national TV?

I never said that.

Also he issues it in the plural. "ScientistS"??? I suppose if pressed Beck will have to come up with somebody else who never said it too.

Dano said...

What BPL said.

Best,

D

David B. Benson said...

What Dano just wrote.

Arthur said...

Hi folks - I took the liberty of posting my accounting of events. If you're wondering what a "concern troll" is, google it, there are lots of good explanations and examples. Pielke Jr. fits the definition to a T.

Mark said...

Definitely a creative writing hit job, Michael. media personalities like Beck are desperate charlatans, but the tool they employ the most is defamation.

Hansen's coal train analogy comes to mind. I hope you fed it back to Beck first hand. Make the bastard squirm!

Lumo said...

Did you say that criticizing crackpot Gore is vaguely equivalent to 1,002 deaths? ;-)

I would vaguely agree that it would be a good idea to criticize Al Gore et al. by giving him and roughly 1,000 of his attack dogs an electric chair.

Then your proclamation that criticism of Gore is equivalent to 1,000 deaths would become true in a useful way.

Dano said...

Boy, the wingnutosphere goes batsh-- crazy over Hansen's implication for coal executives going to trial.

Can you imagine the outrrrrrrage! that will occur when they find out The Prominent Physicist wants to kill people for their views?!? I can't imagine what sort of ululation and raiment-rending that's going to happen soon.

Oh, wait: never mind.

Best,

D

birdbrainscan said...

Putting George Will on the same level as Al Gore is outrageous. Gore actually listens to climate scientists. Will did no research at all for his sea-ice cherry pick - his "reliable source" was TCS. When called on it, he defended that TCS picked the cherry accurately, never stooping to hear what the NSIDC scientists actually say.
The more I watch the raving lunatics in the right-wing media, the more I see one of their key tactics is to take any fault that could be found in their stance, and very noisily blast that claim at their critics first: "Ad hominem!" "Media bias!" "Exaggeration!"
If you step back and take a dispassionate look, it's pretty clear where these faults actually lie (in more senses than one): Inhofe, Morano, George Will, Glen Beck.
Anyway, the point ought to be: what is the science? What are the scientists telling us? Not what does George Will or Al Gore believe, but who are their sources? Get back to the original sources, then come and talk to me about "balance" or "overstatement"

Want links to who the real scientists are? See my list:
climate scientists
I've annotated who was on the IPCC, who signed the 2007 Bali Climate Declaration, and who is on Morano's list. The "skeptics" don't stack up very well when you look closer at their publication record (or total lack thereof, for many of Morano's posterboys)

gravityloss said...

I think this speaks something:


Lubos Motl says something that, IIRC, many can see as advocating interning and "euthanizing" environmentalists, nobody notices much:

http://motls.blogspot.com/2008/07/global-warming-slogans-of-day.html

"I am normally against euthanasia but it simply seems to me that there is no other help for the people who are writing most of the stuff above. It's literally pandemics. The society should urgently put these people into quarantine, hoping that it is not too late."

"I am afraid that the permanent arrest or execution of one Al Gore would probably not be the sufficient solution to solve the crisis because already today, the situation is demonstrably much more serious than having one lunatic dreaming about his global control over the world's carbon from his Tennessee home."




On the other hand, Michael Tobis says something, as a thought experiment, in the lines that, if talk knowingly on false basis leads to deaths, then the talkers should take responsibility.

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2009/03/for-second-day-in-row.html

"Implying an equivalence between Gore, who is constantly treading a fine line between effective politics and truthful description of risks, and George Will, who is wrong from beginning to end in conception, detail and emphasis is unacceptable because it perpetuates this dangerous skew.

As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't."

This causes an "outrage" on a big number of blogs and enters US media (is that radio or TV, I don't know).



I guess it's a point in the favor of Michael Tobis - people take very seriously what he says.
Lubos Motl on the other hand, well, he tends to say a lot of things. :)

Bruce Tabor said...

Michael, I thought your original meaning was clear. The distortion is due to those who want to peddle their own ideology regardless of the truth of the matter.

History is replete with examples of how blind adherence to an ideology has led to catastrophe. Unfortunately, this is often only obvious in hindsight.