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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dogs and Deniers

What we say to deniers:

What Deniers Hear

Update: Great examples of this phenomenon at work here and here.

Lucia is coming after me for this piece. I said in its defense:

The idiocracy thing was just a throwaway, (the “prattlings” thing being Vinny’s and not mine; North Americans usually don’t have the word “prattling” in our top-of-mind vocabularies) but my efforts at Curry’s were not, and it was exactly those that prompted my Dogs and Deniers piece.

As a direct result of that discussion, I was quite specifically thinking of hunter as prototypical of those who prolifically ignore what one says, and quite vigorously and even viciously go after what they prefer to imagine one has said instead.

There are plenty of reasons, some fair and some unfair, that we or our less informed allies come off looking like the woman in the cartoon. But the fact that people construct weak arguments because they still manage to hold on to a thread of trust is better than the alternative, presuming the trust is warranted. (The alternative being a committed distrust of a scientific community that mostly means well and mostly does well.)

So the question, as always, comes down to trust (or authority) for most people. The more quantitatively adept may go beyond trust, aware that scientific authority requires hard work to challenge. But we still find ourselves constantly called upon to defend caricatures of what we are saying, constantly thrown into political boxes, constantly subject to accusations of highly implausible motivations and B-movie conspiracies.

If you don’t know what I mean, go look at the thread at Curry’s, check out the thrust of what I said at various points, and the parry of the responses. Almost every attempt to focus on reality and reality-based evidence is replied to by arguments from politics tainted with hostility and anger.

Update: Another excellent example of the Puppy Position from comments at Kloor's:
Reasons to be skeptical:
  • 1) government funded science concludes: we need more government to fund more science. And, oh by the way, a few billions for my rent seeking buddies.
  • 2) Al Gore lied. Argue if you must.
  • 3) None of the alternatives, except maybe nuclear, will work
  • 4) Nuclear, which might actually work, is eschewed
  • 5) Big-Oil-Funded disinformation campaign. Not trusting my economic future to folks who peddle this drivel.
  • 6) Odds, for now, of implementing/enforcing an effective global CO2 reduction program: 0%.
  • 7) Odds that any seemingly global CO2 reduction program is actually a brazen third world money grab: 100%
  • 8) RC, CP, and the “scientific” echo chambers.
  • 9) Odds that global decarbonization will significantly restrict freedoms: 100%
  • 10) Good things that flow from restricted freedom: none
  • 11) Bad things that flow from restricted freedom: lots and lots.
  • 12) Odds of enormous unintended consequences flowing from aforementioned CO2 reduction program: 100%
  • 13) Scientists behaving badly, then pretending not to have behaved badly, then pretending that it doesn’t matter because… well we’re scientists.
  • 14) Other scientists tolerating/excusing scientists who behave badly.
  • 14) Scientists pretending to understand the consequences of warming. They don’t. And benefits are categorically ignored.
  • 15) Odds that Dr. Murphy will reveal a new, different, and certain planetary crises the minute humanity sinks its disposable resources in a decarbonization program to forestall the maybe, might-be problem of global warming: I’d rather not find out.
It’s a cost benefit analysis and you have to weigh both -or, more accurately, all - sides. Of course, world view (politics) affects percieved costs. Of course, percieved trust in the messenger affects the percieved benefit. Ever was it thus.

Our best course of action, for now, is to do, basically, nothing. Over time, uncertainties in climate sciences will resolve, energy technology will improve, wealth will accrue. Acting now would be premature and too risky.
Fifteen Sixteen "reasons" to be skeptical and not a particle of substance!

: Willard has Grypo Saurus's version of current events.


mothincarnate said...

Funny... and somewhat depressing.

Tom said...

What many of us hear:

(equations, rhetoric, hysteria, etc.)... 'You are the scummy equivalents of skinheads who deny the Holocaust ever occurred.'

Michael Tobis said...

Right, Tom, that's, um, the point.

Tracy P. Hamilton said...

What is said:"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

What Tom hears:"You are the scummy equivalents of skinheads who deny the Holocaust ever occurred."

Tom said...

You seem to miss the point... Insulting someone does not predispose them to listen to your arguments.

Steve Bloom said...

Nor does being nice to them, apparently. Being hit sharply on the head several times by reality may be more effective, though.

The continuing resistance of many Australian farmers to believing in AGW is instructive. Will current events move those poll numbers?

watchingthedeniers said...

Both amusing and saddening MT.

...and pretty much true of the any science.

Evolution vs. Creationism
Evidence Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

As I've said before, we speak in facts they talk of values.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

Steve, Tom flamed you. I flame him back on your behalf. Nuff said.

Tom. Please get another hobby, or at least post when you are sober and have something to say.

Regarding insults, you may not remember this but others do: the only person who ever called anyone "scum" on this blog was you. As I recall it was directed at me. Repeatedly.

Since I'd rather not have a moderation delay, I'd ask you to try being reasonable. Failing that I will reluctantly purge after the fact.

When I move to a reasonable blog platform I will definitely have a "Bore Hole". Meanwhile, take Anna's wise advice.

Before you speak, ask yourself if what you have to say will improve on silence.

Anna Haynes said...

> Anna's wise advice.

Actually, it came from PDA's Zen teacher - but it is advice we can all recognize as wise.
(even though we sometimes forget to follow it)

counters said...

Thank god you posted this.

One of those figures (the globe with three cyclones spinning up in the NH mid-latitudes) is the Jablonowski baroclinic instability test-case for atmospheric dynamical cores, and I worked with it this past summer. I'm presenting that work at the AMS conference in two weeks, which reminds me that I need to re-print my poster! (UPS destroyed it back in August)

Positive things always happen from reading this blog :)

Anna Haynes said...

MT et al, from watching "What Deniers Hear", it seems they've been paying attention to folks like me, not those like you.

I wonder why they have such poor judgment. Earth to deniers: you're better off reading scientists' blogs & comments.

(I'd say more, but it would not improve on silence.)

King of the Road said...

It's interesting (and I genuinely mean interesting) the way Tom missed the point in his first two comments. It reminds me of a guy with whom I got sober in AA. There used to be pins, bumper stickers, etc. that said "Reality is for people who can't handle drugs." Tim bought and wore one of these (it was 1979 or so) thinking that it was a declaration of sober living. I tried to convince him and explain to him why those who made and wore it meant the opposite (think about it - how would you make it clear to someone who didn't understand given its ambiguous phrasing) and didn't succeed. He finally came to believe me when a various strangers would offer him or ask him for a joint or some such.

Anna Haynes said...

Raised hackles do practically guarantee impermeability - and boy is it weird to see this happen, in people you thought were smart.

And some people do have hair-trigger hackles.
(which also consist of hair, I believe, which confuses the metaphor considerably)

Touchy egos are such a pain. Relevant: Paul Graham's Keep your identity small

> It reminds me of a guy with whom I got sober...

Even this *could* (maybe) have been a case of touchy ego, if he thought KoTR was pulling a smarter-than-thou move. Not having been there, I will now quit speculating.

King of the Road said...


No, we were very close friends, he just didn't get it. I can still picture his surprise when he told me I was right.

Doesn't defeat your point though.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, nice, and a reminder to get caught up on Paul Graham's excellent essays after quite a few months. Thanks!

King of the Road said...

I'd never heard of Paul Graham. He makes an excellent point and has caused me to think about my own framing. You can't really demand more from an essay than that, thanks!

Ps: I wonder how he does at that? Understanding something and incorporating into one's being are not the same.

PPs: Always one of my favorite Larson cartoons.

dhogaza said...


"You seem to miss the point... Insulting someone does not predispose them to listen to your arguments."

Leave it to Tom to include equations (math and science) as an insult ...

Marion Delgado said...

Nice post, nicely arranged.

Neven said...

What many of us hear:

(equations, rhetoric, hysteria, etc.)... 'You are the scummy equivalents of skinheads who deny the Holocaust ever occurred.'

Right, Tom, that's, um, the point.


Adam said...

Thanks for this one, MT.

A couple of my rightie correspondents have already sent me that video; your post makes a beautiful reply.

greenfyre said...

Another one of the same ilk

but then debates with cartoons are the only Deniers can manage.

jg said...

I went through the mental exercise of responding to the errors and assumptions in the animation, and decided that The Far Side cartoon was the best response. But I wonder, has anyone started an annotated correction for the cartoon?

NewYork said...

I used to have that cartoon posted on my refrigerator door for years. The obvious difference is that unlike deniers, dogs don't hear and understand what they want to. They hear and understand only what they have the capacity to, which is their name and a few other commands. Amusingly, my dog would often mistake the words "bad" and "bath", which sounded the same, although they were the same as far as he was concerned. A bath was interpreted as a punishment. And indeed when he went off running late at night after a skunk and got sprayed, I had to give him a long and mostly ineffective bath. Global warming deniers would pretend not to hear either word and instead interpret it to be "you may lay on the couch".

Anything remotely rhyming with "walk" was interpreted as such. Maybe in that case he was hearing what he wanted to hear, or more likely "walk" was the only similar-sounding command he understood.

Deniers may be crippled with lack of scientific background, but in most cases they are simply hearing what they want to hear. A big snowstorm in their backyard is evidence against global warming, and all reasonable context and rational discussion is brushed aside for "so much for global warming".

In Curry's case, clearly there's no lack of scientific background, yet she does things like create ridiculous strawman arguments about what the IPCC says, no better than the denialist blogs. Clearly she's not Ginger in the cartoon. She has a narrative she wants to push. Facts don't matter. Tom Fuller is similar in that regard. Perhaps they say what they say because that's what they think their audiences want to hear. It does, for example, get Curry lots of comments on her blog, which she sees as evidence of being correct. Maybe a cartoon with Ginger doing tricks for treats would be analogous. No treats if you're not entertaining.

Michael Tobis said...

NY, I wish I could elide the Tom Fuller sentence your comment. The armistice between him and me has just been tested and is shaky. I really don't want WWIII with anybody.

The rest of it is perceptive. I believe that climate denialism is a social, not an intellectual or philosophical, movement. People participate because they enjoy the sport, enjoy their affiliation with their team, like beating down the gloomy gusses and liberal elitists.

They are adults still playing jocks vs nerds.

This isn't limited to climate. And it prevents adult organization of the society. It's unsustainable on a shorter time scale than greenhouse gases and I worry about it.

David B. Benson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom said...

You wish you could elide that sentence... like you used to wonder about posting comments from dhose and da boyz attacking me... but your decisions are consistent. They get published while a literally harmless question to Bloom gets axed. Sure, you don't want WWIII.

But as I posted at Lucia's, the real point remains, when you call us deniers, you automatically generate magical pixie dust that turns everything else you write into 'blah, blah blah.' Great way to win an argument. I guess.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, New York got through because the vast majority of his comment was interesting and insightful.

Your little snipe at Bloom did not have any signal to mitigate the noise.

Tom said...

But it was not rude or vulgar. And in my opinion it was very much on point. Bloom is far more caustic than I have ever been--him saying that being nice didn't work would inspire my question in anyone. You're just manipulating the thread.

Hank Roberts said...


But then again,


Billy Sunday said:

Paul said he would rather speak five words that were understood than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. That hits me. I want people to know what I mean, and that's why I try to get down where they live. What do I care if some puff-eyed, dainty little dibbly-dibbly preacher goes tibbly-tibbling around because I use plain Anglo-Saxon words.

They say to me, "Bill, you rub the fur the wrong way." I don't; let the cats turn 'round.


Sloop said...

Not only do you have fine writing and rhetorical skills MT, your feel for graphics is evident in that this post's visual qualities and layout are very appealing.

I took a look at some of your "examples" of really poor listening comprehension and agree with your analysis. Many don't seem to realize that shouting angrily doesn't improve the quality of one's arguments. And, as is well-understood in the blogosphere, the nature of web-based communications diminishes the consequences of sounding like a clueless ass.

I remained convinced of the need for much better understanding of the actual (and dynamic) impact of on-line denialism upon governance in all of its manifestations. Trenberth argues it is substantial and it certainly may feel that way from within the science community.

From inside of a state executive branch, I have to say it does not really have much impact (yet?). Executive agencies deal with ideologically-based opposition and scientific quackery all the time. In climate change as a policy issue these features are intense, but the issue is intense as well. It’s offensive and disturbing, but in the long-run sanity and good science usually win out. Yes, I’m basically an optimist. Patience, resilience, and determination are other needed qualities to succeed in the hi-pressure world of executive gov.

And I would readily qualify my skepticism about the influence of all this vitriol by acknowledging that the state I work for is northeastern, coastal (and at the wrong end of the south to north hurricane alley), and quite blue; and that we have just begun to promulgate regulations related to CC impacts, current and future, that will have teeth (Rule-making to increase minimum freeboard requirements in the state’s building code has encountered considerable opposition from our builders.).

Sloop said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

duplicate removed

dhogaza said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dhogaza said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

Please, guys, the "no more Fuller flame wars" side won over the "more Fuller flame war please" side.

Let's just wish him well in his day job and let him wander off. Please and thanks?

I don't want to moderate the whole blog on account of this. He means well, but he ends up being a troll for that. Don't feed him here.

He's at the linked conversation at Lucia's. If you want to engage him, do it there.

Ron Broberg said...

I basically agree with points 6 and 14-2.

Does anyone want to defend the idea that there is a politically acceptable, enforceable, international CO2 reduction plan?

Would anyone like to point to scientific and/or IPCC studies that outline the benefits that might accrue with warming? Costs *and* benefits should be weighed together. And it might be there in the IPCC AR4 WGII stuff - I've read very little of that. Nor am I generally an optimist about the effects - but both sides need to be tallied fairly.

The problem with the costs and benefits is that they will occur on a regional level where modeling might not be so dependable.

Also, there might be a problem with looking at the costs of 'climate' change. Climate is defined as the average of weather - the integration of daily, monthly, annual weather. But crops respond to the extremes as much, if not more, than the averages. And climate models (or climatologists for that matter) don't seem so good at predicting extremes - floods in Pakistan etc - heat waves in Russia - cold snaps in Western Europe and East US. Understanding the extremes will probably be as necessary as understanding the average when it comes to completing the cost/benefit analysis.

Fact is that the earth was under an entirely different climate regime as recently as 14,000 years ago. It will not be the end of the world if the effects are severe enough to push us all the way back into the Pliocene. And climate is only one stress both in human economies and natural biospheres. It would be sensible to reduce the source of the stress if some kind of *effective* policy can be implemented. Failing that, its gonna be about adaptation.

Ron Broberg said...

However (I continue) that does not make me a skeptic of AGW. Being skeptical of "crisis politics" is not the same as being skeptical of climate science - although many conflate the two.

Michael Tobis said...

Ron, your second point is the point I am making. None of this has anything to do with skepticism about the nature of the problem.

Ron Broberg said...

What I am trying to point out (by taking up defense of a point or two from a "puppy") is that by dismissing *their* concerns, you dismiss the possibility of meeting *them* halfway.

Now, if you really want a political policy, you are playing the weaker hand - because *they* don't. Negotiation means you have to offer *them* something in return for receiving something.

And if you are hoping that a series of bad weather/climate events will snap everyone out of *their* silliness and you can respond by offering a climate policy with the the promise that it will prevent bad weather/climate, you will see your policies sent to the scrap heap because bad weather/climate will keep on coming despite your policies.

*They* attack the science because *they* fear the policies. It's as simple as that. *They* won't stop until there is no possibility of a climate based policy. Maybe I'm overly fatalistic, but that's the way I see it.

"Clean energy" - something that people will see the benefits of within their lifetimes - is probably the only policy option on the table. But I'm a pessimist on that front as well since I am firmly convinced that the human race will burn every tonne of coal that it can economically pull out of the ground except for a very few places cherished for natural or historical reasons.

Of course, if policy isn't your target, and you just want climate science to be respected, you *have* to cede the policy ground. For the most part, politicians control the purse strings. Only if climate science is apolitical (in the sense of offering policy) is there any hope of avoiding a funding backlash.

Boy! That's a mouthful! A good night to all!

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

Ron Broberg:

"Of course, if policy isn't your target, and you just want climate science to be respected, you *have* to cede the policy ground."

'Respect' as in 'hey climate scientists, we won't harass you with bullshit subpoenas, as long as you allow us to ignore all your studies and keep burning more oil'? That sure doesn't sound like respect to me!

* * *

"What I am trying to point out (by taking up defense of a point or two from a "puppy") is that by dismissing *their* concerns, you dismiss the possibility of meeting *them* halfway. [...]

"*They* attack the science because *they* fear the policies."

This is false -- or, more precisely, less than half true. The stated 'concerns' of the Koch brothers, CFACT, Heartland, etc. do not directly correspond to what they really want.

My guess is this: what politics players really want can usually be boiled down to a few things:

(1) $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

(2) opportunities to make $$$$$$$$$$$

(3) lack of any scandals which may seriously damage their reputations

(4) good food and fine wine

(5) um, maybe sex?

Which, in a sense, is why stealing stuff works, especially when nobody gets caught -- SwiftHack being a case in point. If you can steal stuff without being caught, you get more stuff, which means more political bargaining chips which you can use to bolster your position.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Frank doesn't really explain the puppies.

Ron does a good job of distinguishing between the two questions: 1) what is going on and 2) what to do about it, then comes right back and conflates them.

As I see it, the role of science is 1) to convey what is going on, and 2) to participate as a resource in what to do about it.

Ron is confused in thinking that science is a stakeholder in any reasonable approach to policy. Science is needed as a neutral consultant in policy.

Once science becomes a stakeholder in policy (by being threatened with funds cutoffs, unfunded mandates, subpoenas and accusations which at least approach libel) you can be pretty sure you are doing it desperately wrong.

nawagadj said...


nice work over at Climate Etc. It takes the patience of a saint.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


"Ron is confused in thinking that science is a stakeholder in any reasonable approach to policy. Science is needed as a neutral consultant in policy."

But as James Hansen recognized, scientists are also citizens, and as citizens, they're very definitely stakeholders. Are climatologists supposed to fool themselves into thinking that they're only studying climate science 'from the outside' -- and that they won't themselves be impacted by the policies resulting from the use (or misuse) of their science?

And you can't really do science without scientists.

"Once science becomes a stakeholder in policy (by being threatened with funds cutoffs, unfunded mandates, subpoenas and accusations which at least approach libel) you can be pretty sure you are doing it desperately wrong."

I don't get this. If powerful people insist on bending science agencies to produce only results they 'like', it's the scientists' fault? Moreover, scientists, like other citizens, have the right to petition.

-- frank

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


Another thing: I see a possible confusion in the use of the word "advocate". On a scientific issue, one can advocate for taking rational action based on the existing science, or one can advocate for a particular theory.

-- frank

Francis said...

MT: I'm reposting here an edited version of a comment I just made at Kloor's place, to wit:

In the spirit of reducing unnecessary aggravation, I propose replacing the word “denier” with the word “Skeptic”, capitalized as to distinguish ordinary skepticism (eg, what is the expected short-term response to a doubling of CO2) from the kind of Skepticism demonstrated in various places.

It would be really nice if the Skeptics [like you, Tom] started their own Skeptical Science website, in parallel and opposition to the existing Skeptical Science website. (Skeptical squared?) It seems to me that the best opportunity for a useful discussion is for the Skeptics to start making positive claims, like “The Sun is insufficiently well understood”, or “Cloud formation may drive the sensitivity of the atmosphere’s response to the low end”, or “The urban heat island effect has not been sufficiently addressed.”

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


Anyway. Maybe it's not the job of scientists to go around digging up dirt on anti-science politicians, but they can -- and should -- state clearly to the public what their science is, and how this science translates to policy choices for health and safety. And we should lend our full support to every scientist who does so.

-- frank

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...


People who think that uncertainty is only for others are simply not "skeptics", whether the word is in capitals, small letters, initial caps, CamelCase, etc.

If you really think a different word is needed, again I'll propose "inactivists".

-- frank

Steve Bloom said...

Not going to happen, Francis. Paleoclimate trumps every one of those. Besides, have you not noticed the execrably bad science that gets defended by the deniers? Even when they follow the rules, as with the recent critique of Steig et al., they try really hard to conflate "broadly confirms" with "refutes."

Steve Bloom said...

Ron, perhaps we are crazy enough as a species that even a plethora of obvious bad impacts won't cause us to act to avoid even worse such impacts in the future, but I'm hopeful that things are otherwise.

I agree that there's nothing inherently bad about a Pliocene-like climate, but would say rather that the danger to us is in our response to the stress of the transition. We have lots of weapons, and starving people will do anything they can to not starve. The difficulty with a Pliocene-like climate is that the places we currently like to grow food largely will cease to be good for that purpose. Other places will become good in terms of annual average temperature, but things like more extreme seasonality and poor soil quality will make that a very poor exchange. Add to that a collapse of ocean fisheries.

I would add that if you're right and we continue with BAU for the rest of this century, much worse things than a bumpy transition to a Pliocene-like climate are in store, e.g. tropical temperatures incompatible with human physiology.

Finally, IMHO saying we must reduce back to 350 ppm CO2 is not policy advocacy, although promotion of any given path to that goal is.

Nick Dearth said...

If I may interject my very humble opinion on something that is, seemingly oftentimes, overlooked when viewing how to "get through" to deniers/skeptics/Skeptics, I doubt very much that I am alone when I say that I learned a great deal about the "debate(s)" and argumentative styles in general simply by reading and rarely or never participating. I'm not the smartest guy in the room, so what I have to say rarely would improve the silence on this forum and several others. But I should not be forgotten and one of the reasons I came to accepting AGW and its implications is because MT and others were able to get their point across to me without ever addressing me. People learn in a lot of different ways. People are drawn to different debate styles and tones. Proponents do not have a collective voice or tactic, and this is not necessarily always a negative. I have learned by reading the back and forth (among other ways). Again, I doubt I'm alone. So my point would be that just because the person or group you are speaking to has selective hearing/reading, that does not mean the things you are saying are ineffective. I have done my fair share of debating/arguing in the trenches of non-science oriented sites and other platforms. When doing so I get frustrated and at times want to give up. It helps me to keep in mind that people can see these conversations and are basing their opinions on them. Thanks.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks very much, Nick. That's very encouraging.

David B. Benson said...

Clicking on Grypo Saurus's version comes up Not Found.

Michael Tobis said...

David, a glitch maybe? It still works for me.

David B. Benson said...

Still comes up Not Found but nevermind...

Adam said...

nawagadj said...
MT, nice work over at Climate Etc. It takes the patience of a saint.

Indeed, good on ya, MT (although the other comments made me sorry I looked).

Ron Broberg said...

A final word or two:

There is a difference between the "opinion of a scientist" and "scientific opinion" which is often conflated either intentionally (denialist bloggers) or unintentionally (media, public).

greenfyre said...

And now for something completely different