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

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Pillars of Climate Denialism

I have identified three main techniques of climate denialism.

The first is: your opponent is presumed guilty until proven guilty.

The second is: focus on tone and not on substance.

The third is: make mountains out of molehills.

Did I miss any? The first two seem to be enough. The first forces your opponent to be either angry or defensive. The second takes that result and allows you to change the subject.

The third allows you to construct Gish gallops and paint the whole business with a false aura of controversy.

30 comments:

ourchangingclimate said...

The fourth is: Focus on the trees (or tree rings) and not on the forest.

Bart

Adam said...

We don't know everything, therefore we know nothing.

This is the commonest argument I see for waving away the findings of climate science. "The climate is too complex! We don't know enough!"

Layzej said...

I've followed you on Curry's blog. Your best strategy would be to stay on topic. You are up against an army of people who are not going to be swayed. Many of whom are convinced of a conspiracy. You will not win by letting them divert you to the topic of their choosing - there are just too many wild claims to address.

The recent discussion about your RC post set you up for a win. The RC post clearly pointed out how the science is being distorted by the media. This is something that most skeptics could probably also appreciate. You ended up being diverted to trying to prove whether global warming is real. People who aren't already aware of this are not going to be swayed by the facts. Direct them to a source that outlines the science (so that their challenge does not go unanswered) and focus on the topic at hand.

jg said...

fifth?:
Ignorance of the scientific literature is a plus.

jg

Michael Tobis said...

adam, yes;

jg, um, not really but I see what you mean.

Michael Tobis said...

Layzej; you must be new at this.

There is no possibility of winning.

guthrie said...

The advice to concentrate on the matter at hand is sound though.

My contribution was going to be a variety of focus on the trees and not the forest - any large parcel of facts and data and scientific discourse drawn from those facts and data will contain errors. For example, the moaning about errors in site location on wuwt. However the existence of individual errors does not knock out the entire thesis, theory and so on, especially when the denialists havn't tried to work out if these are systemic errors and whether they really do affect things or not. But they will concentrate on these little errors (Bob smith said 14.2 when the real number is 15.2, therefore we can't trust them therefore we don't know the real answer therefore AGW is false) ignoring the concatenation of evidence that shows otherwise.

rustneversleeps said...

Gut feelings, initial impressions - yes. Everything else - highly unlikely.

jg said...

MT: I accept your criticism. Perhaps I could change my answer from ignorance of the scientific literature being a a fifth pillar to being a fifth column. The most prominent denialists I encounter are syndicated columnists like Debra Saunders and George Will. My impression of them is that they are ignorant of the science. You're probably refering to denialists who know the literature and therefore can spin it well. Whether it's a Saunders/Will type or someone with scientific training, the grand unified reason I can see that allow their comments to take hold is that their audience -- my friends, acquantances, coworkers, local columnists -- are ignorant of peer-reviewed science.

jg

Michael Tobis said...

rust, "truthiness"

Lars Karlsson said...

"We will accuse you of all the things that we do."
E.g. politicize and then accuse your opponent of politicizing.

Jonathan Gilligan said...

You might take a look at Heather Douglas's "Bullshit at the interface of science and policy," in G.L. Hardcastle and G.A. Reich, eds., "Bullshit and Philosophy" (Open Court, 2006), pp. 215-28.

Douglas identifies two principal tropes: the bullshit of the isolated fact (cherry picking) and the bullshit of universal principles, which "appeals to a nonexistent standard of proof for science. It assumes that there is one standard met by all scientific claims worthy of the name, and that we can tell what is sound science or good science from what is junk science or bad science (or non-science or pseudoscience) by simply checking with this standard." She gives an example in the fetishization of the p<0.05 standard for statistical significance.

Steve Bloom said...

Thanks, Jonathan. It was interesting to see in the Oreskes book how those principles got applied.

David B. Benson said...

We don't know enough? Then the risk is very, very high...

Anna Haynes said...

Michael, you're the #1 effer, so can you tell me how you'd respond to this?

Said in a brief (public) introduction to the climate issue: "On average, atmospheric CO2 goes up, but it does not necessarily go up year by year; some years the CO2 is not as high as in the previous year."

Reference: the Keeling curve from Mauna Loa, in the year 1965.

gryposaurus said...

I did a post on this a while back. I looked at two things -- a peer reviewed paper on science denialism and a conversation at WUWT, and subsequent comments. Notice that Watts did not object to the use of the word denialism, just denier. The paper had 5 symptoms:

1. The first is the identification of conspiracies. When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes that something is true, it is argued that this is not because those scientists have independently studied the evidence and reached the same conclusion. It is because they have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy.

2. The second is the use of fake experts. These are individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge. They have been used extensively by the tobacco industry since 1974, when a senior executive with R J Reynolds devised a system to score scientists working on tobacco in relation to the extent to which they were supportive of the industry’s position.

3. The third characteristic is selectivity, drawing on isolated papers that challenge the dominant consensus or highlighting the flaws in the weakest papers among those that support it as a means of discrediting the entire field. An example of the former is the much-cited Lancet paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which merely suggested a possible link with immunization against measles, mumps and rubella.

to be cont...

gryposaurus said...

....continued

4. The fourth is the creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver. For example, those denying the reality of climate change point to the absence of accurate temperature records from before the invention of the thermometer. Others use the intrinsic uncertainty of mathematical models to reject them entirely as a means of understanding a phenomenon. In the early 1990s, Philip Morris tried to promote a new standard, entitled Good Epidemiological Practice (GEP) for the conduct of epidemiological studies. Under the GEP guidelines, odds ratios of 2 or less would not be considered strong enough evidence of causation

5. The fifth is the use of misrepresentation and logical fallacies. For example, pro-smoking groups have often used the fact that Hitler supported some anti-smoking campaigns to represent those advocating tobacco control as Nazis (even coining the term nico-nazis), even though other senior Nazis were smokers, blocking attempts to disseminate anti-smoking propaganda and ensuring that troops has sufficient supplies of cigarettes.

gryposaurus said...

This comment should be before the other one...For some reason, it didn't come out right. Perhaps this can be fixed?

I did a post on this a while back. I looked at two things -- a peer reviewed paper on science denialism and a conversation at WUWT, and subsequent comments. Notice that Watts did not object to the use of the word denialism, just denier. The paper had 5 symptoms:

1. The first is the identification of conspiracies. When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes that something is true, it is argued that this is not because those scientists have independently studied the evidence and reached the same conclusion. It is because they have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy.

2. The second is the use of fake experts. These are individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge. They have been used extensively by the tobacco industry since 1974, when a senior executive with R J Reynolds devised a system to score scientists working on tobacco in relation to the extent to which they were supportive of the industry’s position.

3. The third characteristic is selectivity, drawing on isolated papers that challenge the dominant consensus or highlighting the flaws in the weakest papers among those that support it as a means of discrediting the entire field. An example of the former is the much-cited Lancet paper describing intestinal abnormalities in 12 children with autism, which merely suggested a possible link with immunization against measles, mumps and rubella.

Layzej said...

mt,

You could be right. You will never convince the conspiracy theorists. Your only hope is to appear the more rational party to the unbiased few lurking at these sites.

Adam said...

Layzej said...
You will never convince the conspiracy theorists.


Indeed. A person who is able to believe in a worldwide effort by research institutions to suborn scientists into perpetrating a hoax has passed far out of the orbits of rational discourse. He is lost in deep space, unreachable.

After years of arguing with deniers, I have had to stop. I find the thoughts of such people sickening; they fill me with despair for the future of humanity. I applaud MT and those warriors who still confront them, and hope that, at least, some observers of the conflict may be moved to the side of reason.

Jim Bouldin said...

Fourth: everything is motivated by conspiracy to deceive and/or control

Fifth: if it's not motivated by those things, it's motivated by socialism/communism

Sixth: the really critical data is always being hidden from the public

Steve Bloom said...

A link for more context, Anna?

The basic answer is that there are two parts to the atmospheric concentration equation, sources (further divided into anthropogenic and natural) and sinks, and all have variability. The most obvious variation is due to the annual cycle (a consequence of NH plant growth), which causes the atmo conc to drop for a portion of each year. In any event, back when emissions were much lower, it was possible for a running average of atmo conc to go flat or nearly, and that happened on a couple of occasions (although IIRC in no case did the actual annual average decline or go flat; the running averages that can make it look like this include a signal from those annual declines). With emissions much higher, that no longer happens.

Maybe the best way to put this is to look at the data (available on the CDIAC site) and point out that atmo conc has always had a fair amount of year-to-year variability, but now it's varying around a much higher figure than it once did.

But none of that is the best answer. I would say something like: "Sure, back then we were emitting a lot less and it was possible for increaes to be small. No longer."

Maybe add: "Between the start of industrialization in about 1850 and 1964, we had added only 40 ppm. Since then, we've added another 70 ppm, with the annual amount added showing a small but steady increase throughout."

"But the exact numbers aren't important, it's the effect they're having and that the even larger increases to come will have that we should be paying attention to. We are forcing the climate system at a pace ~100x greater than nature can."

At that point I'd go into the example of the mid-Pliocene warm period (CO2 a bit less than current, +~3C temps, ~+25 meters sea level, and [most important] radical changes to the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans), note the indications of similar changes underway, and observe that speed kills.

Eräs Henkilö said...

http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/about.php

The Denialism Blog has quite a lot of serious text on the subject...

Anna Haynes said...

Thanks Steve.
I agree, saying "the last time this happened was almost 50 years ago" would have provided important context to the audience. And likewise for explaining the implications for the future.

"Don't provide extraneous detail unless you're also going to provide the info that would put it into context" isn't an instruction that works, for recipients who don't grasp context.

Harrywr2 said...

I've identified one main topic of 'climate believerism'.

The laws of economics do not exist.

I.E. Economic substitution will not occur absent a global treaty.

The price of a tonne of 5500kcal/kg coal on Asian coal markets reach $120/tonne in 2010. Up from $27/tonne in 2002.

Asia consumes 2/3rds of the worlds coal.

3 of the 4 largest economies in Asia(China,Japan,South Korea) have accelerated their nuclear build programs as a result.

India, which was under a uranium embargo until mid 2010 has yet to make a substantial announcement.

Yet we continue to hear about what will happen if economic substitution doesn't occur when China,Japan,South Korea, Vietnam,Bangladesh,Saudi Arabia,UAE,Jordan,Egypt,South Afica,Great Britain,France,Finland etc are all are engaging in economic substitution at the fastest rate humanly possible.

Even in the US the laws of economics apply. The delivered price of steam coal in the US Southeast is $80/ton and all the major electric power utilities in the US Southeast have applications pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Yet, various climate scientists still churn out studies that deny the laws of economics exist.

David B. Benson said...

Harrywr2 --- Informative, thank you.

As for laws of economics, the criticism on this blog is based on the fact that those laws are not based on physical law and the obvious fact of the world being finite. That, to me, means that academic economics has approximately the same usefulness as, say, academic theology.

Michael Tobis said...

Harry, although David is correct that I have considerable doubts about the way economics has been applied to the problem, I have two even more fundamental criticisms of your position.

First of all, you claim that "laws of economics" have something to tell us, when in fact, the disagreements between economists on these matters have been severe, and when there really are multiple competing theoretical frameworks within economics. But never mind that.

(Given that they are all dollar-denominated they all violate my challenge that currency comparisons are not valid beyond a few decades, and that direct measures of utility have to be used. That's closer to David's point, but never mind that either.)

Ultimately you suggest that people are skeptical of climate physics because of economics. Isn't this actually ridiculous?

How does IPCC WG I stand or fall on economics when money isn't even mentioned?

Is this what I am to take from your claim that "Yet, various climate scientists still churn out studies that deny the laws of economics exist." Is the northern subtropical jet supposed to consult with the Bank of the Phillipines? Is the Arctic ice sheet expected to file a proposal with the Royal Bank of Canada?

It's a very silly objection.

You may not like this or that person's policy prescriptions. But that is not grounds for questioning the physical theory.

Yet many people seem to think so.

Steve Bloom said...

Try: Some people are skeptical of climate physics because of greed.

One school of economics teaches that pure self-interest (aka greed) provides a lens through which all of reality is best understood. Presumably that would have to include physics. The supremely ironic similarity of this view to Stalinism is one of history's little jokes.

manuel "moe" g said...

Quoting jg "Ignorance of the scientific literature is a plus."

There is something more here. I have noticed that in the libertarian/Glibertarian style of argumentation, knowledge of the topic being discussed is a handicap:

A) The only way you could have gained this extra knowledge was due to a corrupting economic situation, probably rent-seeking

B) Actual facts make it impossible to use the preferred manner of argumentation: from first-principals (snappy sounding but dubious first principals, preferably), using the fewest number of words.

Dan Satterfield said...

Having an authoritarian personality is almost a necessity above all else.
(feel free to disagree and my defense might be weak)

Add in a total lack of critical thinking skills, and top it off with an uncanny ability to completely misunderstand the point of a published paper, and you are well on your way to believing anything on WUWT...