"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why truth is losing ground

It stands to reason that there would be a split in tendency to believe the science based on political persuasion; those more inclined to favor collective action will be more willing to take seriously a phenomenon which seems to indicate a need for collective action than those who are disinclined.

The huge opinion spread on climate change is disconcerting though, and the trend toward increasing disbelief among the right while the substantive evidence against them becomes ever more compelling is downright alarming.

To some extent even this is actually not hard to understand. The commercial interests that are threatened by the actual facts of the matter have an enormous motivation to confuse the public discourse, and they play on natural inclinations. What is hard to understand is how spectacularly successful they have become in moving their audience ever further away from the center of gravity that the facts portend.

I do note an increasing testiness and terseness from the leading posters on [RealClimate], and even occasionally from the editors in response to such provocations. I would like to caution that this behavior plays very much into the hands of the malefactors and their innocent sympathizers. They are trying, all too successfully, to convince their audience of several things including

  • that there is a substantive scientific controversy (which delays and dilutes considerations of policy) about even the most well-established basic facts
  • that the presentation of a consensus, even on totally unambiguously established results, is in itself an indication of dishonesty, bullying and arrogance
  • that the motivation for all this fuss is a deeply corrupt scientific establishment that is motivated to lie because of huge and rapidly increasing grant money. (Don't we wish...)

It all ties together into a pretty clever strategy:

  1. say things that are exasperatingly ignorant
  2. get real experts with little understanding of polemics to express their exasperation
  3. cast that exasperation as arrogance and bullying

That's not the whole strategy (for instance there's the "house of cards" strategy that tries to make out that the whole "global warming theory" is abstruse and delicate, and that any single error is enough to "disprove" the "theory") but it's emerging as a central feature.

The best counter is to avoid the appearance of arrogance in public forums. Accordingly, if I could venture my advice to serious informed posters:

  • Invariably begin with an opening statement that is as accessible as possible to the broadest audience; and conclude with an accessible summary of the evidence for your point.
  • Write to the reader, not the correspondent. Keeping in mind that the correspondent is at least as likely to be a paid agent provocateur or a stubborn dogmatist as a serious partner in search of truth, do not forget that the reader may have a different presumption of who is dogmatic than is actually the case
  • Avoid expressing impatience in ways that might appear to confirm the reader's suspicion that those advancing the "consensus" view
    are not open to new evidence. Be very careful in explaining, repeatedly and calmly, that some of the counter-arguments we hear are totally at odds with the facts, and that put together they don't constitute a coherent hypothesis. Don't snip or huff no matter how many times you see the same nonsense repeated; the writer knows this history very well but the target reader does not.

The fact that regular posters and even occasionally editors here are being baited into intemperate statements plays into the hands of the malefactors. Justifiable anger and frustration plays out as arrogance.

Preaching to the choir is beside the point. That there is an influential segment of the society which is becoming more rather than less skeptical is a hugely serious problem. It would be best if realclimate were part of the solution, but we are up against very clever opponents who don't want it to turn out that way.

Please remember (though they may, by personalizing matters, try to make you forget) that your effect on the third party reader is vastly more important than your effect on the person who is writing. Your correspondent may well be deliberately trying to make you look nasty or arrogant under the pretense of some weakly substantive argument. Nothing you can say will cause that person to change their opinion, because what they are voicing is not actually an opinion about a matter of fact but rather a tactic in a battle for influence over the casually interested.

If you find yourself angry the best way to fight back is to say nothing and let someone else do the talking. If you win the game of substance and your opponent wins the game of polemics, in the end your purpose in participating in the discussion is not achieved.


Dan L. Johnson said...

Your point here is well put. (My response is a bit long - feel free to delete it if it doesn’t fit.) I don't agree that science is currently losing ground, but it could soon be in that position, if the glow of media recognition of the problem wanes, or if a cool year or two fools people into thinking it was all a mistake.

Contrary to their claims that scientists are arrogant, the scoffers are the ones who often react with sputtering, arrogant outrage when a simple statement of honest fact is delivered in a moderate and helpful tone\. The star scoffers know that they would have no chance for recognition of this extent from slow and honest scientific toil, and that makes them edgy. The truth is that the science of this issue can be understood by every thinking person, it they do as scientists do and take time to recognize that being sceptical means looking at the evidence and the reasoning before putting the pieces together.

To me, one of the surprises is that many of the scoffers who claim that mainstream climate scientists are just making a colossal and stupid mistake, ought to know better. I see comments such as “I’m an engineer, and I want to know how they explain that CO2 always lags temperature by 800 years”. An engineer who can’t read a graph?, and who uncritically accepts this figure from others (copied and recopied through a pipeline of politically-based news sources)? An engineer who has no feel for lags, feedbacks and physics? Or, more recently, those who uncritically accept the argument that there is no such thing as an average temperature, and that anyway a change in average temperature would not indicate more or less overall energy in part of a system. That word game is an insult to common sense as much as it is to thermodynamics. Or, those who normally think independently, suddenly parroting a party line on what to think, and even how to word the sarcasm: “Aren’t these the same people who a while back warned us of global cooling?”. Anyone old enough to use the internet or a library knows that this does not fit the facts.

The main paradox is that those who scoff at actual science and thereby deny the climate change problem are being too uncritical. But there is hope. For example, in a brilliant editorial in the Farmer’s Independent Weekly (“Some real science, please”, Aug 17, 2006, http://www.fiwonline.com/), Editor John Morriss compared the talks denying global warming, and more recently denying human influences, to the gimmicks at temperance lectures generations ago. He says, “On this winter’s meeting circuit, let’s hear some real science about global warming, not ... ‘Don’t worry; be happy’ attitude toward a serious threat to the future of Prairie farming.” Now, that’s calling a spade a spade!


Hank Roberts said...

I'd been wondering where the study of this discourse was to be found --- looking for what I expected and don't find at the Prometheus site, a serious attempt to study how science is and is not being used in political decision-making. (Prometheus always feels like it's tilted and oblivious of the tilt, to me).

Real study of the politics of science, the discourse, is out there, albeit a bit jargon-heavy. I think these may reward reading. I know nothing about this whole area of academia, just turned these up with Google Scholar trying keywords for what I hoped might exist.



-- Hank Roberts
(Onetime note, on first posting to your area: ever since Google bought Blogger it's been erratic-- it always suggests, but rarely allows, posting as "ankh" (original Blogger name). I try to remember to add my full name regardless; two socks, neither of them is a puppet.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Michael! OT, but I noted with some amusement upon viewing your sidebar that RP Jr. has finally succeeded in getting himself to the middle of something. I doubt he entirely appreciates the company, but made beds etc.

Anonymous said...

Your main point is valid. However, even in your own commentary on the right, you breach the rules you preach.

eg: "Most of the people distrusting us honestly disbelieve there is a consensus on even the most basic points of climate change science, honestly believe we are arguing from authority, and honestly believe our intent is malign. It would be so much easier to shrug this off if these weren't good, warm, decent people for the most part, victims of a very small group of amazingly cynical people. Defeating the denialists does not amount to refuting their arguments."

Isn't that exactly adopting the stance that your post on the left decries?

The fact is that there has been a lot of very poor quality work in climate "science" that is vulnerable to detailed and dispassionate review.

The style of the RC crowd is to be arrogant, dismissive, put-upon (eg Gavin's "Sigh") and patronising.

Surely science is about proving to a sceptical audience that something is the case when they think that they have evidence that it is demonstrably not the case.

It seems very clear that in the area of dendrochronology for example, the scientists have claimed too much on a weak foundation, and now cannot support their positions. eg assumption of linear relationship between temperature and tree ring thickness. While you all might think that you have that stuff sorted, to the lay people out there who are gardeners, that proposition is just preposterous.

My concern is that you guys are actually doing a very poor job of making the case and the sceptics are making ground. The issues are too important to allow that to happen.

Please lift your game.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and wise words about rhetoric.

Yes provoking an angry reaction is indeed what is intended. And I have succumbed, many times.


Michael Tobis said...

I said in the blurb:

"Defeating the denialists does not amount to refuting their arguments."

Some anony moose replied:
Isn't that exactly adopting the stance that your post on the left decries?

Um, no. We have long since won the battle of substance. The fact that we are losing ground in the battle of perceptions, at least in some quarters, means that substance is not sufficient.

Moose continues:

The fact is that there has been a lot of very poor quality work in climate "science" that is vulnerable to detailed and dispassionate review.

Basically, no.

Very poor quality work gets ignored. Scientifically controversial work gets plenty of raking over the coals. The science as a whole is quite healthy and robust, in my opinion.

I'd like to understand what you perceive as "very poor quality" work before admitting that is is especially endemic to some or all of the climate sciences.

What appears as "very poor quality" in in the skeptic echo chamber appears to be about targets of opportunity, not about quality.

The style of the RC crowd is to be arrogant, dismissive, put-upon (eg Gavin's "Sigh") and patronising.

Yes, it is my point that they come off that way, and that RC is starting to backfire.

They are unpaid volunteers without much training or interest in polemics, which is the problem I'm trying to think about here. They certainly didn't set out to be patroni{"z"|"s"}ing. They are getting tired of seeing the same worthless nonsense over and over.

You will note that a professional politican nods and smiles hearing the same worthless nonsense for the 95th time.

Surely science is about proving to a sceptical audience that something is the case when they think that they have evidence that it is demonstrably not the case.

No, it isn't really.

You can only prove something to someone who is playing fair and who is sufficiently interested. Then you can play the game of logic.

In politics, you do not have the luxury of playing the game of logic. Most people don't have the time, skill or inclination to play even one game through to its completion. In modern society, there are a plethora of questions that draw upon expertise. The voter can't be expected to be an expert on all of them, and in practice won't be expert on even one.

Maybe it should be, but nobody is paid to do that, and even if they were, they wouldn't be professionals at manipulating opinion. Meanwhile people are paid to advance a pack of lies, and those people know what they are doing.

Convincing and proving are very different things, and that is the root of the problem.

Almost every scientist would sooner wash dishes for a living than subject his or her work to a focus group. Paid polemicists do it all the time.


I have no opinion on the matter, having no exposure to it. I trust that since the material is in IPCC and in Science and Nature that it is reasonably sound. It has very little to do either with my formal work or with my opinions.

If your criticism of the field is based on experience as a gardener, I would question how that qualifies you. The issues appear to be statistical, not horticultural.

More to the point, this whole fascination with dendrochronology and poor Dr Mann is denialist framing. It does nothing to advance the public understanding of the reasonably straightforward core of the situation. It is a deliberate distraction, not a core issue.

Science is endlessly complex but the political reality is very simple.

1) Most of the coal has to stay in the ground. Forever.

2) We don't have social mechanisms to make this happen. We need some.

Michael Tobis said...

Heiko Gerhauser has an interesting rebuttal here .

Mark said...

"Um, no. We have long since won the battle of substance. The fact that we are losing ground in the battle of perceptions, at least in some quarters, means that substance is not sufficient."

And this is sad truth of matter,the horns of the dilemma. All the denialists have to do is say climate scientist are bunko artists. They are are as proud of that and steadfast as I am in refuting every single problem they claim exists in the science.

It's exasperating in the extreme. If I fight back too hard eveyone hates me and grants the denier a free pass for his opinion. The battle for perception in public discourse on climate science is a serious problem. Dire even.

Anonymous said...

History of the denial of climate science:


Cautionary cartoon:



How has skepticism about global warming spread so much? Understanding the process may help turn the tide toward awareness.

What strikes me about global warming contrarians--I know a few in my work and family--is that they don't really consider all the evidence for global warming. They've got their viewpoint, and they're stickin' to it.

They seem to hang onto a few talking points--most of which are covered in this blog--and argue them to death. They keep hanging onto the same beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. It seems to be almost a cult-like phenomenon.

Being a global warming skeptic fits with the way many contrarians seem to see themselves: as conservatives, as business supporters, as free market advocates. It fits with their worldviews, and the worldviews of those like George Bush and Rush Limbaugh, who they seem to admire and identify with.

Global warming skeptics seem to have a black/white worldview that polarizes things without due cause. If you're "green," you're anti-business. If you don't like SUV's, you're a tree-hugger. These things don't need to be polarized. We could gray the SUV area by making SUVs hybrids or green in other ways that save fuel, just to give one example.

The same phenomenon happens with people who tend to believe religious doctrine outright. The supposed facts of, for example, Jesus' resurrection, are stated in the Bible and presented as Truth, but there is no scientific inquiry into how the evidence was gathered, by whom, was it tested, double-checked, triple-checked, replicated by others, etc.

In the religion I grew up with, Catholicism, there was never any scientific explanation of how Jesus performed miracles or rose from the dead.

Being a logical person, interested in science, I couldn't just accept these statements as facts. I can't be a Christian based on claims that Jesus will save my soul, for example. Aren't we all responsible for our own actions? How can his death take away guilt for misdeeds? It just doesn't make sense.

By the way, anyone who wants to read a great expose of the myth of Jesus should read "The Age of Reason," by Thomas Paine. I just started delving into it, and it looks like a wonderful analysis of the Christian myths and how figures in authority use them to promulgate religious organizations and their dominion over the thoughts and beliefs of those organizations' members/believers/followers.

The goal of the myth-supporters seems to be to keep an organization in a position of authority and power, and to keep the organization growing, which supports (financially and personally) the organizations' leaders.

The connection between religious dogma and global warming contrarians and their arguments is this: some of the same methods of promoting disinformation are used by the disinformers, or opinion leaders of the contrarian movement or worldview. They rely on "believers'" flawed thinking processes to gain followers and support.

It's pretty clear, after doing some online research, that vested interests who promote global warming skepticism merely want to just keep producing oil and coal. They do so in the face of the massive evidence that doing so is killing wildlife, fauna, us and destroying ecologies in many ways.

Small wonder: their current profits depend on individuals and businesses burning massive amounts of oil and coal.

These vested interests include ExxonMobil and the Western Fuels Association.

A great resource for facts on this campaign is Antonia Juhasz' book, "The Tyranny of Oil." It exposes abuses, scams, shady practices and the influence of Big Oil in politics and economies all over the globe.

Another resource worth promoting is Oil Change International, which exposes political connections between Congresspersons and Big Oil, among other useful information. Find it at: http://priceofoil.org/

This excellent site offers ways to debunk global warming myths, called "How to Talk to a Global Warming Contrarian": http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php

Finally, historian of science Naomi Oreskes explains the tactics the Western Fuel Association uses to confuse the public about the science of global warming at:

The bottom line: Follow the money. When you investigate who profits from generating skepticism on global warming, you'll find, invariably, industries that produce or depend on fossil fuels.

This is not to say that global warming contrarians are necessarily evil or bad. They are looking out for their interests. These interests, however, are so narrowly focused on their own well-being that they hurt all others--in this case, the entire planet, including themselves!

What seems necessary is to widen and open the views of others by dispassionately presenting facts, and exposing the money trail and self-interest behind the disinformation. Slowly, the myths will dissipate, and awareness of the need to live sustainably will become widespread.

It took civilization thousands of years for democracy to gain a strong foothold--and it took bloody struggles to do so. Democracy, though it makes the most sense, is still a struggle to spread because it requires toppling or replacing existing authoritarian power structures.

Don't expect the struggle toward sustainability to be any easier just because it makes sense. People who have a lot of money, and only want to make more, are pushing hard against the facts agreed upon by most scientists with expertise in the area of climate change.

Sadly, it may take a few disasters to convince doubters of the gravity of the situation. But it's obviously worth keeping up the effort! Every voice makes a difference.