The Conversion Meme

By Keith Kloor | August 6, 2012 9:18 am

In a 2006 NYT op-ed, environment writer Gregg Easterbrook pronounced:

based on the data I’m now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.

In 2011, in an essay titled, “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert,” conservative blogger D. R. Tucker said:

I was defeated by facts.

While others have made similar conversions over the last decade, nobody’s has been as closely scrutinized and widely discussed (in the media and blogosphere) as that of Berkley physicist Richard Muller. But the circumstances and hoopla surrounding his “conversion” has puzzled many in the climate science community,  including NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt:

As most readers are probably aware, there was an op-ed in the Saturday New York Times from Richard Muller announcing the Berkeley Earth team’s latest results. It was odd enough that a scientific paper was announced via an op-ed, rather than a press release, odder still that the paper was only being submitted and had not actually been accepted, and most odd of all was the framing ““ a “˜converted skeptic’ being convinced by his studies that the planet has indeed warmed and that human activity is the cause ““ which as Mike and Ken Caldiera pointed out has been known for almost 2 decades.

Gavin also correctly noted that “the “˜converted skeptic’/prodigal scientist meme is a very powerful framing for the media.” This has been borne out by the lavish coverage Muller received everywhere from NPR and Rachel Maddow to the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.

When it comes to climate change, the conversion meme–especially when it’s deftly exploited by someone with a flair for self-publicity–is like catnip for the media.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, Journalism
  • Joshua

    When it comes to climate change, the conversion meme”“especially when
    it’s deftly exploited by someone with a flair for self-publicity”“is like
    catnip for the media.

    It’s catnip for the media because it’s catnip for consumers of media. . It provides a simplistic narrative that helps people to get a hold on a complex topic – – including fanatical climate change combatants, who have spent much time arguing (much of it specious, I might add) about the nature of Muller’s “conversion.” I’m trying to understand whether you’re trying to get at some kind of point with this post. Are you blaming the media? Are you saying that there is no value to trying to frame Muller’s perspective on climate change?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    What’s not to like about killing two birds with one stone? ‘Here’s my position and why my previous one was wrong.’ I converted from outright skepticism to lukewarmer. I’ll bet the positions of many involved in the debate evolved in one direction or another over time. (Well, not the fanatics…)I only note with mild amusement that Muller’s various announcements seem a bit too perfectly timed.

  • MarkB

    The first blog posts on Muller’s op-ed contained past quotes from Muller in which he explicitly stated that he was not a ‘climate skeptic.’ Muller has criticized individual claims and behavior, such as some of the extreme projections, the team/hockey stick papers and the behavior exposed in the Climategate emails. He as converted from neither his agreement with the consensus AGW position nor his distaste with rogue activist/scientist/activists. Unfortunately, he is, in fact, presenting himself as something he is demonstrably not – a converted skeptic of the basic science. Very strange, given his public record. I don’t know how the whole effort can be seen as anything other than a set-up. Of course, in spite of the fact that he is playing into the consensus effort, he’s being attacked because he had the never to criticize Mann and the Team publicly, and now can’t be accepted even as a repentant sinner.

  • Steven Sullivan

    Muller’s clown show would be entertaining if it wasn’t such a sad commentary on a fellow scientist.   His hubris appears matched only by his craving for attention.  His enthusiastic distortions of fact about Al Gore, the IPCC, and Michael Mann in recent media interviews are just lazy and despicable pseudo-skeptic boilerplate. br>

    Whatever credibility adheres to his ‘auditing’ work henceforth will be due to the efforts of co-authors like Zeke and Rohde and, I’m surprised to say, Mosher. 

  • steven mosher

    weird. when you express skepticism over the temperature record for legitimate reasons, what was the message folks plied

    1. Trust us :
    2. You’re an oil shill.
    3. Do you your own damn science, prove it for yourself.

    So basically, folks like Muller were offered many unscientific reasons for believing and one challenge that actually upholds the spirit of scientific inquiry. Go see for yourself. prove for yourself.

    So Muller does the work. He finds the same answer and adds a brick to the wall.

    Gavins response could have been. “Thank you for taking the scientific approach, we wish more skeptics would see for themselves.”

  • Sashka

    @5: That alone doesn’t get you a pass inside the circle of wagons. You need to sign up on the whole “consensus” story. With us or against us, just like comrade Lenin so aptly coined.

  • PDA

    That was George W. Bush. Also Jesus.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Am I the only one who is thinking mountain, molehill, first of several slow news days in August? 

    Not that I have a replacement topic to offer…

  • harrywr2

    the conversion meme”“especially when it’s deftly exploited by someone
    with a flair for self-publicity”“is like catnip for the media.
    It may or may not be a precursor to a ‘herd’ event. That is why the media loves ‘conversion’ stories. If a ‘herd event’ doesn’t occur the Muller story will be nothing more then bird cage liner.

  • grypo

    The issue that Gavin was trying to speak to, I believe, is this idea that merely “looking into it” if you are skeptical of a widely understood phenomenon, such as UHI, is a good approach.  If you look at the two attempts at it this week, you see the results are 50/50.  It depended on the skill of the “skeptic”.  Neither one trusted the process of science.  One has caught up to the mid-nineties using a method not-as-useful as fingerprinting, and the other completely blew it.  This just isn’t how it should really work – (stepping backwards through time is opposite of the intent of scientific inquiry) – as much as skeptic romantics want to believe it should.

  • Stu

    I saw the Muller story written up in the Age newspaper recently. The way they painted him had him appearing as a kind of oil shill type (research funded by US fossil fuel interests), leading ‘a vast, international research effort to debunk global warming science’. I chortled…

  • JimR

    I think Gavin’s comment “odder still that the paper was only being submitted” is a bit strange. I recall a UCAR press release on Ammann and Wahl in support of the Hockey Stick when it had only been submitted. RealClimate had a post on it the day of the press release and they never seemed to find that press release “odd”. 

  • TerryMN

    Muller wasn’t impressed by Mann’s hockey stick, and called BS on “hide the decline” – beyond that there was really no conversion needed.    A bit disingenuous on his part to pretend there was, IMO.

  • steven mosher

    grypo. the point of the paper was not attribution. Not by intent, not by paragraph count, not by any measure except the press release.
    I will say, that some of us suggested a more complicated approach building on existing work and exapnding that due to the longer series. However, page count is a bitch. personally I would have liked to see the diurnal stuff get more words as well. but life aint burger king and I dont get things my way.

    A pure results paper, while adding to the science, would get slammed as not novel. not interesting, even though the extension back to 1753 IS interesting.. if its correct.

  • BBD

    steven mosher

    A pure results paper, while adding to the science, would get slammed as not novel. not interesting, even though the extension back to 1753 IS interesting.. if its correct.

    Call me a philistine (and fractionally OT), but what interests me most is the shape of the curve post-1950. The NH land surface temperature trends, especially at higher latitudes, are troubling in the context of observed permafrost melt and Arctic ice melt.

  • Tom Scharf

    Humorous that Gavin complains of “media ambush” tactics that is the MO of climate science (and high profile academia) in general.  Case in point is the release of the summary for policy makers section of IPCC reports before the main reports are published.

    A much more compelling question is to ponder what it would take for you to change your mind on trust in climate science?  

    Many people, especially the shining lights on the hill defenders of science we have on this forum, will never admit this is even a possibility. If you can’t honestly answer this question, then you are practicing faith, not science. 

    For me it comes down to the demonstration of good prediction skill in climate models.  What I would like to see is them nailing non-linear behavior in the climate system regionally on a decade basis.  Tell me when, where, and for how long those droughts are going to be for example.

    It’s a bit technical, but it’s important to significantly outperform a “null model” in order to demonstrate useful skill.  A simple example of a very dumb null model is the prediction that temperatures and sea level will continue to change at the same rate as they have averaged for the the last 30 years.  If you can’t outperform this, then all your physics and super computers are worth ZERO. ZERO.

    Another good example of trust building performance would be the ability to accurately predict the timing and magnitude of ENSO (El Nino/La Nina).  It is well known these are big drivers of climate swings.

    Now they did predict non-linear behavior (acceleration of temp and sea level increases), but this has not panned out so far, which keeps me deep in the denier column for now.

    It’s admittedly a high standard, but it should be.     

  • charles

    It’s interesting that there is no mention here of conversions from believer to skeptic. Here’s Mike Haseler, who used to be a member of the Green Party:”I always assumed the science was correct. It was not until I saw the impact of windfarms on people that I really checked the science and the organisations behind it. I was horrified by what i found. There never had been a bigger scam using bogus science to take money from the poor and hand it to the rich. I’m ashamed I had any part in it.”

  • http://softestpawn.wordpress.com Martin

    I seem to remember this conversion meme – ie “I used to strongly believe xxxx but then I studied the facts” – has been around for a while in various topics. It says to the believers that “I was one of you”, that the writer isn’t being superior, that the believers have only made a mistake anyone could make, and that the writer is sympathetic to people who also believe. It also says that the facts are overwhelming enough to persuade a true believer, which means the reader doesn’t have to actually bother finding, understanding and assessing all those difficult facts and theories. And it’s very egalitarian – all the various interested parties in a problem can use it. I vaguely recall it around homeopathy (“I used to be skeptical but then I tried it…”, “I used to use it but then I researched it…”), and see also eg Judith Curry for a Muller-like non-conversion (is that a Muller-lite conversion?), or Vahrenholt, from warmist to … whatever the term is now for non-warmists.

  • Steven Sullivan

    #12 JimR.  Interesting.  You got a link for that?  It’s always good to check one’s memory, especially regarding context.

  • TerryMN

    Steve@19 – http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2005/ammann.shtml – May 11, 2005.  I think it was eventually published in 2006 or 7…

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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