To paraphrase a famous observation, cognitive bias in certain precincts of the blogosphere is one of those things you recognize when you see it.
So for the hell of it, let’s go to this randomly chosen example at Bishop Hill, the blog of climate skeptic Andrew Montford, who can reliably be counted on to share any news that reflects badly on wind turbines. Oh look, here’s something just out that’s noteworthy, he says:
Clive Hambler, a lecturer at Oxford University and the author of an important textbook on conservation, has written an important article at the Spectator on the effects on windfarms on wildlife. It looks as if the “bird-blender” name is well-deserved.
Indeed! I bet Montford put his super-skeptical powers to good use with that piece. Oh, wait…
Now, I’m not going to pass judgement on the legitimacy of the claims made in the article Montford highlights at his blog. I know that wind turbines kill birds and bats, just like I know that coal and oil pollute our lungs and heat up the planet. The issue, it seems, is in what context are we viewing these harms?
Several years ago, while wrestling with the climate skeptic/denier terminology, I queried a number of my colleagues on which term they used as shorthand.
None of them used the “denier” term, but most were also uncomfortable with “skeptic” as a one-size-fits all label. My own thinking on this was captured by Time’s Bryan Walsh, who said:
I’ve generally used the term “climate skeptic,” in part because it seems more neutral as a descriptive. Nuance will be lost in any shorthand description but “climate denier” seems to pack a whole lot more judgment in a single word.
On a similar note, Andrew Revkin said in that post:
there’s no way I could justify using denier as a blanket term, given the variegated range of people who oppose restrictions on greenhouse gases or challenge aspects of climate science.
I mention this exchange now because the journal Nature Climate Change has just published a new study entitled, “Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers.”
The term “deniers” is also used frequently throughout the paper. It’s quite a striking juxtaposition, since the purpose of the paper is to highlight new research that supposedly shows how those who are skeptical of climate change can still be won over to care about the environment.
But the way the authors go about it–by using the loaded “deniers” term as a catch-all reference–is akin to a public health expert slapping this title on a study: “Promoting a healthy diet for fatsos.” And then characterizing overweight individuals as “fatsos” all through the paper.
So far, reaction from climate scientists ranges from puzzlement to consternation. On Twitter, Doug McNeall, a climate researcher at the UK’s Met office, wondered if the paper “was actively courting controversy” and added:
I struggle to believe that the authors don’t know the impact of the word ‘denier’, given the subject matter.
Richard Betts, a fellow Met Office climate scientist, chimed in:
“Denier” is an unnecessarily inflammatory label, and only causes distraction by getting people worked up. Bad move.
Unsurprisingly, climate skeptics are worked up over the Nature paper. Bishop Hill writes:
it certainly looks as if the authors intended to generate offence and controversy rather than truth and light. Hilariously, the authors are writing about how to convert people to the green cause!
Indeed, the irony is hard to miss.
Fortunately, there is a voice of sanity among the rabble. Ben Pile at first tries to reason with the fire-breathers, who think that Roger is 1) a stalking horse for the global climate conspiracy to enslave the free world, and 2) a polite version of James Hansen. Pile grows frustrated:
What bothers me is that there seems to be a reluctance to accept any nuance to the debate: any form of state intervention must be just one goose step away from global fascism; anyone not completely attached to the idea that there’s no such thing as global warming is in bed with M. Mann, and probably helped him draw the HS. It’s an attempt to impose lines over a debate which is messy, and has many dimensions. Frankly, it reminds me of the excesses of environmentalism.
The paranoids in the climate skeptic sphere are unmoved. Here’s one:
He [RPJ] is very dangerous because he can speak publicly with authority although most of what he calls science is arm waving. He used some very clever presentation techniques. Very professional.
Pile gives up:
I don’t see the point in all this… ‘Sceptics’, mirroring the worst of environmentalism. Turns out that many of them are zealots, too.
He sounds as if he just found this out.
Every so often something I write shakes up the climate skeptic hive. They also start buzzing like mad, I have noticed, when you explain to them that their honeypot (the climate science cabal) is not really what excites them.
Oh well, so much for transparency.
In my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I lay out my case in detail.
This does not mean I am suggesting that aspects of climate science are not debatable, or that the hyperbolic rhetoric and exaggerated assertions of climate campaigners should not be called out. Indeed, it might be said that those who uncritically parrot these campaigners are merely the flipside of the same coin.
The truth is, neither side is much willing to acknowledge the tribal (and ideological) nature of the climate debate.
Last summer, when Rick Perry mania was cresting and he was spouting nonsense about climate science and evolution, I said this:
Of course, in that same post, I also that the Texas Governor
will likely saddle up the congealed Republican discontent, anger and culture war politics, and ride all the way to the GOP Presidential nomination.
Hey, nobody bats a thousand.
Anyway, at the time, some of you who are in the climate skeptic camp chafed at being lumped in with the mouth foamers (climate science is a hoax!) in your midst. My point was that, fair or not, the crazies (there is no greenhouse effect!) had come to be the representative face of the climate skeptic position.
It now appears that some well known climate contrarians are coming to this conclusion, too. In the American Thinker (which is no climate science friendly precinct), Fred Singer recently penned an essay titled,
Climate Deniers are Giving us Skeptics a Bad Name
Wait, did he just say climate deniers? And he repeats it a bunch of times in the piece! I thought that term was verboten in the climate skeptic universe? What’s going on here?
It seems that Singer wants to put some distance between him and the crazies (he identifies two different groups of “deniers”). Interestingly, he sees only one position on the other side of the spectrum–the “warmista,” who has “fixed views about apocalyptic man-made global warming.” True, the climate doomer is the public face of the climate campaign, but it is by no means the only position in the climate consensus universe.
Conveniently, Singer places climate skeptics “somewhere in the middle” of the climate landscape, between “climate deniers” and “warmistas.” That middle ground exists only in Singer’s head.
But to be fair to Singer, he also says that “these three categories” [denier, skeptic, warmista] “do not have sharp boundaries; there are gradations.” After making his case against what he considers the two extremes, he ends on this note:
I have concluded that we can accomplish very little with convinced warmistas and probably even less with true deniers.
Well, so long as climate “deniers” and doomers remain the de facto public representatives of the climate debate, their mutual antagonism and contempt will continue to shrink the space for rational discourse, and very little will be accomplished.
UPDATE: The Heartland Institute has responded. See bottom of this post for an excerpt.
Somebody sent the Heartland Institute a wicked Valentine. It was probably meant for Joseph Bast, Heartland’s President and CEO. Based on my reading of the leaked documents, I’m thinking that a recently fired employee or someone still there is not feeling a lot of love for Bast and the way he runs his organization.
The whistleblower/insider sent an email around to a bunch of folks yesterday, which got forwarded to me. While the documents have been disseminated on the internet, nobody reporting on this appears to have mentioned the accompanying email:
Dear Friends (15 of you):In the interest of transparency, I think you should see these files from the Heartland Institute. Look especially at the 2012 fundraising and budget documents, the information about donors, and compare to the 2010 990 tax form. But other things might also interest or intrigue you. This is all I have. And this email account will be removed after I send.
It both corroborates and is corroborated by the leaked Heartland documents, which reinforce Mashey’s conclusion that Heartland is a for-profit public relations and lobbying firm that is operating with non-profit status by misrepresenting the nature of its activities in its own tax filings.
I haven’t read Mashy’s audit yet, but after having plowed through the (presumably real) Heartland documents posted online, I wouldn’t be surprised if the IRS is moved to do its own audit of the Heartland Institute, or at the very least revisit the organization’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
Meanwhile, the way Heartland goes about its propaganda mission (as revealed by the docs) is already providing much fodder for the climate wars.
UPDATE: The Heartland Institute, in response, claims:
Yesterday afternoon, two advocacy groups posted online several documents they claimed were The Heartland Institute’s 2012 budget, fundraising, and strategy plans. Some of these documents were stolen from Heartland, at least one is a fake, and some may have been altered.
Well this story just got a whole lot more interesting.
At the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, I ask:
Are climate skeptics less important and less influential than they “” and their counterparts in the climate-concerned community “” would have us believe?
In recent days, Richard Tol, an economist and “climate polymath,” has been battling Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry. It started when Curry spotlighted some questionable research (two journal papers) on her blog, which contained statistical analysis that Tol initially called “sloppy.” He said the work was “published in minor journals, so that these papers had best been ignored.”
After Curry and some of her readers objected, Tol became more direct:
Judith: Statistics is a branch of mathematics. Right and wrong are strictly defined. These papers are wrong in the mathematical sense of the word. I think you have done a disservice by lending your credibility to these papers.
He also tweeted:
Skepticism is healthy, disinformation is not
I started following the exchanges with interest, tweeting some of the highlights. Curry challenged the “disinformation” charges here, and the back-and-forth between her and Tol (which got more specific) continued in that thread.
For example, Tol argued:
1. You do not post everything here. You make a selection. You therefore cannot claim that you are innocent. You made a conscious choice to publish that guest post.
2. If you know anything about statistics, you would have recognized that these papers are methodologically flawed. Using “detrended” fluctuation analysis to study “trends” was a dead giveaway that something is not quite right with these papers.
3. If you don’t know anything about statistics, you should not have published the guest post. The flip side of your academic freedom is your academic duty to keep your mouth shut about things you don’t know about.
4. This blog is widely read. You plucked two papers out of obscurity and put them in the limelight.
5. You have build up a reputation of someone who is willing to speak and listen to anyone. That is great. Climate research is complicated and uncertain and climate policy is polarized so we need people in the middle who talk to both sides.
6. At the same time, you should not be in the middle for the sake of being in the middle.
7. There is a substantial body of climate research that is credible “” even if it reaches opposite conclusions “” but there are also papers (left, right, and center) that are just flawed.
8. If flawed papers reach a certain prominence, they should be debunked. Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization.
9. If flawed papers linger in obscurity, they should be ignored. The papers are wrong but do no damage. Lifting a flawed paper out of obscurity only to debunk it, is no good to anybody.
10. So, by giving air time to two papers that you should have known are flawed, you deliberately spread inaccurate information.
Richard, your argument is deeply flawed, but I will not accuse you of spreading “disinformation’ about me amongst the twitterati.
You give yourself away with this statement “Prominent but flawed research does damage as it misinforms people about climate change. Publicly criticizing such research hardens the existing polarization.” Yours isn’t a statement about science, but about playing politics with science, and reinforces the gatekeeping mentality in climate science that was embarassingly revealed by the CRU emails. Of course there are flawed papers that get published. Few papers are published that don’t have any flaws and stand the test of time as an authoritative and unimproved upon statement about scientific truth. I am seeing palpable frustration about not being able to control what gets published and what gets discussed. Attacking me is an interesting (but probably futile) vent for your frustration.
Most people don’t come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). The come here to learn something by considering the various arguments.
The most interesting thing about this exchange is that I have seen little actual debunking of the Ludecke papers, mostly complaints about their EIKE affiliation. Go check what you have done these last two days against the list of 25 in the main post. You effectively hijacked the thread with the disinformation accusation, which resulted in little serious analysis of the papers.
As for me, I explore all the time things I know little about, that is why I like being a scientist.
He shot back:
Gatekeeping is a bad thing when it is used to block papers for ideological reasons. Gatekeeping is a good thing when it comes to separating methodologically flawed from methodologically sound papers.
I did not remark on the conclusions of the papers. I did not remark on the motivations of the authors.
I did remark that the papers incorrectly apply inappropriate statistical methods to uninformative data.
It is unfortunate that these papers were published. It is unfortunate that you chose to draw attention to them.
Open-minded curiosity should be tempered by critical judgement, and yours lapsed in this case.
Of course I was “playing politics with science”. Don’t pretend you are not.
…incisive demolition of these two papers. I note the absence of any credible defense of the papers and a high incidence of topic changing.. look at the sunshine.. for example.
A bad paper neatly dispatched as you did is a good teaching tool.
However, some wont learn and they use the bad paper as an occasion to thread jack
There’s just one problem with that logic. What if Tol (or someone else with his chops and reputation) had not taken the time to comment at Curry’s blog, much less followed up with a thorough critique? It’s not reasonable to expect every bad paper spotlighted on a popular climate blog to be debunked. (For instance, hardly anyone of repute bothers doing this at WUWT.) So the larger question is whether Curry, who has standing in the climate science community, should be more discriminating in the research she chooses to highlight at her blog?
Finally, there is amongst all this something Curry stated which strikes me as curious:
Most people don’t come to climate etc. to reinforce their prejudices (there are far too many echo chambers where this is much more satisfyingly accomplished). They come here to learn something by considering the various arguments.
I beg to differ. Judging by the voluminous comments, it appears that most Climate Etc. readers are very much having their prejudices reinforced.
Climate skeptics are all tingly over Matt Ridley’s recent speech (titled “Scientific Heresy”) to the Royal Scottish Academy. The reaction from Anthony Watts and Bishop Hill reminded me of these famous fanboys.
The speech itself is worth reading and has numerous legitimate points ripe for debate, which I’ll take up in a future post. Meanwhile, I’ll ask if Ridley and climate skeptics ever wonder if they too are afflicted with “confirmation bias”?
1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression, 5) Acceptance
Anthony Watts appears to be stuck at stage 2. Oh sure, he’s still very much in denial over this, but make no mistake, he’s also fuming and furiously spinning. It is highly doubtful that any amount of peer review–when that final threshold is crossed–will be enough to get him through the final three stages of grief.