Why Reason Loses

By Chris Mooney | March 31, 2009 10:04 am

Get this: Funded by an anonymous donor, the anti-global warming Heartland Institute has created a climate change “Skeptic’s Handbook” for mass dissemination, “helpfully printing 150,000 copies…for distribution across the US including 850 journalists, 26,000 schools, ‘19,000 leaders and politicians.'”

Over at DeSmogBlog, Mitchell Anderson convincingly debunks the nonsense contained in this Handbook–but, not exactly for the same sized audience.

This has long been my problem with the defenders of science and reason on issues like global warming. The other side is playing to win, spending a vast fortune to sway public opinion. But where is the example of people on our side supporting good books about global warming (of which there are many), trying to get them widely disseminated, into schools and classrooms and the hands of journalists and leaders?

Publishers do this to make money–and often fail. Talented individuals do their part by starting blogs, and so on. But I’m not aware of many parallel or systematic efforts by major philanthropists or donors. For the most part, they’d rather give their vast fortunes to think tanks and research institutes that do tons of high quality studies that, um, don’t reach large audiences. We do research, conservatives do propaganda.

Try doing a national radio show on the subject of global warming sometime, and the tenor of the calls will make it obvious to you who is winning.


Comments (12)

  1. FFFearlesss

    Um…. didn’t Al Gore put out a movie a couple years back that quite a lot of people saw? :-)

  2. MAR

    You’re also forgetting the work that science educators do. I make sure that every student in my class understands the evidence for global warming and has the skills to be a scientifically literate citizen

  3. james wheaton

    Hannity, Limbaugh, Dobbs, Beck, etc appear so confident and smug that they are just ripe for the picking in my opinion – even on their own shows. Colbert and Stewart are making some inroads already but are largely preaching to the choir. The unltracon talking heads may be willing to invite experts on with the intent of publically shooting them down, and we should enthusiastically oblige. Their views are so patently ridiculous to anyone in the know – it’s a situation that should be exploited. One must of course beware of the tactics – their version of the Gish Gallop or other bullying methods. But I think the right person (like you Chris?) who is quick witted and can hold up their own in a war of words without devolving into something ugly, can make the denialists look pretty silly in front of an ignorant national audience.

    Years ago it didn’t matter as much that much of the anti-science anti-intellectual movement tended to dominate. But it has had a cumulative effect, and now the stakes are so much higher. This largely uncountered propoganda explosion needs a like response from the experts. The claims of Heartland and similar groups are old and moldy – it should be easy to shoot every one of their arguments down in fairly clear and simple language. It now should be part of the duty of the climate science community.

    We have no business sitting idly by and watching Heartland win this.

  4. Jon Winsor

    David Frum recently used the phrase “Giant Tupperware Party” of mercenary political services to describe what the conservative movement has become. I think he means something a lot like what Jim Sleeper called a “parody… New Class,” a movement whose rhetoric has come unmoored from its principles (which had problems and contradictions to begin with).

    So, to go up against the “New Class” you need a wise campaign that discredits opposition and makes the reasonable position demotic, so you can sustain public action. To do that you can’t underestimate all the veteran, professional propagandists you’re going up against…

  5. I am not sure what the viewership is for Chris and Sheril… neither here nor the old science blogs site… I hope that the move added to it.

    But, Joe Romm claims 10,000 visits per day at Climate Progress. That is not a lot. Every one of us needs to be as active as Chris, Sheril and Joe. Whatever ideas or facts we glean by reading these well-known sites, they must be used, forwarded, published. We all need to be active on this.

    It is easy for the nay sayers to label Dr. Hansen, or Al Gore with claims that they have a vested interest in that they make money out of being alarmists. It is much harder for them to do that for 10,000 writers, speakers all carrying the same message.

  6. Searching the San Jose Mercury News, I find yet another case of George Will fudging the numbers to make his ideology look good.

    Karl Frisch found him doing the same with his attacks on Obama and the “new New Deal”.

    Someone should be keeping score… like George Will 2 – Truth – 0.

  7. c-serpent

    The other side is playing to win,spending a vast fortune to sway public opinion. But where is the example of people on our side supporting good books about global warming

    Bold emphasis mine.

    This is a money game. The major extraction and polluting industries are flush with cash and have been for some time – combined annual profits in the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars. With those deep pockets, trying to match the propaganda is futile. Another approach is necessary. I’m not sure what that approach would be, but a few, even a few thousand blog readers trying to promote good books ain’t going to do it.

    It is much harder for them to do that for 10,000 writers, speakers all carrying the same message.

    Nah. It’s easy. They just say it in a 5-sec blurb and then repeat the blurb over and over and over. If you discredit it, they just repeat it more frequently and louder. To the ditto heads and the O’Rielly sycophants, we are all “Al Gore”. My father-in-law is a classic example. If the subject of the environment comes up, the first words out of his mouth frequently are “How’bout that Al Gore…” followed by some discredited claim about Gore’s environmental hypocrisy. By the way, he gets most of this from his church.

  8. Michael Heath

    Kind of off-topic, but when it comes to our message to the general topic, this does not help:

    46 percent of Americans believe that God, not evolution, created life on earth

    This is Amazon’s product description for “Unscientific America”. I.e. Science doesn’t claim that evolution created life on earth; it instead explains the origin of species. I’m guessing neither author wrote that up and guessing neither author wants to be associated with such a statement.

  9. Kel Sheps

    It is all about money. Where is the financial incentive in the short-term for supporting efforts to minimize the human impact on climate? A myriad of interests have short-term incentives to keep the status quo (i.e. it is very profitable and changing that equilibrium threatens their business model). The latter group has has more money than the former. The upshot is the anti-science side on climate change have significantly deeper pockets than the pro-side.

    You also have the fact that most people with disposable incomes are part of the problem; they tend to produce more CO2 than the “average person”. That leaves anyone devoting resources and time to fighting global warming open to charges of hypocrisy, decreasing the chances of such people to work on such causes with any significant vigor. Of course, American society as a whole is open to that charge from much of the world. Having to deal with global warming means taking a hard look at how we Americans live and how our society operates. It brings into question what we thought being American was all about. Combine that all together and you have a situation where resources are going to be tilted significantly towards the anti-science side. This doesn’t even get into, it is much easier to engage in propaganda when you don’t have to worry about the facts and being accurate, and only need to appeal “to the gut” of the public.

  10. Orson

    “there are many…good books about global warming” SUCH as…? Certainly NOT “Global Warming for Dummies,” a great series in general, but in this instance comes down to merely ‘we don’t (yet) know’ on page 47, regarding CO2.

    Over at DeSmogBlog, Mitchell Anderson convincingly debunks the nonsense contained in this [Skeptics] Handbook…. Perhaps Chris Mooney means something other than arguing scientific claims and evidence when he writes “debunking.” But none of Anderson’s many links deal with what the skeptics are arguing.

    First, lets start with the graphics in the IPCCs 4AR, figure 9.1. (SEE also the IPCC TAR section entitled 12.4.3 Optimal Fingerprint Methods.) The models predict a distinctive pattern of increasing rates of warming over the equatorial troposphere, such that a concentric thermal pattern should result if the cause is AGW from ACO2. (For a layman’s account of the AGW fingerprint or ”Hot Spot”, SEE ”The Greenhouse Fingerprint” in ”The Change in The Weather,” William K. Stevens, 1999.) The pattern is predicted to emerge from a doubling of CO2 levels from natural levels, which laboratory experiments suggest we are two-thirds of the way there in terms of radiative forcing. This is what AGW, according to the IPCC, predicts, and none of Anderson’s sources cite these primary sources.

    For instance:
    Gavin Schmidt et al 2005
    “Tropospheric warming is a robust feature of climate model simulations driven
by historical increases in greenhouse gases (1–3). Maximum warming is predicted
to occur in the middle and upper tropical troposphere.”

    Second, lets check the most relevant evidence. Satellite temperature observations of the atmosphere now span about three decades. We have two authorities processing (and yes-correcting) these massive data sets, measuring the vibrations (or temperatures) of water molecules, somewhat in the manner of a reverse microwave oven. Where the latter simply heats water molecules in the kitchen, these ”microwave sounding” detectors measure the heat of water in the atmosphere.

    Now let’s look at the evidence and see if there is a pattern match. Both UAH and RSS sources (SEE links below), show an atmospheric warming pattern of concentric circles with a focus around the North Pole – NOT focused over the equator as predicted. None of Anderson’s links consider this observational evidence. In other words, there is no pattern match of the available evidence with this model prediction. In Popperian terms, the prediction of AGW is falsified by recent empirical observation.

    Anderson cites RealClimate.org to argue against this conclusion, saying that there really is evidence of a Hot Spot! But this rationale obviously fails for two reasons. First, it is not the specific pattern that primary sources, the IPCCs documents and scientific papers like Schmidt’s above, predict. And second, the observed warming is simply consistent with warming from other causes, not specifically ACO2. In other words, if we accept Anderson’s/RealClimate.org claims, the remaining claim is much weaker than what was originally asserted, bearing little resemblance to AGW causation.

    We find that far from upholding Chris Mooney’s assertion about Anderson’s post (”convincingly debunks”) on AGW skeptics, our look at the claims and evidence supports the critics of AGW. Furthermore, one wonders if the above post does not show that Mooney is more interested in partisan policy prescriptions than actually examining the real predicted science and the actual evidence that supports or undermines it. To do this is a matter of contingent fact – not sophistry, which Anderson clearly excels in.



  11. In my opinion, the comment is actually the most informative on this relevant topic. I agree with your conclusions and eagerly look forward to your coming updates. Just saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the great clarity in your writing. I will grab your rss feed at once to stay abreast of any updates. Great work and much success in your endeavours!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


See More

Collapse bottom bar