Tag Archives: Lies and Denial

Analysis of a recent interview with Seth Borenstein about Doubt cf Denial

There is no doubt that Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein is a top notch science reporter. However, he is a professional journalist, and for this reason I expect him to be part of, and to be guided by, the culture of journalism. The culture of journalism involves a critical feature that makes journalism work: When researching and reporting a story, seek the other perspectives, those that for one reason or another come to a different conclusion than the perspective that may have initially gotten one’s attention. The Pope speaks to the Joint Session of Congress, and the most obvious thing we see is that he doesn’t say much about climate change. But some astute observers note that he really did, but he was just being subtle. Now, the interplay between the Pope’s overt and subtle messages is central to the story, and a journalist can bring together observation and analysis by multiple voices to dig below the surface.

You already know that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, associated with the Center For Inquiry, recently took action in the form of a letter and a petition to encourage the Associated Press to stop using the term “skeptic” to describe those who reject mainstream climate science. The term “skeptic” and its derivatives was already in use by the community represented by CFI/CSI, who in fact call themselves skeptics. To be a skeptic means that you view claims and assertions made by individuals or organizations as a scientist might view data or propositions to explain them, using critically evaluated evidence in the context of provisional theories or models to come to a rational understanding of something.

Those who reject mainstream climate science are not skeptics.

AP agreed with that, and the reason I started out with a mention of Seth Borenstein is that he was involved in developing a proper response to CSI’s proposition. AP modified its owns style guide to recommend against the use of the word skeptic in this context. In truth, this has only a minor impact on the world, in my opinion, because we have many words that have multiple meanings, and it is not at all unusual for a word to connote very different things even in the same conversation. In theory, my friend is going to meet me for lunch so we can discuss my new theory about human evolution. I say “in theory” because my friend always forgets appointments, and spoken with a saccharine inflection I indicate that I suspect he isn’t going to show. But my new theory of human evolution is a carefully constructed set of interrelated propositions, based on several lines of evidence of varying qualities and subject to revision, contextualized in a set of basic biological and taphonomic principles that guide my scientific mind in interpreting this evidence, those principles also subject to revision. Vernacular theory, scientific theory. This is how we humans communicate, which makes our mode of communication both a wonderful and mysterious playground for the mind, and a very annoying place to think. We could probably have lived with the term “skeptic” having two distinct meanings.

But, the CFI/CFI had a legitimate, if somewhat self-concerned, beef, with which I fully agree. And it got fixed, and that is nice.

By now you also know that the AP decided that the term “skeptic” in the context of climate science should be replaced with phrases like “those who reject mainstream climate science,” which is very accurate and appropriate, or for short, the word “doubter.”

Unfortunately, the term “doubter” is abysmally incorrect and inappropriate.

Seth Borenstein did a very informative interview with Bob Garfield at On The Media. Listen to it here or here:

In this interview, Garfield isn’t having it. He is fine with phrases like “those who reject mainstream climate science,” but he is highly skeptical of the term “doubter.” Borenstein defends “doubter” but Garfield’s arguments, which are similar to those of most climate scientists and science communicators who have weighted in on this, stood.

During this important conversation, something was revealed (something already widely known) about journalism, and we heard an example of a top notch journalist, Seth Borenstein, being hampered at a fairly deep level by his own journalistic culture. The culprit here is that feature of journalism I mention above, the feature that gives journalism its power, and makes it an important part of, well, civilization.

First let me examine Borenstein’s argument for why “denier” is bad and “doubter” is good.

“Denier” is bad because of the existing association with the Holocaust. There are those who deny that the Holocaust happened, they are called “Holocaust Deniers,” and it is bad to associate people with such an obviously nefarious perspective.

This argument is incorrect for several reasons. Mainly, the term “denier” was already in use to describe the state of rejection of that which is well established. “Denier” was not invented to describe those who claim the Nazi Holocaust didn’t really happen. It was already there, and was simply applied to them. In theory, this could sully the term enough to make it undesirable for other uses. But, forms of the word “deny” are in widespread use. “Deny” and its derivatives are fallback words, words we English speakers automatically use. The Red Brigade was an organization of jerks who killed innocent people several decades ago, terrorists. We don’t say that we should get a different word for the color we call red because of that. That is a more extreme example than the case of Holocaust deniers, but it makes the point.

A second reason to not reject “denier” is that it is already in use to describe climate science, and other science, deniers.

So, the prior use argument, whereby “denier” as a term is indurated with ickiness, is not valid. Or, only a little valid, but not enough to matter.

Now we transition to Borenstein’s argument that “doubter” is better, and this starts with his assertion that denier is less precise and “doubter” is more precise, in describing “those who reject mainstream climate science.” Borenstein claims that this is true because among those who question climate science, there are some who agree that climate change is real, and human caused, but that it isn’t serious. Since there is a broad spectrum of claims among those who reject something about the science, a term must be used that applies to all of them.

And, he says, “doubter” is the word.

This is incorrect. “Denier” is the more precise term because it does not refer to a specific set of assertions, but rather, the denial of whatever assertions are on the table. This is a critical aspect of climate science denialism that is often missed in this conversation. I can show you the writings of a denier (I still use that word) who claims that the link between greenhouse gasses and surface warming is false. I can also show you the writings of a denier who claims that the link is real, but the effects are unimportant. And, I can do so by showing you the writings of the same exact person, at about the same time, but in different contexts where different sub conversations about climate change were happening.

Not all deniers do this, but most do, or have, and the community of climate science deniers as a whole does it all the time. They are not systematically and thoughtfully denying one or another aspect of climate science. Some are denying all of it, but many will deny one aspect and accept another aspect in one conversation, and swap that around for another conversation.

This is not doubting. This is systematic dancing like a butterfly stinging like a bee footwork sophistry.

Let me make the point about precision a different way. Doubting is skepticism, all skeptics doubt when they can, and pull back from doubt and “accept as pretty much true” when they are forced to by the preponderance of evidence. Doubter can also apply to deniers. Doubt is a very large, broad, word which can be applied across a wide spectrum. Denier refers to a specific community of individuals (and organizations), with specific tactics, and applies well to almost everyone in that community. There are few exceptions, but only a few.

“Doubter” will usually be wrong, “denier” will usually be right. “Doubter” is the imprecise term, “denier” is the precise term. Doubt means there is uncertainty, denial means refusal to accept a widely accepted truth.

So why is this happening, why does Seth Borenstein like doubter and not denier?

In the interview, Bob Garfield holds Borenstein’s feet to the fire, briefly, over the issue of false balance. That is a horrible thing to accuse a top notch journalist of, and Borenstein got a bit testy about it. Part of Borenstein’s argument is that it is the scientists, not the deniers, who use the word denier, so it comes from advocates of one of those alternative perspectives journalists are supposed to identify and report on. By downgrading the term “denier” because the scientists and many mainstream communicators use it, one is avoiding giving privilege to one “side” of an issue. Borenstein both uses this as part of his argument, but denies that he is doing so. I doubt Borenstein is being a bad journalist here. But he is being a journalist. As an anthropologist, I’ve learned to see this sort of surface incongruity as a possible indicator of a deeper culture-bound conflict in thinking. I think that is what we’ve got here.

Here is the part of the interview to which I refer.

SB: [the term denier] does most of the job pretty well according to one side. Granted, that side has the majority of science on it.

BG: [interrupting] Seth, I apologize, I’m going to cut you off here. One side? This is the very definition of false balance.

SB: No one has accused me of false balance. Don’t you go there. All you have to do is Google my name, Seth Borenstein, look at the images, and see what the group that you call deniers, we call doubters, look at what they’ve done to me personally, and to the AP. To say that I’m giving in to them, it is just not something that has ever happened. It is not something I’ve ever been accused of before.

BG: Can I say that there are two sides to the political debate, but if there is fundamentally no scientific debate, why would you think of this in terms of both sides that require fair treatment any more than you would treat holocaust deniers as having one side in the issue of history? …

SB: There is no false balance in the way AP covers the science. But there is a difference between the science and the semantics. We’re not talking, you and I, about the science right now. We’re talking about the semantics. And there are different sides on the semantics. I’ve been using climate doubter for months and no one has said anything.

Borenstein is right to be a bit defensive in this exchange. He has in fact been the subject of attack by deniers, and his record of excellent reporting on climate change, and his and AP’s rejection of false balance, are easily confirmed. If you look at what watchdog organizations like Media Matters say about AP in relation to “false balance,” AP gets good marks. Also, yes, Seth Borenstein has in fact been using “doubter” for a while.

Nonetheless, in this exchange you see one really smart well spoken person making a good case that giving sway to one group in relation to the semantics about what they say about science smells like false balance, and a second really smart well spoken person falling back on the “it is a semantic argument” argument. A nerve. It has been touched.

Don’t get me wrong. Borenstein, or the AP, is not exactly committing a false balance fallacy. If the main argument that “denier” is out and “doubter” is in came from the use of “denier” by mainstream science and the dislike of the term by, well, deniers, then we do have to ask why equal weight is given to both sides in considering this argument. But AP is primarily stepping back from a term that has a negative connotation because they don’t like to do that (see the original AP justification). This conforms to general practice in developing the AP style guide. Unfortunately, the outcome in this case is the substitution of a word that works very well with a word that does not work at all.

One only has to go slightly meta to understand why this is wrong. The term “denier” is in fact negative, but appropriately so. Science and journalism are carried out in different ways, and some of those differences can be rather startling when you try to mix the two. But both are professions involved in truth seeking. Deniers are truth obscurers. Deniers are lie-sayers. Deniers aren’t simply people with a non-mainstream opinion. They are individuals and organizations who identify the well supported mainstream thinking about a critically important issue, and actively try to subvert it. And they do it using an age old practice that has been called the same thing for a very long time. They deny. Not doubt.

The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists

Scientists in all disciplines agree with climate scientists that global warming is real and caused by humans.

The vast majority of climate scientists, very close to 100%, understand that the phenomenon known as “global warming” (warming of the upper 2,000 meters of the ocean, the sea surface, and that atmosphere at the surface of the land) is happening, and is caused by human greenhouse gas pollution. (eg. Anderegg W R L, Prall J W, Harold J and Schneider S H 2010 Expert credibility in climate change Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107 12107–9) Unsurprisingly, the vast majority, very close to 100%, of peer reviewed published papers that address these issues also indicate these conclusions. (eg. Cook J, Nuccitelli D, Green S A, Richardson M, Winkler B, Painting R, Way R, Jacobs P and Skuce A 2013 Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 But, only about half of the American public thinks either of these things to be true. (Weber E U and Stern P C 2011 Public understanding of climate change in the United States Am. Psychol. 66. See also this.) This is sometimes called the consensus gap.

Consensus_Gap_medBut what about other scientists, outside of climate science? If there was a similar consensus gap between climate scientists and other scientists in general, then maybe we could argue that half of the American population were Galileos, somehow knowing that the climate scientist were wrong, and being persecuted for it.

A recent study looks at this question. The study asked a large sample of American based scientists about their beliefs about climate change. At the same time, a subsample of these scientists were scored on “cultural value” spectra to ascertain the cultural and political frameworks they are operating in. In short, the results indicate that overall scientists are in agreement with the climate scientists. There appears to be no consensus gap within science.

The paper is “The climate change consensus extends beyond climate scientists, by J S Carlton, Rebecca Perry-Hill, Matthew Huber, and Linda S Prokopy. Click the link to see the paper, it is OpenAccess.

The survey polled 1,868 scientists in a wide range of science units at the 12 “big ten” US Universities. The response rate was 37.4 percent, with 698 responding. (That is not exceptionally small, perhaps a bit above average.) Two survey forms were given, one with the “cultural values” questions and one without. For the most part, the polled scientists agreed that global warming is real and caused by human greenhouse gas pollution. The rate of this belief was so high we can stop there and simply conclude that outside of climate science, scientists agree with the climate science consensus on this matter. But the survey did reveal some interesting, though generally small, differences between disciplines (more on that below)

(Note, I use the term “belief” here purposefully. We can discuss that another time if you like. The paper also uses that term, and provides this footnoted background for it: “In this manuscript we use the term ‘belief’ in a technical sense: beliefs are dispassionate, cognitive components of attitudes (Heberlein 2012) and represent people’s understanding of something. People’s ‘beliefs’ may or may not be consistent with accepted scientific facts.”)

From the study:

The results suggest a broad consensus that climate change is occurring: when asked ‘When compared with pre–1800’s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?’, 93.6% of respondents across all disciplines indicated that they thought temperatures have risen, 2.1% thought temperatures had remained relatively constant, 0.6% thought tem- peratures had fallen, and 3.7% indicated they had no opinion or did not know.

So now we know that just under 3% of university scientists can’t read a graph.

Is the rise in temperatures caused by humans?

Most respondents believed that humans are contributing to the rise in temperatures. Of those who indicated that they believed temperatures have risen, 98.2% indicated they believe that ‘human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean glo- bal temperatures’. Together, these two facts reveal that 91.9% of scientists surveyed believed in anthropogenic climate change. This number is slightly lower than the 96.2% of actively publishing climate scientists that believe that mean temperatures have risen and the 97.4% who believe that humans have a role in chan- ging mean global temperatures…

The use of a cultural values question allowed the researchers to parse out responses based on the respondents’ cultural framework. Here, the strongest result indicates that those who fal lhigh on the “Hierarchicalism” and “Individualism” spectra are those contributing most to that small percentage that got it wrong. Along the political spectrum, lots of people get it wrong, from conservative to liberal, but relatively few conservatives get it right, suggesting an ideological bias among conservatives but not necessarily among liberals.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 10.13.41 AM

The results of the study certainly fit with my own observations and expectations. Look at the graphic.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 10.46.01 AM

A key determinant in the likelihood that a scientist will get it right (believe climate change is real, anthropogenic, etc.) is obviously if the individual is in climate science or a closely related discipline. It is therefore not surprising to find high marks among climate scientists, ocean and marine sciences, and geological and earth sciences.

Another determining factor may be how much a particular area of science requires (on average) more interdisciplinary work. If you are very broadly interdisciplinary, you have to develop the skill of evaluating the science put forward by your colleagues in areas where you don’t have strong background. I’m pretty sure a large number of physicists almost never have to do this, while many biological scientists do. This seems to be reflected in the numbers.

Engineers are a mixed bag. Our experiences dealing with creationists have taught us (we evolutionary biologists) that engineers are very often creationists. I assume this has something to do with values linked to preferred discipline, or something. Having said that, there are those trained in engineering or in engineering schools who deal directly with climate science. Again, from experience dealing with creationists, chemists and engineers are similar, if not worse.

One shocking result seems to be the low performance of those involved in “natural resources.” Shouldn’t they be all over climate change? This is hard to explain but totally expected in my view. The natural resources community has been, as a whole, very sluggish in coming up to bat about climate change, even though the are often working where the rubber meets the road. I think it still may be the case that the impending extinction of moose in Minnesota, which is almost certainly related to parasites which were not a problem when things were colder, is still seen as a mystery by Minnesota natural resource experts.

The study also looked at scientists perception of climate science with respect to overall credibility, maturity of the field, and trustworthiness.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 10.20.17 AM

Overall credibility is high, with a similar pattern (mainly, engineers on the lower end) as belief in global warming, across the disciplines. Trustworthiness is middling across all disciplines. This is probably because academics don’t trust each other, or even themselves if they are any good, because they are all skeptics. The maturity results are interesting. Why do physicists think climate science is not a mature discipline? This could be because Newton was hundreds of years ago. Chemists, also; that is a field that goes way back in time. Oceanography is a very young discipline, with its roots in the early 20th century but not really developing until the 1960s. I’m not sure why Astronomy sees climate science as mature, but perhaps because astronomers have actually been doing climate science for a long time. Frankly, I would attribute a bit of apparent randomness in this question to the overall lack of training and scholarly work in the history of science (outside their own discipline) among scientists in general.

I have no doubt AP got this wrong: climate science contrarians are deniers.

The Associated Press has changed the AP Stylebook, tossing out a commonly used set of terms in favor of an entirely inappropriate word, for describing those who incorrectly and without foundation claim that climate change science is a hoax, or wrong, or misguided, or otherwise bogus.

The term “skeptic” has a long history, but has come to refer to those who regard claims, usually about nature, health, or anything where science may inform, with studied incredulity. The skeptic wants evidence, and they are organized. The Skeptics Society has a magazine, and the magazine has a podcast. The Center for Inquiry has multiple skeptical programs. The Amazing Meeting gathers skeptics from around the world in a Las Vegas hotel where everybody gets all skeptical. Science based medicine is a practice as well as a blog (and is linked to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast). Skepchick: chicks that are skeptical. There are about fifty skeptical podcasts, with Science for the People best representing the skepticism-science link.

Then there are some other people who are called skeptics, and this pertains to global warming. The science is clear. Anthropogenic pollution is causing global warming and other changes in the climate. There is no legitimate contrary scientific position, though there is plenty of work within the science as yet undone. People who deny the scientific reality of global warming are wrong, and are probably motivated by a number of different forces. And they like to call themselves skeptics.

It has been convenient for deniers of global warming to be called “skeptics” because it makes denial of science sound like something it isn’t, like it is a good thing. Every single good scientist is a skeptic. So being called a “global warming skeptic” gives some cover. Actual scientists generally prefer to call deniers deniers, though there are a few other terms in the mix (including the widely used “contrarian”).

(If this does not all make sense, have a look at the MOOC known as Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.)

But actual skeptics didn’t like the use of the term “skeptic” applied to science deniers. There is a small, historically interesting irony here, which I’ll mention then move beyond. It wasn’t that long ago that three of the most famous “skeptics” (none of whom are scientists), magician James “The Amazing” Randi, and the two magicians known as Penn and Teller, espoused views of global warming that would put them squarely in the denier camp. So, among the leaders of the skeptic movement (movement is probably an OK word to use there) three were both skeptic and skeptic, in the two senses of the word. Perhaps because of this, a number of other skeptics, just regular people who participate in Internet discussions and so on, also denied the global warming science, so this incorrect perspective was part of the skeptic movement. Eventually, after a conversation or two with some actual scientists, Randi changed his mind, to his credit, and did so publicly. I’m not so sure about Penn and Teller.

Recently, the Committee for Skepticsl (CSI) called upon Associated Press (AP), and the world in general, to stop using the word “skeptic” to describe climate change science deniers. They wanted the word back, to not have it sullied by association. That was a reasonable thing to ask for, and the request was supported by many scientist who are not necessarily active in the skeptic movement. There was a letter, a petition, all that.

And AP went along with it. Just a couple of days ago, AP changed their style guide to specify that the word “skeptic” should not be used to refer to climate change science contrarians. That was good.

But the AP went further. They also said that the term “denier” should not be used, and in supporting text, indicated that this was in part because of the association of the word “denier” with “holocaust denier.” AP’s new guideline specifies, instead, that the term “doubter” instead of “skeptic” or “denier.”

This is wrong. This places contrarians who actively attempt to damage and derail the conversation about one of the most important existential issues of the day in a relatively good, and undeserved, light.

Climate change deniers are not “doubting” climate change, or any particular aspect of climate change science. A single denier might be seen on one day claiming that adding CO2 to the atmosphere does not increase global surface temperatures (it does). In another conversation a day later, the same individual can be seen arguing that yes, it does do that, but not much. Next day, OK, it does do that but it will stop doing it and the temperature will go down. Or the warming is good. Or the warming is real, and will have effects, but we can fix that. Or we can’t really fix it, but since the Chinese are not on board with changing things, what we do does not matter. And so on and so on.

And, no, that is not the rapid evolution of thinking of a denier. The same denier will go right back to the “CO2 does not cause warming” argument the moment they find a sufficiently uninformed audience.

This is not doubting. It is not being skeptical. It is denying, and it is denying pretty much the same way that Holocaust deniers are denying, in an irrational, politically motivated, goal-post moving, dishonest, and damaging way.

Denial expert John Cook, who was the lead developer of the above mentioned MOOC, pointed out to me that the term “denial” is already part of the academic and scientific conversation. “There is a great deal of research by psychologists, political scientists and other social scientists into the many aspects of science denial. Understanding the why and how of denial – why people reject science and how the scientific evidence gets distorted by misinformation – is essential to formulating an effective response. It would be ironic in the extreme if our response to science denial involved denying the social science research into denial. ”

Climate blogger Sou notes,

“Climate change doubters” is a poor euphemism. It doesn’t mean the same as a climate science denier. I sometimes refer to “those who reject mainstream climate science”, however it’s clunky and doesn’t lend itself to repeated usage. Why use five words when there’s a perfectly good single word that describes those people “deniers”? Or if there’s no other context that makes it clear who you’re talking about: “climate science deniers”.

Joe Romm at Think Progress talked to climate scientist Michael Mann about this.

“As they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science deniers,” as leading climatologist Michael Mann emailed me. “To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.”

Romm also notes, “Here’s another reason “doubter” makes no sense. The Senate’s leading climate science denier/denialist/disinformer James Inhofe (R-OK) still maintains “global warming is a hoax.” Is he expressing “doubt”? Is he expressing what Oxford Dictionaries calls “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.” No. He is denying the science.”

Climate scientist and communicator Things Break picked up on the “avoid Hitler reference” theme with this tweet:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 10.47.44 AM

The @AP will no longer call mustaches “mustaches” b/c Hitler had a mustache, & some might get offended by the term.

In retrospect (and I truly mean that, 20-20 hindsight and all, because I had a chance to suggest this before but did not think of it) the CSI should have given equal weight to the two arguments that a) skeptic is the wrong word and b) denier is the right word. And, for good measure, they should have thrown in c) some of the other words that are out there should not be used, such as “doubter,” while some other words might be OK in certain contexts, like “contrarian.” Perhaps the appeal to AP should have been written, or at least gone over, by lawyers who think of these kinds of things in advance! As it turned out, the organized skeptics may have been a bit too concerned about their brand and a bit under concerned about the big picture. Good lesson: If you want to effect change, be more clear about what you want the change to be to.

I’m not all that big on biblical references, but one comes to mind. When Peter denied Christ, Jesus got really pissed, and it was a big deal. But when Thomas doubted, not so much.

Letter To President Obama: Investigate Deniers Under RICO

The following is the text of a letter written by a number of scientists asking for a federal investigation of climate science denial under the RICO statute.

Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren

September 1, 2015

Dear President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren,

As you know, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. We applaud your efforts to regulate emissions and the other steps you are taking. Nonetheless, as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The stability of the Earth’s climate over the past ten thousand years contributed to the growth of agriculture and therefore, a thriving human civilization. We are now at high risk of seriously destabilizing the Earth’s climate and irreparably harming people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people.

We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change. The actions of these organizations have been extensively documented in peerreviewed academic research (Brulle, 2013) and in recent books including: Doubt is their Product (Michaels, 2008), Climate Cover-Up (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009), Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), The Climate War (Pooley, 2010), and in The Climate Deception Dossiers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation.

The methods of these organizations are quite similar to those used earlier by the tobacco industry. A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.


Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
(continued on page 2)
Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren
David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT

Once Again, The #FauxPause Is Killed By Actual Research

We drove north for two days, to arrive at a place that existed almost entirely for one reason: To facilitate the capture and, often, consumption of wild fish. The folks who run the facility make a living providing shelter, food, boats, fishing tackle, easy access to a fishing license, and they can be hired as guides. The whole point is to locate, capture, butcher, cook, and eat the fish. The fish themselves have little say in the matter.

And while talking to the people there we got a lot of advice as to how to find and capture the fish, and offers were made to assist with the butchering and culinary preparation of the piscine prey. After a bit of final preparation and a few final words of advice, we were ready to go fish hinting.

“Except for those, fish,” the woman we were talking to said, pointing towards a particularly long dock extending into the vast lake, one of the largest lakes in North America. “Don’t catch those fish.”

“Why?” I asked perplexed.

“We named them,” she said. “You can go down and look at them, the fish that hang out at the end of that dock. A couple of Northern Pike. Don’t catch those fish.”

“OK,” I said. And off we went in the other direction to catch some different fish. I figured there were about 200 million fish of a pound or more in size in this particular lake. We could skip the ones with names.

For many decades, probably for over a century, there has been an observable, measurable, increase in global surface temperature caused by human greenhouse gas pollution. For the first several decades, this increase is a clear trend, but a mild one, and there is a lot of up and down fluctuation, with periods of several years of decrease as well as increase. Then the upward trend becomes stronger, and some time around 1970 it becomes virtually relentless, going up a good amount every decade. But still, there are fluctuations in the curve.

What causes these fluctuations? Several things. The total amount of CO2, the main greenhouse gas causing this heating, has been going up during this period without stopping. Because CO2 added to the atmosphere stays there for a long time, so even if the amount released into the air by burning fossil fuels varies, there is always an upward trend. This causes the general increase, and it is why the increase in the last 50 years or so has been stronger; more CO2 has been released each year more recently.

There are large scale interactions between the ocean, which is also heating up, and the atmosphere and sea surface, the latter being what is measured in graphs of “surface temperature.” These fluctuations are decades long, and influence the degree to which the surface is warm vs very warm. There are shorter term ocean-air interactions such as La Nina (periods when the ocean is taking in more heat) and El Nino (periods when the ocean is pumping out more heat).

As the Arctic has warmed, it has been less icy, and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere have been less snowy, so there has been less sunlight reflected away, another source of fluctuation. Also, since we are talking about the Arctic, there are fewer measurements there so the traditional curves showing global warming have not included increased rates of warming there to the degree they should. Some of the fluctuations in the surface temperature curve are caused by this kind of bias, a shifting bias (because of relatively more warming in under-sampled areas) in the data set.

Humans and volcanoes make dust. Humans used to make a lot more dust before environmental regulation required that factories and power plants clean up their act. There are varying amounts of widespread low level volcanic activity and the occasional enormous eruption. This dust affects the surface temperature curve, and the dust varies quite a bit over time.

If the earth was simpler … a rocky surface, no ocean, no volcanoes, no vegetation (and thus no wildfires as well), but a similar atmosphere, changes in the amount of CO2 or other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere would be reflected in changes in surface temperature much more smoothly. If that was the case, the amount of variation in energy supplied by the sun would probably be visible in the curve (that factor is so small compared to the other factors that it is very hard to see in the actual data). The curve on the simple earth would probably jiggle up and down a bit but there would be relatively smooth.

If you look at the temperature curve, you can see periods of greater or lesser upward change in temperature. You can even name them. I decided to do this. I chose common baby names, half male and half female, giving male names to the periods with slower increase, female names to the periods with faster increase. It looks like this:


In recent years, in what is at the root a corporate funded, and rather nefarious effort to delay addressing the most important existential issue of our time, climate change caused by human greenhouse gas pollution, science deniers have come up with their own name for one of the fluctuations in the ever increasing upward march of global surface temperatures. They call it “hiatus” (aka “pause”). The purpose of naming this part of the curve is to pretend that global warming is not real. It looks like this:


I am not impressed. And neither should you be. This is like those fish at the end of the dock. Except for the fish it is an affectation of a few people having fun, whereas with the science deniers it is a bought and paid for attempt to cause another hiatus, a hiatus in taking action to save our future.

There is a new study, the Nth in a spate of studies looking at the “Hiatus,” that asks experts on trends (economists, mainly) to look at the surface temperature trend as though it was something other than surface temperatures (they were told it was global agricultural production), to see if they identify the hiatus.

They don’t.

The study is by Lewandowsky, Risbey, and Oreskes, and is “The “Pause” in Global Warming: Turning a Routine Fluctuation Into A Problem For Science. It is here.

The abstract:

There has been much recent published research about a putative “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming. We show that there are frequent fluctuations in the rate of warming around a longer-term warming trend, and that there is no evidence that identifies the recent period as unique or particularly unusual. In confirmation, we show that the notion of a “pause” in warming is considered to be misleading in a blind expert test. Nonetheless, the most recent fluctuation about the longer-term trend has been regarded by many as an explanatory challenge that climate science must resolve. This departs from long-standing practice, insofar as scientists have long recognized that the climate fluctuates, that linear increases in CO2 do not produce linear trends in global warming, and that 15-year (or shorter) periods are not diagnostic of long-term trends. We suggest that the repetition of the “warming has paused” message by contrarians was adopted by the scientific community in its problem-solving and answer-seeking role and has led to undue focus on, and mislabeling of, a recent fluctuation. We present an alternative framing that could have avoided inadvertently reinforcing a misleading claim.

John Abraham, at the Guardian, has written it up.

The authors show that there is no unique pause in the data. They also discuss biases in the measurements themselves which suggested a slowing in warming that actually did not occur once the data were de-biased. Finally, they reported on recent work that displayed a common error when people compare climate models to measurements (climate models report surface air temperatures while observations use a mixture of air and sea surface temperatures). With this as a backdrop, the authors take a step back and ask some seemingly basic questions.

Speaking of John Abraham, he just sent me this new graphic based on the latest surface temperature measurements. This is a good moment to have a look at it:


How do you explain Judith Curry?

How do you explain a person seemingly legitimately trained in science drifting off and becoming more and more of a science denier?

In the case of Judith Curry I was unwilling to think of her as a full on science denier for a long time because her transition into denierhood seemed to be going very slowly, methodologically. It was almost like she was trying to drift over into denier land and maybe bring a few back with her. Like some people seem to do sometimes. But no, she just kept providing more and more evidence that she does not accept climate science’s concensus that global warming is real, caused by human greenhouse gas polution, involves actual warming of the Earth’s surface, and is important.

And lately she has added to this slippery sliding jello-like set of magic goal posts yet another denier meme. She is certain, after a convoluted review of “evidence” that one of the classic examples of deniers lying, deniers making stuff up to confuse and mislead policy makers, reporters, and the public, is real.

It is not real but she says it is real. If you were looking for a last straw required to place Judith Curry plainly and simply and undoubtedly in the category of Climate Science denier, this straw has fallen heavily on the camelid’s aching overburdened back. If you were looking for that one last fact that determines the balance of argument in favor (vs. against) Judith Curry being either nefarious (as all those who intentionally deny this important area of science must be) or just plain (and inexcusably) stupid (the only alternative explanation for pushing climate science denialism) than that fact has arrived.

What the heck am I talking about? This.

I’ve talked about it here. Go read that and the 100+ comments on it. In that post I contextualize and quote the following words from this source:

One e-mail Phil Jones of CRU sent to my coauthors and me in early 1999 has received more attention than any other. In it, Jones both made reference to “Mike’s Nature trick” and used the phrase “to hide the decline” in describing a figure … comparing different proxy temperature reconstructions. Here was the smoking gun, climate change deniers clamored. Climate scientists had finally been caught cooking the books: They were using “a trick to hide the decline in global temperatures,” a nefarious plot to hide the fact the globe was in fact cooling, not warming! …

The full quotation from Jones’s e-mail was …, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Only by omitting the twenty-three words in between “trick” and “hide the decline” were change deniers able to fabricate the claim of a supposed “trick to hide the decline.” No such phrase was used in the e-mail nor in any of the stolen e-mails for that matter. Indeed, “Mike’s Nature trick” and “hide the decline” had nothing to do with each other. In reality, neither “trick” nor “hide the decline” was referring to recent warming, but rather the far more mundane issue of how to compare proxy and instrumental temperature records. Jones was using the word trick [to refer to] to an entirely legitimate plotting device for comparing two datasets on a single graph…

The reconstruction by Briffa, (see K. R. Briffa, F. H. Schweingruber, P. D. Jones, T. J. Osborn, S. G. Shiyatov, and E. A. Vaganov, “Reduced Sensitivity of Recent Tree-Growth to Temperature at High Northern Latitudes,” Nature, 391 (1998): 678–682) in particular …

…was susceptible to the so-called divergence problem, a problem that primarily afflicts tree ring density data from higher latitudes. These data show an enigmatic decline in their response to warming temperatures after roughly 1960, … [Jones] was simply referring to something Briffa and coauthors had themselves cautioned in their original 1998 publication: that their tree ring density data should not be used to infer temperatures after 1960 because they were compromised by the divergence problem. Jones thus chose not to display the Briffa et al. series after 1960 in his plot, “hiding” data known to be faulty and misleading—again, entirely appropriate. … Individuals such as S. Fred Singer have … tried to tar my coauthors and me with “hide the decline” by conflating the divergence problem that plagued the Briffa et al. tree ring density reconstruction with entirely unrelated aspects of the hockey stick.

In her most recent post, Judith Curry says:

In hindsight, the way the Climategate emails was rolled out, after very careful scrutiny by the targeted bloggers, was handled pretty responsibly. Lets face it – “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline” means . . . “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline.”

That statement by Curry is demonstrably wrong. That is a fact borne of logical and scientific examination of the information, and information is not lacking. Curry is wrong.

Beyond that, I think, as implied above, she is either doing something here that is morally wrong (lying to slow down action on climate change) or stupid (she is not smart enough to understand what she is looking at). Here, I want to be clear. The argument that Curry is wrong is logical. Ends there. She’s wrong. The idea that she is either immoral or stupid is both my opinion and NOT an argument about her wrongness. I am not making an ad hominem argument. If you think that is an ad hominem argument then you don’t know what an ad hominum argument is (and isn’t).

And yes, I understand that this is a rather insulting thing to say, that one is either immoral or a dumbass. But it is my children’s future that is at risk here. Expect insults.

See also this:

Seepage: Climate change denial and its effect on the scientific community

The title of this post is also the title of a new peer reviewed paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Orskes, James Risbey, Ben Newell and Michael Smithson, published in Global Environmental Change. The article is Open Access, available here. Stephan Lewandosky has a blog post on it, in which he notes,

… we examine the effect of contrarian talking points that arise out of uncertainty on the scientific community itself. We show that although scientists are trained in dealing with uncertainty, there are several psychological and cognitive reasons why scientists may nevertheless be susceptible to uncertainty-based argumentation, even when scientists recognize those arguments as false and are actively rebutting them….

We highlight three well-known psychological mechanisms that may facilitate the seepage of contrarian memes into scientific discourse and thinking: ‘stereotype threat’, ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and the ‘third-person effect’.

Stereotype threat refers to the emotional and behavioural responses when a person is reminded of an adverse stereotype against a group to which they belong. Thus, when scientists are stereotyped as ‘alarmists’, a predicted response would be for them to try to avoid seeming alarmist by downplaying the degree of threat. There are now several studies that highlight this tendency by scientists to avoid highlighting risks, lest they be seen as ‘alarmist.’

Pluralistic ignorance describes the phenomenon which arises when a minority opinion is given disproportionate prominence in public debate, resulting in the majority of people incorrectly assuming their opinion is marginalized. Thus, a public discourse that asserts that the IPCC has exaggerated the threat of climate change may cause scientists who disagree to think their views are in the minority, and they may therefore feel inhibited from speaking out in public.

Finally, research shows that people generally believe that persuasive communications exert a stronger effect on others than on themselves: this is known as the third-person effect. However, in actual fact, people tend to be more affected by persuasive messages than they think. This suggests the scientific community may be susceptible to arguments against climate change even when they know them to be false.

I have little to add beyond Stephan’s overview (Sou has this, go check it out), and you can read the paper itself. I do think these questions are part of an even larger issue, of the influence of systematic well funded constant denialism on both the science and the implementation of science as public policy. Imagine if all the effort spent addressing contrarian claims was spent on doing more science or the translation of science into policy? One could argue that questioning the science strengthens it, and in many cases that may be true. But the denialism about climate science does not play that role. Contrarian arguments are not valid questions about the science, but rather, little more than self indulgent contrived nefarious sophistic yammering. That is not helpful; It does not strengthen the science. Rather, denialism has served to slow down the implementation of sensible energy policies, and has probably slowed down our collective effort to the extent that were the denialism ignored, or didn’t exist to begin with, we would be decades ahead of where we are now in addressing the existential issue of our time.

Global Warming Is Happening: DENIAL101.x

I’m auditing the EdEx course “Denial101x: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.” This is Week 2: Global Warming ins Happening. The course is covering indicators of warming, what is happening in the Cryosphere, and related matters.

Here is an example lecture segment:

A central theme of this week is the relationship between climate and weather, and how this relationship becomes fodder for the development of myths in service of denial about climate change. The climate is a cherry orchard. Weather is the cherries. Don’t pick the cherries!

There are many dimensions the climate system that allow cherry picking. You can look at local temperature records and see very little warming in some placs. You can look at different levels of the atmosphere, and you can ignore the oceans. Don’t ignore the oceans, that is where most of the heat imbalance caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas pollution plays out.

At one point in this week’s course, you get to play with a really cool data tool. Like this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 8.54.34 AM

Playing around with that tool is very fun and informative, and the process is backed up with some excellent information about how the data set(s) work(s).


Cherry Picking, Setting False Expectations, How records are made and tracked (we are setting hot records more often than cold records over recent decades, in the US and elsewhere). Global warming is analogous to rigging the climate dice.

Sea level rise, thermal expansion of the global ocean, melting glacial ice. Glaciers are losing about 150 billion tonnes of ice a year, accelerating. Many mountain glaciers have disappeared or shrunk a great deal. Annual mass balance. Tracking glacier history. Myth: Some glaciers are growing therefore there is no global warming (cherry picking, there are a few growing glaciers due to warming causing more snow locally).

Greenland ice loss: Over 300 billion tonnes per year, or 6 meters of ocean if all melted. Moulins. Ice shelves as corks. Gaining ice in interior. Greenland is already at 2 degrees C surface air increase. Largest individual contributor to sea level rise. Myth: Since ice is building up in the interior (ignoring the rest of the region) global warming is not real. Note: Most of the accelerated melt is very recent, mass balance has been negative for about 15 years, and this is increasing. Get waders.

Antarctica, west and east (largest, oldest). Total contribution to global sea level if all melted = 72 meters. Recently discovered that WAIS is more sensitive to climate change than previously thought. Melt started in recent decades and is accelerating, in WAIS. EAIS relatively stable. (But this is questionable, may be changing.)

Antarctic sea ice: Seasonal, does not influence climate much. Myth: sea ice increase means global warming not real. Winds may blow sea ice outwards, so open water freezes, and the winds blow colder water. Fresh meltwaters easier to freeze. Snow fall increased.

Land and sea ice are totally different things. Myth of sea ice discounting global warming is cherry picking and error of omission.

Excellent in depth interview with several ice experts. It is worth looking at these longer interviews even if they are not on the quiz!

Building the temperature record (How do we measure global warming). Myths: Thermometers not reliable, insufficient in number. Jumping to conclusions … scientists estimate error, the error is way smaller in magnitude than the temperature increase signal. Multiple methods of measurement agree with each other.

Urban heat island effect. Neat: Compare light pollution with heat island effect. They don’t match up, suggesting HIE is very local and not strong. NASA matching of paired rural/urban stations: effect is small. Other studies support this. Fallacy: Jumping to conclusions. Going from a reasonable hypothesis to the conclusion, meanwhile actual scientists examined the hypothesis and found it wanting. Myth: “Corrections” are bogus (jumping to conclusions). Truth: Corrections are proper adjustments to data. Ie when you change instruments or move instruments an adjustment or calibration may be necessary. Comparing adjusted vs. non adjusted data shows that the adjustments, while justified, don’t change the numbers much.

Wavy Jet Streams. How hey work. Myth: “It’s cold out, so much for global warming!” Cherry Picking, that. GLOBAL warming.

How jet streams form and why they get wavy. Arctic amplification (positive feedback from ice/snow cover changes, etc.). So tropical/polar temp gradient (and thus pressure gradient) reduces, waves and slower jet streams result.

“Climate Change” vs. “Global Warming.” Myth: Some bogus story about how scientists are playing a fast one. Personally, I prefer Obamacare over the Affordable Care Act. (FLICC type: Conspiracy Theory. Over Simplification.)

How To Demolish Climate Denial

John Cook, of the University of Queensland, and his colleagues, have created a MOOC … Massive Open Online Course … called “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.”

Why does this matter? How does it work? What can you do?

All of these questions are answered here: University offering free online course to demolish climate denial.

Fight sticky myths with even sticker sticklier facts.

Do go check it out. See you in class!

Check out: The First Earth Day, an epoch journey into politics, explosions, folk music, and old boats floating on stinking rivers.

Climate Science As A Second Front for Biology Teachers

The American Biology Teacher has hosted a guest editorial by Glenn Branch and Minda Berbeco of the NCSE. The editorial points out that climate science is under a similar sort of anti-science attack as evolution has been for years, though generally with different (less religious) motivations. Also noted is the problem of fitting climate change into the curriculum, especially in biology classes. Indeed, biology teachers are already having a hard time getting the standard fare on the plate. In recent years, for example, the AP biology curriculum has jettisoned almost everything about plants, which were previously used as examples of physiology owing to both their relevance and the relative ease of using plants in biology labs. Branch and Berbeco note that climate change has not made its way that far into the biology classrooms, but there are already anti-science efforts to keep it out.

… a backlash against the inclusion of climate science – and anthropogenic climate change in particular – in the science classroom is under way. For example, when West Virginia became the thirteenth state to adopt the NGSS in December 2014, it was discovered that beforehand a member of the state board of education successfully called for changes that downplayed climate change… Nationally, according to a survey of 555 K–12 teachers who teach climate change, 36% were pressured to teach “both sides” of a supposed scientific controversy, and 5% were required to do so.

Minda_BerbecoI interviewed Minda Berbeco, who is the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education, about climate change in the classroom.

Question: Should Earth System Science (which would include climate change) become one of the core areas of science teaching in high schools? If so, are there efforts underway to move this along?

Answer: Absolutely, Earth systems are a core concept in the Next Generation Science Standards, which are being adopted across the country right now. Understanding Earth systems is central to understanding the world around us, and intersects every other type of science from biology to chemistry to physics. Climate change is, of course, an important piece of understanding Earth systems, as it too intersects these other topics and is a compelling topic that relates directly to how humans can impact the planet.

Question: My background is more in biology but as a palaeoanthropologist I’ve studied several areas of what would might be classified as “Earth Science” or even “Physical Science” so I’m more comfortable with a cross disciplinary approach. Since climate change is normally considered a physical science (in college or advanced studies) and high schools tend to stick with the silos (clearly defined disciplines), shouldn’t we expect climate change be taught in physical sciences or geology rather than biology?

Answer: As a biologist, I’m always really surprised by this question, as there are many people who think that climate change only intersects the Earth sciences. This is a very one-dimensional view and completely ignores not only how climate affects organisms and ecosystems, but also how organisms and ecosystems in turn affect climate. It turns out that many biology teachers across the country agree with me, since we are finding that a significant number of them are teaching about climate change, even when it is not in their state’s science standards.

Question: I think it might be true that among high school science teachers, we see denialism of evolution to a higher degree among physical science teachers than biology teachers. This may not matter too much since evolution is rarely taught in physical science classes, though it certainly can be disparaged or denied there. Since climate change might fall under the preview of physical sciences in some curricula (as would geology and earth systems), will we see a larger amount of, or a new kind of, conflict among the teachers themselves as climate science is more widely addressed? (and by extention among administrators whom we need to support teachers under fire)

Answer: I’m not sure who challenges evolution more, physical science teachers or biology teachers – obviously because evolution is more often covered in biology classes, that is where we tend to hear about it. As for climate change, the challenges that we see actually have less to do with outright denial, and more with teachers genuinely not realizing what the evidence shows or trying to bring in “both sides” as a critical thinking exercise, knowing that the evidence clearly demonstrates that humans are largely responsible for recent climate change. We don’t have students debate “both sides” of whether mermaids exist or that viruses cause disease, so why would we do it with climate change? Plus there are far better questions to ask about climate change, like how it will impact animal migration or the spread of disease, that scientists are actually asking. Why not have students study that?

Question: You note that the motivations for denying evolution vs. for denying climate change are different. But given that there is a link between certain political affiliations and things like secularism (or anti-secularism) there is some overlap in who is involved and to some extent why they deny science. (Denying science is convenient for a lot of reasons.) Are you concerned about future alliances forming in the anti-science world that may strengthen attacks on climate science in public schools?

Answer: Certainly there is cross-over between different groups who disagree with what the scientific consensus shows on climate change and evolution, and alliances can form as a result of that. This can backfire as well though, as many people who deny climate change would bristle at the thought of working with a creationist. They have somehow convinced themselves that with regard to climate change they know better than the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, but when it comes to evolution, of course the scientists are right. It’s a little mind-boggling to imagine, but it is something that we’ve seen quite a bit.

Question: Both evolution and climate science are brought into social sciences (or other non-hard science areas) in schools in the form of debate topics. (see below) Typically these approaches involve the presumption of there really being a debate. Which there isn’t. Is NCSE monitoring this, or addressing this problem in any way?

Answer: We definitely pay attention to these sorts of things, and we are not fans of students debating “both sides” of the science, as it elevates non-science to the same level as science. Although having students debate the science of climate change is clearly counterproductive, having students debate issues in climate change policy is fine. There are a lot of options, from energy efficiency to carbon taxes, making it an ideal topic for a social studies or government class. Climate change is an issue that students will have to deal with as adults, so it makes sense to try to give them practice in a government class on how they will navigate the policy decisions that will need to be made. We’ve seen science teachers connect with social studies teachers to address this issue, where the students learn the actual scientific evidence in their science class and then debate the policy options in their social studies class. This is a totally appropriate approach and is an interesting way of showing students how science can inform policy.

Question: I think nearly all biology teachers know that the official line is that evolution is for real, so even if a biology teacher is a creationist they know that they are going off script to deny (or avoid) evolution. Is this true for climate change? Are teachers who have classes that might include climate science all aware of the fact that climate change is not a scientific issue (it is mainly well established science)? Or are many of these teachers under the impression that there is a debate?

Answer: Unfortunately, there have been many groups who have spent a lot of time and money attempting to undermine the science in the public’s eye, and teachers are just as susceptible to these efforts as anyone else. We’ve rarely run into a teacher who has malicious intent when teaching incorrect information about climate change. What we find more often is that they are not familiar with the evidence or take it on as a critical thinking exercise, having students debate “both sides”. Like I said earlier, we are not big fans of this approach.

For those interested in resources that might be useful to science teachers, or the parents of kids in public schools, see THIS PAGE. For those who wish to know more about the activities of the NCSE, or who are concerned about anything going on in your local school or your child’s classroom, visit the NCSE web site. Also, please not that the NCSE Climate Change Bumper Sticker contest is still seeking submissions!

The rise of Skeptical Science

The site, not the thing. From the YouTube site:

Everyone at Skeptical Science spends a lot of their time reading the scientific literature and listening to experts. Without that we wouldn’t be able to write all the material that’s published on Skeptical Science. It’s a lot of work, especially when you do this with a critical eye. Our goal, after all, is to ensure that what we write reflects the scientific literature on the subject as accurately as possible.

The materials created by Skeptical Science are used by teachers, politicians, and of course by users on the internet to rebut climate myths. Thanks to this a lot of people have seen materials produced by us, even though they might not know that they have.

The website Skeptical Science wasn’t created overnight, nor was the team behind it assembled instantly. It started small with John Cook starting the website and publishing the first rebuttals to climate myths. As I wasn’t familiar with the story of how Skeptical Science evolved to the website it is today I had the idea to interview John about this. Despite John constantly saying “I’m just not that interesting” I eventually managed to get him in front of the camera to tell the story behind Skeptical Science.

The article released with this video can be found here:

The transcript, used resources, and citations for this video can be found here:

You can support me and the content that I create through Patreon.

Interviews filmed in collaboration with University of Queensland, Skeptical Science, and Peter Sinclair. Full interviews available April 2015 in ‘Making Sense of Climate Science Denial‘.

Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics

Dana Nuccitelli is a key communicator in the climate change conversation. He is co-writer with John Abraham at the Climate Consensus – the 97% blog at the Guardian, and has contributed hundreds of entries to John Cook’s famous site SkepticalScience.com. He has measurably helped people to understand climate change science and the nuances of the false debate based over climate manufactured by science deniers.

And, he’s written a book!

Graphic from Cook, Nuccitelli, Et Al 2013 paper quantifying the consensus on climate change.  This figure also appears in "Climatology and Pseudoscience"
Graphic from Cook, Nuccitelli, Et Al 2013 paper quantifying the consensus on climate change. This figure also appears in “Climatology and Pseudoscience”
Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics fills a wide open niche in the climate science discussion. Dana powers through the literature on climate science, identifying and describing instances of the predictions, projections, or assertions made by climate science and compares these with assertions made by climate science contrarians, also known as deniers. (Though the distinction between denier and non-denier emerged later in the full time frame addressed in the book.) Simply put, Dana compares the two at several points to see which is correct: the projection that human generated greenhouse gas pollution warms the Earth and changes the climate, or the projection that it does not.

It turns out it does! But you knew that. But what you might not have realized is the overall time frame of how this situation has developed. Dana skillfully documents the deeply disturbing fact that the issue of global warming (and related things) has been settled for a very long time. Were it not for mainly fossil fuel industry funded anti-science activists, we would not be having this discussion today, and Dana would not have had to write his book. Rather, science would be focused on figuring out the remaining and important details of how the Earth’s climate system responds to human pollution as well as natural changes, and policy makers would be busy working out how to keep the Carbon in the ground. We probably would have had a price on Carbon years ago, and we’d probably be running our civilizations off of a very high and ever increasing percentage of clean (non fossil carbon) energy. But no, those denialists had to ruin it for everyone with their fake skepticism.

I asked Dana Nuccitelli, “What surprised you most while researching and writing this book?” and he told me,

I was surprised at how accurate mainstream climate scientists’ predictions about global warming have been, even using the earliest global climate models as early as 43 years ago. The earliest model predictions were based mainly on the warming expected from the increasing greenhouse effect, so it goes to show what a dominant factor carbon pollution has played on global temperature changes over the past half century.

Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics is engagingly written, clear, accurate, non-technical but not watered down. If you know the stuff in this book you can be more confident than ever having those conversations with with your friends Denialist Dan and Warmest Willie. In fact, I would recommend Climatology Versus Pseudoscience along side Michael Mann’s book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines for a comprehensive treatment of the history of both denialism and the science itself.

I asked Dana who he had in mind as the most likely audience for this book. I’m sure it is for general readership, but I also felt it could be used in classes.

I wrote the book with the general public as my intended audience. I wanted to make explanations about some basic climate science concepts accessible to everyone. My publisher told me that they anticipate that universities and libraries will be the main purchasers of the book though, so they may have had class use in mind more than I did!

Dana covers the early days of climate science, discusses the “Astounding Accuracy of Early Climate Models (Chapter 3), discusses the development of the scientific consensus on climate change, and provides an excellent overview of the current situation with greenhouse gas pollution caused climate change.

Over the last year or so, it seems that the climate conversation is starting to shift. Major media outlets are changing their approach, not following the dictum of false balance. Climate change is starting to become a bigger factor in elections, in a good way. The President of the United States has openly called on Americans to reject science denialism. I asked Dana where he thought the climate change conversation might be going over the next couple of years, and if we might see addressing climate change as more routine rather than highly controversial in the future.

I think much of the media is starting to shift towards more accurate, responsible, and truly balanced coverage on climate change. The Washington Post has been doing a great job since they hired Chris Mooney. The Guardian’s climate coverage is excellent. TV media coverage has been improving, and some great shows like Years of Living Dangerously and Cosmos have tackled climate change.

I think journalists and producers are starting to understand the difference between false balance and actual balance in climate reporting, and that media shift will be critically important in accurately informing the public on this critical issue. Most people vastly underestimate the level of scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, and I think that can mostly be blamed on media false balance. If you regularly see one-on-one debates, it’s natural to assume the experts are divided and debating the issue at hand.

With human-caused global warming, that’s obviously no longer true, but that perceived debate explains why people still don’t view climate change as a top priority. That needs to change, but that won’t happen until we have truly balanced media coverage accurately informing the public. That was one of my key motivations in writing this book – to hold the climate contrarians accountable for their bad science and failed predictions, because so far the media has failed to do that.

Dana’s final chapter talks about the future, about what can and should happen. He notes that we have the technology in hand to solve the climate crisis, and that we are starting to apply it.

I strongly recommend this book for the general reader, but I would also suggest it for use in certain classes, either in high school or college. If you are a teacher and want to thoroughly cover the “Debate” over climate science, get this book.

Published by Praeger; 214 pages; copious notes; index; cool graphic.

And now, for a little video fun related to Dana’s book, climate science, and the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas pollution and its effects:

Dana on Typhoon Haiyan and Climate Change:

The Climate Consensus Project (John Cook, Dana “Nutelli” Nuccitelli, and others):

A typical climate science denier, John Spencer, talking about the Consensus Project. on “Andrew Neil vs Dana Nuccitelli”

What climate scientists and communicators do when they are not being challenged by climate contrarians:

Dana’s Ice environmentally thoughtful Ice Bucket Challenge:

Congressman Grijalva is doing the right thing

Raúl Grijalva Investigates

Raúl Grijalva is the US representative from Arizona’s 3rd congressional district, a Democrat, and a supporter of environmental initiatives. As the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, he recently sent letters to seven universities requesting documents related to the background of climate change research, as a response to recent revelations in the New York Times of seemingly inappropriate failure to disclose industry funding sources by Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Willie Soon. These letters requested the following:

  • The university policy on employee financial disclosure.
  • For specific researchers or projects, drafts of government testimony and communications regarding testimony preparation.
  • Information on funding sources for the specific researchers, including the source, amount, reasons for the funding, description of funded research, and communications regarding the funding.
  • Copies of financial disclosure forms listing the university.
  • Information on the researcher’s compensation for a specified period of time.

All seven letters went to institutions housing researchers who are regarded to some degree or another as having published material that might be seen as favorable to fossil fuel industry supporters, who, in turn, are generally regarded as potentially benefiting from policy inaction regarding human caused greenhouse gas pollution. In other words, Congressman Grijalva was looking for Soon-like instances of industry support for bogus research that would ultimately be used by, among others, climate science denialists in Congress to delay action on climate change.

This makes sense to do, Grijalva has the legal power to do this, and indeed, the responsibility to do this.

Reconsidering Grijalva’s Strategy

However, several people and institutions, including those who tend to protect the interests of Big Fossil but also, those who are interested in advancing good science and good policy based on that science, felt that some of these requests went to far. Rather than trying to represent others’ views, I’ll give you my own view on this.

In this world of electronic communication, the private conversation, or the closed door meeting, has been partly replaced and extensively augmented by electronic communication. This means that ideas we may float or open, honest, unfettered conversations we may have, are often recorded in electronic form, at least in part. The words we speak as part of a private conversation in a hallway or office dissipate into the air; the only physical result is the small additional heat generated as the sound waves we generate vibrate some of the molecules around us. At some point these frank, sincere, and honest (or not in some cases) conversations may turn in to some form of documentation. The conversation around the table at a faculty meeting turns into minutes. The chattering among scientists at the Monday Morning Lab Meeting turns into a memo from the lab director about what the graduate students and post docs have to start (or stop) doing. Ideas tossed around among a set of researchers may turn into a grant proposal. Endless conversations about the data and the analyses of those data turn into a draft paper. And so on.

But many of these conversations, these days, do not simply dissipate as heat, with the best or most important parts written down. Now, much of that chatter, because it takes the form of electronic communications, is unintended documentation of the process.

I worked for many years in the Congo rainforest, and lived there among the Lese people. The Lese have a saying that is absolutely wonderful. This saying is used when someone wants to say something to you that you might find objectionable, but they don’t want to push the issue too far. It goes, “Let me give you these words. If you don’t like them, give them back and we’ll pretend they never existed.”

Life is full of conversations that work that way. If scientist, administers, students, teachers, and everybody else were unable to communicate with each other without the prospect of these private conversations being made public by a freedom of information request or a Congressional demand or a legal subpoena, then those conversations would have to stop happening. That would be unthinkably stifling and destructive to the process of advancing and applying knowledge.

Grijalva Does The Right Thing

Anyway, a number of people had similar thoughts, and expressed them to Representative Grijalva. And he listened. Not long after sending out the letters, he realized that his request included a certain degree of overreach. According to the National Journal,

“The communications back-and-forth is honestly secondary, and I would even on my own say that that was an overreach in that letter,” Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, told National Journal on Monday. “I want the disclosure [of funding sources]. Then people can draw their own conclusions.”

I applaud, as we should all, Grijalva’s efforts to look into the practice of industry-bought research results, and their potential use in delaying action on climate change. That is the central narrative here. It may even be the case that in some instances looking at private correspondence will be necessary as part of one investigation or another. But at this point in time, the only thing Representative Grijalva needs is the subset of requested information that relates to disclosure, and it appears that that is the information he is now focused on. So, I applaud his rational thinking and sensible approach in this regard as well.

Related posts:

Cry for me, Willie Soon

And by “me” I mean all the children of future generations.

Willie Soon is a soft-money scientist at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has been producing highly questionable ‘science’ casting, for several years, faux light on the reality of the human caused process of global warming. It appears that most or all of Soon’s funding came directly or indirectly from the fossil fuel industry or supporters of that industry. (See also John Mashy’s comment below about tax breaks.) Recently the dung has struck the rotating blades and the nexus of denialist ‘science,’ fossil fuel funding, and Willie Soon has been brightly illuminated for all to see. Soon’s activities have actually been known for quite some time. Indeed, one of the denialist arguments that this isn’t really a story is the based on the assertion that this isn’t really a new story. (Pro tip: something like this going on for years is a bigger, not smaller, story!) What is different this time is that mainstream media, currently undergoing a transition away from maintaining a false balance debate about climate change has started to get real, and the main main stream media outlet in the US, the New York Times, anointed the Soon story as a story.

Even though Soon is ensconced at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (which is more of a Smithsonian thing than a Harvard thing, but the links to Harvard are very real I am ashamed to admit) he recently made a public written statement about his situation and chose to convey that statement via the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is the infamous Libertarian ‘think’ tank that supported the tobacco industry in their bid to cover up the dangers of smoking, and that has been involved in a range of rather nefarious activities vis-a-vis climate change science denialism. Soon has been an affiliate of Heartland for some time now. Soon’s statement reads:

In recent weeks I have been the target of attacks in the press by various radical environmental and politically motivated groups. This effort should be seen for what it is: a shameless attempt to silence my scientific research and writings, and to make an example out of me as a warning to any other researcher who may dare question in the slightest their fervently held orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming.

Um, Imma let you finish reading the statement but first I want to comment on that first paragraph. The “radical” groups include Greenpeace, which I would argue is a radical group, but also, the New York Times, which I would regard as centrist, as well as a number of climate and environmental advocacy groups and individuals including mainstream scientists. What Soon calls an “orthodoxy” is actually a broadly held scientific consensus, like the “Germ Theory,” and “Einsteinian Physics” and such. By “question in the slightest” he must mean, since he is speaking circumspectly of his own work, “radical contrarianism of the important findings of climate science.” So, ladies and gentlemen, we see the magic of rhetoric at work. Soon is the radical, which is why he calls others radicals. OK, you may continue reading now.

I am saddened and appalled by this effort, not only because of the personal hurt it causes me and my family and friends, but also because of the damage it does to the integrity of the scientific process. I am willing to debate the substance of my research and competing views of climate change with anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is a shame that those who disagree with me resolutely decline all public debate and stoop instead to underhanded and unscientific ad hominem tactics.

Soon is famous for deflecting attempts to engage him in Q&A periods after the talks he gives. So forget about the debate. Soon is indeed being subjected to parallel attacks; scientists have been saying for years that his science sucks. That is not ad hominem. It is just that his science sucks. But also, his ethics are now being newly questioned, as he seems to have failed on numerous occasions to properly declare his industry funding. If accusing someone, copious evidence in hand, of ethical violations is ad hominem, then that is what it is. Soon’s reference to ad hominem is misguided. People are saying “Your science sucks. And your ethics are questionable.” The ad hominem fallacy would apply here only if people were saying “Your science sucks because your ethics suck.” No, his science does not stand on its own. OK, sorry for the interruption. Back to the statement.

Let me be clear. I have never been motivated by financial gain to write any scientific paper, nor have I ever hidden grants or any other alleged conflict of interest. I have been a solar and stellar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for a quarter of a century, during which time I have published numerous peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. The fact that my research has been supported in part by donations to the Smithsonian Institution from many sources, including some energy producers, has long been a matter of public record. In submitting my academic writings I have always complied with what I understood to be disclosure practices in my field generally, consistent with the level of disclosure made by many of my Smithsonian colleagues.

Whether or not Soon or any other author of a peer reviews paper is motivated by financial gain is irrelevant to the question of proper disclosure of funding. Who knows, he may be right. After all, it was just a million or so dollars, who would be motivated by that? That is a distraction. Do note his reference to grant money coming to him via the Smithsonian. We’ll return to that later. I find his reference to “many” of his Smithsonian colleagues interesting as well.

If the standards for disclosure are to change, then let them change evenly. If a journal that has peer-reviewed and published my work concludes that additional disclosures are appropriate, I am happy to comply. I would ask only that other authors-on all sides of the debate-are also required to make similar disclosures. And I call on the media outlets that have so quickly repeated my attackers’ accusations to similarly look into the motivations of and disclosures that may or may not have been made by their preferred, IPCC-linked scientists.

Just to be clear, there really is no question that Soon failed to disclose funding sources in violation of journal policies and standard practice. I should note that his failure to disclose has been on the table for some time and at no point did he address that issue, as far as I know. I suspect that Soon’s repeated references to “others” is a deluded hope that everyone should realize that everyone has been acting unethically and this will motivate everyone to back off. (See this interesting pot by Ugo Bardi on disclosure in science.)

I regret deeply that the attacks on me now appear to have spilled over onto other scientists who have dared to question the degree to which human activities might be causing dangerous global warming, a topic that ought rightly be the subject of rigorous open debate, not personal attack. I similarly regret the terrible message this pillorying sends young researchers about the costs of questioning widely accepted “truths.”

Actually, some of those people are not questioning human cause, but they are questioning the danger. But I digress.

There is indeed a message here to the young and upcoming researchers. Keep your ducks in a row when it comes to ethics and similar concerns. Otherwise, this is exactly the fight Soon says he is ready for. If you produce research that asks questions of a widely held consensus, more power to you! You may well be making an important contribution. But if your research is shown to be seriously wanting time and time again, you may want to refer to that old adage of unknown attribution about doing the same thing that does not work over and over again.

Finally, I thank all my many colleagues and friends who have bravely objected to this smear campaign on my behalf and I challenge all parties involved to focus on real scientific issues for the betterment of humanity.

This sentence really pisses me off. Willie Soon and his denialist colleagues in science and Congress have measurably stalled our collective action on climate change. How dare you play the victim, Willie Soon. You are one of the perpetrators of what could be defined, and some day will be defined, as a crime against future generations (though this isn’t technically illegal, of course). The young pre-school age children of today will suffer more than they otherwise might have because of this delay. Shame on you. Don’t tell us about the “betterment of humanity.” Don’t ask us to cry for you, Willie Soon. You are in a hole. You dug that hole, and got paid a million or two bucks along the way. You tossed our children under the bus, and now you are whinging about your own fate?

And now, for the last part of the statement:

Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Why is Willie Soon of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics releasing a statement indicating he is of that institution via the Heartland Institute, rather than from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics? I think it is very weird that he released a statement that he is not an industry shill through an organization that is an industry shill. Beyond that anything in his convoluted statement makes equal sense.

Note that in his statement, Soon throws the Smithsonian under the bus, or perhaps, drags the institution under his own bus, by reminding everyone that the grants actually came (he claims) to him from the Smithsonian, to which Big Fossil had made donations. Note also that Soon implies that failure to disclose is normal for his colleagues at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or perhaps, the Smithsonian in general. Wow. One can only imagine the conversations going on behind closed doors between Garden Street and Concord Avenue, Cambridge, MA.

I strongly suspect that the only question that remains in the Willy Soon Gate affair is who is going down with Willie. We see the usual denialists lining up with him, and they are of no consequence. They have already crashed and burned. But we also see various so-called ‘contrarians’ choosing to jump in Willie’s hole, or not, and I strongly recommend not.