Tag Archives: Climate Change Denial

Your Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change

It is said that scientists are lousy at communication, lousy at telling everyone else about their science, in understandable and compelling terms.

This is of course absurd. There are tens of millions of scientists, and dozens of them are really excellent communicators!

This IS the book you are looking for.
Among the many sciences, there is a science of science communication. It overlaps, unironically, with the science of conspiracy ideation, and borrows a great deal from the broader communication fields.

One of the leading science communicators of the day is cognitive scientist John Cook. John is at George Mason University. He is so tightly linked to the founding and development of the Skeptical Science project that “Skeptical Science” is the name of his Wikipedia entry. This binds John and his mission to a lot of us. Where we once might have said, “I am Spartacus,” we now say, “I am Skeptical. Science!” For John, it is just “I am SkepticalScience.”

Cook is likely known to you for the Consensus project. There were two main projects, a few years back, in which scientist attempted to measure the degree of consensus over the idea that anthropocentric climate change is real. (It is real, and the consensus is near 100% in both peer reviewed literature and the conclusions of actual scientists.) John and his colleagues did one of those, and beyond that, widely promoted the results so that everyone knows about it.

Guy from 1917 (left) and cognitive scientist John Cook (right). Whatever made me think about that sticking the head up out of the trench analogy?
Like I said above, there are tens of millions of scientists. Developing and disseminating the results of consensus research in climate scientist was equivalent to being the only guy sticking your head up out of the trench in that movie, 1917. Science deniers, both avocational and bought-and-paid-for, got all over cook like skin on a grape. Didn’t phase him, though. He continued to develop a series of new projects including a massive online course (Making Sense of Climate Science Denial), an artificial intelligence system for detecting fake science, and most recently, the Cranky Uncle project.

Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers” is a crowdsourced book (and an app). There will be a book launch on March 4th in Arlington. This book gives us the whole ball of wax that is the science of climate science denial in a very funny, really well produced, and compelling wrapping. It will amuse you, and it will advise you. Your cranky uncle is done for.

I don’t have a cranky uncle anymore (he died). But I do have a lot of neighbors who like to write in ALL CAPS. They show up when I give a talk on climate change, and they bring their conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, cherry picked “facts”, absurd expectations, and references to fake research done by fake experts. It is a lot to deal with. But now, I can use the Lewis Black technique for dealing with evolution deniers, but instead of pulling out a trilobite, holding it up and saying “Fossil!” I can pull out a copy of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change and say “Oh yeah? Imma look up what you just said in this BOOK!” or words to that effect.

Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers is the book now. Pre-order it!

For completeness, here is Lewis Black demonstrating the fossil technique:

Roger Pielke Junior, I forgive you for this one thing

Hi there, folks. This post should have been a tweet in response to Roger Pielke Jr (@RogerPielkeJr), professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder, the guy who got fired by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight for, as I understand it, his anti-science positions on climate change. This is a response for a tweet by Junior designed to offend, nay, attack, both Professor Michael Mann and moi. But Roger blocks me (and everybody else) on twitter, so this has to be a blog post.

Roger is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I suppose I can’t blame him for getting every single thing that he gets wrong wrong. When someone gets a specific thing wrong it is sometimes hard to say if it is because of base ignorance, nefarious intent (willful ignorance), or just one of those things someone didn’t happen to know. Since I am an anthropologist as well as a self-described expert (sub guru level, class II) on The West Wing, and Roger is neither, I will assume that he is not likely to get a West Wing reference even when it bites him in the face, even when West Wing references are dernier cri.

Refer to this post for background.

Having read the post, you understand that Judith (and Roger, but more Judith, because she is an actual climate scientists) rogered themselves — screwed themselves over — by leading Congress to the edge of the cliff, the metaphorical cliff you push federal funding programs off of, then asking to get pushed off the cliff before realizing what they were doing. I think that is clear.

Now, have a look at this brief scene from the West Wing.

See how the dairy farmer got rogered by President Bartlet back before he was running for president?

Now, have a look at some of Roger’s latest twittering.

So, Roger is accusing me of making a rape joke. I forgive you, Roger, because you are not up to this conversation and I understand that.

Now, I’m off to be interviewed for a local show on Minnesota’s Science March, coming up, then we’ve got a birthday in the family and gotta get ready for that!

My impressions of the Ted Cruz Climate Denial Circus

I watched most of yesterday’s Senate hearings live (ironically titled Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate), and what I missed, I sampled via the magic of recorded video. I considered fisking the hearings, in particular, the closing statement by Senator Ted Cruz (and his next-day interview on NPR). But I was distracted by work on Ikonokast, a new podcast Mike Haubrich and I are starting up (our first guest, taped yesterday, is Shawn Otto). And, many others had responses out on the internet quickly enough that my contribution was clearly not necessary (I’ve got some links below pointing to some of those commentaries).

More on Ted Cruz here, at Ikonokast Episode One

But even after that I’m left with a few impressions worth noting.

Obviously this was a partisan hearing designed to insert a bunch of climate science denial into the Congressional Record. One part of the hearing, though, failed in that respect, because minority members are allowed to invite a witness or two. The minority wisely chose Admiral David Titley, a climate scientists and meteorologist and an excellent communicator. To give a flavor of Admiral Titley’s contribution, check out this segment in which he discusses satellite data collection and interpretation:

That video is embedded and discussed in this post by Peter Sinclair, which you should check out as it covers other important things.

Cruz’s closing statement and interview were astonishing to me, rather unexpected. Every point he tried to make was out of the denialist playbook. That might seem to make sense. But the key points in the denialist playbook are old, tired, discredited, debunked, so easily dismissed that they can’t possibly be taken seriously any more. One would have thought he would have come up with something more effective. But he didn’t. Possibly because there isn’t anything.

Which brings us to this not-to-miss segment of the hearing, a statement by Senator Ed Markey and the denier’s (Curry and Steyn) reactions to that statement. Senator Markey made the poignant and relevant point that the empaneled witnesses represent the last redoubt of climate denialism, a strong contrast with the fact that every country in the world was at the same time busy in Paris trying to address climate change on the assumption that the world’s scientists have made a clear and honest case that global warming is the existential issue of the day. Watch the clip. The whole clip. Interesting things happen. If by the end of it you don’t want to have Senator Markeys baby, you might be a climate science denialist.

Note the contemptuous last stand of Mark Steyn and Judith Curry (starting about 8:20). I didn’t know it was OK to talk to Senators that way during a hearing. I also didn’t know it was OK to lie to Congress.

I said several months ago that we were at or near Peak Denial. Peter Dykstra seems to feel the same way (Commentary: Will we reach peak denial soon?). That was a somewhat risky statement at the time. It no longer is.

Check out these reactions to the hearings:

Everything Senator Ted Cruz said about climate change in this NPR interview was wrong.

Most Hated Senator Shows Why in Denial Circus Hearing
Ted Cruz’ Groovy Climate Expert

Deniers Debunked, Corrected, Chastised, Exposed

Ted Cruz’s Disturbing Views on Climate Change (and Other Things)

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.

Denial 101x Week 3

A few notes from Week 3 of Denial 101x: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. These notes are mainly about the science and not the denialism part (unlike my last post, which addressed the central theme of the course, denialism, more.)

The Carbon Cycle

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have gone up by about 40%. Simple explanation: Humans are releasing Carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel. More complex explanation: Humans are affecting the Carbon Cycle in a number of ways, releasing Carbon (burning fossil fuels) as well as affecting natural Carbon sinks.

This became known, observed, ca 1958. About half of the CO2 we release contributes to the extra atmospheric CO2. Myth: Since the amount of Carbon that cycles naturally through the system is so large, human influence must be negligible. Good analogy using a bank account. Nature has been a net Carbon sink over the last 50 years, but we are still seeing atmospheric CO2 going up.

A video by Gavin Cawley:

Andy Skuce discussed the role of volcanoes in comparison to human effects. Great discussion of the big picture for volcanoes. Did you know that most of the volcanoes are under the sea? But on balance the way undersea volcanoes work actually results in a lot of CO2 being consumed there. Mt Etna is one of the more prolific CO2 producers, but is still smaller than human fossil fuel burning in nearby Sicily. Also, 1/3rd of land based volcano CO2 is off set by weathering of volcanic surfaces. Humans release 60-100 times more Carbon than volcanoes.

Gavin Cawley talks more about the Carbon Cycle, asking the question, how long would it take the Carbon Cycle to return CO2 to pre-industrial levels is humans got out of the game today. Myth: CO2 has a short lifespan in the air. A given CO2 molecule may have a short lifespan but the amount of CO2 does not change quickly. Jelly Beans are invoked in a helpful analogy. Answer: It is a slow process that will take 50-200 years for much of it to return, but the total adjustment time is a long time, thousands of years. Also, Gavin Cawley and his wife need to talk more about heir checkbook and their private jelly bean stash.

Dr Joanna House, Corinne Le Quéré, Professor Tim Osborn, Professor Dan Lunt, Professor Lonnie Thompson, Professor Pierre Friedlingstein and Professor Mauri Pelto talk about the Carbon Cycle. Seasonal cycles, longer term cycles. Plants, ocean, etc. Natural fluxes are roughly in balance, human emissions provides a rapid positive flux. We have not had this CO2 level in 800 thousand years. NOTE: That does not mean that 800K years ago CO2 was at 400ppm. It is just that we have a good ice core record 800K long. To reach 400ppm you have to go back much farther in time, millions of years. The time scale for ocean mixing is thousands of years. About 65 – 80% of the human released CO2 will go away (if humans go away) in between 2 to 200 years. The remaining 35 percent (on average) will take thousands of years.

Greenhouse Effect

Mark Richardson: Pig picture, i.e., different planets. Good description of how the greenhouse effect works. Cool infrared camera demonstration. A pygerometer.

Mark Richardson: Looking at the first ever greenhouse effect myth, dates back to 1900. “Knut Ångström and his assistant did an experiment.” It seemed to show that the effects of CO2 could saturate. It does but not at actual relevant levels in the atmosphere.

Sarah Green about reinforcing feedback. Chicken-egg problems, causality. What do Ice Cores say about changes in the Carbon Cycle over long periods of time. Does warming increase CO2, or does increased CO2 cause warming? Yes. False dichotomy myth. This is pretty important and a bit complex, so I’ll just put the video here:

From the experts, Professor Naomi Oreskes, Dr Ed Hawkins, Professor Mike Mann, Professor Simon Donner, Professor Richard Alley, Professor Eric Rignot, Professor Jonathan Bamber and Professor Lonnie Thompson talk about the greenhouse effect, the history of research on the greenhouse effect, etc. Excellent video to show Uncle Bob:


Mark Richardson examines the fingerprint of changing structure of heat distribution in the atmosphere, (including the famous Tropical Hotspot, not a real fingerprint, though may be it is like a partial print). (See this recent post on a related topic.)

Sarah Green on Satellite measurements of outgoing radiation. This is a key fingerprint of changes in energy balance.

Are you taking the course? You should check it out, here.

Tell the Minneapolis Star Tribune: Don’t promote climate change denial

This from The Big E at MPP:

The LA Times recently instituted a policy change: they no longer print letters to the editor from climate change deniers. The LA Times believes that peer-reviewed work by established scientists have overwhelmingly proven that our planet is warming and this is leading to significant climate change.

And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.

The LA Times started this and I think that the Minneapolis Star Tribune should join them.

As recently as October 22nd, the Strib printed a letter from a climate denier crank from California.

On October 14th, they published an op-ed by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. Gerson isn’t exactly a denier, instead he’s trying to vilify the messengers and, via ad hominem attacks, show that climate change and global warming are not believable.

Generally, the Strib allows Republicans to tell any old lie they want to on their editorial page. But it’s time to tell them to put an end to the anti-science malarkey the climate deniers want printed.

Please sign the petition asking the Minneapolis Star Tribune to join the LA Times in no longer publishing climate denier letters…