The phenomenon of global warming denial is certainly surprising. It’s easy to respect a difference of opinion over subjective values, such as abortion or religious belief. But to deny scientific results is another story entirely. Almost everybody can see how ridiculous the Flat Earth believers are, and all reasonable people reject the Creationists and Intelligent Design people as religious fanatics. But now we see a significant group of people going even further: they flatly reject the science behind climate change (or, as it is more familiarly but less correctly termed, global warming).
Let me be clear on a simple and basic point: there is no rational case against the scientific conclusion that human activities are increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and this is in turn leading to an overall increase in global temperatures which will lead to climatic changes that will impose serious costs upon future generations. The scientific evidence in support of this basic declaration is overwhelming. The scientific debate over this basic issue was settled at least five years ago. The debate about particulars continues, in particular how quickly the problem is growing and how serious the consequences will be, but the overall result is not in doubt.
Yet there remain plenty of people -- denialists -- who deny this truth. They lie, they obfuscate, they dissemble, they distort, they skew, and they mislead. The scale of intellectual dishonesty on their part is truly breathtaking. My own encounters with these people have convinced me that any attempt to reason with them is futile -- they live beyond the pale of reason.
One of the first indicators of their intellectual dishonesty is their refusal to engage in discussion. I’d guess that about half of the comments I read on blogs are "drive-by" comments -- a denier drops in, makes some wild accusations, and disappears. I patiently explain where he has gone wrong, but there is never a response. The denier isn’t interested in learning anything. It’s just propaganda: make the claim in as many places as possible. There’s no point in defending the claim because they know they’ll be shown up as wrong no matter what.
Some deniers take a different tack: they stick around, but never to engage in continued discussion. Instead, they start with a long list of false accusations. When I respond to each accusation with an explanation of why it is incorrect (usually much longer than the original set of accusations), they just move on to a new set of accusations. They don’t bother defending their claims, they just keep making new claims.
There are a few deniers -- generally, the less intelligent ones -- who’ll make an attempt to defend with rabid claims. Even these, however, demonstrate a complete lack of intellectual integrity. For the most part, they simply reiterate their positions without ever responding to my points. They can’t respond to my points; they don’t understand climatology, scientific method, or logic. But their ignorance doesn’t prevent them from asserting over and over that climate change is a fraud, that the evidence in favor of it is falsified, that it’s all part of some socialist conspiracy to take over the world.
The claims they make all come from the same script. They’re like myna birds, mindlessly repeating the same claims over and over. Those claims have been demolished many, many times -- if you’d like a good list of common denialist lies, you should look at this web page
It lists all the common denialist lies and explains in detail why each is wrong. This page has been around for years and the information it presents has been disseminated in thousands of places, yet the lies simply continue. If any other field of human inquiry showed such an inability to dispense with falsehoods, it would lapse into an intellectual coma. But for some reason the denialists are able to keep these lies alive in the public mind by simply repeating them endlessly.
It is now well-established that some portion of this denialist activity is financed by industries who stand to lose from legal restrictions on carbon emissions. The ubiquity of this activity, its highly conventionalized nature, and the similarity of approach by its advocates strike me as suspicious. It is embarrassing for me to admit this suspicion, because I take a very dim view of conspiracy theories. I’m quite certain that a large number of denialists are motivated by political rather than financial interests. But there’s no question that a lot of money is pouring into the overall denialist effort. Here’s an admittedly partisan presenting evidence on how just one corporation, Exxon, funds climate denial. While I wouldn’t accept any of their conclusions at face value, their evidence has been checked by outsiders and appears to be reliable.
Another example is Marc Morano, the loudest of the denialists. He worked as a climate-denial advisor to Senator Inhofe, a fierce denialist, but left that position for a more lucrative position running a denialist organization with its website, Climate Depot. He provides a perfect example of the classic industry-funded denialist operation. His lies are slick and clever; few non-scientists can see through them. He doesn’t bother to engage in scientific discussion; his is a strictly political operation with a single goal: to insure that no legislation emerges that would impose costs on carbon-producing industries.
The other day I encountered something a bit different. I stumbled onto a small conservative website that aped all the common denialist lies, so I took a few minutes to address some of the nonsensical claims made in a blog entry. I was exceedingly courteous and diplomatic, referring to the blatant lies as "incorrect" and taking every opportunity to treat the lies as simple misunderstandings. The hostess of the blog, surprisingly enough, reciprocated my courtesy and finally suggested that we agree to disagree -- a delightful deviation from the standard practice of directing vituperation at anybody who contradicts the party line. A few of her outside commentators, however, were not so polite, and there were plenty of suggestions that I was mentally deficient, ignorant, or motivated by a desire for financial gain.
What was striking about this opportunity to delve into the minds of denialists was their utter lack of logical thinking. Their statements were long parades of falsehoods, and they failed to present any evidence to support their claims. When I pressed for some evidence, they’d present dozens of links to other conservative websites that made the same claims. The reasoning was obvious: if Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and Anne Coulter say it, it must be true. The concept of source evidence was utterly lost on them. I backed up my own claims with direct references to scientific papers. They had never read any of the science on the subject -- everything they knew was taken from conservative opinion sites. I repeatedly offered links to the IPCC reports, the NAS reports, or other scientific sources, but they never took me up on my suggestions -- they just kept repeating their falsehoods. I might as well have been talking to bricks (although one of the bricks was nice about it).
But there’s a deeper force at work: political bias. Denialists are uniformly right-wing in political philosophy; indeed, their political philosophy is the sole foundation for their denialism. The right wing has increasingly become dominated by considerations of loyalty to the party line; independent thought is ferociously attacked. There are very few conservatives who happen to support abortion rights, even though they may toe the party line in every other way. The same thing goes for all of the other tenets of conservatism: anybody who deviates from the party line on any issue is a RINO (a "Republican in name only"). Hence, denialists are not motivated by any understanding of the science involved. They mouth a variety of arguments that appear to have scientific content, but in fact if you question them, it becomes immediately obvious that they really don’t know what they’re talking about; they’re just mindlessly repeating talking points they’ve picked up on their favorite right-wing conservative sites.
It is this absolute, unthinking obedience that makes these people simultaneously powerful and dangerous. When you have a public discussion about a topic with such a group, the results are always badly skewed. The reasonable people disagree on fine points, while the members of the conservative Borg collective operate with single-minded pursuit of a single goal: the obstruction of any progress on the matter of climate change. It really is impressive how much these people have accomplished with their ruthless tactics: despite the fact that they are wrong about almost everything they say, they have managed to instill considerable fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the minds of the public.
Now we have a new focus of their lies: what they call "Climategate". Some hackers broke into the server at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in England and stole the entire archive of e-mails and documents, something like 6 Gigabytes of material -- and most of it is text, so that’s a huge amount of information. Then they pored over the pile, looking for "gotchas". In all that material, they found very little to pounce on and even the stuff they got is innocuous -- but they’ve managed to twist it so as to create the impression of wrongdoing on the part of the scientists. Here are their own examples:
1. The "trick" and "hiding the decline": Here’s an excerpt from an email from Phil Jones dated Nov 16, 1999:
"I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline."
Denialists pounced upon the word "trick", interpreting it to mean "a deceptive tactic". This is one meaning of the word. But the Oxford English Dictionary offers another well-known meaning: "A clever or adroit expedient, device, or contrivance; a ’dextrous artifice’." To assume that Mr. Jone was using the first sense of the term and not the second sense is speculative; approaching the problem rigorously, there is no justification for assuming either meaning. A case founded on the assumption that Mr. Jones was using the first meaning of the term is not strong; at the very least, we should give Mr. Jones the benefit of the doubt and assume the second meaning.
Denialists also claimed a gotcha in the phrase "hide the decline". To show you why this is absurd, I present the graph being discussed in the email:
The problem they faced arose at the junction of the yellow data and the red data. The yellow data is "proxy data" while the red data is "instrumental data". The former is calculated indirectly through a variety of physical mechanisms while the latter is directly measured. Obviously, we prefer instrumental data over proxy data, but we don’t have decent instrumental data before 1980; the temperature measures available to us are unreliable because many of those thermometer readings were taken in cities, whereas after 1980 we have satellite data that covers the entire globe uniformly.
Now, the proxy data is nowhere near as reliable as the instrumental data, so we have to use both forms of data. But the junction between the proxy data and the instrumental data -- the interface of the yellow data and the red data -- shows a mismatch. That mismatch produced the tiny decline shown in the green line just after the junction. Simply hooking up the two data series to each other produced a much sharper decline that makes it look like the planet had a short, sharp cold spell in the early 1980s, when we know that didn’t happen. The decline that Mr. Jones wishes to hide is simply an artifact of hooking together two different data sets. He needed a good statistical technique -- one that could be scientifically justified -- to hook the two data sets together. Mr. Mann had developed just such a technique and published it in Nature, a leading scientific journal. Thus, the correct way to interpret Mr. Jones’ statement is as follows:
"I have just completed using Mike’s statistical technique (as described in his Nature paper) to correct the anomalous decline at the junction of the two data sets."
There’s nothing at all objectionable in this statement. But the deniers insist on a twisted interpretation of the statement.
Here’s another statement they pounced on, from an email dated October 9th, 2009:
"Since Sonja retired I am a lot more free to push my environmental interests"
This is a great example of how denialists twist the truth deceitfully; here’s the full statement:
Since Sonja retired I am a lot more free to push my environmental interests without ongoing critique of my motives and supposed misguidedness
Here’s a long email from Michael Mann dated March 11, 2003:
The Soon & Baliunas paper couldn’t have cleared a ’legitimate’ peer review process anywhere. That leaves only one possibility--that the peer-review process at Climate Research has been hijacked by a few skeptics on the editorial board. And it isn’t just De Frietas, unfortunately I think this group also includes a member of my own department... The skeptics appear to have staged a ’coup’ at "Climate Research" (it was a mediocre journal to begin with, but now its a mediocre journal with a definite ’purpose’). Folks might want to check out the editors and review editors: http://www.int-res.com/journals/cr/crEditors.html In fact, Mike McCracken first pointed out this article to me, and he and I have discussed this a bit. I’ve cc’d Mike in on this as well, and I’ve included Peck too. I told Mike that I believed our only choice was to ignore this paper. They’ve already achieved what they wanted--the claim of a peer-reviewed paper. There is nothing we can do about that now, but the last thing we want to do is bring attention to this paper, which will be ignored by the community on the whole... It is pretty clear that thee skeptics here have staged a bit of a coup, even in the presence of a number of reasonable folks on the editorial board (Whetton, Goodess, ...). My guess is that Von Storch is actually with them (frankly, he’s an odd individual, and I’m not sure he isn’t himself somewhat of a skeptic himself), and without Von Storch on their side, they would have a very forceful personality promoting their new vision. There have been several papers by Pat Michaels, as well as the Soon & Baliunas paper, that couldn’t get published in a reputable journal. This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the "peer-reviewed literature". Obviously, they found a solution to that--take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering "Climate Research" as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board... What do others think?
The denialists claim that this demonstrates that the scientific community attempted to censor those who disagreed with them. This is a lie. The very first sentence makes the key point: that the paper in question had no scientific merit. Yet it was published by a minor scientific journal, permitting denialists the opportunity to claim that there are published papers in support of their position. The remedy Mr. Mann suggests is in no wise an infringement of scientific freedom of expression; it suggests only that scientists refuse to treat with the journal in question, because that journal seems to have lost its scientific rigor. What’s so terrible about that?
Here’s an important fact that the denialists never mention: the paper that was published was so bad, and earned so much opprobrium in the scientific community, that five of the ten editors at the journal resigned. Here’s what the Wikipedia entry on the paper says:
Shortly thereafter, 13 of the authors of papers cited by Baliunas and Soon refuted her interpretation of their work. There were three main objections: Soon and Baliunas used data reflective of changes in moisture, rather than temperature; they failed to distinguish between regional and hemispheric temperature anomalies; and they reconstructed past temperatures from proxy evidence not capable of resolving decadal trends. More recently, Osborn and Briffa repeated the Baliunas and Soon study but restricted themselves to records that were validated as temperature proxies, and came to a different result.
Half of the editorial board of Climate Research, the journal that published the paper, resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the peer review process on the part of the journal. Otto Kinne, managing director of the journal’s parent company, stated that "CR [Climate Research] should have been more careful and insisted on solid evidence and cautious formulations before publication" and that "CR should have requested appropriate revisions of the manuscript prior to publication."
If you consider all the facts, Mr. Mann’s email looks completely fair and reasonable. Only a denialist would claim it represents anything untoward.
There are lots more gotchas claimed by the denialists. As with these, none of them pan out on close examination. The private emails reveal that the scientists were frustrated dealing with the deceptive tactics of the denialists and harbored deep resentments at the politically-motivated assaults on the integrity of their work. But their behavior is in no way improper. Sure, they engaged in petty bitching in private -- who doesn’t? But in public, they comported themselves with professionalism.
In the long run, the truth will out. Lincoln put it perfectly: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time. The tidal wave of lies flowing out of the denialists will eventually crash into the rocks of reality. The climate is warming, the ocean is rising, and the glaciers and polar caps are melting. You can only maintain lies in the face of such realities for so long. As the evidence piles up in ways that are obvious to the public, the ranks of the deniers will shrink until only the fanatics are left. Along the way, the right wing will suffer a huge loss of credibility with the public. I am not happy about this: I believe that our two-party system needs two viable parties to remain healthy. I embrace some of the goals of rational conservatives: smaller government, reduced taxes, and free trade. I agree with the conservatives that unions have too much political power -- but I think that corporate America has much more political power, and that needs to be eliminated.
But I have nothing but contempt for those who peddle irrationalism.
Postscript December 13th, 2009:
I just found a web page that explains exactly what the "trick" to "hide the decline" was. It turns out to be perfectly innocent.