Get Punk’d: how the denial movement punks science, and how we can fight it

Attitude and entertainment are fact free.

For some time I’ve been giving thought to why the climate denial machine is so effective in shaping public perception. We can attribute their success to many things:

These points are well summed up at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego (via ABC Science Show, and hat tip to Deltoid):

Conservative think-tanks, obviously with corporate support that we’ll hear about, have greatly amplified the work of contrarian scientists. They’ve recently been joined by conservative media, Limbaugh, Fox, conservative politicians, Inhofe, most Republicans these days with the exception of Lindsey Graham, and especially the blogosphere in waging an all-out war in climate change science. We can add undermining climate change policy to the policy impacts that we started out with of conservative think-tanks

I’d strongly recommend you read or listen to this one, as the various speakers make some great points.

To all of the above, I agree. However that still does not explain “why” the climate sceptics message cuts through good science.

Punking the science: don’t explain, entertain

Bags of money and the support of right wing think tanks is not enough to guarantee success: it certainly helps, but not all public relations campaigns are successful. What the denial movement has perfected is the art of entertaining, bypassing most peoples rational or critical thinking abilities and going straight for the funny bone (or appealing to their emotions).

The recent article about one of the movement’s key figures, Mark Morano, in Esquire magazine confirmed a number of my suspicions.

Firstly, it helps address the question of why the denial movement has been so successful in shaping opinion: they don’t explain, they entertain.

Reading the article I couldn’t but help notice how much enjoyment the major figures in the denial movement get from “punking science”:

Morano has fun with it too, using goofy illustrations like a cartoon hand hammering a nail into a coffin and a Scooby Doo villain getting his mask pulled off. People tell him this is too childish for a publication that affects global policy, but it’s part of his vision for his Web site — climate entertainment, he calls it.

And this:

And suddenly it’s old-home week. Here’s the famous Steve Milloy, who turns out to be a youthful guy with a bulldog chest and an air of permanent irony. “He’s the godfather,” Morano says.

Milloy laughs: hahahaha. He has a very distinctive laugh, flat and braying. “We’ve got an event tomorrow,” he says. “We’re constructing a wall, the Copenhagen Wall, like the Berlin Wall that divided the free from the slave.”

The idea is a ten-foot cardboard wall with a picture of a modern city on one side and a primitive one on the other. To illustrate the injustice of rich nations telling poor ones to control their carbon emissions, the college kids are going to spray-paint CO2 = Life across it, Hahahahaha.

And this:

He pushes a key on his laptop and a slide appears on the screen behind him: COPENHAGEN CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS MUST FAIL.

“Let’s play a little game. Who said this? Was it Sarah Palin? Was it Senator Inhofe?”

A familiar voice calls out: “James Hansen, hahahahaha.

“James Hansen! James Hansen said this conference must fail! So if anyone asks you this week, How can you be against this? say, We stand shoulder to shoulder with NASA’s James Hansen!”

Morano stands at the podium grinning. The joke, of course, is that Hansen opposed the conference because it didn’t go nearly far enough to solve the problem, which is the opposite of Morano’s distorted meaning.

And finally:

But it’s always clear that he’d rather have fun. This is his genius, especially in a world given to screaming caps and paranoid detail. It’s another way he’s changing the narrative, showing that one side has a sense of humor.

The point is this: entertainment does not have to be factual. We live in an age of Ghost Hunters, The Secret and The Da Vinci code. When the purveyors of misinformation package their lies in slick entertainment vehicles. They tell stories, while science recounts facts. Which approach do you think appeals to our natural instinct for story telling and pattern recognition?

The implications of climate change are frightening: what better way to dispel those fears than have a good laugh? Laughing releases serotonin. It makes you feel better. Climate denial is a happiness pill, designed to make the average person think “It’s OK, really it’s kinda funny. Nothing to worry about. Hahahahahahahahaha”

Punk ethos: DIY and with lots of attitude

This is exactly what the likes of Morano are doing. They are undermining science not by argument, but by “punking scientists”. Combine this disdain for authority with a DIY attitude and you have a powerful combination:

Yes, you can be a scientist! Download that data! Make your own charts! Take down those egg-heads!

The ethos of Punk rock was very much “Do-it-yourself” and a deliberate assault on authority:

“Anyone can pick up a guitar and sing!”

“You don’t need talent as defined by corporate rock-n-roll!”

Punk was about being subversive, cheeky and deliberately provocative. Punks were the ultimate pranksters, which is why in popular parlance to “Get Punked” now means to be tricked. Bringing stuffy authority figures down to the ground is seen as great entertainment.

In addition, part of the attraction for many ordinary “climate sceptics” is the DIY science. To become a practicing scientists, and to speak with any form of authority it takes years of rigorous training. Becoming an expert in any given field is a life long commitment.

DIY Climate scientists (of which our friend Kenskingdom is a good example) may have a respect for the authority of science but thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, think they can do it themselves.

“You too can be a cheeky climate denier too!” is the message of the denial movement.

Time to “punk” the climate denial machine

So how do we counter this manufactured “climate punk” movement? Punk them right back. We need a show like “Myth Busters” that takes the DIY attitude and packages it up as entertainment. It helps that the guys over at Myth Busters blow things up.Carefully taking apart their claims is a viable and necessary strategy.

But we also need to poke fun at the absurdity of their conspiracy laden world view and their basic scientific illiteracy:

Andrew Bolt can’t read a map! Hahahahahahahahaha!

We need to entertain as much as explain.

We need to have some fun.


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11 thoughts on “Get Punk’d: how the denial movement punks science, and how we can fight it

  1. bob says:

    A climate denier! WOW! Are you clowns for real? Here’s an idea for ya. Demand that all taxes on CO2 be denied. Demand that governments fund impartial REAL science to determine the impact of human activities on the planet and focus on dealing with the new polluters. And they can get the money volunarily from all the people who care about the earth. Why they should be able to get $50.00 alone from the contributers here.

  2. Watching the Deniers says:

    Thanks Nescio, I’d read Part 1 and 2 of. A great continuing series. The more we try to understand the motives and rationale of the denial movement, the more we can (potentially) learn how to blunt their attacks on science.

  3. Nescio says:

    Thanks for the link. You and your readers may be interested in my latest post: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/04/delusional-disorder-part-iii.html

    It discusses a study I found which may explain why these people are so resistent to fact.

  4. sailrick says:

    I have been suggesting in comments at blogs like Real Climate, Climate Progress, etc, that a documentary movie be made exposing the climate change denial PR campaign. What I envision is the inclusion of people like Rob Gelbspan and James Hoggan, who have written books on this subject, as well as people from all the good climate science websites. In other words, do in a movie what “Climate Cover-Up” or “The Boiling Point” do in books.

    Fight fire with fire. Strike back at the disinformation, or should I say, fight entertainment with entertainment, but without the lies and distortions. As most of us know, the misrepresentations and distortions get headlines in newspapers like the Daily Mail, WSJ, WashPost etc, and airtime on talk shows, while the rebuttals get read on blogs where the majority of the public never sees them. The books are great, but a lot of people don’t read much. So, get to them where they are, in front of the TV.

    When I discussed this idea with my brother recently, he said that to be effective, it would need the expertise of people from Hollywood, who know how to make an impact with a movie. For example, Tom Hanks, who’s been on a roll making historical movies, comes to mind.
    Any thoughts?

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      As you tell, I’m keen on the idea. Much of the outreach the scientific community has done – big books, web sites – is a bit, well boring. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s clearly not hitting the mark.

      The above names (Hoggan etc.) are spot on to be involved. Perhaps we should be petitioning them? ;)

      We need an entertainer of the order of James Cameron/Spielberg etc. to take on the challenge. They know how to reach a mass market. I keep mentioning two examples to reach different market segments:

      - someone like Carl Sagan to reach the “middle brow” market
      - a Myth Buster like team to blow things up, entertain and inform

      The response has to be segmented to different markets, demographics etc.

      IMHO, the science community underestimates just how powerful/effective the infotainment aspect of climate denialism is.

  5. [...] change denial is both an anti-science movement and a form of popular entertainment. Through its various blogs, YouTube videos, Op-Ed pieces and think tank studies it delivers a [...]

  6. Berbalang says:

    The professional deniers are successful at punking science because they run what-if scenarios of where the science is heading and have plotted out and polished denials years ahead of events, while the scientists are just reacting to events. That is their secret plain and simple. They have the denials pre-prepared for events.

  7. klem says:

    “that still does not explain “why” the climate sceptics message cuts through good science.”

    The alarmists are the ones making all of the claims that humans are altering the climate, the skeptics are making no such claims. Therefore it is entirely the responsiblity of the alarmists to prove the claims, the skeptics merely have to point out the flaws (being a skeptic is far easier than being an alarminst). Good science always has flaws, so it’s easy to shoot it down and the public understands this better than the good science.

    And in addition, when the UN IPCC says that we have to cough up $450 per person per year to give to poor countries because carbon is bad, and in exchange for all of that free cash the poor country must allow the UN to control how it is spent, then people begin to suspect the UN has alterior motives; The UN claims that it is acting based on the science so this brings the validity of the science back into question again. More flaws are then found.

    • Robert James says:

      Klem, well explained. Already carbon trading fraud has appeared around the world, this transfer of wealth will do nothing to change climate ever.
      Nature always has and always will sort itself out.
      The money will eventually end up in dictators, despots and their cronies bank accounts in this reverse robin Hood scheme, transferring wealth from the needy to the greedy.

  8. Anarchist606 says:

    Good point – I’ve been blogging about the mass of crazy climate denial comments, in part as it gives us a ‘teachable moment’ but also in part ‘cos it’s a lot of fun…

    http://anarchist606.blogspot.com/search/label/crazy%20comments

    • Mike says:

      It gives me a new understanding of their tactics – sure, we can say “That’s just crazy!” and shake our heads at the absurdity of their various claims. But we need to look at climate change denial almost as a entertainment genre.

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