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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.


Deniers reponse to CRU report: the wheeze of an asthmatic ant

The denial movement... running out of puff.

One had hoped the denial movement could have been more creative in responding the Science & Technology Committee’s report on the stolen (or in Denierese, “liberated”) CRU emails. Not only was result almost certain – the science is solid, there was no conspiracy – but the denial movements own response was even more predictable.

Yes, the claims of a massive global conspiracy to massage the data, cover their tracks and manipulate politics on a global scale.

Typing out that last claim does my head in: do they really claim the “warmists” have that much control over the geopolitical system? That they’ve got the governments of China and the United states “in their pocket”? And the UN? And the IPCC? And every recognised scientific institution on the world? And the entire apparatus of the global financial markets? And, and…

And pretty much anyone who considers climate change an issue of importance.

So, just how ferocious has been the denial movements counter attack? About as fierce as an asthmatic ant attacking a full-grown man.

The wheeze of the asthmatic ant: the half-hearted claims of “the conspiracy”.

What’ more interesting is the lack of comments from the movements more outspoken personalities. Andrew Bolt, the Herald Sun resident anti-science advocate made one brief reference to the report on the day it was released:

Climategate was a lot of fuss about nothing, claims Britain’s parliamentary inquiry into the scandal:

The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced. On the accusations relating to Professor Jones’s refusal to share raw data and computer codes, the Committee considers that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community but that those practices need to change…

Insofar as the Committee was able to consider accusations of dishonesty against CRU, the Committee considers that there is no case to answer.

The Committee found no reason in this inquiry to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, that “global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity”. But this was not an inquiry into the science produced by CRU and it will be for the Scientific Appraisal Panel, announced by the University on 22 March, to determine whether the work of CRU has been soundly built.

A remarkably generous finding.

Some noncommittal comments. Unlike his other denialist peers, Bolt does not even bother to resort to claims of further conspiracies and “whitewash”. The post’s commentators go to town, and like their response to the CSIRO’s report the comments are wild, angry and fueled by paranoid conspiracies.

Bolt can’t even bring himself to link to the report, instead sending readers to “Watts up with that?” and his own original posts. He does his best to perpetuate the hall of mirrors the denial movement live in.

Bolt was  key player in helping disseminate the claims of the denial movement, and initially could not contain himself in post, after post about late last year:

So the 1079 emails and 72 documents seem indeed evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory – a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. I’ve been adding some of the most astonishing in updates below – emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more. If it is as it now seems, never again will “peer review” be used to shout down sceptics.

Yes, Andrew a “scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science”. How’s that egg on your face sitting?

There should be a scientific investigation into it!

“Watts up with that?” allows tobacco lobbyist Fred Singer to cast more conspiracy theories:

There is now a desperate effort afoot by assorted climate alarmists to explain away the revelations of the incriminating e-mails leaked last year from the University of East Anglia (UAE).  But the ongoing investigations so far have avoided the real problem, namely whether the reported warming is genuine or simply the manufactured result of manipulation of temperature data by scientists in England and the United States.

The report concluded the complete opposite. However, it does not Singer from making the same tired old claim.

Only a thorough scientific investigation will be able to document that there was no strong warming after 1979, that the instrumented warming record is based on data manipulation, involving the selection of certain weather stations, [and the de-selection of others that showed no warming], plus applying insufficient corrections for local heating.

Yes Fred there has been a scientific investigation into it. It’s called decades of peer-reviewed research.

They gave it their best shot, and failed

One only has to look at the list of submissions from interested parties to see just how concentrated an effort the denial movement made in their attempt to shape the committee’s decision. When one reviews the list of names and reads their submissions, you can see just how hollow their claims of “not being heard” are. It was a public inquiry that accepted statements from many parties:

Wannabe climate scientist Steve McIntyre’s submission:

While this is an important issue and was the topic of the FOI inquiries that drew attention to CRU,  it ignores the other equally important aspect of CRU work and influence: 1000-year temperature reconstructions, a topic which is even more at issue in the Climategate Letters. I suggest a companion question along the lines perhaps of:

How independent are other 1000-year temperature reconstructions used by IPCC?

Our good old friend, Richard S. Courtney was part of a joint submission to the inquiry:

In the face of these facts, the degree to which the debate on global warming is being influenced by the publicizing of alarmist temperature scenarios – based on unverified, deterministic computer models – and by the encouragement of public hysteria about atmospheric CO2, is of great concern to us. That concern is deepened by the fact that senior governmental science advisors, once-influential science journals and distinguished science academies all currently continue to fuel such public alarmism.

So in the face of a significant defeat in a open public forum where they are given the opportunity to make their case how do they respond? With denial of course.

The denial movement’s response to the report: “La, la, la… Can’t hear you”

Jo Nova, Perth’s resident science mis-communicator also joins the chorus:

The UK Parliamentary Committee was always going to be a whitewash. They put no skeptics on the committee; they interviewed no skeptics; they didn’t ask Steven McIntyre to speak…

Yes Jo, they didn’t put a sceptic on the committee because it was a UK parliamentary committee in which only sitting members of parliament could preside. Last time I checked, McIntyre was not a member of Parliament. And Mr. McIntyre “did speak” by making a submission that was accepted by the Committee.

The “climate change sceptics” were given a voice. It’s just that they can’t make a case. Nova ends her tiresome little rant against reality with the following chant:

If the results don’t work the way you want, you can adjust them.

If people want to check those results, you can lose them.

If you get caught losing and adjusting them, you can always count on the committee results to whitewash it.

Sticks and stones Jo. Let’s try that again:

If the results don’t work the way you want, you can adjust them claim it is a massive global conspiracy

If people want to check those results, you can lose them read the published peer-reviewed papers

If you get caught losing and adjusting them, you can always count on the committee results to can’t accept the verdict of multiple committee around the world, claim it is a whitewash it.

Lies, damned lies and BoM maps! How Australia’s denial movement can’t read a map

As we mentioned a few weeks back, the joint report put out by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology (“The State of the Climate”) was greeted by most of the denial movement with shock, and as can be expected, with disbelief.

Some such as Andrew Bolt went straight into an apoplectic meltdown and attacked the credibility of the CSRIO itself.

Others where curiously silent, and I did wonder when they would begin their counter attack. Well their assault on reason has begun but it’s more a whimper than a bang. The denial movements efforts can be best described as comical. I hesitate to use the word, but in reality their response shows a  failure to understand basic statistics and an inability to read a map.

Kenskingdom, Anrew Bolt and Jo Nova: trend, what trend!?!

Bolt is Australia’s most prominent denier, Nova operates on the fringes of the debate and the blogger at Kenskingdom is a rough untrained amateur. And yet in their attempt to discredit the report, they they each offer up the same argument. I’d suggest you have a look at each of the authors separate, but identical claims:

Andrew Bolt’s article directly lifts the claim from Jo Nova’s blog, and best paraphrases the separate arguments:

“…JoNova points out yet another trick the CSIRO pulled last week in its deceitful pamphet to whip up warmist panic. It published this Bureau of Meteorology graphic to show how our more populated areas have got much drier since 1960, thanks to (it claims) man-made warming…

So why did the CSIRO choose to show only the rainfall changes from 1960, when the BoM’s records go back many decades earlier?

Answer: perhaps befcause if it showed the rainfall changes from, say, 1900, you’d see that most of Australia has got wetter over the century…”

Two maps are produced, both of which are directly taken from the BoM’s website:

Annual rainfall trends 1900-2010

The above is annual rainfall trends over the last 110 years as recorded by the BoM. It is a statistical average showing precipitation over this time. The deniers then contrast this map with the map used in the the CSIRO report and are “shocked” by the difference:

Annual rainfall trends 1960-2010

The conclusion of all three is that it must be a “trick” and that the CSIRO and BoM are trying to pull a fast one. All I can say is “Oh dear guys, you really can’t even read a map can you?”

Clearly Bolt thinks the map showing the distribution for rainfall over the 1900-2010 period demonstrates Australia is getting wetter everywhere: in otherwords an upward trend in rainfall distribution across the continent. What Andrew fails to grasp is that this map shows a statistical average over the 110 year period. In order to observe how the trend varies we need to compare it to other data sets. BoM does just that.

Failing to understand trends: about the BoM trend maps

The BoM maps need to be viewed as a time line. Each map provides a statistical average over a period of time. As stated the map for 1900-2010 is the average over 110 years.

But how do you demonstrate any changes in rainfall patterns over time? You shorten the time periods incrementally and then calculate your rainfall averages. The BoM does so by reducing the average time period in ten year increments  and then calculates the average rain fall patterns. This is how to look for long term trends.

This is not a “trick”, it’s basic statistics. As the BoM states on their website:

The trend maps are a useful way to compare how the rainfall has changed in different regions of Australia over time.

Trend maps: misrepresenting the BoM’s data

One of the basic premises of climate change is how we have observed statistically valid changes in climate over time. The deniers can’t seem to grasp this basic concept. Let’s look at how Kenskingdom reads the maps:

Now this is technically correct, but it is also less than honest.  Australia has rainfall records going back in some places to the 1870s.  BOM’s charts and graphs are reliable apparently from 1900.  Why not show these?  Because they do NOT support the implication that Global Warming is causing much of Australia to become drier.

Sorry Kenskingdom, as I’ve stated the map is a static representation of data averaged over 110 years. The point of trend maps is to compare different data sets over time. This why BoM gives us to different trend maps covering different time periods. This is why you need to look at all them, in isolation they tell us very little about the trends themselves.

Let’s run the same maps, reducing the period in which you calculate your average rainfall  in ten year increments. When we do that we see a very a clear trend in changing rainfall patterns:

Trends in total rainfall 1900-2009

The above is the map that the deniers thinks somehow compromises CSIRO/BoM statements on changing rainfall. OK, for the last time this is a statistical average over a 110 year period. Now, lets slightly shorten that period by ten years as BoM and see if there are any emergent trends:

Trends in total rainfall 1910-2009

And again, let’s shorten that period by another ten years…

1920-2010

…and another ten years…

1930-2010

…and yes, that’s right, another ten years…

1940-2010

…keep going…

1950-2010

…just a bit more…

1960-2010

…are we there yet? No a bit more…

1970-2010

And there you go!

That’s a clearly recognisable trend. In simple terms there has been change in rainfall patterns. This is exactly what the science of climate change states. See all that brown stuff? As time has progressed parts of Australia are getting drier and receiving less rain. Some parts are now recieving more rain. This accords with legitimate climate science.  Nothing to see at all guys – right?

Back to denying reality then…

Logical fallacies and cherry picking data: the deniers old standbys

Had Nova, Bolt or Kenskingdom actually spent time on the BoM website where these reports can be freely generated by anyone, they would have seen how the long term trends are clearly demonstrated.

Instead they chose to look at very isolated maps: this is simply cherry picking data. I’ve reproduced the entire sequence of maps in order to show how they’ve used only a small selection of the data available.

Indeed, I’d strongly suggest all three of them fell for the cognitive bias of hunting for anomalies: looking for facts or data that somehow support their predetermined opinion.

Denier or Sceptic: what’s in a name?

Does the shoe fit?

Robert Manne in a recent article in the Monthly makes some salient points about the use of the term “denier” and “sceptic” in trying to define the those who disregard – or disbelieve – the science supporting climate change:

“Around the time of Copenhagen the anti-climate science disinformation campaign achieved a kind of qualitative breakthrough. The deniers who benefited from this growing mood now called themselves, and were called by others, sceptics. In the cultural struggle over climate change this was a significant linguistic move, founded upon a frightful but surprisingly common confusion. For someone working at the cutting edge of a tough discipline like climate science, scepticism, open-mindedness, is vital. For someone ignorant of that discipline, scepticism amounts to little more than folly and hubris…”

I confess I’ve used the terms interchangeably. Manne makes the distinction clear. Personally, I’ve always referred to myself as a “sceptic”: someone that attempts to use reason and evidence.

Scepticism is healthy. Scepticism is good. Scepticism is a good tool not only scientists, but for lay persons such as myself.

But, as Mann suggests the climate change deniers have co-opted a term with a proud and venerable history. I don’t equate climate change denial with Holocaust denial. However, there can be very little doubt that these wannabe sceptics are in fact denying the science which is compelling and denying the risk our civilisation faces.

Let’s not forget that one of the bibles of the denial movement is a text called “The Deniers“.

Can we say “Deniers” is the correct label? I think the shoe fits.

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