Category Archives: Pattern seeking

QoD: “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies”

E.O. Wilson, a biologist whose work on the social insects I’ve long read with admiration (though I’m less enamoured with his recent work on kin versus group selection) provides today’s quote of the day. It is taken from an article from the Irish Times titled Mental blocks contribute to our inaction on climate change:

If this comes as a surprise, you are by no means alone. “We have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technologies,” is how noted Harvard biologist EO Wilson framed our dilemma. Many scientists suspect the general public is too wedded to magical thinking and heuristic reasoning to truly grasp the implications of what climate science has been spelling out with ever-greater urgency for the last two decades. This is at best a limited explanation.

Evidence from behavioural and brain sciences points to the fact that “the human moral judgment system is not well equipped to identify climate change – a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon – as an important moral imperative”, according to a recent article in the science journal, Nature Climate Change.

Thus I’m not impressed when anyone states “I believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in climate change”. It has nothing to do with faith – for me at least. I recognise by cognitive limitations and defer not to the expertise an individual, but to the collective knowledge of the world’s scientific community.

I am personally ill-equipped to “prove” or “falsify” climate science: which is why I don’t debate the science. I will read the research in order to deepen my understanding, and ask questions and – yes – even be sceptical. But I believe I have the humility to acknowledge my limitations, unlike some.

The Wilson quote reminded me of the long running discussion that has been raging on my post on countering the denial movement. In response to a question from Sundance, a regular commentator here, on the question of “human nature” I noted:

We are pattern seeking animals, it is what marks our species as distinctive. And is foundational to our survival. Agreed. There is a difference between politics and human behavior, but one informs the other.

I’d also note the “flight or fight” response is also essential to survival (actually that’s a very crude way to describe a complex range of adaptive behaviors, but lets treat it as shorthand). It is near universal among all animals. Deep within the structure of our brain is the amygdala – associated with modulating fear, aggression and memory consolidation. But the flight or fight response can also be maladaptive.

The point is this: the interaction between our psychology, individual values and the norms of our community and society will temper how we react to the world quite profoundly. I have a hunch that the climate change debate is less about left versus right and more about our species and its ability to problem solve.

We evolved in the plains of Africa, and for hundreds of thousands of years lived in extended family groups as hunter gatherers. 5,000-10,000 or so years ago we started farming and building the first cities. In the last 100 years the world’s population has grown from 2bn to almost 7bn. We’ve been to the moon, invented writing and developed complex societies. Our cultural evolution has been stunning, and yes worth celebrating. I celebrate the achievements of our civilisation.

And [all the] while evolution has continued its slow, iterative pace. The cognitive skill set we have is perfectly adapted to foster the individual’s survival instincts has changed little. Put crudely, the problem is beyond the scope of the individual and even groups of individuals.

That’s what makes climate change seem overwhelming – terrifying even. Thus an individual’s reaction in either denial, indifference and at the other extreme fatalism (the world is doomed!) is understandable. Everyone will grapple with these basic emotions – including myself. I have no special knowledge, but I have meditated long on my own response and sought out the best information to ensure I am informed.

Flight or fight responses can be maladaptive: to give but one example of fight or flight misfiring, think of the zebra standing frozen before the lion unable to react.

Climate change is a civilisational challenge that transcends the individual’s ability to both fully understand it’s risks and devise potential solutions. This is why we may be at such a stalemate.

The scientific method is one of our tools in understanding the world, but also recognizing and explaining risk.

Climate science is the early warming radar of civilisation: we can pay attention to the looming danger on the screen, or scream at our instruments in terror and frustration. We can choose to dismiss one set of instruments, and claim it broken. But when all the instruments and all the warning systems are screaming “code red” to ignore them is denial. It’s flight or fight gone awry.

Then we are no different from the zebra standing transfixed in the face of a predator.

Readers here appreciate I am very much focused on exploring and even countering arguments from climate sceptics – this is part of the political debate and the discussion over values. I’ve always acknowledged that. Indeed, my values and centrist politics are stated on the “about page”.

But I see this debate between sceptics and proponents of the science as a tiny component of a much larger, richer and more complex problem of mitigation and adaptation.

And for me that is what is both fascinating and tragic. 

However I think Wilson’s quote sums it up beautifully, and far more concisely than I could.

I am also reminded on a beautiful scene in one of my favorite films, 1993’s Gettysburg (see above), based on the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Sharma – a fictionalised account that famous battle from the US Civil War.

The scene contrasts our capacity for genius and our frequent descent into barbarity: “What a piece of work is man…”

Conspiracism and climate scepticism: empirical research confrims what we all know (and some predictions)

[Hat tip Planet 3.0]

In a fascinating paper, researchers led by UWA School of Psychology Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, surveyed the views of over a 1000 climate bloggers on their political views and acceptance or rejection of a cluster of conspiracy theories.

In what comes as no surprise to me the is a strong correlation between those that reject climate science and accept a variety of conspiracy theories (heck,  I have a page dedicated to the topic that is fast growing):

The study Motivated Rejection of Science, to be published in Psychological Science, was designed to investigate what motivates the rejection of science in visitors to climate blogs who choose to participate in the ongoing public debate about climate change.

More than 1000 visitors to blogs dedicated to discussions of climate science completed a questionnaire that queried people’s belief in a number of scientific questions and conspiracy theories, including: Princess Diana’s death was not an accident; the Apollo moon landings never happened; HIV causes AIDS; and smoking causes lung cancer. The study also considered the interplay of these responses with the acceptance of climate science, free market ideology and the belief that previous environmental problems have been resolved.

The results showed that those who subscribed to one or more conspiracy theories or who strongly supported a free market economy were more likely to reject the findings from climate science as well as other sciences.

The researchers, led by UWA School of Psychology Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, found that free-market ideology was an overwhelmingly strong determinant of the rejection of climate science. It also predicted the rejection of the link between tobacco and lung cancer and between HIV and AIDS. Conspiratorial thinking was a lesser but still significant determinant of the rejection of all scientific propositions examined, from climate to lung cancer.

And now WtD predicts (high confidence) the following reactions amongst the denial blog-o-sphere:

  • Predictions 1: expect the usual collection of climate sceptics to claim they’re not conspiracy theorists, and that scientists are involved in an orchestrated campaign to exclude them from the debate and smear their good names – because such reasoning is not conspiracy making. Nooooo… not at all. Everything is connected, nothing is as it seems…
  • Prediction 2: the sceptics and deniers will reject the research, cherry pick its arguments and refute it with their own amateur analysis – just like climate science
  • Prediction 3: I expect the likes of conspiracy theorist and climate sceptic Jo Nova to go ballistic, calling the research “witchcraft” or some such nonsense and a form of ad hominem attack.

I’m reading the paper and will comment and share my own views on the topic of conspiracies and climate sceptics.

Four climate changes in one day, or how Tim Blair can’t help but bring the stupid

Being a Melbourne lad, I take delight in the vagaries of our weather.

We take pride in the catch phrase “four seasons in one day” – one minute its beautifully sunny, the next you’re running for cover from pounding rain. Makes life interesting.

Now, if you live in Melbourne you’ll note it has been raining and a wee bit cold.

Does this have anything to do with climate change? Of course not. If the mercury hit the mid 40s, I wouldn’t ascribe that to climate change. I understand there is a difference between climate and weather. Unfortunately, our friends at News Limited are yet to learn that distinction.

The Daily Telegraphs Tim Blair – whose blog I’ve been reading this past few days – is won’t to practice the laziest forms of denial. He’s not even clever about it. At least Andrew Bolt is entertaining in his distinctive snarky/smarmy tone and creative use of facts.

Blair’s blog posts are the equivalent of “dad jokes”: predictable in going for the obvious punch line and not at all funny.

Viz, Tim Blair’s latest effort on his blog today.

Blair notes its cold today; therefore global warming is a hoax.

He even has a picture of a snow man.

See, it’s cold today and “warmists” say the world is getting hotter.. and zing! It’s not! Snowman!

As I said, “dad joke”.

Blair’s source for his understanding of climate change?

The Australian’s Imre Salusinszky who ironically notes its cold thanks to the “carbon tax””

IF you are reading this on a train or a bus, I want you to lean across and shake the hand of the man or woman sitting next to you. Folks, we did it. We beat global warming.

Last year, at this time, I wrote of how global warming was already on the retreat in Australia because of the way humanity, for once, put aside its differences and acted in unison…

As I noted yesterday, News Limited bloggers love citing each other as sources of information.

This is the “echo chamber” in action. I also suspect it’s a tactic to help boast hits to respective News Limited sites. More hits, equals more advertising dollars…

Or course, if the temperature was in the mid 40s with a hot northerly, Blair would be silent. If we had three days of temperatures in the 40s Tim would be silent. But a few rainy days and a slight chill… well you get the idea.

Lets do science with Tim Blair!

So let’s practice climate science just like Tim!

Picture yourself walking the streets of Melbourne.

Its 9.35am, and your walking down Bourke Street and and feel a little warm…

“Oh my god climate change is making things hotter!” you scream.

At 10.37am, dark clouds roll across the city and rain begins to fall…

“Brrrrrr…immenent ice age!” you mutter in horror.

By 2.33pm its sunny again, so much so you might need to take of your jacket.

In fact, you might need to stand in the shade.

And yet by 7.52pm you’re feeling decidedly cooler!

You also note the sun appears to be disappearing!

Its getting darker!

Oh my god!

The sun is dying! The sun is dying!

Is a devastating ice age imminent? Or is the planet heating up! Maybe both! Is it the heat death of the universe!?!?!?!

ZMOG! It’s a climatic ice-age-warming-catastrophic-Book-of-Revelations-universe-heat-death-thingy!!!!

Now… let’s just stop there for a moment.

If an individual simply translated their personal experiences of local conditions and assigned those same experiences to the rest of the globe – while also dismissing long-term trends and multiple lines of evidence – they’d be accused of being very, very stupid.

Wouldn’t they Tim…


Jo Nova reveals climate science’s endgame: controlling the world BWAH HA HA!!!


Tin foil hat alert!

Jo Nova likes to call climate change the second biggest scam in history? And the largest scam? She is still hinting at the real agenda of the bankers, scientists, governments, and /or aliens who really control the world.

As I noted earlier in the year, Nova and her husband subscribe to a fringe conspiracy theory known as the “economic collapse”.

In short, the “elites” are about to usher in an age of hyperinflation in order to cement their hold on power:

Amongst the conspiracy “community” there is often talk about the coming “general economic collapse”. According to this theory – and it has many forms – an elite will usher in an age of hyper-inflation in order to impoverish citizens in the developed world. Having achieved this they be in possession of the only real assets (property, gold) and thus have even greater political power… Depending on the conspiracy these “elites” are either the Freemasons, Fabians or Bliderberg Group.

This week Nova is starting to hint at her deeply held beliefs about this conspiracy:

You might think inflation and climate science are only linked metaphorically. But the corruption in science is fed by the corruption in our currencies.

The monetary system that allows a privileged few to print money from nothing is the same system that allows massively misdirected spending. When there are so few controls on the growth of money, there is less negative feedback, fewer brakes and virtually no limits. If the system is swimming with easy money, people can “afford” to build wildly extravagant and unproductive things, like wind-farms, carpets of solar panels, or symbolic rivers of blue plastic.

The argument, if you can follow it, goes like this:

  • the “paper aristocracy” are manipulating the markets in order to usher in an age of hyperinflation
  • scientists made up global warming to help create a “fiat” currency (carbon credits)
  • the purpose is to fund the building of wind farms

Of course, it was there for all of us to see!

But wait, there’s more… just how far down the rabbit hole are you prepared to go?

Well… it begins with Wall Street and ends with the US under a military dictatorship.

I kid you not.

Actually, it’s not about wind farms: it is about Obama the antichrist!

Fortunately Jo Nova has spotted the warming signs:

But while inflation may be the only road out of the debt-pit, no one in power will be issuing a press release. Those in control of the currency will be doing all they can to ensure the appearance of inflation lags far behind the reality, to keep inflationary expectations low. The “best” kind of inflation for the central banks that inflate our money supply to the advantage of banks and government, is the invisible kind (and we’ve had a lot of that in the last two decades). Once the punters wake up to it, they start demanding wage rises, and then the exponential acceleration takes off like an A380.

Yes, yes! It all makes sense!

How could I have been so foolish to think global warming was an issue, when in reality a cabal of vested interests is about to usher in the Economic Collapse!

Nova trumpets a video by the “National Inflation Association“, a group dedicated to “preparing Americans for hyperinflation”. The NIA prepared the video as it was “apparent” the US is headed for a complete societal collapse:

“There are now countless warning signs all around us on a daily basis that the U.S. is headed for a complete societal collapse. NIA received an overwhelming response from its members when we asked you to submit any signs you see that a societal collapse is near. The response we received was so strong that we are now beginning to produce a documentary about America’s upcoming collapse of society. The documentary will be over an hour long and we are hoping to release it by the end of October. It will go beyond the economic facts and statistics that were discussed in ‘Meltup’ and help expose the upcoming collapse from a real life perspective…”

Watch the video here:

It suggests:

  • The US is about to an economic collapse that will take place over the course of a morning
  • It will descend into societal collapse in a matter of hours
  • It is an excuse by Obama to usher in a military dictatorship
  • Cats and dogs living together in sin! Madness!  

Nova thinks this is real, as she states “parts of this projected scenario are happening”. 

The NIA has released a series of videos on this conspiracy theory with such tag lines as “How the U.S. is headed for a complete societal collapse! The most important film of all time!” 

How could you resist watching them?

I couldn’t. 

And I loved every silly, nutty moment of them. I have a fondness for conspiracy theories, I think they’re rather fun and interesting products of the zeitgeist.

And as I’ve noted before, Nova’s thinking is infected with a conspiratorial world view.

I think we can we all agree these people are insane.

Seriously – how much longer are we going to take the likes of Nova, Evans and the like seriously?

The socialist haunted world: relativity, fluoridation and climate change as socialist plot

Fluoridation, relativity and global warming: all part of the long running socialist agenda

General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk… ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children’s ice cream.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Lord, Jack.
General Jack D. Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: I… no, no. I don’t, Jack.
General Jack D. Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. Nineteen forty-six, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

– Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

The socialist haunted world: our modern demons

One of Carl Sagan’s greatest books is “The Demon Haunted” world, an exploration of the different forms of pseudo-science and the reasons for why so many people believe in such things as ESP, ghosts and creationism.

He feared that the world was being increasingly taken over by “superstition” and a medieval world view. Hence the title of his work: many people seem to be turning to a pre-scientific world, where the invisible forces of Satan worked in concert to lead Christians astray and cause all sorts of grief and mischief.

Said Sagan, who sadly passed away many years ago:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

The demons Sagan feared are stirring.

Belief in pre-scientific concepts such as ghosts, witches, ESP, psychic abilities and hell are still prevalent. The new millennium is here, and the demons that haunt us seem even more relevant.  But it is not just the demons of the medieval world that stir.

For over one hundred years another “demon” has haunted the imagination of conservatives, free-market advocates and libertarians: the demon of socialism and Marxism.

Behind every advance in science or development in public health policy, there have been those who have seen the dreaded hand of socialists, Marxists and atheists.

Since the earliest decades of this century, conservatives, cranks and religious fundamentalists have seen signs of their activities everywhere. They fear the socialists are going to “steal” their power, wealth, status and control. How so?

Let’s begin with the opposition to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The over 1920s to 1940s: special relativity as a Marxist plot

Academic Jeroen van Dongen recently published a review of “Einstein’s Gegner” by German academic Milena Wzeck (in German, thankfully we have van Dongen’s review).

Van Dongen details how Einstein’s theory was met with a wall of disbelief and hostility by some members of the scientific establishment, and was subject to attacks in the popular press and by conservatives.

Indeed during the 1920s they went so far as to establish “think tanks” in opposition and held rallies against Einstein and his theory. “Anti-relativists” established the “Academy of Nations” in 1921, publishing papers refuting Einstein theories and awarding prizes to themselves:

“Anti-relativists… built up networks to act against Einstein’s theory in concert. This led to some success. For instance, the clamour about the theory in Germany contributed to the Nobel Committee’s delay in awarding its 1921 prize to Einstein and to the particular choice of subject for which he finally did receive it: his account of the photo-electric effect, instead of the controversial theory of relativity.”

In fact, Einstein was so concerned by the vitriol of their attacks that he cancelled speaking engagements fearing an assassination attempt.

Initially Einstein and other scientists tried to engage them, but without success:

“Their strong opposition was not due to a lack of understanding, but rather the reaction to a perceived threat… Anti-relativists were convinced of their own ideas, and were really only interested in pushing through their own theories: any explanation of relativity would not likely have changed their minds.”

Sounds familiar?

All the tropes of the contemporary denial machine can be seen in the anti-relativist movement: the “think tanks”; the conferences; the threats and intimidation we’ve seen against climatologists such as Michael Mann in the US and Phil Jones in the UK; the publication of papers and books denouncing the science; and the outliers and gadflies with scientific credentials who have taken exception to the science.

But this was not the end of the opposition to Einstein’s theory.

It took a much darker turn.

The Nazi war on science: special relativity as a “political issue”

The politics of relativity became even more fraught when the Nazi’s rejected Einstein’s theory, dismissing it as “Jewish Science” whose foundations lay with Marxist thought.

Let’s take one example, an extract from an article written by a prominent member of the pro-Nazi scientific elite, Johannes Stark.

Stark was actually a recipient of a Noble Prize for his work on electromagnetism. However he was forced to retire from his position at University of Würzburg in 1922 for his persistent attacks on Einstein’s theory. When the Nazis came to power, Stark become prominent once again. [1]

In his essay “Respect for Facts and Aptitude for Exact Observation Reside in the Nordic Race” (published 1936) he makes the following claims:

“There have been repeated attempts in lectures and books to present the theory of relativity as the grand capstone of centuries of progressive scientific development, which began with Copernicus, Galileo and led, via Kepler and Newton, to Einstein. No!.. Einstein is not the pupil of these men, but their determined opponent..

..This theory could have blossomed and flourished nowhere else but in the soil of Marxism, whose scientific expression it is…”


“Thus, in its consequences, the theory of relativity appears to be less a scientific than political problem…”

And finally:

“…In this manner, assisted by adversity in the newspapers and lectures from professional chairs, this purely scientific theory… grew into a physical world view.

..The few who were of different opinions were disregarded.” [2]

Note the smearing dismissal of “theory” in the same way today’s denialists dismisses “computer models”.

Also note how the theory of relativity is framed not as a scientific question, but a “political” issue.

Party politics and political orientation determines the value of a theory. The pseudo-science of “race” and the prejudices of the author allow them to wave away the solid, empirical basis for relativity.

Again, sound familiar? [3]

The 1950s to 1960s: fluoridation as a socialist plot

For those of you who have seen – and remember – Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece “Dr Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and grew to love the bomb” there is a character called General Jack D. Ripper, a military officer who is firmly convinced “communists” are behind the fluoridation of water in the US (see above quote).

However, there was a genuine “anti-fluoridation” movement that thrived not only in the US, but around the world. Individuals actually believed “communists” where behind this and it was all part of a massive conspiracy. It is worth quoting the Wikipedia entry on this:

“Water fluoridation has frequently been the subject of conspiracy theories. During the “Red Scare” in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s, and to a lesser extent in the 1960s, activists on the far right of American politics routinely asserted that fluoridation was part of a far-reaching plot to impose a socialist or communist regime. They also opposed other public health programs, notably mass vaccination and mental health services…”


Some took the view that fluoridation was only the first stage of a plan to control the American people. Fluoridation, it was claimed, was merely a stepping-stone on the way to implementing more ambitious programs. Others asserted the existence of a plot by communists and the United Nations to “deplete the brainpower and sap the strength of a generation of American children”.

In fact, it was not until the late 1990s that most Americans started drinking fluoridated water, that’s how powerful this “conspiracy” theory was:

“…In the case of fluoridation, the controversy had a direct impact on local programs. During the 1950s and 1960s, referendums on introducing fluoridation were defeated in over a thousand Florida communities. Although the opposition was overcome in time, it was not until as late as the 1990s that fluoridated water was drunk by the majority of the population of the United States.”

Of course, to today’s ears these charges sound fanciful and ridiculous.

However, they are manifestations of deep-seated sense of anxiety and a loss of control.

The 1990s to early twenty-first century: global warming as a socialist plot

“The word ‘government’ actually appears as the first of three purposes of the new entity… How many of you think that the word ‘election’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘vote’ or ‘ballot’ occurs anywhere in the 200 pages of that treaty? Quite right, it doesn’t appear once. So, at last, the communists who piled out of the Berlin Wall and into the environmental movement, who took over Greenpeace so that my friends who funded it left within a year, because [the communists] captured it — now the apotheosis is at hand. They are about to impose a communist world government on the world. You have a president who has very strong sympathies with that point of view. He’s going to sign it. He’ll sign anything.” – Christopher Monckton

“He [Maurice Strong] set up the United Nations Environment Program, out of which came the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the whole idea of climate as a vehicle for shutting down industrialization.” – Tim Ball

I think by this stage we can see a pattern emerging over the last 100 years, as conservatives, cranks and individuals with libertarian leanings have reacted to the findings of science and the need for government policy with hostility, contempt and fear.

Again and again they dismiss the science as conspiracy orchestrated by the socialist “demon”.  Everywhere they turn, they see the workings of the “Evil One” of Marx and socialists in manipulating science, government and public policy.

The tragedy is that these conspiracy theorists slow our response to climate change. The “battle for fluoridation” took almost forty years to play itself out.

The concern is that we may not have that much time with climate change.

Loss of power, status and control and a conspiratorial worldview: the sources of denial

We can point the finger at the likes of Exxon, the Koch’s and the conservative think tanks for fostering “climate change skepticism. But I think the roots of denial are much deeper than that.

As the above examples show, the fear that other “forces” are going to diminish the power, status and authority of individuals (and by extension the industries they work for or the companies they run) fuels denial.

It explains why behind every new scientific discovery – from evolution to relativity – religious and social conservatives react with such alarm. Many of those who opposed Einstein’s theory felt their status and achievements where being swept away (Stark).

Others, whose fears were grounded in ignorance and fear, recast their concerns as a political issue. Thus, those opposed to fluoridation where already anti-communist, and therefore assumed what they did not like must have it’s roots in communism.

However, another key feature of all these movements and their reactions to science was a conspiratorial world view.


The demons are stirring.

They have taken flight, and haunt the imagination.

The enemies of the Enlightenment have targeted the science of climate change, evolution and evidence based medicine. For four hundred years they had been pushed back and kept at bay.

But they’ve returned, and taken on new forms to soothe the anxieties of denialists everywhere.  Where some of see the empirical evidence for climate change, others see a shadowy cabal of socialists intent on controlling their bodily fluids, freedoms and wallets.

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

[1] Nazi culture: intellectual, cultural and social life in the Third Reich, By George Lachmann Mosse, University of Wisconsin Press 1966 page. 198

[2] Ibid pg. 213

[3] I rush to say that I do not attempt to equate today’s “deniers” or climate change sceptics with Nazis (viz Godwin’s Law), but how even the most commonly accepted and robustly tested scientific hypothesis have been politicised in the past.

Jo Nova: claims she is no conspiracy theorist while stating 9/11 was a “building accident”

Inside the world of climage change denial...

..and how the denial movement is “tone deaf” to true knowledge 

 Jo Nova takes umbrage to being labelled a conspiracy theorist in an irony free post  that goes on to indulge in text book conspiracy making. Take her comments on the 9/11 Truthers who posit the Bush Administration orchestrated the September 11 attacks in 2001:  

Is the planet warming from man-made CO2? Lewandowsky “knows” it is. Why? Because the 9/11 truthers are conspiracy theorists (and conspiracies are always wrong). O’ look, a few people ask odd questions about an accident in a building years ago, and sometimes those people are also the species Homo Sapiens Climate Scepticus (!). So it follows (if you are insane) that because some people still doubt the official story of an unrelated past event, man-made global warming will contribute 3.7W/m2 in the year 2079, and we’ll all become souffles in the global Sahara.         

9/11 was a building accident? And 9/11 Truthers are merely asking “odd” questions?     

Oh no Jo, you’re not a conspiracy theorist at all… But Nova knows that many of her core constituents are conspiracy theorists (viz this post in which one of her fans postulates the theory of AGW is being used to depopulate the US and destroy capitalism).      

Indeed, if you mine the comments on Nova’s site you will find pretty every species of conspiracy theory. These are the “angry minds” who see the hand of socialists/greens/liberals behind the science of climate change.     

As a consequence she is an equal opportunity conspiracy theorist: all these theories are given free rain on her site without being challenged. Otherwise she risks putting off side core elements of her “community”.     

But, but… it’s on the Internet!      

Further into her post, Nova makes reference to the thickness of sea ice and an incident with a US submarine in the 1950’s. For Jo, this story it disproves AGW:  

“Lewandowsky tries to casually slide some evidence in there, but nothing much is going his way. He speculates that US Navy submarines must be part of these “conspiracy theories” because they show so much Arctic melting, but if they are in on the Big Scare Campaign, the US Navy got the wrong memo. The USS Skate surfaced at the North Pole in 1959, and the US Navy has photos of it…”      

Here is the photo that “smashes” climate science:   

Yes, I can confirm it is a submarine. With ice.. ergo, no climate change!

She then states:      

The Skate records says: “We surfaced near the North Pole in the winter through thin ice less than 2 feet thick.”       

Apparently there a many similar examples all over the web.      


One submarine recording local events?         

The Arctic is a very big place. To then draw a connection between one isolated event and assume those conditions apply to the entire Arctic is  sloppy, irrational thinking. In any other field you’d be laughed out of the building. This is what passes for climate “scepticism”?       

To wave away any concerns with such “data” with the claim that there are “many similar examples all over the web” is incredible.     

No references, citations or further evidence is presented. This is “Google research”: plug in some search terms and pick the information that suits your purposes.     

It’s also text book pattern seeking.        

A “beautiful mind” seeks patterns, even when none exist      

There is a powerful scene in the film “A beautiful mind” (depicting the life of John Nash) that perfectly illustrates how conspiracy theorists piece together disparate sources of information and build them into (for them) a coherent world view.        

The wife of Nash and colleges enter his room in order to determine what he has been working feverishly on. As they enter the room they are confronted with thousands of paper clippings and papers pinned to the wall, each one evidence of “communist” plot to rely messages to “sleeper cells” via coded messages in the mainstream press. As we know, Nash – who is a paranoid schizophrenic – is under the influence of his delusions.       

Sure – I get this scene is taken from a heavily fictionalised account of Nash’s life, but it offers a powerful analogy/image for understanding the conspiratorial mindset.       

Pattern seeking is one of the inherent qualities of our species. Normally it a useful tool, its a trait we evolved over millennium:    

“Oh look those antelopes keep coming to this water hole… they are tasty. I will come back tomorrow because there will be more antelopes…”        

However, it means we assign patterns and intentionality to nearly all events. As Michael Shermer, one of the world’s leading sceptics (and I mean a real sceptic) explains:      

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.        

When Lewandowsky states the we understand the cognitive basis for conspiracy theories, this is what he is referring too.       

It’s well understood and studied. Simply put, homo sapiens have a host of cognitive biases built into our consciousness and they can result – for some – a conspiratorial world view.       

Climate change sceptics are tone deaf to the “music” of real knowledge  

Like a legion of magpies with a dystopic worldview, the army of angry “climate sceptics” scour the Internet into the wee hours of the night, scanning for factoids and “proofs”. Anything that looks shiny is built into the “nest” of climate change scepticism.  A picture of a submarine, Al Gore’s personal wealth, snippets of scientific papers. It is an ugly, miss-matched collection of data.      

These “bits and bytes” are incorporated into their fantasies of global conspiracies. They are proudly collected and added the collection of other “facts” that is the totality of the deniers world view. That these facts constitute a “nest” that is a ugly, misshapen object lacking elegance or functionality is beside the point.   

For the denial movement, “facts” are trophies they hold aloft:       

“See! See!” they scream “… A submarine, with thin ice!”   

They forget that facts are just that: facts.    

 It is the ability to discern what is essential from the trivia that constitutes the scientific method. Wisdom and knowledge comes from determining the true relationship between facts and robust theoretical models.    

The denial movement is tone deaf: it treats all “noise” as equal.   

They fail to see the true, elegant and beautiful “song” that a robust scientific theory is. Instead they hear white noise, and believe it has meaning.    

What a cramped, limited and yet – paradoxically – overwhelming world view it is. How sad that the “denier” fails to recognise the majestic sounds of true knowledge.  

For the denier, the world is a cacophony of clashing, ringing and terrifying sounds mixed with disparate images and words. No wonder they retreat into the fantasy of climate change denial.    

Yes Jo, the effects are well understood. But then of course, Nova’s posters dismiss the entire field of psychology as well…       

Ask him about the great fraud of the 20th century, in his own area: Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s been totally discredited and is now an embarrassment. Freud was a cocaine addicted ratbag with his crazy theories. But he held them up as “science” and fools followed him for half a century.        

You and your fellow deniers are tone deaf to wisdom, knowledge and insight.  

Your world lacks beauty. 

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