Category Archives: Science

The 97%: when told scientists accept climate change, the public “gets the science is settled”

Welcome back readers!

I’ll be leading with an interesting article republished from The Conversation this week which discusses a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, and which in many respects goes right to the heart of the issue: how the denial movement has sought to mislead the public on the scientific consensus.

As many of you understand the vast majority scientists and all reputable scientific academies and associations accept the reality climate change.

This is problematical for climate sceptics as one of their key strategies is to push the myth – and it is just that – that no such consensus exists (see recent WtD article Here we go again: Watts up with that pushes the no consensus myth).

Indeed, the infamous Luntz Memo (see in WtD evidence library) written by an advisor to the George W. Bush administration made this one of the key strategies in fostering doubt:

The scientific debate remains open: Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming with the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.

The recent paper in Nature by Stephan Lewandowsky,Gilles E. Gignac and Samuel Vaughan titled The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science clearly demonstrates how this long running campaign to discredit the science can be defeated.

When told a scientific consensus exists, and that it is on the order of 97% of climate scientists, the vast majority of the public accept the science. As the article abstract notes:

Although most experts agree that CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), public concern has been declining. One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest: in particular, it is unknown whether consensus determines people’s beliefs causally. It is also unclear whether perception of consensus can override people’s ‘worldviews’, which are known to foster rejection of AGW. Study 1 shows that acceptance of several scientific propositions—from HIV/AIDS to AGW—is captured by a common factor that is correlated with another factor that captures perceived scientific consensus. Study 2 reveals a causal role of perceived consensus by showing that acceptance of AGW increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information also neutralizes the effect of worldview.

The last sentence is revealing: acceptance of the science “neutralizes the effect of worldview”.

Yes, even the most right-wing conservative free market fundamentalist can come to terms with the science. Those that don’t remain the committed to their scepticism” are mostly the conspiracy theorists and idealogues.

Scientific consensus shifts public opinion on climate change

By Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

People are more likely to believe that humans cause global warming if they are told that 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that it does, a new study has found.

Despite overwhelming evidence showing that human activity is causing the planet to overheat, public concern is on the wane, said the study, titled The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science and published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Monday.

“One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest,” the study’s authors said.

Overall, participants in the study greatly underestimated the level of scientific agreement on the issue, the study said.

Lead researcher Stephan Lewandowsky from the Cognitive Science Laboratories at the University of Western Australia said the study involved two surveys.

In the first, 200 Perth pedestrians were asked about their views on the scientific research linking human CO2 emissions to climate change as well as their thoughts on medical research linking smoking to lung cancer and HIV to AIDS.

The results showed that people who had faith in scientific or medical research in general were more likely to accept expert opinion on climate change.

“So some people just accept science as an endeavour and it doesn’t matter whether is the science is about climate or something else,” said Prof Lewandowsky.

The second study involved surveying 100 Perth pedestrians — half in a control group and half in a ‘consensus group’.

The control group was asked about their views on the causes of climate change but the consensus group, however, was first told that 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that global warming is a direct consequence of the burning of fossil fuels by humans.

People in the consensus group were much more likely to say that human activity caused climate change, even if their political views were otherwise broadly in line with free market ideologies that eschew the government regulation required to curb emissions.

“So providing the consensus information is boosting acceptance, particularly for those people who would otherwise reject the evidence based on their world view,” said Prof Lewandowsky.

“Telling them about this numeric fact about agreement in the scientific community does make a difference. That’s quite remarkable because few things work.”

Other studies have shown that presenting evidence alone does little to change minds and can even lead to people becoming more entrenched in their disbelief of human-caused climate change, he said.

The study showed it was important for scientific communicators and journalists to tell their audience that the vast majority of climate change experts believe that human activity is causing global warming.

“It is reaching even those people who would normally tune out when you tell them the evidence,” Prof Lewandowsky said, adding that journalists should not give denialists and climate change experts equal air time.

“The media is being irresponsible if they are pretending there is a scientific debate in light of this consensus.”

Will J Grant from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University said it was an interesting and useful study.

“We can say people are convinced by the consensus but the big caveat is sceptics and climate change sceptics in particular are never going to be convinced by this,” he said. “They will say science doesn’t work by vote, it’s about facts.”

“Realistically, though, most of those sceptics are of an older generation. We are never going to convince them but they will be disappearing from the political discourse soon.”

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Worst drought in 800 years? Yes, the North American 2000-2004 drought was that bad…

From the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

A new scientific study indicates the turn-of-the-century drought in the North American West was the worst of the last millennium—with major impacts to the carbon cycle and hints of even drier times ahead. 

The study, titled “Reduction in carbon uptake during turn of the century drought in western North America,” indicates that the major drought that struck western North America from 2000 to 2004 severely reduced carbon uptake and stressed the region’s water resources, with significant declines in river flows and crop yields. It was published on July 29 in Nature-Geoscience. NSIDC scientist Kevin Schaefer is a co-author on the study, along with Christopher Williams of Clark University. The study was led by Christopher Schwalm of Northern Arizona University (NAU). 

Researchers found that the turn-of-the-century drought was the most severe region-wide event of its kind since the last mega drought 800 years ago. “The turn-of-the-century drought may be the wetter end of a new climatology that would make the 21st century climate like mega-droughts of the last millennium,” said Schwalm. 

Under normal climate conditions North America absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere due to plant growth, offsetting to anthropogenic carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. “Our study shows the turn-of-the-century drought reduced plant uptake by half in western North America,” said Schaefer. 

The current drought that has currently engulfed country is as intense in the western United States as the turn of the century drought, but also includes large portions of the Midwest and Eastern United States. 

Climate models indicate drought conditions in the American West may be the new normal as the planet warms, expanding the region that is already chronically dry. “This will not only reduce carbon uptake,” says Schaefer, “but will also would trigger a whole host of significant water resource challenges in a region already subject to frequent water shortages.”

Note how the research (indirectly) blows the whole “more CO2 is good for plants!” argument out of the water (see emphasis)?

More CO2: more warming.

More warming: more drought.

More drought: less uptake by carbon sinks.

Positive feedback loops: fascinating.

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“News Corp: overwhelmingly misleading” – the damning indictment of Murdoch’s media empire

[Hat tip Media Matters]

“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.” George Orwell

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UOCS) has just published a damning study of the incredibly distorted character of News Corporation’s (News Corp.) climate science reporting.   

Analysing the accuracy of how the science is reported within the pages of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and on Fox News during a recent six month period, UOCS found overwhelming evidence of a persistent and systematic campaign of deception:

Instances of denigration go beyond inaccurate claims, to express a lack of trust in scientists, scientific institutions, and their conclusions, or to characterize the acceptance or rejection of climate change as an ideological (as opposed to a scientific) issue. Our team found clear examples of denigrating climate science in both the media outlets examined.

Titled “Is News Corp. Failing Science? Representations of Climate Science on Fox News Channel and in the Wall Street Journal Opinion Pages” (A. Huertas and D. Adler) this 30 page report provides further understanding on how Rupert Murdoch and his media empire have distorted the public’s understanding of climate change.

Indeed, this “war on science” waged by News Corp. prompted one scientist to state it has cost humanity several decades mitigation efforts. So prevalent is climate change scepticism within News Corp. it lead Rolling Stone magazine to name Murdoch as one of the chief architects of organised denial:

“Murdoch’s entire media empire, it would seem, is set up to deny, deny, deny. The Wall Street Journal routinely dismisses climate change as “an apocalyptic scare,” and Fox News helped gin up a fake controversy by relentlessly hyping the “climategate” scandal — even though independent investigations showed that nothing in the e-mails stolen from British climate researchers undercut scientific conclusions about global warming.”

With this in mind, let’s turn to the methodology of the study and its results.

Fair and balanced? Study methodology

The writers of the study took a “snapshot” of content from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal

“This snapshot analysis examined six months of Fox News Channel content and one year of representations in the Wall Street Journal opinion section based on keyword searches for the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Our team examined transcripts and articles to determine whether these media outlets mentioned climate science, action on climate change (personal action or government policies), both, or neither.”

The results are not surprising to those familiar with News Corporation’s contempt for facts and the almost missionary zeal in which this media company has set out to cast doubt on the science.  

Indeed, one can make the argument – as David McKnight does in his excellent book – that this can be attributed to the barely concealed ideological prejudices of Rupert Murdoch.

Fox News: 93% of 40 representations of climate science misleading

More often than not, a picture can say more than 1000 words:

 

Yes, the graph is correct: only three incidents of accurate reporting. What more can be said about the “fair and balanced” nature of Fox News?

News Corps. pattern of behaviour: misleading, cherry picking and mocking

The study categorised the type of misrepresentations into five broad categories. For those of us intimately familiar with how News Corp. frames climate science it comes as no surprise:

  • Broad dismissal of the scientific evidence
  • Disparaging climate scientists
  • Disparaging or mocking climate science as a body of knowledge
  • Cherry picking individual facts or findings of question overall consensus
  • Debates or conversations where misleading claims drown out accurate ones

And while this pattern of mischaracterisation and deception were attributed to editorials in the WSJ and on Fox news, one can easily apply the same to News Corps. Australian holdings: The Herald Sun; The Australian; The Daily Telegraph.

Within the pages of these newspapers the “war on science” has been relentless, unceasing and equally deceptive.

Industrial scale misinformation: the legacy of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.

The authors of the report end with a call for News Corp. to “reform” their reporting of the science and the reality of climate change:

“Representations of climate science on the Fox News Channel and in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal should be informed by an honest assessment of how cultural worldviews about the role of government affects people’s perception of scientific expertise and evidence on a range of issues, including nuclear waste, mandatory vaccination, and climate change (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman 2010). These cultural biases in processing scientific information ought to be understood and examined, especially by media figures with strong ideological identifications and opinions who take their responsibilities to the public seriously.

The reasons for this are vital:

A great many politicians, columnists, and other public figures from across the ideological spectrum accurately convey climate science to audiences and understand the difference between science and policy. Their voices should be amplified, not ignored…”

While a worthy call, I see it as naïve: News Corp has “dug own it’s grave” on the climate change issue.

In order to “reform” it would need to remove or censor the dozens, if not hundreds of journalists, editors and other staff engaged in what can only be called “industrial scale misinformation”.

Such is the reach – and extent – of this $32 billion media company that it seems almost wistful to ask it to simply “report the facts”.

To start “truth telling” would also entail the management of News Corp. both publically and privately acknowledge error and the attendant accountability that implies.

This act of accepting responsibility seems antithetical to the very nature of this company, its management and culture.

Conclusion

Some months ago I wrote a piece on Murdoch and his empire in response to the hacking scandals and the issue of climate change:

“Murdoch’s legacy will not simply be the broken and dysfunctional culture of News Corporation.

His most lasting legacy will be the damaged climate and a world of 2 degrees plus. For decades, News Corporation has waged a pitiless and deceitful campaign against scientists and the public understanding of the climate change.

Murdoch charged News Corporation with a missionary zeal to spread his free-market ideology. The doctrine was preached by his army of journalists and television presenters. Across the globe the likes of Andrew Bolt, Terry McCrann, Chris Mitchell and Glenn Beck spread the Word of Murdoch.

And the Word was: the market cannot fail.

We should remember that when super-charged bush fires burn our forests to ash and devastate small communities across Australia.

Remember the role News Corp. played in misleading and deceiving the public over the coming Australian summers.

When ever increasing numbers of people begin to ask “Why weren’t we told?” point them to the pages of News Corporation’s newspapers. Climate change is real – and yet for decades News Corp. has reported it as a hoax, a fad or the product of shadowy cabals.

And what is the price of this wilful denial, conscious deception and disparagement of the science and scientists?

Look at the tens of thousands of record high temperatures, the warming oceans and rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice: this is the Murdoch legacy writ large.

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Denial 101: the academic study of climate scepticism as diagnostic and risk management tool (FIRST DRAFT)

Note: As I’ve stated for some time, I’m planning on posting more detailed pieces on climate change scepticism based upon the last several years observations, research and interaction with commentators. 

This first piece sets out to explain “why” I believe a formal, multidisciplinary approach to studying the phenomenon of climate change scepticism is vital. It is not merely a question of politics: but risk management. Commentators are free to suggest changes, refute and debate. This is not an academic piece – so the views are my own. Potential flaws in analysis thus very much my own.

The value of good intelligence can never be underestimated (RAF war room 1941)

Introduction: it was never a debate 

The recent paper by Lewandowsky et.al (NASA faked the moon landing: therefore (climate) science is a hoax) that demonstrated a clear link between “denial” and free market fundamentalism is evidence of the growing appreciation that the climate change debate is not really a debate at all.

Rather we are now beginning to appreciate “climate scepticism” as the by-product of an individual’s values (and ideology) informing and shaping their cognition.

The clash is not over opposing facts: the issue pertains to the individual, how they wish to “see” the world and if those views are somehow contradicted – or challenged – by real world data.

A recent article by John Cook (How do people reject science, The Conversation 2012) provides further insight into climate change scepticism beyond the “why”, and suggests “how” an individual can come to deny scientific facts.

As Cook notes, confirmation bias is the most common mechanism for denying well attested scientific facts. Indeed, he asks the reader to watch the comments section of his article for examples:

To reduce the influence of those who reject the science, confirmation bias and misleading rhetorical arguments need to be exposed. Now is as good a time as any to start practising so I recommend beginning with the inevitable deluge of comments to this article. Look for cherry picking, conspiracy theories, comments magnifying the significance of dissenters (or non-experts) and logical fallacies such as non sequiturs

As predicted by Cook, climate sceptics began refuting the article upon publication – unintentionally and somewhat amusingly – utilising all the methods Cook outlines.

However it is important to remember that this pattern of behaviour and value-driven cognition is not isolated to the climate debate. Because this is not a unique phenomenon, there is a surprisingly large technical literature for academics and scholars to draw upon.

Indeed, when one views climate scepticism not through the Manichean framing device of “Sceptics versus Warmists” (fighting over the contested middle ground of public opinion), but as an example of a social and cultural phenomenon we gain not only fresh insight, but potentially the tools to mitigate the effectiveness of the denial “machine”.

The Windschuttle Affair as dress rehearsal for climate change denial; yes denial is more pervasive than one imagines, but shares common attributes

One can readily find examples of those who deny not only well-tested and supported scientific theories – climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines – but well documented and witnessed historical events. Indeed, there is a burgeoning and quite prolific community of those who deny historical events – 9/11, The Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities and The Stolen Generations in Australia.

For further exploration of the denial of these historical events, I would refer readers to Denial: history betrayed (2008) by Tony Taylor which discusses ideological driven historical revisionism in detail.

Taylor’s work foreshadows the Lewandowsky paper in surprising ways, but is based upon his personal observations and not the sophisticated use of statistical survey data employed by the authors of “NASA faked the moon landing”.

The common link between many of these incidents of “denial” is what Lewandowsky terms “conspiracy ideation”:

“…Another variable that has been associated with the rejection of science is conspiratorial thinking, or conspiracist ideation, defined here as the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations…” (Lewandowsky et.al pg. 4)

Indeed, when I read Taylor’s book I noted the mechanisms employed by revisionist “historians” mimic those of climate sceptics:

“…deniers will commonly accuse their opponents of a conspiracy against the denialist position when, as it happens, the deniers themselves are involved in a conspiracy or cover up of their own.” (Taylor, pg. XIII)

And that:

“…The key to historical denial lies in its self-deception transformed into an attempted deception of others, and this process tends to follow certain behavioural patterns.” (Taylor, pg. IX)

Taylor’s text is well worth reading; in particular how the “debate” over historical facts mimics debate over scientific facts.

It is worth noting that prior to the intensity of the present climate change debate (notably in response to the publication of IPCCs Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the release and success of Al Gore’s An inconvenient truth and global negotiations at the Conference of All Parties (COP15) at Copenhagen in 2009) a very similar debate had already played itself out within the Australian political and cultural scene: the so called “History Wars“.

I would suggest that scholars examine the “Windschuttle affair” as a “dress rehearsal” for the climate change debate in Australia, and draw lessons from that. Keith Windschuttle was the historian who denied the sufferings of Australian Aborigines at the hands of the early settlers in his deeply flawed and debunked Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002)..

Windschuttle’s writings kicked of a national debate – which continues in a more muted form today – and provoked considerable controversy. It is worth highlighting that Windschuttle received powerful patronage from the likes of the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, the editors of the News Limited daily “The Australian” and then Prime Minister John Howard – all of who whom have featured heavily in the climate change debate as outright sceptics or enablers of the sceptical point of view.

When one looks back at the “culture wars” that have raged in Australia, one notes those who have denied the suffering of Australia’s first people also deny the science of climate change.

Strikingly, the same cognitive mechanisms and rhetorical deceits outlined in Cook’s How do people reject science were employed in this earlier History War.

The explanation for this is straight forward: the advocates for historical revisionism and climate change scepticism share a cluster of similar values – social conservatism, free market ideology and a disdain for “progressive” values.

I would suggest the same clustering of the values and world views (free markets, limited government) linked to scepticism in Lewandowsky et.al could be matched to the conservative “culture warriors” listed above.

We may be fighting a very different war, but it is being fought with the same weapons of previous conflicts.

The antecedents for today’s debate are there for study.

Actually, I want to understand…

Climate denial as area of academic study: from confusion to understanding

This growing literature on climate scepticism – such as the Lewandowsky paper – indicates the emergence of a new area of academic study.

Cognitive scientists, historians, sociologists and the broader scientific community are now gaining a better appreciation of the underlying motives for climate change scepticism. I would also refer the reader to the most recent edition of Nature: Climate Change (August 2012, Vol.2 No. 8) for a very useful collection of articles on the “human factor” in the climate change debate.

Indeed, a recent editorial in that journal called for greater engagement from the academic community on the climate change issue titled Clarion Call” (September 2012, Vol 2 No. 9):

Today’s mitigation efforts are widely regarded within the research community as woefully inadequate. With this in mind, Anderson and Bows urge scientists to overcome their natural reluctance to offer academic judgements — “Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable” — is their clarion call.

This broader approach does not refute the work of scholars such as Oreskes & Conway (The Merchants of Doubt) who have detailed the long running campaign of disinformation practised by conservative think tanks and a tiny cadre of ‘sceptical” scientists.

The evidence that demonstrates how both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries “planted the seeds” of doubt about climate change is well documented and conclusive.

But we must move past the formulation “funds from big oil = climate change denial”.

As others have noted, climate change is now part of the “culture wars” (A. Hoffman in Climate Science as Culture War, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2012).

“Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco” may have nurtured climate change scepticism into being, but it has now spread well beyond its initial staging areas within conservative think tanks. It has been adopted by segments of the general public and conservative politicians as fundamental to their world view.

One needs only to look at the stated positions of Republican Presidential candidates on global warming in the lead up to the next US Presidential election: nearly all of them rejected the science (National Public Radio, In their own words: GOP Candidates and science, Corey Dade, September 2011).

I would argue such developments should spur greater efforts to both study and understand climate scepticism. And like any discipline, we can build and expand upon the original insights and work of many scholars.

Victory to these guys?

Stepping outside the narrative frame and ending our transfixed stasis

For over two decades we have been bewitched by the sceptic’s seemingly unstoppable ability to confuse the general public and “defeat” climate science (Robert Manne in A dark victory: how vested interests defeated climate science, The Monthly, 2012).

Indeed, in a recent talk in Melbourne Manne noted “He did not know how to win a “culture war” (Watching the Deniers – Question to readers: how would you counter the denial movement, 2012)

While such definitive victories may elude us, it is the opinion of this author that we can a) understand the “why” and “how” of anti-science movements and b) gain insight into how such culture wars are fought.

Indeed it may be possible – as in the case of climate change scepticism – to develop strategies to counter the effectiveness of such anti-reality movements.

While some would see this as a partisan approach to a “scientific” debate, there is ample historical precedence.

One need only look at the academic response to the “militia movement” in the United States, and the urgent desire to understand the culture and forces that created the likes of Timothy McVeigh and the Branch Davidians under David Koresh.

Learning from academic studies of American militia movement and the Southern Poverty Law Centre

The “Waco” incident of 1993 and the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building in 1995 were traumatic events for American’s, and profoundly influenced politics and culture at the time.

In response – indeed with a surprising sense of urgency – academic scholars began an intense scholarly study of the various militia movements in the United States.

The demographic, sociological and ideological drivers for the formation militia groups were subject to intense study: indeed, the technical literature is quite large. Many of the reference texts I’ve read stem from the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was rightly thought an understanding of such groups was paramount.

Thus, we see a rush of works at that time: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003) by Michael Barkun; Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001) by Robert Alan Goldberg; and Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999) by Mark Fenster.

Militia groups sprung up across the US in the 1980s and 1990s, proclaiming (very loudly) an eclectic mix of beliefs including; a severely limited or non-existent Federal government, fears about a “New World Order” conspiracy, paranoia over gun control, millenarianism, Christian eschatology and racism.

It was from this “culture” that sprung the likes of Timothy McVeigh who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995. In 1993, a combustible mix of extreme religiosity, millennialism and militia culture fed the stand-off at Waco between the followers of David Koresh and agents of US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In addition to the work of these academics, there are other organisations we can learn from.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the United States has a deep understanding of militia and hate groups – indeed, their website is a rich source of information on such groups. For many years activists from the SPLC and scholars have paid close attention to the writings and activities of the various militia groups still in operation in order to a) understand their formation and operation and b) watch out for “early warning” signs of violence.

One could also argue that studies in “terrorism” have grown since 9/11 as the need to both understand and foresee risk is eminently sensible.

By shedding ourselves of the narrative “frame” we are stuck in of (“Sceptic versus Warmist”), and approaching this as simply one further area of study – requiring  a multidisciplinary approach – we can “break the spell” of climate change denial.

There is nothing unique or special about the climate sceptic community. We need only see them for what they are.

Scholarship as a diagnostic and early warning tool

Firstly, let me state I am not directly equating climate sceptics with the likes of McVeigh or extreme militia groups.

However: the “hacking” of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UAE) that feed the “Climategate” scandal was an act of cyber terrorism.

It was a deliberate act intended to not merely undermine the reputation of climate scientists and the science, but obviously designed to undermine negotiations at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of All Parties (COP15).

The examples of death threats made against scientists are numerous; incidents such as the hacking of Real Climate (November 2009) and Skeptical Science (March 2012) also point to patterns of behaviour.

We ignore the climate sceptic movement – which is admittedly diverse, heterogeneous and fractious as any culture of conspiracy minded individuals – at our own risk. The historcical antecedents mentioned above should provide renewed imputeus in understanding climate change scepticism.

Conclusions: evaluating risk and the “hacktivist” nature of the climate sceptic movement

I believe there is a genuine risk that there may be fringe elements of the sceptic community who are disposed to fantasies of a coming New World Order etc. and who may fantasize about acts of retribution.

The CRU/Climategate “hack” offers compelling reason for such concerns. Should greater numbers of individuals take the claims of prominent sceptic arguments at face value – and act on these paranoid world views – it is probable we will see further incidents such as the “Climategate”.

There are antecedents for this diffusion of paranoia and conspiracy making witnessed in the militia movement in the United States. Indeed, not only should the science community be paying far closer attention to the sceptic “movement”, it may even be an issue for law enforcement agencies to monitor.

Many of the motifs of conspiracy culture – especially New World Order fantasies and fears of government control – have been “mainstreamed” by the prominence the media gives to sceptic voices and narratives.

In turn, the risk that less stable individuals or groups with less “mainstream” political agendas will adopt some of these views has been considerably heightened.

For the risks of such stochastic processes see Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism by Chip Berlet and Talking points ammo: The use of neoliberal think tank fantasy themes to delegitimise scientific knowledge of climate change in Australian newspapers, Elaine McKewon for the dissemination of such fantasies in the Australian media.

In this regard, study of the climate sceptic community becomes both a diagnostic and risk management tool.

Such a tool may alert the world’s scientific community and government agencies to possible threats: i.e. cybercrimes such as hacking and tracking “grouping” behaviour on social media platforms that may lead to FOI “assaults” or targeted email campaigns against individual scientists.

Indeed, in the next piece I will explore how the climate sceptic movement is a heterogeneous virtual community composed of “core members” who provide both overt and implied cues for behaviours and norms for a much larger number of loosely aligned “associates”.

Similar patterns of behaviour can be seen with “hacktivist” groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec (though the political aims of sceptics and the “pranksters” of Anonymous are widely divergent, if not antithetical to each other).

The same pattern of recruitment by prominent voices on social media platforms – and the fractious “voting up” of “operations” by a greater collective swayed by rhetoric and exhortation – can be also be seen in way the climate sceptic community operates (see LulzSec: How A Handful Of Hackers Brought The US Government To Its Knees, Kyle Schurman and Anonymous Attack Anatomy Hacker Intelligence Report, Darshan Joshi et.al)

Again, the tools to study such communities are readily available: we should but merely “take them off the shelf” and employ them in our study of what is – in reality – a subgroup of a broader based conspiracy culture that finds its loci predominately in the United States (and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).

There really is no need to reinvent the wheel.

I fully acknowledge each incidence of denial (of climate change, evolution and the Stolen Generations) is often a unique expression of the politics and culture of the time: however the tools for understanding are readily available.

Quote of the day: “It takes trust among many to build a 747”

Ignoring science can lead to fatal results

The Conversation has published an article – which I will republish in full shortly – on the “mega-trends” tipped to influence Australia’s future.

Within the article is a lovely quote which sums up why I trust the world’s scientists when it comes to climate change:

No one person has sufficient knowledge to build and fly a Boeing 747 from Singapore to London. Nor would one person have all the knowledge and skill to create a sustainable aquaculture industry. We can only achieve these outcomes by taking one person’s ideas and through collaboration, connection and trust, adding them to the ideas of many other people…

The science supporting our understanding of climate change is the based upon the work of tens of thousands of individual researchers across the globe. They may have their specialities – from watching Arctic sea ice, studying what is happening to the world’s oceans and analysing satellite data – but collectively their research tells us all we need to know.

No one person can understand climate change: our understanding is built upon the scientific method, collaboration and the trust – fully justified – we place in the world’s scientific community.

The entire campaign waged by the deniers is aimed at undermining our trust in science.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Who would you have build a 747?

The climate deniers, or the world’s scientists?

I think the choice is easy.

The insiders: if climate change was a conspiracy, where are the whistleblowers?

“Human beings are not very good at keeping secrets; individual self-interest is not interchangeable with group interest and the two are often in conflict, most particularly among small groups of plotters…” – James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency

Jeffery Wigand is a hero.

As Vice President for Research and Development at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson he discovered the company was deliberating adding ingredients to make their product more addictive. He was fired from his role for this discovery.

However, in 1996 he stated this truth in a 60 Minutes interview that definitively proved to the public what many had been saying: the tobacco industry had not only been lying about the harm of their products, but actively working to make them more addictive.

Wigand appeared on television despite repeated death threats [1].

Peter Buxtun is another hero.

In 1972 he exposed the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. It was a horrific experiment overseen by the US Public Health Service in which the disease to run rampant amongst poor black men. The intent was to better understand the course of the disease if left untreated. The men thought they were receiving free medical treatment and financial benefits, while never told they had syphilis.

No secret – no matter how closely guarded its holders believe it to be – is safe.

It is human nature to confess, or disclose.

Disputes amongst like-minded conspirators will drive some to leak documents or crucial facts to the media. This is especially so in the age of Wikileaks, Twitter and 24 hour news.

Which is why we can say with absolute certainty climate change is not a conspiracy orchestrated by scientists or communists.

What is remarkable for a science that has been understood since the early 1800s is the lack of whistleblowers; there are no climate science equivalents like that of Wigand or Buxton.

There are no scientists coming forth and saying “Look, we faked this temperature data”.

Not a single environmentalist has stepped forward to showcase a treasure trove of documents demonstrating the workings of a cabal dedicated to taking over the world.

Indeed, we have the very opposite: there is increasing certainty about the science. Every national science academy in the world affirms and supports the work of thousands of scientists.

The work of 97% of those actively researching climate change supports the view human activities are changing the climate.

There are literally millions of scientists, engineers, software programmers, policy makers, activists, writers and members of the world’s military and business community working on climate change and related environmental issues. They have been toiling away on the research and policies for years.

And yet somehow we are expected to believe these millions have managed to maintain a vast conspiracy of silence over decades. Just how probable that is?

How could this enormous conspiracy, spanning the globe and generations, still exist without at least one conspirator breaking ranks and coming forth with the damning evidence? [2]

Perhaps we should follow the dictates of Occam’s Razor and look for the simplest, most rational answer: climate change is real.

 

[1] How familiar does this sound? How many scientists have received death threats?

[2] Climategate proved nothing. After nine separate inquires the science and the behaviour of scientist remains unblemished. It was a manufactured pseudo-scandal.

The sceptical mind: on Carl Sagan’s legacy

Moth Incarnate has a great post on the value of sceptical thinking, and how it differs from blind faith:

Living within the information age, the word is always out and while it may not always seem it, more accurate information is eventually dominant because it simply cannot be broken. Gravity can’t be undone no matter how much one may want it to be a miraculous inspiration. CO2 plays an important role as a greenhouse gas in our atmosphere regardless how much one may wish it to ignore passing longwave radiation. Homeopathy simply doesn’t have any active ingredients (which, in many cases, is a good thing because of the poisons suggested to be within them). The story of smallpox and the clinically proven very low risks involved with vaccination stand stubbornly in the face of the committed sceptics. One can throw a blanket over accurate information, but that will erode in time, not the information.

Great article, I share his sentiments.

To pilot a planet: the future of the climate change debate

“This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” – Albert Einstein, 1920

I’d like to ask you – the reader – to conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine the children in your life and picture them as adults debating the reality of climate change. Now try to imagine their children doing the same thing. Then try to picture their children, and their children continuing that same debate. Its 2200 CE and future generations are locked into the same debate.

Does that seem at all plausible?

The intent of this thought experiment is to raise your gazes above the trench warfare that epitomizes today’s “climate debate”. Forget everything that seems so vitally important about the “debate” raging across blogs, YouTube and the opinion pages of the dying newspaper industry.

Ask yourself this question: “How long do you think this debate will continue?”

Years?

My own feeling: this debate will continue for centuries.

As long as there is an industrial civilisation we will be investigating, confirming, denying and debating anthropomorphic climate change.

Science controversies past and present

A recent paper in Physics Today contrasts the time lag between experts agreeing on “controversial” scientific theories and the considerable time lag before public consensus emerges. The author sees direct parallels between the climate change debate and past science “backlashes”:

“The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force…”

Thus we could speculate the climate debate will continue for decades, if not centuries. It will outlast most nation states now in existence – the very same nation states who will determine the course of history for future generations by their action – or inaction – on climate change.

Most of the individuals and organisations so prominent in the current debate will be forgotten, their existence barely noted in scant foot notes in some yet to be written history of climate change.

The irony is that we fight this debate as if month-to-month opinion polls are all that matter. In Australia, a carbon tax is about to come in effect on 1 July. It has proven enormously unpopular with the public while the conservative Opposition has been using it an opportunity to run an effective fear campaign: “We well be ruined, ruined by this tax!”

And while climate change scepticism may serve contrarians well enough in the short-term, the viability of our civilisation is being sacrificed for political gain.

The Great Awakening may not just be “around the corner”

Science has granted us with a view of the universe that often runs counter to cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe. Thus, for every major scientific theory one can find a counter-narrative.

Five centuries after Copernicus a 2004 survey found 20% of Americans in opposition to the idea the Earth revolves around the sun.

And yet it seems to me the scientific community, climate change activists, writers and bloggers are infected with an unrealistic optimism that “victory” is just around the corner. Most commentators propose it will take only a few more years before our civilisation undergoes the “great awakening”.

After all, it is an eminently sensible argument: surely “people” will get it, and demand action?

Many hope to see a global “mass mobilisation” with nations and individuals across the globe uniting to confront the enemy that is climate change. Commentators often cite the efforts of “The Greatest Generation” in defeating the Nazi’s and fascism during the Second World War as a parallel. I can understand this, the mythos that has been built around the Nazi defeat is great. Recall also the Germans and Japanese also mobilized for total war: effort does not ensure victory. 

More often than not those closest to the debate are projecting their own intellectual and emotional journey onto others.

Sadly, not everyone is “going to get it”.

Those of us blogging, reading and debating climate change are outliers: we are highly motivated to understand the science, politics and responses to climate change. For most individuals, it is an area of third, fourth or fifth level importance even if they accept the science.

What if I’m wrong, and there is a great awakening?

Still let’s challenge the above assertion: let us imagine the best of all possible worlds were we cap emissions and usher in a golden age of renewable energy.

Time to declare the debate over?

Should we avert disaster there will be those who will claim that as evidence climate change never was a problem: all those emissions taxes and support for clean energy was a wasted exercise to solve a non-existent problem. There will be groups wishing to wind back policy and legislative mechanisms in the same way conservatives are trying to wind back environmental legislation in Australia, the UK and the US.

“Surely not!” some of you would argue “Who would be so stupid?”

Well yes – we can be that stupid.

Consider the case of vaccination, a triumph for evidence based medicine.

It is still within living memory of many that that Polio, tuberculosis and Whooping cough killed thousands in the developed world. These diseases were almost completely eradicated in the developed world with the introduction of mass vaccination.

And yet we are now presented with the spectacle of millions of educated, middle to upper middle class parents conscientiously opposed to vaccination and reducing the populations “herd immunity” by not vaccinating their children.

These diseases – once thought banished – are now returning because there are those who doubt their effectiveness even when presented with the compelling evidence of children dying.

The point is these examples is this: we forgot mass horror and tragedy quickly, often within the span of a generation or two.

And even when we forget, we often refuse to believe facts that challenge our core values or beliefs.

It’s been over 150 years since Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species, and yet in public uncertainty about the validity about the science remains high from the United States (50% of the population) and around the globe. Those that “accept” evolution are very much in the minority.

America landed on the moon in 1969 and yet a staggering 10%-20% of the American population doubt this actually happened. If anyone had a vested interest in believing in American technological superiority it would be the average American citizen?

Strangely outlandish conspiracy theories have someone proven more compelling than actual reality.

How many Americans doubt their President was even born in the United States?

A recent survey of Australians show 10% believe the world will end in 2012 – a “New Age” belief that mangles and distorts Mayan cosmology despite the fact it has been debunked many times.

While one may be appalled by such willed ignorance, it is important to remember that denial is part of our nature and won’t go away even presented with the most compelling evidence.

The long debate

We cannot hope to quickly undo the damage to the atmosphere in a few short decades. It will take generations to both fix and manage the climate.

Now that we understand how CO2 impacts the atmosphere, we must forever abandon fossil fuels as an energy source.

The climate debate has only just begun.

And yet through all those long centuries that stretch before us, through the vicissitudes of wars, dark ages, renaissances and technological change we must hold onto the simple and fragile truth that the planet’s atmosphere must be managed intelligently and co-operatively by our species.

Our species made this mess; it is our species that has to manage it for all the long millennia ahead.

Climate change – the idea that we are altering the planet’s atmosphere – has profoundly changed how we view ourselves in the same manner Copernicus’s assertion of a heliocentric solar system unseated mankind from the centre of the universe.

It seems our fate as a species is tied up in trusting this wonderful construct we call “science”.

And yet to paraphrase Carl Sagan how very much it is like a fragile candle in the dark – a speck of light in a demon haunted world.

Tenacity, compassion and reverence for the truth: the accidental geo-engineers toolkit

Our role is not merely to debate the reality of climate change. I would suggest it is a far more expansive and nobler role than that.

We – the vanguard and the outliers of the debate – can be the mentors and teachers of the next generation. It falls to us to teach them resilience, tenacity and to trust the scientific method.

However, in addition to fostering scientific literacy we should teach the values of compassion and empathy.

Climate change has taught us the need to rebuild our industrial civilisation from the ground up in order to avert the suffering of billions fellow human beings.

Knowledge and compassion are inexorably linked – once cannot act without knowledge. Indeed, once you understand climate change, you are compelled to act. 

We can do more than bequest future generations a broken planet; we must also teach them to pilot the planet and our civilisation.

The generations that follow are accidental geo-engineers, a role neither asked for nor deserving. And while it may be impossible to forecast what our global civilisation will look like 1000 years from now, we can lay the seeds for its survival today.

Thus it falls to us to teach them the values that will guide them through the coming centuries of change: resilience in the face of adversity, compassion, empathy and a deep reverence for truth.

In essence, to lay the seeds of a humanist culture that recognises its place in the cosmos, appreciates the fragility of each individual life and our civilisation and fosters the hope we can guide it to better futures.

That is the legacy each of us holds in our hands, and has the power to pass on.

Hedging their bets: USC report on the companies that support and oppose action on climate

A fascinating report from the Union of Concerned Scientists has just been released. It examines how some large corporates in the US have been saying one thing about action on climate change, and yet privately working to undermine effort:

“A number of the companies considered in this report took different positions on climate science and policy within the same time period. These contradictory companies acted or made statements in support of climate science and policy in some public spaces while simultaneously spreading misinformation on climate science or hindering science-based policy in others. Most notably, our research suggests that such companies are more likely to express concern about climate change in those venues directed at the general public and more likely to misrepresent climate science in communications directed at the federal government and through their funding of outside organizations…”

I believe the term we should employ here is “green washing”. Companies named in this practice include ExxonMobil (surprise!), Caterpillar and ConocoPhillips.

Employing your workforce as a fake grass-roots campaign

ConocoPhillips set up an internal program to force employees to lobby their representative politicians:

Set up an online campaign to encourage employees to contact senators to oppose legislation in spite of its active membership in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership

Using your workforce as a fake grassroots lobbying group? I can picture it now:

Manager: “Say Bill, did you call your representative?”

Employee: “Er, not yet….”

Manager: “Well obviously you don’t have to. But I’d really appreciate it. I mean, its tough times and we all have to support the company…”

The report notes that corporations have played a substantial role in influencing the debate on climate change:

“Corporations are devoting large amounts of funding and other resources both to facilitate Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation a Climate of Corporate Control. To address corporate interference and ultimately mitigate the impacts of climate change itself, the United States needs greater transparency in governmental and corporate affairs…

Much of this misinformation about climate science is being put forward by some of our sample’s energy-producing companies. These companies adversely affect the conversation on climate change through such means as direct public statements, political contributions, lobbying, congressional testimony, and the funding of trade groups and think tanks. Though these companies constitute a small subset of American corporations, they have a disproportionate effect on the dialogue—in part; by eroding the public’s understanding of climate change and weakening its support for steps to address the climate crisis…”

There is also a message for the media, who have failed reporting climate change:

The media should be mindful of potential conflicts of interest among the experts and other individuals they rely on for information, and the media should disclose such conflicts when found.

The media should fact-check statements made by corporations and those affiliated with them, just as they already do with statements made by politicians.

The media can help hold companies accountable for their actions and statements by reporting contradictory corporate behaviour.

Somehow I don’t see these recommendations being considered by editors of News Corporation.

Overall, this is a very well researched and important piece on the influence of corporates on the debate. 

Science is beautiful: the history of science mapped out

[Hat tip to the blog “Why Evolution is true“]  

As a lay person I neither practice science or have qualifications in any of the various disciplines (that’s what you get for going down the arts/history/library/information technology paths).  

However, it’s no secret I’m a cheer leader for science.  

I love the “big picture” view science offers. It allows us – homo sapiens – to investigate such basic questions as “Where did we come from?”, “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”.  

And while the facts themselves are interesting, I’m equally fascinated at how we arrive at our understanding of the universe. Yes, I love questions.  

Which is why I find this “map” of the tracing the history of science by blogger Crispian Jago so beautiful. Jago has represented the last 500 years of so of science in the style of the famous map of the London underground. It notes key figures and their contributions to various disciplines of science.  

Personally, I find it a lovely diagram very much in the spirit of Information is beautiful.  

Enjoy!   Now, I’m off to print this in colour and pin to my office wall.  

Note abut this weeks posts  

Obviously a slow week for posts this week. I had family visiting and serious work commitments… throw in a baby not sleeping and you get a tired, cranky blogger. Often its best not to post when you distracted, as the quality becomes far more uneven. I’d rather post quality articles than post for the sake of posting.  

There is only so much one blogger can do.

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