The D word (denier, denial, denialism)

The “D word” is a hot potato in the current climate change debate. It comes in three flavors: denial, denier, denialism. A few simple web searches reveal that according to various sources, climate change deniers are criminals, have bizarre beliefs, are like racists or homophobes, have no scientific credibility, don’t deserve to be heard, etc.

Here’s an example from an online discussion.

I’ll also give you this: You and your fellow deniers are wrong, and you will be on the wrong side of history. In 50 years you will be scattered with the witch-burners, the white supremacists, the birthers and the creationists who illustrate the limits of the human mind and the danger that come (sic) with them. You’ll be crammed into historical footnotes that students around the world will chuckle at for those five minutes you are mentioned. I wish you could be around to see it, if for no other reason than to hear you bray frantically that Anthony Watts is still right.

Not surprisingly, those who have the are labeled as climate change deniers tend to disagree, although there are some who embrace the “denier” label.

But the D word is also being used in other contexts, as a general term for people who allegedly deny matters of fact.

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Debunking Oreskes part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists”

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” →

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway focuses on the allegedly sinister actions of a “handful of scientists”. According to the book’s subtitle, these scientists “obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”. Trying to deduce what this might mean in more specific terms, I wrote:

Obscuring the truth is a somewhat vague concept, but it seems to imply that these scientists been quite influential, and that their communication with the public has been untruthful and probably deliberately deceptive.

So let us assume that they intend to say that a “handful” (presumably three or more) of scientists have “obscured the truth” on both tobacco, climate change and other issues. Tobacco and climate change are by far the most relevant of these. Tobacco, since it’s a well-documented case of deliberate fraud; climate change, since it’s the only one over which there is still a strong active controversy.

To investigate what truth there might be to this, we first need to know who “the handful of scientists” (let’s call them the Handful) are supposed to have been. There is no definitive, exhaustive listing in the book, but the main ones that tend to appear together in different chapters are Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow. (Since the book mentions a large number of other, less significant characters, it’s a research project in itself to discover who recurs and therefore hard to be absolutely sure who should be included.)

These are my principal findings from studying the book: Given these main “bad guys”, I find that the links between these individuals and the two main issues are weak at best. The link between the Handful and tobacco is practically non-existent. The link between the Handful and climate change is based on old information (only Singer is still living) and has questionable relevance to the current controversy. The idea that they were obscuring the truth about global warming is based primarily on the idea that they were attacking a scientfic consensus, but according to Oreskes and Conway themselves, the period during which they were active hardly overlaps the time during which there has been a consensus.

To get into the specifics, let’s look at each person in turn.

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Debunking Oreskes part 1: A wall of vagueness

Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” →

Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” →

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

There are few critical examinations of the book Merchants of Doubt on the Web. I myself wrote a series of blog posts in Norwegian. There is an article from the Marshall Institute. Jo Nova has written a somewhat longer blog post on the subject. And Nicolas Nierenberg and Fred Singer have also written about it. Still, the volume of critical material is dwarfed by the book itsefl, which runs to 368 pages.

That is an interesting paradox in itself. The authors of Merchants of Doubt claim (or imply, see below) to have exposed a powerful, well-funded effort to mislead the public on climate change. Since the book is frequently used as a trump card in climate debates, you would think these alleged vested interests would try more actively to discredit the book. It should be worth the effort. As Judith Curry has remarked, “In the U.S. anyway, the Oreskes’ merchant of doubt meme seems to remain predominant.”.So why is there no full-scale counterattack? Supposedly, we are dealing with resourceful and ruthless disinformers who have successfully “obscured the truth” about several scientifc issues and smeared brilliant scientists. Such people should be both willing and able to attack the book with heavier artillery than what we’ve seen so far. Even if Merchants of Doubt were a paragon of erudition, logic and rock-solid evidence, why should they be deterred?

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The Big Question

This post was originally published on Judith Curry’s blog. Reblogging it here for convenience.

In normal science, you get more certain the more the data turns out to fit the predictions of the theory. The IPCC and friends have come up with a method of calculating that turns this on its head: the weaker the match between predictions and data, the more certain you become. In this essay, I try to unravel the statistical gymnastics that help make this seem reasonable.

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Please give me a Nobel prize

How I wish I were a Nobel laureate, and preferably a real one. That’s the thought that runs through my head as I witness the altercation between Paul Krugman and Mark Steyn.

Background: Climate scientist Michael Mann, famous as the main brain behind the so-called hockey stick, has sued Mark Steyn. Steyn sums it up thus:
In 2012, Mann, the inventor of the global-warming “hockey stick”, decided to sue me, National Review, Rand Simberg and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, for calling his stick “fraudulent” and deriding his “exoneration” by the same Penn State administration that covered up for Jerry Sandusky.

Krugman is sure Mann is right and Steyn is wrong and tries to come to Mann’s rescue. He invokes the mighty Google to emphasize his belief that Steyn is clueless, hopeless and pathetic:

Now for the slightly encouraging news: Mann filed suit against National Review for defamation. Also encouraging is the evident inability of NR to understand how you defend against a charge of defamation. You don’t repeat the false allegations — sorry, guys, but courts also have access to Google and Nexis, and can find that all the charges have been rejected in repeated inquiries.

A lizard. Any resemblance to a person named in this post is purely coincidental.

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Emma Thompson in a place called climate change

Jo Nova waxes sarcastic about actress Emma Thompson for her “card” to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot: “It takes an Oscar winning actress to keep a smug face while saying something this inane. “Tony Abbott Climate Change is REAL I’m standing on it!””

Emma thompson glacier sign

There’s lots more sarcasm and even vitriol, especially in the comments: “What is it with these fools? They should just stick to acting and leave the real world to those who can think and understand the facts.”

I have nothing against Emma Thompson, but the idea of standing on climate change strikes me as a particularly ridiculous and graceless juxtaposition of concrete and abstract. It reminds me of one movie she was in, Love Actually. It has that song where instead of “love is all around us” they sing “Christmas is all around us”, making this particular bar of the song come across like a bump in the road.

Logically speaking, there is a well known problem manifested in the phrase “standing on climate change”. What she’s standing on may be affected by the local weather, but weather is not climate. The impression I get is that it’s a desperate attempt to think of something crisp and creative to draw attention to the issue. Unfortunately, it’s clumsy. As is much of climate activism, which often seems to be about pushing square pegs into round holes. If it doesn’t work, push harder. Or sometimes, if failure becomes too conspicuous, try a different peg, but without checking the shape of the hole first.

When I first read the blog post, I was thinking vaguely along these lines, so the harsh treatment of Emma Thompson seemed to me mostly self-inflicted.

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The battle of the conspiracy theories

I came across this graphic at the Facebook group I fucking love science. Even though it’s not explicit, I’m assuming that it’s about the climate change issue.

I originally planned using it for a short introduction to the subject of politicized climate science. But as I studied it, I grew increasingly fascinated, above all by what it doesn’t tell us. Above all, what does it mean? It illustrates two different conspiracy theories and asks us what is more likely, in other words, which of the two theories is more plausible.

Does this mean that these are somehow competing hypotheses about the same phenomenon? That’s far from obvious. One appears to be an attempt to explain why many people believe in anthropogenic global warming. The other seems intended to explain why many people don’t.

In principle, both could be true. Maybe global warming is a hoax and Big Oil is paying “anyone they can” to debunk it? I don’t believe that, but it’s by no means a logical impossibility. On the other hand, perhaps they’re both just fantasy. Perhaps something else entirely is going on.


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