Anatomy Of Denial: How To Lie To Yourself And The World About Climate Science

NOTE: This is another re-post from my blog on I wrote it in a fit of exasperation after dealing with a string of embarrassingly deceptive posts from the Heartland Institute. It’s a bit long, and even to me it seems like something of a rant when viewed out of context, but I’ve gotten enough good feedback on it that I’ve decided to re-post it on The AnthropoZine. You can view the original here.
What do you call someone who opens a blog post with a false accusation, segues into an unfounded generalization, slams credible scientists without justification, cites research out of context, and picks apart an argument no one ever made — all, apparently, to keep his fragile ideological worldview intact, even at the expense of the global economy?

The Heartland Institute calls him a “senior fellow for environment policy”, but his name is James Taylor, and he has kindly offered us an opportunity to examine the tactics that Mark and Chris Hoofnagel identified as being key tools of scientific “denialism”.

These tactics have been used equally by greenies who think genetically modified corn is killing off the butterflies, 9/11 conspiracy cranks who think George W Bush blew up the Twin Towers, and celebrities who think vaccinations are causing autism. They are bad for society, bad for the economy, and bad for our brains.

Here is how the Hoofnagels define denialism:

Denialism: the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.

Now, on to our specimen. It is entitled “Global Warming Alarmist Steve Zwick’s Science Is More Troubling Than His Vitriol”, and it opens thus:

Scientists and public policy analysts were justifiably appalled by Steve Zwick writing in his column last week that firemen should let houses burn down if they are owned or occupied by global warming “denialists.”

If you read the post he’s citing in its entirety, you’ll see that he’s threading the needle of deception by interpreting an intentionally provocative metaphor as if it were meant to be taken literally – a subtlety that a bizarre site called “Infowars” didn’t even attempt:

Writing for Forbes Magazine, climate change alarmist Steve Zwick calls for skeptics of man-made global warming to be tracked, hunted down and have their homes burned to the ground, yet another shocking illustration of how eco-fascism is rife within the environmentalist lobby.

Compare these summaries to the actual post in question, and you will have an opportunity to observe the most popular denialist tactic: when confronted with an issue that challenges their worldview, they convert it into something that can be dismissed with an argument that appeals emotionally to their audience.  Then, once the adjustment  is made, they righteously attack the thing that it has become in their own minds rather than what it is in reality. Keep this in mind as we continue the dissection:

Lost in Zwick’s over-the-top rhetoric, however, has been his even more troubling assertion of what constitutes sound science.

Really? The original post doesn’t address science – it addresses the way we talk about science and the need to assign responsibility to those who intentionally distort the message of science.  Let’s see where he takes this.

For all the crying by global warming alarmists about the lack of civility in the global warming debate, almost all of the over-the-top vitriol among spokespersons for each point of view emanates from the alarmist crowd.

I’m sure there’s plenty of vitriol on both sides, but I’d argue the “what, me worry?” crowd is orders of magnitude worse than the “alarmist” crowd.  As evidence, I offer the comments on the post Taylor is addressing as well as comments that showed up on my own decidedly less provocative “Climategate 2.0″ Looks More Like Climatefluff 3½, or on any posts that challenge denialist dogma.  Compare the comment strings on “alarmist” posts to those on “what, me worry?” posts, and see which are more vitriolic.

Worse than vitriol, however, are the lies and obfuscation that are the hallmarks of denialism, and that brings us back to the specimen at hand:

Zwick’s call for skeptics’ houses to burn down is actually mild compared to other prominent alarmists calling for the murder, imprisonment, and execution of skeptics. These violent and hateful statements are made by alarmists on a fairly regular basis, yet the predominantly left-leaning media ignores it.

He doesn’t mention the interlocutors by name, and supplies no evidence that one side or the other generates more or less vitriol.  Saying things without providing references to evidence is a hallmark of the denialist argument, even as they demand climate scientists make available for scrutiny every change to every draft of every paper they ever touch, as well as the proprietary source code of computer programs they create to analyze their data.  I wonder, for example, which “prominent alarmists are calling for murder, imprisonment, and execution of skeptics?”  Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not our blissful friend, who continues:

By contrast, when serial name-caller Michael Mann cries “woe is me” because people actually follow the Scientific Method and criticize his methods or theories, the media goes on a tear-jerking bender of stories about scientists being under attack. Oh, please…..

The reference here is to Michael Mann, the climatologist whose research generated the now-famous “hockey stick” graph that showed temperatures soaring towards the end of the last millennium and continuing into the future. His findings were published in peer-reviewed journals and subjected to scrutiny by scientists around the world, among them a minerals consultant named Steve McIntyre and an economist named Ross McKitrick, who published an article in the journal Energy and Environment criticizing Mann’s methodology.

This is the peer review and response part of scientific method that Taylor is referring to, and Mann did what any good scientist would do: he re-examined his numbers.

Then, he concluded that he and his team had, indeed, used some bad proxy sets to determine past climate action, so he corrected them.

Lo and behold, after the corrections, it still looks like a hockey stick.

This is how science works – you publish your findings in a peer-reviewed journal and let colleagues try to shoot holes in them.  If they find errors, you fix them.  If, after fixing them, your thesis falls apart, you start over.  In Mann’s case, the corrections only gave more support to his end results, and no one else has been able to find anything amiss, despite thousands of efforts to do so.

This is why the process of peer review and response is so valuable – it creates a forum within which knowledgeable people with differing views can attack each other’s findings.  The findings that survive are the ones that give us the best understanding of the situation at hand.

Mann’s findings survived, and McIntyre and McKitrick deserve some credit for making them even tighter than they were by trying to shoot them down.   That’s how the game is played, and everything was textbook — until the two decided to take their case outside the realm of science and into the realm of politics – specifically, into the ear of Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).  That led to an inquiry by the US National Academies of Science (NAS), which in the end upheld Mann’s findings while saying he could have been a bit clearer on his uncertainties and also identifying flaws in the critiques of McIntyre and McKitrick**.

Since then, scores of scientists have tested and re-run the analysis carried out by Mann, McIntyre and McKitrick, using different approaches and more refined data sets.  Some of the initial critiques held up for specific sets of data, but reams of other data came in validating the hockey stick**, which keeps its shape even if you remove the contested data sets. That, however, hasn’t stopped organizations like the Heartland Institute from cherry-picking the data to imply there’s something fishy going on while ignoring the vast body of research on which the science is based.

Incidentally, most people define peer review as being a separate process that comes after scientific method, but Taylor’s use is becoming more and more common.  No one, however, includes “responses from bloggers” as being part of peer review.

So, back to our specimen:

Now, on to Zwick’s science.

When you dig beneath the vitriolic rhetoric of Zwick’s column, he makes the following scientific argument: “A recent poll by Yale and George Mason Universities shows that most Americans are at or near that point on climate change, with 72% of us seeing a link between extreme weather and our own actions. It’s a link that climate models have long predicted, and with the benefit of hindsight we see that even the earliest models have proven accurate over time.”

Uh, pardon me, but what “scientific argument” is he referring to?  And why did he conveniently delete the links that appeared in the original paragraph?  Here is the original:

A recent poll by Yale and George Mason Universities shows that most Americans are at or near that point on climate change, with 72% of us seeing a link between extreme weather and our own actions. It’s a link that climate models have long predicted, and with the benefit of hindsight we see that even the earliest models have proven accurate over time.

We have three sentences with three embedded links – one referring to public opinion, one to an IPCC summary of how to manage extreme events associated with climate change, and one to an analysis of a 1981 paper by pioneering climate scientist James Hansen examining the factors that could drive up the global temperature.  The analysis shows that the inputs Hansen was examining even way back then are the same ones we hear about today – water vapor, the sun, volcanoes, the ocean… all the things denialists love to say the IPCC is ignoring were right there 30 years ago, and have been ever since.

That’s what you’d see if you followed those links.

But does Taylor do that?

Let’s take a closer look at the survey Zwick cites.

The Yale Project on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication have released a joint survey about Americans’ impressions of recent extreme weather events. Much like the phenomenon where millions of people claim and apparently believe they were actually at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, a ridiculously high percentage of people claim in the Yale/George Mason survey to have personally experienced severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes during the past year.

Twenty-one percent of survey respondents say they personally experienced a tornado last year. This is astonishing. Unless the survey was conducted almost exclusively in Joplin, Missouri, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I am guessing the Woodstock effect is occurring here.

Even more remarkably, 16 percent say they personally experienced a hurricane last year. Not a single hurricane struck the United States last year. Tropical Storm Irene, often mislabeled as a hurricane, came the closest, with 70 mph winds striking small portions of the minimally populated North Carolina Outer Banks. So how did 16 percent of Americans personally experience a hurricane last year? Perhaps they were all together on a cruise ship off the Mexican coast in October when Hurricane Rina spun around in the Caribbean Sea for a few days.

While the Yale/George Mason survey showed people are prone to altered memories and imagining they have experienced mythical extreme weather events, this hasn’t stopped global warming alarmists like Zwick from waving the survey as “proof” of an asserted global warming crisis. Indeed, it is entirely fitting that alarmists like Zwick are using people’s imaginations about mythical extreme weather events to justify their call for emergency action to fight a fictitious global warming crisis.

On and on he goes about the survey that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with public opinion.  He accurately shows that public opinion is woefully fickle — something I would never dispute.  In fact, that fickleness is a key reason we give the process of peer review and response more respect than we give the process of blogger review and anonymous commenter response.

Reasonable debate can help forge understanding of complex issues by forcing us to actually see and understand the other side, but Taylor dances around the actual issues and rambles on and on and on like Emily Litella from those old Saturday Night Live skits, picking apart a straw-man argument that no one ever made.

Unlike Emily, however, he never sees the error of his ways.  He never looks us in the eye and says, “Never mind.”

Back to our specimen:

So here we have an all-too-clear glimpse into the alarmist playbook: Create climate models that predict catastrophes. Objective data show catastrophes are not materializing. Call an audible by asking people if they believe they have experienced a catastrophe. Take the patently ridiculous subjective survey results to claim the catastrophes actually did occur. Assert these reconstructed memories as proof that your models were correct after all. Repeat these steps as necessary.

There you have your global warming crisis.

What catastrophes is he referring to? We’ve already seen that he ignored the relevant links and dissected the irrelevant one.  Is he referring to that oft-cited bogeyman The Day After Tomorrow?  Well, that was Hollywood talking — not science. If we’re going to hold climate science responsible for The Day After Tomorrow, we may as well hold the medical profession responsible for the errors in Frankenstein.

Or perhaps he’s trying to say that projections made in the past don’t add up.  If so, he’s dead wrong – again.  The actual changes are, in fact, coming in well within the margin of error on the models .

If this were one bad post embedded in a body of thorough work, we could be somewhat forgiving.  After all, most of us bloggers are writing these things in our spare time, after we finish our day jobs, and it’s easy to get sloppy. I’ve done it, and have twice chosen to correct my posts with footnotes.

But our specimen isn’t an isolated case of sloppiness; it’s part of a long-established pattern of deception — one you can see by following the links on its left side of his piece.  These will take you to two recent and related posts: A New Global Warming Alarmist Tactic: Real Temperature Measurements Don’t Matter and More Global Warming Alarmist Games: Doctoring The Temperature Record.

The first one is an entire post built on this:

Climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr. reports on his webpage that he recently reviewed a paper that had the following assertion, “A global climate model that does not simulate current climate accurately does not necessarily imply that it cannot produce accurate projections.” (!)

Wow, that certainly does sound incriminating.  Let’s examine that citation on Pielke’s site in its entirety:

Recently, I reviewed a paper which had the following quote

“A global climate model that does not simulate current climate accurately does not necessarily imply that it cannot produce accurate projections”

That’s it?  This is where Taylor gets his contention that “alarmists claim we should trust their computer models even after the models have been proven inaccurate when measured against real-world data.” (!)

We don’t even know where this quote came from – who said it and in what context.  I found scores of references on Google, and they all come back to Pielke. What’s more, as anyone who knows anything about modeling can tell you, individual models are always a bit off. What makes the science on climate change so convincing is that it’s not just models but a slew of other methods developed individually using different approaches that are coming to the same conclusions, and their predictions are holding up over time. The quote, in other words, is probably legit – but without context, we have no idea what it means. All it serves to do is detract attention away from the fact that more than 97% of all climate scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is changing in dangerous ways and man is the cause – and, for the umpteenth time, here is my source on that: Expert Credibility in Climate Change.

The second post — the one that claims that scientists at NASA have been faking their data since 1979 — is built on this web post by the University of Alabama’s Roy Spencer.  I haven’t had time to dig into the post, but one of Taylor’s commenters, Cara Hernandez, provides this countervailing analysis by Nick Stokes.

Before you go down that rabbit hole, here’s some background.

Heartland would have you believe that Roy Spencer is a lone, singular genius of climate science whose views trump those of all other climate scientists combined, which is why a severely flawed paper he co-authored last year became the central piece of evidence in an embarrassing post entitled “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole In Global Warming Alarmism“.

Spencer is something of an odd duck in the climate world. On the one hand, like Pielke, he’s a real scientist, and an accomplished one at that. He also seems like an incredibly nice guy.

But he has a peculiar habit of standing in front of a roomful of people saying things that are patently, verifiably wrong.  Not just controversial, and not just disputable, but patently, verifiably wrong.

He did this last year at Heartland’s annual pseudo-science gathering, where he squared off against Colorado State University’s Scott Denning in the keynote debate, which I encourage you to watch it in its entirety here.

You’ll see Denning deliver a very simple introduction to the science of climate change followed by Spencer, who comes in around the 17-minute mark with Einstein’s famous quote: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

At 18:17, Spencer makes a comment that is quite telling:  “Despite the fact that there are many alternative views of what has caused climate change,” he says, “it only takes one of us to be right for the IPCC to be wrong.”

The remark is greeted by applause, and this is where it hits you: these guys aren’t looking for truth, they are looking for loopholes.  They are looking for anything they can grab onto that tells them we have nothing to worry about.  Indeed, the bulk of Spencer’s presentation isn’t about science, but about the IPCC and how it ignores him and his ideas — something it most certainly does not.  Indeed, one reason these assessment reports take so long to assemble is that the IPCC process requires the inclusion of every argument, which is evaluated based on science — not on wishful thinking.

At 18:35, for example, he concedes that climate change is real and that there are just two possible causes: man and nature. Then it gets goofy.  The IPCC, he says, “are virtually ignoring” natural inputs. The government, he adds, “has funded no research into natural sources of climate change.”

Well, that’s a complete whopper — for neither Spencer, nor the IPCC, nor anyone else can make any claims about human cause without having first calculated the natural sources of climate change — because that’s what you measure the man-made stuff against.

“Here is a bit of history that the IPCC has been trying to expunge for years now,” he continues.  “Over the last 2000 years, global warming and global cooling in just about any century has been the rule, not the exception.”

The IPCC has tried to expunge natural warming and cooling?  Then what is this: “Current Climate Change Unusual Compared to Earlier Changes in Earth’s History”?  Or this: “What Caused the Ice Ages and Other Important Climate Changes Before the Industrial Era”? And how about all the papers cited in those two summaries?

So, after standing in front of a room full of people in a public forum with cameras running and telling us the IPCC is trying to expunge whole chunks of research that are, in fact, central to what the IPCC does, he goes into the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age.

“The IPCC claims these events were only regional,” he says.  “Regional and lasting for hundreds of years?  Oh, really?  And yet the IPCC claims that a single summer in France – 2003 – a heat wave – has global significance.  You can’t have it both ways.”

Actually, the evidence is pretty strong that, yes, we did have regionally warmer weather for a few hundred years in the northern hemisphere followed by regionally cooler temperatures for a few hundred years after years – but the warming never amounted to anything like the global changes the IPCC is projecting over the next few decades, and the cooling never really became an ice age.  Also, the IPCC has always been careful to avoid linking any individual extreme event to climate change.  Their focus is on the overall number of extreme events – of which 2003 may have been cited as an example of what lies ahead.

He then brings up a lot of interesting points that are nothing new, and then focuses most of his ramblings on his contention that the IPCC is ignoring or actively suppressing evidence – a contention that just doesn’t hold up.  Indeed, at one point around the 33-minute mark, when both he and Denning are on the podium, Spencer brings up the Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age again.

“We don’t know what caused the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age,” he says.  “People don’t talk about them.”

I do,” says Denning, a polite man not accustomed to interjecting — but the moment passes, and Spencer continues, exploring several issues that hundreds of other scientists have been wrestling with for years – as anyone who has spent any time poring through IPCC documents can tell you.  He talks about the oceans and water vapor and feedback mechanisms — all the things Hansen covered in the 1981 paper that Taylor ignores, and that are examined in scores of other papers, and that are, in fact, part of introductory climate science courses around the world.  Spencer, however, implies that he’s the only one examining these phenomena, which he isn’t, and then he brings up his own pet theory – namely that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) has been controlling most of the global temperature change over the last century.

And here, despite my best efforts, I find myself teetering on the edge of wonkdom – which is exactly where Heartland wants us to be, because that creates the illusion that there is widespread uncertainty over what is causing climate change.

Watch the comments as they unfurl after this post, and you will surely see someone stick up for Spencer’s PDO theories. Then someone else will shoot them down – using one of three counterarguments I can think of and triggering a long exchange of citations that, in the end, will only involve the two combatants.  But to the uninitiated, this exchange will create the illusion that Spencer really is onto something.

Deep down, I want to believe that, too — I want to believe that this whole thing is a mistake, and this friendly old guy has the answer, and we don’t have to worry.  Maybe that’s what Taylor wants to believe, too.  Maybe it’s psychological, and not logical.  Maybe we all want to believe that Spencer’s findings are so new and radical and right that the dimwit sheeple of the IPCC simply can’t see them.

Alas, there is no evidence to support that.  Far from being ignored, Spencer’s ideas are also going through the wringer of peer response, and they just aren’t faring that well.  So, he brings them out into the larger world – the world that Taylor rightly pillories in his post as being woefully ignorant of the facts.

That, after all, is the world in which propaganda and wishful thinking find their most fertile ground.

Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

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