A scientific dream team led by Climate Nuremberg dot com’s own John Cook is contemplating an online complaint about the denier blog Climate Scepticism dot com, in the wake of a “flawed and potentially misleading” interview (don’t click) regarding the latest post at Skeptical Science dot com.
In a scathing article today the climate scientist Joseph Romm, who teaches at DeSmogBlog dot com, gives the CliScep piece a D- for scientific credibility, citing “serial unseriousness, blatant dog-whistling and the decontextualization of literally every paragraph, from beginning to end, of the original [SkepSci] post.”
Writing at The Conversation dot com dot au, Professor Clive Hamilton says the scandal people are calling SkepticismGate illustrates the worthlessness of the blogosphere as a source of information. He reminds readers that—unlike deniers—legitimate scholars never express themselves on the Internet, viewing it as “an attempt to bypass the checks and balances of the peer-reviewed literature. Those are the two words you need to remember, folks—peer and review.”
Cook and his mother, Professor Naomi Oreskes, say they only agreed to CliScep’s interview request because the name and contents of the now-discredited website tricked them into mistaking it for a reputable, anti-skeptic blog, like Skeptical Science.
Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a Bristol-based cognitive scientist, lent his credibility to the SkepSci post as a co-author. He believes it’s no accident that the shadowy coalition of Australo-, Americo-, Anglo- and Euro-deniers behind CliScep chose a blog name so easily confused with Dr Cook’s. His regretful conclusion is that, “at this point, the only way to keep words like ‘sceptical’ and ‘skeptical’ safe from misappropriation by skeptics is to trademark them.”
In a special post at ShapingTomorrowsWorld dot org today, Lewandowsky reluctantly appeals for donations to a legal fund.
“The tragedy is that the good guys here are vastly out-funded by the skeptic blogs,” he writes. “As the underdogs in this cock-fight, we have no choice but to beg for your help, dear public. I’ve personally pledged to give whatever I can afford, but—with life becoming an endless series of airline tickets—I doubt that’ll cover the initial consult[-ation with an intellectual property lawyer].”
Doctors Cook and Oreskes have been on a three-continent tour to dispel public unawareness of their blog entry. But in light of the seriousness of the skeptic distortions of its message yesterday, they ditched their itinerary to meet us in Sydney, where they gave us the authentic, scientific version of events.
I started by inviting the psychologist and historian to elaborate on a press release they issued last night, which began:
With most climate change happening underwater, the latest denier strategy is to embarrass scientists by claiming they used to believe the surface would heat up.
But a major new blog entry finds there was never any such consensus, dismissing the claim as a history-denying narrative. In Professor Naomi Oreskes’ words, the meme represents “little more than nothing less than a deliberate and well-orchestrated attempt to discredit all modern knowledge.”
Her devastating indictment touched a nerve, and deniers have stooped to quoting whole (and long) slabs of her blog post out of context, splattering them across the Internet. Most recently and egregiously, they’ve even put the authors themselves through the ordeal of a bad-faith, highly-selective, harshly-photographed and deceptively-polite interview.
“I couldn’t have put it better myself, which is why I put it that way,” explained author John Cook, who blogs at the University of Bristol.
“Credible scientists haven’t changed their minds [about the site of global warming] and would never do so,” reads the Skeptical Science page everyone is talking about. “They were always crystal clear that climate change would be a deep oceanic phenomenon, with minimal impact on the atmosphere. If the popular scientific and secular media chose to misunderstand this, there was little scientists could do to correct them.”
How do deniers differ, I asked Dr Cook?
“They change their minds every time the facts change! Which means contradicting, refining and improving on their previous mental model several times before breakfast, with no apparent shame,” said Cook.
“So my team and I [at SkS dot com] might have to announce a new denier myth as often as every 3 years or so. Not straight away, of course; it would be misleading to tell people about an ‘alternative truth’ before we’d figured out how to refute it.”
“Was our article perfect?” asked Prof. Oreskes, who was commissioned to write the post for Skeptical Science.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Whether we achieved precisely the right balance, to seven decimal places, between being honest and being effective—as my mentor Steve Schneider used to put it—only history can say.
“Luckily I’m a historian, so I have a pretty good idea what Her verdict is going to be.”
Cook described the frustration that spurred the latest update to his blog.
“I was getting sick of ’skeptics’ using my own writings against the science,” he told me.
“As you probably know, a few years ago, for a bit of a laugh, I wrote a college-level ‘textbook’ of climate science [Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis, Vol. 1—The Physical Climate (2013)]. The punchline being, obviously, that I’d never even studied the subject—or seen the inside of a science classroom of any description for that matter since the preceding century. My dusty old Bachelors in physics wouldn’t have equipped me to pass a climatology course, let alone teach one.
“Apparently not everyone got the joke but,” he continued, using the rear ‘but’ of Strine.
“As heat continued to build up at an alarmist [sic] rate in the deep oceans [but not the sky], ‘skeptics’ started shrieking more and more stridently about a particular graph I’d included. I think it was a ‘model ensemble,’ whatever that means, that forecast significant surface warming.
“Quel horreur!, I said, laughing,” he said, laughing. “You mean to tell me there’s a disparity between real-world trends and a piece of junk science?
“What were you expecting [from A Modern Synthesis]? I’m not a climate scientist; I’m not even a climate-science graduate.
“You just have to open the cover and count the typos to see how amateur it is. In my defense, I was pretty pissed that weekend,” he pointed out, using the Bogan for ‘munted.’
“Sadly, this strategy—of citing what I call Fake Experts, like me—seems to be a favorite with deniers.”
Cook hastened to add that invocations of his book are not necessarily tactical, mindful of the Bible’s advice never to “attribute to malice what can be explained by the stupidity of skeptics.”
Many deniers simply lack the ability to assess expertise, he believes. As a cognitive psychologist—someone who studies the science of Dunning and Kruger—Cook knows better than most that this handicap is endemic among people who have low and/or high expertise themselves.
“I think [some of] these people are legitimately confused. They really believe that by cherry-picking one out of the many hundreds of mistakes in my silly little book, they can somehow strike a blow against real science.
”Mind you, if they were engaged in good faith, they’d find something the book got right and attack that instead. It might take some effort, but as a scientist I’m not here to spoon-feed people who are too lazy to do a bit of legwork.”
Cook has also noticed that ‘skeptics’—like most white people—tend to be American.
“Not to be racist, but Americans aren’t exactly known for their ability to tell when you’re taking the piss. I don’t even think they have a phrase in their language for ‘taking the mickey.’”
The irony deficiency of Caucasians may account for his surprising book sales, Cook added.
For Professor Naomi Oreskes, writing the post for Skeptical Science also gave her the ideal chance to clear up another myth: the misconstrual of the very notion of consensus itself, which is perhaps the most central term in all modern science.
“Opponents of science,” said the historian and novelist, “like to caricature our [sic] obsessive quest for consensus as a sort of ‘popularity contest, where the idea that gets the most votes magically ‘wins’ and becomes The Truth. In effect, this strategy reduces the meaning of ‘consensus’ to little more than ‘majority opinion.’”
The problem is, as she reminded me, science doesn’t work that way.
“In science, the fact that a majority of your colleagues agree with you means nothing! That’s not proof; it’s not even evidence.
“You need a ninety-seven percent agreement. Then and only then do you have Consensus, and therefore Knowledge.”
No self-respected scientist would ever take an idea seriously if only 51 percent of their colleagues did, Oreskes explained.
“Or 52, or 53, or 96 percent. Because scientists are trained to ignore that kind of peer pressure. This discipline gives them an almost visceral, contemptuous disregard for majority opinion that can be hard for outsiders to understand.
“If an opinion isn’t unanimous—give or take a 3% margin of error—then it’s just that: an opinion. And opinions are like anuses [in science], only less interesting.”
Why then, I’ve often wondered, does the obsession with consensus seem to be unique to climate science?
“How come the search term ‘scientific consensus’ returns page after page of hits on Google,” I asked Professor Oreskes, “every single one of them related to AGW? If consensus—or unanimity, or whatever you call it—is the gold standard of scientific evidence, wouldn’t you expect all those dozens of other fields, with their literally millions of hypotheses, to be talking about it too—and surveying their members at regular intervals, in order to keep track of where the evidence is pointing?”
“That’s a good point,” she replied angrily, fuming: “I’ve never really thought about it that way.”
“No it isn’t,” Cook corrected her. “You have thought about it, and it’s a disingenuous denier talking-point.
“You probably didn’t mean it that way, Brad, but I’m sure you can understand why it might smack of bad faith. So don’t get indignant if we snapped at you,” he said.
“Anyway, you’ll be happy to know there’s a perfectly good answer to your false analogy. Climate science isn’t anything like the lower, quote-unquote ‘natural,’ sciences! It’s about the future, which is fundamentally unknowable,” Cook explained.
“If we’re skeptics—true skeptics—then we have to shrug our shoulders and admit we have no friggin’ idea how the Earth’s fluid envelope will have changed a year from now, let alone a century. Nobody does. So how do we find out?
“By polling the people who aren’t skeptical.”
And there you have it, reader: the scientific method in 22 seconds. ■