The Appliance of Deniance: A Debunking

John Cook BSc (Hons)
Guest blogger

This week I received an intriguing tweet:

Translating climate science denial CN2

Figure 1 An intriguing tweet I received this week.

The message links to a rather strange video whose discursive function isn’t entirely clear at first. It appears to be an attempt to generalize skeptic thinking to everyday situations, as my friend @A_ suggests.

Science Nazi: Cook makes no secret that he's a fascist for facts.

Science Nazi! It’s no secret our guest author John Cook is a fascist for the facts. “My hobbies include orchestrating the mass murder of millions of myths,” he kids, adding: “I’m not kidding!”

The deniers who made the video are apparently aware that denial is no longer tenable in the climate change context, and are seeking to shift the focus of their denial to real-life topics (firefighting, contraceptives, engine maintenance, relationships, etc.).

Expect this tactic to become increasingly common as the science continues to firm.

On one hand we deserve a pat on the back—the science is evidently working!

On the other hand, we mustn’t rest on our laurels. Just because they’re not denying climate science any more, it doesn’t make their denial any more acceptable. Denial is wrong, by definition—whether it’s applied to the dangers of climate change or to the real world.

So let’s consider some of the video’s myths in their proper, debunked context before hitting the YouTube link.

(You’ll notice, as always, that the correction is stated before the fallacy it corrects. You should never risk exposure to misinformation without first girding your loins with the equal and opposite science.)

How the science responds:

Bullshit. Yes you are!

Almost anyone can grasp the ballpark magnitude of the science for him/herself.

It’s like we keep telling the public: you just have to look out the window. The science is real; it’s happening now; and it’s our fault.

If you seriously can’t see the science from your living room, don’t expect anyone to believe you when you claim to see Russia. (We may have been a little quick to assume good faith in the past—the fatal mistake of many an honest person—but even our gullibility has its limits.)

There is, of course, one population that doesn’t have the cognitive equipment to make sense of the climate debate: the people who signed the Oregon Petition. Let me quote one of the rawest spankings ever meted out to the forces of pseudoscience, courtesy of our fallacy-busting website SkepticalScience:

What expertise does a nuclear engineer or a medical doctor or a food scientist or mechanical engineer have that makes them qualified to have an informed opinion on the cause(s) of recent climate disruption?
How many of these names are working climate scientists instead of science or math teachers or stay-at-home-mom’s [sic] with engineering degrees? How many of these people has [sic] actually published a peer-reviewed paper on climate?

Classic stuff! Verecundia never felt so scientific.

Summing up, then: as long as you don’t possess an engineering PhD, a Dip. Ed. in math, or the wrong kind of science degree, you shouldn’t have any trouble working out who’s right on climate change: the scientists or the industry-funded confusionists.

Which is great news if you’re one of America’s estimated 55 million ‘stay-at-home mom’s’ (sic)! Despite your theoretical risk of somehow having an engineering doctorate, let’s just assume you’re as innumerate as any other community-college dropout who couldn’t keep her legs shut. Far from being a handicap to climate literacy, the fact that you’ve avoided acquiring any competence in STEM is now paying off.

A suburban laymom might not understand the climate on the same encyclopedic, nuanced level as (say) Emma Thompson, but that’s no reason to be agnostic, is it? Everymom has windows.

So, next time you’re tempted to wallow in your misguided modesty, spare a thought for me, with my BSc in an irrelevant branch of physics (something to do with the sun, if I recall correctly)! As the fallacy-busting website SkepticalScience might say, “what expertise does a cartoonist with an undergraduate major in astrophysics have that makes him qualified to have an informed opinion on the cause(s) of recent climate disruption?”

(None, that’s what.)

Would you go to a plumber for heart surgery? No. Don’t be insane.

Would you buy a climate science textbook from me—a guy who isn’t even qualified to have an informed opinion on the cause(s) of recent climate disruption? Well, yes. Sure. But would you pay any attention to my opinions?

No. Don’t be invalid.

I might understand climate science, but I have no idea whether it’s true.

[Now read on to learn the myth we’ve just rebutted.]

What deniers say…

Woman refusing to do anything about burning house:
“I’m not a [firefighter, i.e. climatologist]—I’m not qualified to make those decisions!”

How the science responds:

All models are useless. Has anyone ever claimed otherwise?

Uh, OK, yeah, it’s true that abstinence is the only real birth control. So the denieress here is scripturally correct, which is all too rare in today’s youth culture—kudos to her.

It’s only when we consider the computer science that things go pear-shaped.

This may surprise non-scientists but—scientists say—it doesn’t acyually matter if the computer models work 97%, 98%, 99%, 100% or 4% of the time. All models are useless; nobody serious ever said otherwise.

Let me qualify that sometimes, in comparatively trivial questions (like, say, protein folding, bridge construction, the hydrodynamics of condom usage, or the interaction of a novel drug with the human liver), computer models may acquit themselves with what we call a modicum of skill, even supplying actionable intelligence as to the behavior we should expect from their meatspace simulands if we’re lucky.

But the Earth’s atmosphere is exponentially less possible to compute than any other phenomenon science has ever had the hubris to reduce ad silicem.

Even the world’s leading scientists, its climate scientists, are only human.

They can spend their whole careers “programming” the diabolically-intractable behavior of our planet’s fluid envelope into the sweetest array of render-farms taxpayers’ money can buy, but let’s be candid: only somebody with an exhaustive ignorance of computer science would expect the end product to, quote-unquote, work.

They’re not professional meteorologists, for shit’s sake.

Far be it from me to suggest that the miracle of insemination is a punishment from God, but let’s not kid ourselves: you’re pregnant because you indulged in the Fallacy of Impossible Expectations (one of the 5 characteristics of science denial).

What matters is not whether general circulation models [GCMs] “work,” or can “tell the future,” or “get the right answer”—or any other facile paraphrase you care to come up with—but that they’re science, not blogs.

That’s what makes them trustworthy.

What deniers say…

Girl who doesn’t believe in condoms:
“They’ve [condoms, i.e. models] only been shown to work 97% of the time…”

How the science responds:

Non sequitur.

That’s like saying, “vaccines are 97% effective—therefore, only 97% of doctors agree that vaccines are effective.”

It’s hard to take the video seriously when it resorts to such flagrant category errors.

Consensus and evidence are two radically distinct, unrelated, non-overlapping, orthogonal entia in science. Denialistes—like the promiscuous pregger portrayed in the video—compulsively elide the two concepts in pursuit of cheap propaganda lulz, but in doing so they pander to the most vulgar brand of epistemological illiteracy.

What deniers say…

Unwed teenager who doesn’t believe in condoms continues:
“….there’s no consensus that they’re actually effective.”

How the science responds:

Huh? Science doesn’t even pretend to absolute unanimity, and it doesn’t need to.

(When we’re lucky enough to have literally zero dissenters, we call it proof, or certainty—but that’s really more of a math thing than a science thing.)

Women make up 51% of the population, and therefore carry what we call the power of consensus.*

*A scientific term, meaning evidence.

What deniers say…

Man whose female partner wants to break up with him:
“I don’t think so. There doesn’t seem to be a mutual consensus here.”

How the science responds:

Well fuck you too.

This may surprise you, sir, but a nutritionist isn’t some kind of stay-at-home mom. Nutritionists are scientists, which gives them the expertise to not only diagnose cancer but formulate an evidence-based prognosis for the newly-devastated patient.

What deniers say…

Man scoffing at nutritionist’s oncological opinions:

Time and space forbid an exhaustive point-by-point refutation of the many fallacies, prevarications and outright lies promulgated by the characters in this video, but it is hopefully clear by now that they have serious credibility problems.

Particularly reprehensible, in my view, is the filmmakers’ use of young actors as mouthpieces for their denier talking-points. This utterly distorts the science of demographics (which states unequivocally that denial only affects white males in the sixth or seventh decade of life).

I can only interpret this as a cynical—evil—attempt to market denial to children.

Where have we seen that before?

That’s right, it’s the Tobacco Strategy.

One has to wonder if any of the models in the video are under 21. If so, is there a case here for child abuse charges against the filmmakers? (Any advice from legally savvy readers would be appreciated. As a scientist, the world of litigation is totally foreign to me.)

So what’s the answer? Ban YouTube?

Maybe. But an easier approach, say scientists, is to link ordinary people to this blog post rather than to the video directly—otherwise they could easily assume it was harmless.

In any case, congratulations: you’re now ready to view it safely:

Yours sciencefully,

2 thoughts on “The Appliance of Deniance: A Debunking

  1. Sarmange

    The main point in all this could (and should) be boiled down to the fact that it isn’t the condom that is supposed to work 97% of the time – it is you, the user of the item who has to work at any of the emitting or (non-) receiving end, from which follows that you, the consumer of Climate Scientific testimonies, must put in some work by yourself to see the intriguing patterns and the sense of wonder that comes with it.

    All the misunderstanding took its beginning with The Age of Enlightenment and its ignorance of the fact that any light shining at an object, in an otherwise dark room, reduces its perceived dimensionality. If you put the source of light at any other end it will surely give an other kind of picture altogether. You will see ice-bear cubs, bad weather, weeping and scared Climate Scientists; you will see the need to change history and the volatility of old data and a lot of other things. An adjustment of the light to a given point makes you even able to see hard data ( if you are so inclined), as those received from clever computer programs and virtual weather stations.

    There is something for everybody in it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Conversation bans comments at last | CLIMATE NUREMBERG

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