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On climate misinformation and accountability

Posted on 10 February 2020 by dana1981, John Cook

Lately there has been a great deal of misinformation regarding the origins and purpose of Skeptical Science.  As John Cook wrote nearly a decade ago, Skeptical Science is primarily a website that debunks climate misinformation with peer-reviewed science.  Despite the ever-worsening impacts from climate change, with record after record being broken in our warming climate, misinformation casting doubt on climate science is rampant and showing no signs of going away. Sadly, a resource that shines disinfecting daylight on climate misinformation is needed more than ever.

When we find ourselves frequently debunking myths from the same sources, we collect that information in our 'Misinformation by Source' database. There are several reasons why we created that particular database. 

First, because we at Skeptical Science simply love data.  That's the backbone of our website.  We love to gather it, analyze it, and organize it for easy reference. One of the strengths of our site is making our debunkings accessible in different ways for ease-of-use, such as our multi-level rebuttals, translations, short URLs for easy sharing, and organized in a fact-myth-fallacy format.

Second, for the sake of accountability.  If an individual propagates a climate myth to the public via a setting like a blog or media interview or congressional testimony, it's useful to have a resource documenting if that individual has frequently promoted climate myths in the past.  If so, that individual should be considered a relatively unreliable source of accurate climate science information. 

To those who object to being included on the 'Misinformation by Source' database, the remedy is simple – stop purveying climate myths.  Perhaps acknowledge the mistakes you made in communicating those myths.  Take responsibility for your own actions.

Some individuals have misrepresented the motivation behind the database.  Roger Pielke Jr., for example, misrepresented comments by one of us (Dana Nuccitelli) to claim that,

"Skeptical Science openly admits to using their website to destroy an academic’s career and make [Judith Curry] “unhirable in academic ... I am amazed that some blogger without a PhD & never having worked in a university believes that he can decide who should be hired by universities"

As Dana noted, that's not at all what he said, which is that Judith Curry's penchant for propagating climate myths, as documented on her 'Misinformation by Source' page, would make it difficult for academic institutions to hire her.  After all, accurately informing and educating the public is a key goal of most academic institutions.  Misinforming the public runs counter to their goals.  It's Curry's own words that are the problem, not the Skeptical Science page that catalogs them.  Moreover, volunteer-run Skeptical Science doesn't quite have the clout to decide who academic institutions hire even if we wanted to.

For example, claiming, "There is no scientific basis for saying that warming hasn’t stopped," or that Arctic sea ice isn't endangered, or accusing scientific colleagues of "hide the decline stuff," or disputing the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, would all likely give an academic institution pause when considering an applicant for a climate science position.  Skeptical Science has simply created a database documenting and debunking those individuals' myths in one location. 

Ultimately, complaints from misinformers about Skeptical Science refuting misinformation are an attempt to avoid accountability and consequences for their act of misinforming the public. Pro tip: if you don't want to be held accountable for spreading climate misinformation, don't do it.  And don't complain that somebody has created a database documenting and debunking your frequent misinformation.

To learn more about Skeptical Science and what we do please check our Welcome Page, the blog series published for our 10th Birthday, and the Review of our activities during 2019.

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. The section "Climate Misinformation by Source" looks very out of date with the most recent entries being from 2013, and some not updated since 2009. Perhaps the misinformers just recycle all their old arguments endlessly and haven't come up with any new arguments since 2013? A couple of the entries are actually blank. Also, have there been no new misinformers since 2013? Just asking because I don't know, although, off-hand, I can't think of any not included in the existing list.

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  2. Talk about Gavin Schmidt and cherry-pickin' climate deniers, I recently had a exchange with a cherry-pickin' climate denier who cherry-picked the following Gavin Schmidt quote:

    "Models are not right or wrong; they're always wrong"

    Of course, Gavin Schmidt did say that, but the climate denier misunderstood, either deliberately or out of ignorance, the meaning of that quote:

    And, of course, Gavin Schmidt is an expert on climate models and a trustworthy source of information on climate change, despite the implication of that cherry-picked quote that was taken out of thecontext of his TED Talk which was in support of climate models:

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  3. BillyJoe... Actually, I believe that is an accurate quote from Gavin, but it's removed from the context of what he's saying. The quote, as I know it, comes from this TED Talk. You'll get what he means if you watch the talk.

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  4. Welp... I should have finished reading your entire comment before I commented. :-)

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  5. I hadn't seen the "Misinformation by Source" page before.  Nice!  I'm surprised to find Anthony Watts and Marc Morano missing from the list, though.

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  6. BillWalker @5 ,

    there's likely some simple explanation for Watts and Morano being missing from the list.

    Probably they've exceeded their quota for falsehoods & disinformation . . . and the counter needs a manual reset.

    We could ask the Washington Post  to keep tab on them ~ but I suspect the WaPo is much too busy keeping a tab on Someone Else's falsehoods [currently showing over 15,000].   How does the WaPo keep up?!    ;-)

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  7. @3

    "an accurate quote ... removed from the context of what he's saying" is merely Propagada 101. All the best deniers use that technique constantly. In particular, McKittrick uses that method almost exclusively and thinks he's fooling people. He may be right in a few cases.

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  8. John Cook
    There seems to be a typo here  - "no scientific basis for saying that warming hasn’t stopped" 
    I think you ment has stopped

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  9. FYI, Roger Pielke Jr. misrepresents your post below:

    This reminds me of the debates on "free speech" vs. "freeze peach", where various conservatives would act as if free speech / academic freedom entailed:

    - freedom from criticism (including harsh criticism),
    - no consequences for what one says,
    - the ability to say whatever nonsense they wanted in any forum and under the employment of any institution,

    Of course, freedom of speech entails none of that.

    And by the flawed logic Judith Curry and Roger Pielke Jr. have been recently using, it's bullying when:

    - virologists make websites correcting Peter Duesberg's distortions,
    - doctors make websites correcting Andrew Wakefield's distortions,
    - biologists + astronomers make websites correcting Duane Gish's distortions

    These aren't just hypotheticals; they actually happened, and I've pointed them out to Pielke Jr. He, unsurprisingly, has no cogent response. For instance, the great website TalkOrigins has a list of creationists, and numerous pages debunking creationists' claims, including creationists with science degrees:

    By Pielke Jr.'s implausible logic, that makes TalkOrigins a malicious attempt to blacklist scientists, make them unhirable, chill academic freedom, and make TalkOrigins "arbiters of all science". That makes no sense; that's not the point of TalkOrigins. TalkOrigins is meant to correct creationist distortions for the purpose of educating the public.

    It might turn out that a young Earth creationist is unable to get hired to teach biology or astronomy, because prospective employers see the creationist's publicly-stated position being debunked on TalkOrigins. But that's fine, since one should be held accountable for what one says, when what one says is relevant to the position one is applying for. That's compatible with freedom of speech. Parallel point for people being unhirable based on their position being debunked on SkepticalScience, and their being listed on SkepticalScience misinformer's pages.

    And in case folks want another example: AIDSTruth + others have lists of AIDS denialists, and numerous pages debunking AIDS denialists' claims, including AIDS denialists with science/medical degrees. Is Pielke Jr. going to object to that to? Does he really not understand the important role websites like AIDSTruth, TalkOrigins, and SkepticalScience play in correcting denialist misinformation/disinformation?:

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  10. Thanks, NoctambulantJ @9 ,

    it's always a pleasure to read your well-researched "broadsides" , whatever the forum.  Long may HMS Atomsk  keep firing !

    Master "Junior" is certainly in full whine, at present.  And one of his routine echo-chambers is recently re-cycling the Pause ~ in the form of "No sea level rise for 2 years".   Marvellous !

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  11. Thanks for the compliment, Eclectic. I forgot to mention something else.

    Roger Pielke Jr. and Judith Curry also used another tactic: saying that SkepticalScience's writers have worse academic qualifications/credentials that the people they were criticizing. To that end, Curry wrote the following to Pielke Jr. about one of the misinformers SkepticalScience criticized:

    "It gets better . . . Kary Mullis is a Nobel Laureate "
    [ ]

    For those of you who don't know: before he passed away, Kary Mullis was one of the best-known AIDS denialists, in addition to his spreading misinformation on climate science. Feel free to look up his views other topics as well.

    Curry mentioned Mullis in order to criticize SkepticalScience, but she inadvertently illustrated my point from my previous post: SkepticalScience justifiably debunks the views of misinformers, even misinformers who may have some credentials. In that respect, it's like other science communication groups that debunk AIDS denialists, young Earth creationists, anti-vaxxers / vaccine denialists, etc. I suspect David Gorski, Paul Offit, and Peter Hadfield would be proud.

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  12. #1: "... section ... looks very out of date ..."

    #1 has a point in that regard. It is true that a voluntary (free-time) approach can't keep the data up to date - but it appears to be an abandoned section.

    I've noticed this myself recently in a kind of "discussion" where a "pro nuclear" guy defended Mr. Pielke, Jr., against any sort of dis-/misinformation regarding "Climate Change". When I cited some items of the Pielke, Jr., section I noticed that everything there was dated far back. That itself isn't problematic - what has been said should be noted. But the question is if (e.g.) Mr. Pielke, Jr., did something in the mean time, what Nuccitelli/Cook said above could be done by someone who made erroneous claims in the past: s/he could have corrected her-/himself in the time since then. This may be unlikely or even absurd, but it can happen.

    So, when all db entries stopped after about 2013, how could I know if (e.g.) Mr. Pielke, Jr., distanced himself from public claims he made in the past? (In a way I can answer that myself: on SkS I would use the "search" for all contents regarding R. Pielke, Jr., and that way I could see more recent blog posts where the name is found - but blog posts on SkS don't have the scope of watching "denialists" correcting their false claims und so there may be no such posts)

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  13. ajki... There is a very long list of tasks that those with coding skills have to do to keep up this site. I believe this one has been on the list for a long time but it's been a lower priority. Being that we were previously hacked there's a lot of effort that goes into ensuring that can't happen again.

    Roger is an interesting case on a lot of levels. He definitely agrees with all the existing science. He believes we need to be cutting emissions much faster than we currently are. But, he seems to continually present materials that minimizes climate impacts. 

    An example was a piece he did in a short stint he had work with the political website 538, where he claimed there was no correlation between climate and severe storm damage, kind of implying "so, what are we worried about?" 

    Lots of people hit the roof over that and eventually 538 asked leading expert Kerry Emanual to write up a piece explaining how Roger got it wrong.

    My point here is, he hasn't changed since 2013. If anything he's only become more angry. Similar with Judith Curry.

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  14. sailrick @ 8: while one would hope that would be a typo, it's not.  It's a quote from Judith Curry using a double-negative to suggest global warming had stopped.

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  15. NoctambulantJoycean @11 - indeed, at one point Pielke described me as "some blogger without a PhD & never having worked in a university". The only accurate part of that description is 'without a PhD' (I have a Master's degree).  I'm an environmental scientist and climate journalist, and I worked for many years at UC Davis prior to graduating, including doing cosmology and astrochemistry research.  But I'm not going to get  in a pissing contest with Roger.  Whose PhD is in political science, for the record.

    There was another Tweet in which he belittled the whole SkS team in a rather inaccurate way, but I didn't find it in a quick search.

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  16. NoctambulantJoycean: "This reminds me of the debates on "free speech" vs. "freeze peach"..."

    Often found running in company with "freedumb," wherein freedom to speak and worship without interference from the state is confused with freedom to dump sewage just out of sight, where it becomes a problem for somebody else.

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  17. It's interesting how, through this whole thing, neither Pielke nor Curry addressed any substantive errors presented in any of the SkS articles.

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  18. Thank you for your excellent post explaining the basis for your collection of climate -denier statements. You offer a wonderful service with such accurate refutations of the myths that somehow never go away. When you have some time on your hands (???) please add Andrew Bolt to your list of journalist deniers. He is a serial offender in the worst way and not only denies science but attacks those who champion action on global warming. His nasty criticisms of Greta Thunberg are a case in point. Keep up the good work.

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  19. Rose @18 , I understand how you feel Andrew Bolt [Australian far-right-wing columnist and radio "shock jock"] qualifies for inclusion in the list of journalist science-deniers.

    And you are correct that he is a "piece of work" as a virulent & self-satisfied science-denier . . . as well as being generally nasty-minded (especially re Ms Thunberg).

    But myself, I would vote against placing him on the list.  Really, he is a "lightweight" ~ a nonentity at the international level.  Basically he is just a loud-mouth fish in a small pond.  Small beer.

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