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Conspiracy theories

Posted on 22 December 2010 by Nic Damnjanovic

A short piece for the general audience of RTR radio, Perth, Australia.
(listen to the original audio podcast)

Sadly, some conspiracies are real. Tobacco companies conspired to conceal the truth about their deadly product for decades. Less recently, my own ancestors conspired with Guy Fawkes to blow up the English parliament in 1605.

Given conspiracies are real, and often dangerous, it's important to be on the lookout for them. But we must also be careful that we don’t slide into paranoia and see conspiracies everywhere. The trick is to be able to spot the difference between a genuine consensus and a conspiracy.

Distinguishing scientific consensus from conspiracy is especially important. For there is no more reliable guide to truths about the natural world than a genuine, widespread consensus within the relevant scientific community. If you want to know what will happen if you drop a hunk of sodium in water, for example, your best bet is to find out the consensus view amongst chemists. (Here's a hint: it's fun to watch, but you might lose an arm.)

Nevertheless, some vocal critics of modern climate science declare that the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing the earth to warm is, in effect, a mere conspiracy.

So how do we know who is right? How do we tell consensus from conspiracy?

The first thing to realize is that the claim that climate scientists are conspiring against us is itself a theory — namely a conspiracy theory. Like any other theory, we should believe a conspiracy theory only when there is strong evidence to support it.

Conspiracy theorists sometimes argue that climate scientists and their co-conspirators have something to gain by convincing us that humans are causing global warming. But that's a gross distortion of the truth. If we reasoned that way consistently, then whenever medical researchers discovered a new health hazard we shouldn’t heed their warning, we should accuse them of conspiring against us.

A conspiracy theory also doesn’t become plausible just because attacks on the consensus are treated with skepticism. Physicists are rightly skeptical of people trying to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity, since that theory is supported by overwhelming evidence. The same is true of climate science and global warming.

Not only is there no evidence in support of the conspiracy theory about climate science, there are tell-tale signs that this theory is mere paranoia. Plausible theories — including plausible conspiracy theories — explain a wide range of facts, are consistent with other sciences and make novel predictions that turn out to be true. The climate science conspiracy theorists don’t spend their time making careful observations and accurate predictions, but instead must work overtime to protect their theory from refutation by challenging evidence and making more and more bizarre and untested speculations. In typical paranoid style, they are forced to extend the net of their fantasy further and further, so that not just some scientists, but almost all of the world’s climate scientists, scientific organizations and governments are in on the fraud. 

So, while we certainly need to be on the lookout for violent conspirators and ruthless tobacco companies, we also need to protect ourselves against paranoid conspiracy theories. Only then can we learn from others who are experts at things we are not. When it comes to global warming, few things could be more important.

[Many thanks to Professor Steve Lewandowsky for helpful comments on this post.]

NOTE: this post is also being "climatecast" by Dr. Nic Damnjanovic from the University of Western Australia on RTR -FM 92.1 at 11.30 AM WAST today. You can listen to the live broadcast online via or download the podcast here.

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Comments 51 to 72 out of 72:

  1. NETDR: She seems to think there would be some negative fall out from challenging the IPCC ! Is she wrong ? Yeah, I think she is, to a large extent. I think plenty of people have challenged the IPCC, and far from being punished or ostracized, they've enjoyed attention and respect — especially from the media — to an extent that's not necessarily commensurate with their actual expertise and accomplishments. In fact, I might even go so far as to argue that Dr. Curry herself is one of those people. Also, when we talk about "challenging" the IPCC, we need to consider the quality and coherence of that challenge. Some people make poor counterarguments, and then scream "oppression!" when those counterarguments are debunked. Unfortunately, Dr. Curry has not always observed this distinction when defending her pet "skeptics" against AGW "tribalism." By the's been said here before, but the "AGW is a religion" line is one of the oldest and silliest "skeptical" tropes. Reiterating it is a good way to be mistaken for someone who's not capable of arguing rationally or fairly.
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  2. Again, NETDR, everything comes down to the science, which is either largely wrong or largely right. Whether "challenges" to the conservative, consensus-based findings of the IPCC are compelling or not hinges on that point. Maybe we can discuss that, instead? As for the value of Dr. Curry's speculations on "tribalism" (which you might well reject as armchair psychologizing if she'd applied them to you, instead of the IPCC), I'm sure we can agree that even if the consensus view turned out to be wrong, it wouldn't necessarily follow that Dr. Curry was right. Other explanations are possible, so why would I want to jump to her conclusions before it's even been demonstrated that she has a legitimate grievance? What she's offering, IMO, is basically a feed-good narrative that puts a slapdash intellectual gloss on the preconceived notion that the consensus view can't be right (much like the recourse to Kuhn, elsewhere). Is there an element of truth to what she says? Sure, on all sides of the issue, including hers. Can noting this substitute for the hard work of studying the actual science, without getting sidetracked by politically charged meta-theories? I don't think so.
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  3. First let me say what my beliefs are. I believe in AGW but not CAGW. The “C” sands for catastrophic. I think there is a constant ½ degree warming with a 60 year sine wave [from ocean currents] superimposed. This has recurred 3 times since 1860. There is warming but it is slow and easily managed. When the cycle is low we get predictions of an ice age [about 1978] and when it is high [about 1998] we get predictions of CAGW. Since 1998 we seem to be going sideways soon to be cooling, if the theory is right. #46 Phila. You state It's fine to talk about "self-interest" within a competitive field, but you also need to consider how rewards and credibility actually accrue to individuals within that field, because this determines which tactics are available to them. This is true in my field of electronic engineering because from conception to final test and delivery it is less than 3 years. Incorrect beliefs are punished swiftly. In climatology things happen so slowly that incorrect beliefs aren’t punished for 30 years or so and a long successful career can be had even if you are wrong. Dr Hansen’s 1988 model looked pretty good until 2007 when it departed from reality. It looked in the rear view mirror and projected the past on to the future. The sine wave went sideways and the model was wrong. You have a good point and I wish it were true. Going along with the consensus is the best career choice in climatology. In a field like Astronomy which hasn’t been heavily politicized coming up with a new theory of “dark matter” [which may not be matter and it might not be dark] would get you fame and advancement, no one would accuse you of being in the pay of big oil ! Who cares, truth is truth but could you stand your reputation being trashed for 30 years to prove it ?
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    Moderator Response: You are incorrect that an ice age was predicted around 1978; see the post "Ice age predicted in the 70s." You are incorrect that warming stopped in 1998; see the post "Global warming stopped in 1998, 1995, 2002, 2007, 2010, ????." You are incorrect that Hansen's 1988 model was incorrect; see the post "Hansen’s 1988 prediction was wrong." If you wish to discuss any of those three items further, please do so on the relevant thread, not this one.
  4. There is no 60 year temperature cycle. The was no ice age scare in the 70s, except for a few sensationalist popular media pieces. Using the strongest El Nino event of the 20th century for the zero point of a linear analysis to declare that warming has "gone sideways" is a prime example of cherry picking. The original instance of CAGW that I know of is the Oregon Petition, which was a duplicitous sham. The global climate models are actually showing to be too conservative. Please respond to those points on their respective pages on this site. Your arguments are #5, 7 & 8, which are linked at the top of the left column. All you have to counter the published & independently validated empirical research of the past century are your beliefs based on misunderstanding and misconception. Rather than learn from what is available you resort to conspiracy notions of incompetent self interest and academic inertia. Academic inertia is overcome with new research or new interpretations of old research that provide a better fitting description. It is not countered with "you just can't admit you could be wrong and are protecting each other's funding."
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  5. Re moderator response. I have rebuttals for each of the objections you raised but they are O. T. for this thread. I have never seen a thread on the sine and ramp theory as I call it and it is a fairly prevalent theory among skeptics. There is one on sine only and it points out correctly that there would be no warming overall.The ramp might be because of CO2 but at 1/2 degree per century it is manageable. I just doubt the catastrophe.
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  6. Positing a 60 year temperature cycle that the scientific community is either purposefully ignoring to keep their funding flowing or is too incompetent to see is a perfect example of what this entry is discussing.
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  7. #53: "things happen so slowly that incorrect beliefs aren’t punished for 30 years" That's just ridiculous. Response to a nonsensical hypothesis is swift and sure, thanks to this very medium. Unfortunately, good people get trashed, even before their papers come out in print. "Going along with the consensus is the best career choice in climatology." Then why, according to the deniersphere, are there so many climate scientists who reject AGW? Or is that just another conspiracy? As for your 'sine and ramp theory idea, perhaps you could email it to John who could post it here.
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  8. #56 Bibliovermis To me the sine wave is clearly visible. Saying that it would be the consensus view if it were rue is meaningless. Many skeptics like Spencer have written about it also ! Here is even a paper from the University of Alaska which explains it. Here is the data, notice the cooling in 1880 - 1910, 1940 - 1978, and 2000 - present. [Actually the last is lack of warming not actual cooling yet.] Notice that the cooling cycles start about 60 years apart. Mojib Latif seems to think that in short time scales like 60 years natural variation is more important than CO2 and this graph seems to substantiate it. Over the long term there is warming, no doubt but the periodic cooling cycles make a mockery of the catastrophe in CAGW. Here is the temperature from 1860 to present. The 60 year trend is clearly visible to me. I can't understand why you can't see it. #57 Mouncounter Notice that they all are tenured. For a young person starting out it wouldn't be a good career move. Accepting research funds from big oil would be career suicide.
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  9. "Mojib Latif seems to think that in short time scales like 60 years natural variation is more important than CO2" Mojib Latif has complained loudly and visibly about his views being misconstrued by climate change denialists such as yourself. Please refrain from doing so here. He merely points out that on short time scales like a *few years* (note the lack of caps), not *60 years*, natural variability can swamp the long-term signal. He understands that over periods of two to three decades the signal expresses itself. As for your wood for trees plot, cherry-picking can get you any result you want. Yet, it's interesting that in order to get your result, your first series (1880-1910) is thirty years long and shows a fairly steep decline, your second (1940-1975) is 35 years showing a very slight decline, while your last (1998-2010) is 12 years and is essentially flat. So your own cherry-picking shows these "stalls" in warming switching from leading to a fairly steep decline before anthropogenic CO2 began to kick in in earnest, a slight decline in the 1945-1970 period, and a flat period which you could only get by cherry-picking a short 12 year period. In other words, totally consistent with increased CO2 forcing increasing warming, ...
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  10. Dhogaza #59 The point I was making is that if we have a 30 year cooing or lack of warming the catastrophe in CAGW is nonsense. Notice that it took until 1980 to get as warm as 1940. That has to hurt the overall warming. I was surprised to find that the steep 30 year period from 1978 to 1998 was only 1.2 degrees per century. That was with ocean currents very high sunspots and a monster El Nino. Mother nature was helping all she could and the rate was still low. The reason the last period is only 12 years long is obvious, I will post the rest in 18 years.
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  11. 1978 - 1998 is only 20 years. No matter how hard you insist otherwise, the world has still been warming. The hottest 12 years on the record are the past 12. Do you have a conspiracy notion about that too?
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  12. It has warmed. Who says it hasn't . The rate is gentle and irregular and should slow since the effect of CO2 is logarithmic. So unless the input increases geometrically the rate will slow and it is already too slow for a catastrophe.
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  13. More grasping at straws to support your conspiracy notions. The links section of this site currently shows 396 articles supporting the "it's cooling" argument. The logarithmic effect is being countered with an exponential growth in anthropogenic emissions. Any other conspiracies you want to bring out in to the light?
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  14. Of course, not only does NETDR cherry-pick his time intervals, he cherry-picks his dataset. If you use GISTemp things look quite different. As we all know, GISTemp includes an estimate of temperature anomalies in the Arctic, which is warming faster than the rest of the planet, while HADCrut does not. And, of course, climate scienctists understand that CO2 forcing isn't the only thing that impacts temperature, but also that as CO2 forcing increases its effect on temperature is slowly becoming more important than natural variation, one reason why the last 12 years are the warmest on record despite our being in a deep solar minimum. "The rate is gentle and irregular and should slow since the effect of CO2 is logarithmic. So unless the input increases geometrically the rate will slow and it is already too slow for a catastrophe." Exponential, actually, and that happens to be what's happening. NETDR, meet the Keeling Curve
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  15. #64 The rate of accumulation of CO2 is almost linear. #Least squares trend line; slope = 1.43127 per year Admittedly there is a very slight upward trend but worldwide recessions have a way of periodically reducing CO2. Claiming this very slight upward trend offests logarithmic effects of CO2 would be counter-factual. The CRU data set is the longest one we have and arctic temperatures in 1860 are non existent on any data set. In fact until 1978 or so when satellites were launched we had little clue of temperatures up there.
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  16. #65: "rate of accumulation of CO2 is almost linear." Interesting; you like the simplest possible answer to science questions, but you'll find the most convoluted interpretation of events and motivations to form your conspiracy theories. That's a hallmark of skeptics: reduce complicated issues to sound-byte size chunks, then repeat the sound byte, even when they are debunked. Very productive. The annual rate of change in atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing; it was 1 ppm/year in the early days of the MLO record, but its been over 2-2.5ppm per year for several years now. It tracks CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption quite well. The recent recession dropped US CO2 emissions slightly in 2009, but didn't faze China and India. Add in the Law Dome CO2 and you have a rapid rate of increase over a short period of time, and yes, that does overcome the log relationship of forcing vs. relative CO2 concentration. A graph of temperature change due to CO2 forcing vs. time is concave up, meaning it has an increasing slope. The rest is off-topic. If you want to debate changes in the Arctic, there are plenty of active threads on that topic. But if 'we had little clue' is all you've got, I wouldn't advise it.
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  17. "The rate of accumulation of CO2 is almost linear" Sure, exponential increase can look like that. While it's still exponential ... It's all about timescale. At least you're honest enough to admit it's *not linear* ("almost linear" means "not linear"), despite your subsequence display of ignorance (i.e. that over short terms, an exponential function closely matches a linear one).
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  18. "Claiming this very slight upward trend offests logarithmic effects of CO2 would be counter-factual." Not at all, the first doubling from industrialization hasn't happened yet, and won't, for some decades. The CO2 forcing and exponential increase in CO2 accumulation are happening on roughly the same time scale. You're starting to be very boring, much like those who argue the earth is flat, or 2+2=5, or pi=3, etc.
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  19. "In fact until 1978 or so when satellites were launched we had little clue of temperatures up there." Satellite data used for temp reconstruction don't include the Arctic. Gosh, how many time do you want to be wrong in a public forum?
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  20. I've posted a response to NETDR's claim that CO2 is increasing only linearly rather than exponentially on a far more relevant thread: "CO2 Is Not Increasing."
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    Moderator Response: Good idea; everybody take discussion of that topic to that thread (CO2 is not increasing).
  21. "There is a huge difference between the two. Corporations are designed to create 'fantasies' for humans, whether that is insurance, bank accounts, cars or light bulbs. Those fantasies can be anything (like Marmite flavoured chocolate I saw today!). Corporations are guided by how much they can manipulate the public and governments." Wrong corporations are designed to make a profit and if they can do that by selling you 'the right to pollute' then they will, as for how much they can control government's that just depends on how much money they are willing to offer presidential candidates, congressmen, members of parliment etc etc. of course the interests of science and business are different as its often hard for people to get funding, now if you had the idea to sell a prolific pollutant but you needed a 'scientific' opinion in order to better sell that idea to big business it wouldnt be naive to imagine SOME people might be willing to agree in exchange for research funding. none of the scientists who disagree or question anthropomorphic climate change have been granted UN funding
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  22. An addition to the conspiracy theory discussion. The article points out that conspiracy theories inevitably fail to take into account the numbers of people who have to be willing participants in the conspiracy. Also discussed is the social reality of human knowledge production. Form the article (neuroscientist Neil Levy speaking): "It is a perennial temptation to think that one can do better than the distributed network of experts . . . Though the distribution of cognitive labour is something that goes quite far back in human evolution, it is far more pervasive than we are evolved to deal with. We expect to have some grasp on how things work." and more from Levy: "In complex societies we are all in relations of epistemic dependence: we simply cannot hope to cut ourselves off from the distributed systems of knowledge production (media, government, economists, academia) and come to a better understanding of the world." "I think that for many conspiracy theories, the explanation of why they are accepted is very similar to the explanation of why people reject climate change and evolution: a mistaken and hubristic belief that a lone blogger (or a small network of bloggers) can do better at explaining events than thousands of well-qualified experts." "Today we can't have more than the shakiest grasp (if that) in many areas, no matter who we are: the knowledge is too specialised and detailed for us to acquire. Given we have this expectation (which generates what has been called the illusion of explanatory depth), we find it difficult to take things on trust."
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