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SkS: testimony to the potential of social media and the passion of volunteers

Posted on 21 September 2012 by John Cook

Skeptical Science appears in a surprisingly diverse range of media. SkS is being adopted into university curriculum, is found in textbooks, books, mainstream media, quoted in blogs and reposted in other websites. The wide adoption of our content is a testimony to the potential of social media and the passionate commitment of the SkS community.

In the early years of the website, I knew it was impossible for a single person to keep up with the torrent of climate misinformation. I was constantly on the look-out for fellow communicators to help write content for Skeptical Science. Whenever someone emailed me a positive comment about the website, I'd reply with "thanks, want to help?". Cue sound of hurried footsteps, car door slamming followed by screeching tyres. For several years, the effort to build a team of authors met with no success.

The turning point came when Sydney physicist Michael Ashley suggested I write the myth rebuttals at three levels - basic, intermediate and advanced. I replied "great idea, Mike, want to help?" Cue screeching tyres. Nevertheless, the idea nagged at me until I could ignore it no more and posted a call to action for help in converting my collection of intermediate rebuttals into basic versions. The result was instantaneous and overwhelming with a rush of volunteers eager to help convert my technobabble into plain English (maybe they all just thought they could do a better job than me).

Overnight, an author community formed, an indication of the non-linear, unpredictable (and exciting) nature of social media. I had to quickly cobble together a forum enabling the group of volunteers from all over the world to collaborate and review each others' work. To organise the flow of information, we implemented a review system for critiquing each other's rebuttals before going live. I described the history of the forum in December 21 when giving a presentation at the University of Victoria, Canada, hosted by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. Incidentally everything I say about Google ranking is now obselete with the Google Panda update.

Throughout its history, SkS has received no funding from any institutions or organisations. Due to the passionate support of the team of volunteers, the only expense incurred is hosting and domain renewal, which is covered by Paypal donations. Our volunteers come from all over the world, with scientists, students, laypeople, engineers, illustrators making up our numbers.

"SkS-review" has become an immensely effective method of quality control, allowing SkS to maintain a high standard of scientific accuracy. It's a system we're very proud of, because we have many well-informed individuals and scientists ensuring our content is accurate and minimize the number of mistakes. A testament to this quality is adoption of SkS content into university curriculum and textbooks but also telling is that attacks on SkS have not been about our scientific content, but come in the form of conspiracy theories and the illegal hacking of our forum.

SkS Forum Hacked

In March this year, the SkS database was illegally hacked and private user details and correspondence was uploaded onto the web. At the time, I didn't give too many details about how the hacker was able to obtain the entire database for security reasons, but I will share more details now. The hacker hijacked an SkS user account, uploaded files onto the server enabling them to gain access to the entire database, deleted log files to cover their tracks and stole a dump of the entire database. This was achieved using more than two dozen different IP addresses from all over the world over a 5 hour period. At the time, I posted that the hacker uploaded the personal details of every SkS user account, but I've since discovered that he omitted the personal details of any known climate contrarians in our user database. While posting the private details on the web, the hacker also lied about his illegal actions, a falsehood all too eagerly accepted by those needing an excuse to partake in the unethical process of publishing stolen private correspondence.

Conspiracy Theories about SkS

Over the years, a number of conspiracy theories have sprung up about SkS. It's hard to say which is the most amusing (so many to choose from!) but high up the list is this excitable conspiracy theory endorsed by a Watts Up With That moderator:

"...a well known billionaire is funding the pseudo science blog sceptical science. That billionaire is a multiple convicted felon who worked willingly for the Nazis in WWII. How is that not headline news?"

Billy from Facebook has another theory on the SkS gravy train:

"John Cook is the creator and he is an advisor to rothschild australia who controls australias carbon market. Its hard for me to except considering my research has uncovered a huge rothschild connection and he is an advisor for their board which handles the cap+trade and carbon tax market in australia."

The most flattering conspiracy theory has to be this comment which I often quote in public talks as evidence of the powerful potential of social media:

"I worked out recently it's impossible for one man to turn out a constantly updating and slick as grease website 'in his spare time'. I even went as far as to surmise he may just be a front for the IPCC or Globe International as it would need a team of professionals to create such a site and probably a few PR experts at the head."

That people argue they're not conspiracy theorists by appealing to conspiracy theories demonstrates the results of Lewandowsky's paper more eloquently than any statistical analysis ever could

In the last few weeks, there's been a surge of SkS conspiracy theories. The irony is these are in response to an in-press paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Klaus Oberauer and Gilles Gignac that finds a statistically significant link between the rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and conspiratorial thinking. That people argue they're not conspiracy theorists by appealing to conspiracy theories demonstrates the results of Lewandowsky's paper more eloquently than any statistical analysis ever could. The long, illuminating history of these conspiracy theories will be examined at a later date (be patient, there is sooo much material to sort through!) but for now, let's shine some sunlight on the most over-the-top conspiracy theory of them all. This originated from Anthony Watts who claims:

"That’s quite a little activist organization they have running out of the University of [W]estern Australia. I wonder if UWA officials realize the extent that UWA has become a base for this global climate activism operation and if they condone it?"

Up to that point, the conspiracy theories regarding Lewandowsky's paper involved relatively small-scale conspiracies to falsify data (Steve McIntyre uses the word "scam" 21 times in one article). Watts takes it to a whole new level with his imagined "global climate activism operation". The subsequent comments thread is a journey into the surreal - look for the out-of-left-field assertion that Maths Professor Kevin Judd is the puppetmaster pulling the strings behind this global conspiracy (affirmed by two other WUWT commenters).

This conspiracy theory was also recently uncritically republished by Judith Curry in an unintentionally ironically titled article BS Detectors:

"SkepticalScience seems to becoming the ringleader for conspiratorial activities by the green climate bloggers.  All this is high entertainment for those of us who follow the climate blog wars.  But take a step back, and consider how bad this makes you look, and how poorly it reflects on the science and ’cause’ that you are trying to defend."

The fact that the attacks towards Skeptical Science consist of conspiracy theories and quote mining from stolen private correspondence testifies to the high quality content created by the SkS team and the success of the SkS forum internal review quality control system. Scientists explicitly endorse the level of quality of the content and the unwillingness of deniers to engage with the scientific content is an implicit endorsement. While combing through somebody else's private discussions may be a convenient distraction from the alarmingly rapid climate change that scientists are documenting, it is not helping us solve the problem. We intend to remain focused on what really matters, such as the alarmingly rapid decline in Arctic sea ice and increase in extreme weather events.

UPDATE 24 Sep 2012: in another unintentionally ironically titled post, Anthony Watts espouses more conspiracy theories about SkS:

  • Anthony is in no doubt that Skeptical Science's ongoing analysis of peer-reviewed climate research is part of the UWA/SkS global activist operation. In actuality, UWA have had nothing to do with this research although according to Anthony, it has Stephan Lewandowsky's fingerprints all over it (that kind of over-imaginative extrapolation is a hallmark of conspiracy ideation).
  • Anthony hints that SkS is behind the DDoS attacks on Joanne Codling's blog (more over-imaginative extrapolation - well, not so much extrapolation as that requires data - this is just pure imagination).

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Comments 51 to 60 out of 60:

  1. @SirNubwub: Composer99 took the words right out of my mouth. You made a blatantly false comparison in your initial post. My post was about the stakes in the game. The fossil fuel industry will do everything in its power to preserve "Business as Usual" and to prevent and delay the governments of the world from taking meaningful actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At stake for the fossil fuel industry is Trillions of dollars of future revenue. If they can no longer extract the remaining fossil fuels from within the Earth's crust, the industry's projected revenue streams will fail to materialize.
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  2. SirNubWub, probably best to drop it, yes. As to the rest, give it your best shot. Be sure to read the reference materials found in the various articles and you'll do better; there's a tendency to get hung on what us amateurs say and forget to check the sources.
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  3. SirNubWub,
    I don't have the line-by line expenditures for the oil lobby, nor the government, nor the NGOs.
    Just a point... A skeptical person would have demanded this before uncritically accepting the $79 billion figure published by a denial web site.
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  4. SirNubwub:
    I guess I don't want to "go to the mat" on this funding issue. I will say that I may be wrong to some degree and stop here.
    Now, that's the mark of a genuine skeptic. Kudos. If you do want to follow up on the funding issue, here's an in-depth analysis of the claim that climate scientists are in it for the money. It includes a break-down of how the author's grant money gets spent.
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  5. Sirnubwub, I know you through your extensive comments on SkS. You're the author of this little gem: "Can I now present to my classes that the hockey stick argument has been discarded by the AGW proponents?" Your comments are evidence supporting the hypothesis that you're all about the message. There's absolutely no evidence that you can be engaged at depth in any area of the general subject. You want to be able to deliver a certain message, and so your goal is to try to get people on this site to say something useful to that purpose. IIRC, you tried to defend Monckton, who is the very archetype of my understanding of you. You also once said: "This makes the whole debate very frustrating to me. To have to verify everyone and everything is beyond any normal person. I can't trust anyone (Gore, UN, Wattsupwiththat, etc) to do it for me because everyone is suspect. Yet trillions of dollars are at stake." Yet now it is clear that you trust anyone whose message sounds palatable.
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  6. Mal Adapted @34 A couple of the things that the Ars Technica article didn't point out was that since the OMB reports on climate change expenditures were produced by the Executive Office of the President, items like research into improved nuclear power plants and "clean coal" technology were included in the accounting. This can be verified through a Congressional Budget Office report from 2010 and a General Accountability Office report from last year: That isn't the main thing that bothers me about his comment, though. First, he wants to compare an input {lobbying contributions) with an output (climate funding) and treat them as somehow equivalent, which seems odd to me. He might be better served to look at output vs. output, in terms of the subsidies provided to the fossil fuel industry, mainly permanently via quirks in the tax code, vs. the subsidies provided to green energy, which mostly sunset too quickly to count on. The Environmental Law Institute did a good paper on comparative subsidies between 2002-2008 which found that out of slightly over $100 billion in subsidies, the fossil fuel industry got $72 billion and renewables got $29 billion, nearly half of which went to corn-based ethanol subsidies ... hardly a climate scientist's wet dream. Worst of all, I am pretty sure this guy doesn't know any actual scientists. If anybody with the mental horsepower to get a hard-science PhD was that motivated by the money, they could have gone into medicine, law or Wall Street and made ten times the money for half the effort. Mostly they do what they do because they love doing it and couldn't imagine doing anything else. This may seem counter=intuitive to most people, but the more scientists you meet, the clearer the evidence becomes. Best wishes, Mole
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  7. Old Mole: Thanks for your comment. I came across Timmer's post while looking for the source of the "$75 BILLION" figure. He was responding to Jo Nova's tu quoque calumny that climate scientists who support the consensus are only in it for the gold. I agree that his analysis of how that G$75 is spent could have been more thorough. He did show that climate research accounts for a small fraction of the total, and he affirmed that none of it goes to line the pockets of the scientists, who thus have no incentive to distort their findings. A case in point is provided by Scott Mandia: a detailed accounting of how he would spend a $437,233 grant, and why it would have no effect on his personal income. Countering denier claims, it's easy to show there's a lot of money potentially available for research that supports denial. It's a little harder to show that particular scientists are getting any of it. I'm aware that Willie Soon, for example, has received more than $1 million in funding from fossil fuel interests. I'm not aware that Soon spent any of that money on himself, rather than on his research. Soon also gets funding from sources like NASA, incidentally contradicting the denier claim that government funding is unavailable to "skeptical" researchers. Mandias provides more counter-examples. You concluded Timmer "doesn't know any actual scientists" because he didn't point out that "they do what they do because they love doing it and couldn't imagine doing anything else." While he didn't do so explicitly in that post, he did in a previous one:
    It's tempting to respond with indignation; after all, researchers generally are doing something they love without a focus on compensation.
    You and I understand that very well. The average non-scientist may need convincing, unfortunately.
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  8. JSAM @9 "I'm very annoyed with SkS. You've been running a conspiracy and yet I have not been invited to partake. Harrumph. (Insert sarccy smiley about here.) " Your annoyed JSAM? Some of us have been members of the SKS Author Forum for a couple of years. If SKS has all this secret funding, how come we ain't seen any of it? And if the funders have an agenda they are 'buying', how come we all get to right what we think? Including not being able to spell. 'write'.
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  9. SirNubWub repeats one of the favourite denialist memes, (along with the ones about Einstein and Galileo), that billions are spent on government research into AGW, so the fact that Big Oil spends a few million here and there on countering the science is no big deal. The big difference is the word RESEARCH. When you carry out proper research, you do not necessarily know what you are going to find. So you could, for example, set up an experiment to measure ice pack thickness by satellite, year by year. The results may be different from what you expect, but you report them honestly, regardless of any ideological bias you might have. Contrast this with the 'research' carried out by the likes of Watt, or our very own Bob Carter. The result is preordained. We and they know that they will never in a million years admit that AGW is happening, or even express any doubt whatsoever. That is not research. That is propaganda pure and simple. If they ever started accepting the possibility that AGW is happening, they would lose their oil industry funding immediately. THAT, is the difference, and I am constantly amazed that supposedly intelligent people (well, so they claim to be), cannot see this.
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  10. Wow! GREAT video!! Well done, Mr. & Ms. Cook! ("Behind every great man stands a great cook.") You've made me not regret that foolish late night cup of coffee I drank. (It is now 3:35am in California.) Think I'll have another cup & watch it again! :-) (Not really) Good work featuring "The Debunker Guidebook"). That was the first thing I downloaded when I found SkS. Brilliant! Do you mind if I use this forum to wish-list future SkS developments? Such as: * Letters to the Editor (In "About" or "Comments" tab) - SkS-wide remarks (e.g. mission, road-map, topology) * Reviews of other Websites (Real Climate, World Climate Report, WattsUp...) [I have recent example how WCR warps the science and lies about study conclusions.] * FAQ (e.g. “Why is 'climate change' preferred to 'global warming', and ACC preferred to AGW?”) * “Open Issues” section reflecting areas under debate, or SkS entries needing updates to match latest findings.
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    Moderator Response: [JH] Be sure to check out the SkS Weekly Digest and the SkS Weekly News Round-up. they plow some of the ground that you have identified.

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