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

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:

Posted by John Cook on Friday, 21 September, 2012

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