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Working in the Rebuttals Update Factory

Posted on 11 August 2023 by John Mason, BaerbelW, Ken Rice

This week we reached a kind of landmark with publishing our 25th updated Climate Myth Rebuttal: The tricks employed by the flawed OISM Petition Project to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change. When we started this project in late 2022, we had two aims:

1) update old rebuttals as necessary, incorporating recent science developments;

2) and do that in a more structured manner.

The second point is important because when a structured approach is in place the job does become easier for anyone subsequently taking part. So this is an account of the way the structure developed and what we learned along the way.

During the first couple of weeks working in the 'rebuttals update factory', the three authors of this blog post found their main roles within the project. John Mason worked on the rebuttal content, Ken Rice created the new rebuttal drafts on the Skeptical Science platform and Bärbel Winkler coordinated the work and published the final products - the updated rebuttals. Other members from our volunteer team helped with proofreading the updates.

Assembly Line

How do you go about rebuttal writing? Gathering the evidence...

There are now over 220 entries in the Skeptical Science database of myths pushed by climate science deniers, many of which were originally published by John Cook in 2007. That's a mind-boggling amount to choose from. However they had originally been ranked in terms of how often they appeared. It therefore made sense to us to prioritise the most popular talking-points, since what was popular back then still remains popular today, with a few exceptions. Some climate science denial myths simply expire through time due to events.

But first things first. It was necessary to review, to take stock of what we already had. A key result of that exercise was that we identified an accessibility issue. Specifically, in some cases there was little for the complete lay-person, someone unfamiliar with many if not all aspects of climate science and technical terminology. Plunging such readers straight into highly technical material would not help them.

To address this - and thereby broaden the reach of SkS - we discussed, developed and adopted an amended structure. Each basic rebuttal would from now on get a short - ideally less than 500 words - non-technical introduction when updated. We decided to term these, 'At a glance'. In this new structure, the old 'Basic' rebuttal, edited as necessary, would then become 'Further details', aimed at the same ability-level of the original Basic versions.

Using the date of last update of a basic rebuttal would provide a clear idea of the years to search for new scientific publications. Google Scholar allows custom searches, for example papers on a topic published since 2015 and the results generated give a rapid indication whether anything significant has changed in that time.

In most topics that have not been updated for a few years, it was easy to find a couple of key papers (and their references) which provide a thorough summing-up of where we are now. IPCC Assessment Reports are also excellent sources with regard to both the progress made and in identifying key references - as long as they are recent. Fortunately, we had initiated this project hot on the heels of the publication of AR6!

We used our inbuilt glossary system to display a reference in a pop-up box if a reader hovers their mouse-cursor over the title of the paper or author name(s). One important protocol now applied to all revised rebuttals is to link to references by their Digital Object Identifier (DOI) number, unique to the individual publication, unlike journal websites that may sometimes have rebuilds. In some topics, we found links that had at some point been broken due to that particular reason.

Many papers are published open access these days and copies of others can often be found by searching for the paper title in Google Scholar. Failing that, the corresponding author can be contacted for a digital reprint. It's fair to assume anyone wanting to go to the length of reading a paper will have some familiarity with tracking it down in that way.

Working around Brandolini's law

By this stage, the rebuttal-writer knows whether a piece needs a lot of updating or not. If 'Further details' does need updating, the key information is collated into a framework around which that information can be explained. Climate change denial talking-points come in all shapes and sizes, from the pseudo-technical to the purely rhetorical. That means we had to give consideration to writing style. The over-arching principle, however, is in accordance with Brandolini’s law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle).

"The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it."

Meaning, in short, that to write a rebuttal in any sub-topic of climate science, you need to understand it yourself. You may already do so, or you may need to spend a few hours reading up on it. No matter: gaining new knowledge was a positive spin-off from this project.

Climate change denial is almost always a political phenomenon so a judgement-call has to be made with each rebuttal. Sometimes, rhetoric was answered with rhetoric. Statements like, "the climate's changed before", are so non-specific and arm-wavy that they deserve such treatment.

We found the best method for 'at a glance' pieces was to write them, then revisit a few days later. This gives the vital time to cool off and come back fresh, to check you are making the right points correctly and doing so with an easy to read style and clarity. Discussions, sometimes prolonged, happen at this point, where we thrash out both content and style to everyone's satisfaction. The importance of teamwork in this context cannot be over-emphasised.

Readability check

Some time into the project we thought about testing the readability of 'at a glance' pieces. We used and for scoring. Both are free; the first has a 150 minimum word limit but in the second individual sentences may be checked. This made nailing the offending 'foggy' sections of a document quick and easy.

Readability, measured by the Flesch-Kincaid index, marks a piece on a scale from 1 to 100. The higher the score, the more readable and thus accessible is your work. In fact the scale goes a bit above 100: "the cat sat on the mat" scores 116, not that it's much use in fighting climate science denial!

Instead we aimed at between 52 and 65. According to Wikipedia, these are typical scores for Time magazine and Reader's Digest respectively. So any at-a-glance section falling below 52 was re-edited. Luckily this part of our structure was adapted quite early on so there was not much back-editing to do. We now use readability testing on a routine basis. This is a good example of how such a project can evolve and improve.

The time factor

Further details, being in a more technical style with climate graphics and references, varied in its time consumption from topic to topic. Not surprisingly, things like the absurd statement that the Greenhouse Effect is impossible because it breaks the Second Law of Thermodynamics, took hours to resolve. In fact the paper making that claim, all 100 pages of it, contains so many errors that a full debunking could take days. Brandolini’s law in extremis.

However, we found that in general, writing a typical 'at a glance' section and editing the existing 'Basic' rebuttal into an updated 'Further details' would take 2-4 hours with some exceptions like the aforementioned topic. Team comments and, following publication, feedback received can add a bit more time to the process. Also there's publication - the process of conversion from a word processing document into clean text to go into Skeptical Science. That involves running a piece through an HTML-cleaner, so that any weird code imposed by e.g. Microsoft Word or Google Docs can be removed.

Rebuttal-updates can thus be churned out at a rate of 1-2 a week with relatively little effort. In the first half of 2023 though, a more intense pace was maintained, meaning that there are now drafted rebuttals in the publication queue sufficient to take us into 2024. Publication takes place weekly, with an accompanying blog-post to highlight each new update.

In developing this structured process, we've learned a lot along the way. The important point is that through the development of this structured approach, we've made it much easier for anyone following in our footsteps. New populist talking-points are bound to come along at times and this new approach means that Skeptical Science will be more ready to respond to them.

Output from the Rebuttals Update Factory produced thus far

Myths with link to rebuttal

Short URLs

Ice age predicted in the 1970s
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
CRU emails suggest conspiracy
What evidence is there for the hockey stick
CO2 lags temperature
Climate's changed before
It's the sun
Temperature records are unreliable
The greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics
We're heading into an ice age
Positives and negatives of global warming
Global cooling - Is global warming still happening?
How reliable are climate models?
Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?
What's the link between cosmic rays and climate change?
Is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth accurate?
Are glaciers growing or retreating?
Ocean acidification: global warming's evil twin
The human fingerprint in global warming
Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming
How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?
Explaining how the water vapor greenhouse effect works
The tricks employed by the flawed OISM Petition Project to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change
Is extreme weather caused by global warming?
How substances in trace amounts can cause large effects

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