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Rogues or respectable? How climate change sceptics spread doubt and denial

Posted on 24 June 2011 by John Cook

Reposted from The Conversation. This is the tenth part in a two-week series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professor Ian Enting takes a look at the front groups and published texts of Australia’s climate sceptics.

The “name-calling” in what passes for public debate on climate was recently discussed in The Conversation by Garth Paltridge.

“It seems appropriate to expect the establishment to take the first steps in any attempt to bridge the divide between the sides,” he said, proposing we should, “recognise that not all climate sceptics are rogues and vagabonds.”

“The very first step should be for climate scientists to make a conscious effort to read some of the documentation appearing in the more respectable sceptic weblogs,” he argued.

Garth should get out more.

Many of us, including most of the authors of this series, have engaged with the arguments of self-styled “sceptics”.

We’ve looked at not just the blogs, but also the information from organised groups, the few published scientific papers and the books in which these their claims are presented in detail.

As a counter proposal, I would argue that any self-styled “sceptic” who claims to have a genuine case should do what normal scientists do and dissociate themselves from those who practise fabrication and misrepresentation, those who in Garth’s words might be called “rogues”, if not “vagabonds”.

The reality is that the most prominent pseudo-sceptical scientists are doing the opposite: gathering together to provide apparent respectability to front organisations that are designed to spread confusion.

This is the message from Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

Authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, backed up by documents obtained in the course of tobacco litigation, show that not only was greenhouse denial using the same misinformation techniques as the tobacco industry, but that it was often the same groups and the same people. These anti-science activities hide behind names such as “Friends of Science”.

In Australia we have a similar phenomenon, with the additional twist of often using names that aim to capture a “martyr for science” image. They present themselves as being ignored by an entrenched establishment, when in reality they are ignoring or distorting the accumulated scientific knowledge.

An early starter was the Lavoisier Group – a single issue organisation similar in structure and name to organisations like the Bennelong Society (on indigenous affairs), the HR Nicholls society (on industrial relations) and the Samuel Griffith Society (on constitutional matters and support for the monarchy). But for the Lavoisier Group, the “martyr for science” ethos is a bit of a stretch – Lavoisier was executed for his activities as a tax collector.

The latest entry is the Galileo Movement, again co-opting the name of a “martyr for science” for an anti-science activity. The Galileo Movement’s founders funded the previous visit to Australia by Viscount Monckton. The movement’s “Independent Climate Science Group” includes Monckton, Bob Carter, S. Fred Singer and Ian Plimer as well as Garth Paltridge.

Monckton’s extravagant claims were described by John Abraham earlier in this series. Monckton’s recent testimony to the US Congress has been extensively refuted by a larger group of scientists.

The title of Bob Carter’s book Climate: The Counter-Consensus captures the problem succinctly. There is no such counter-consensus. What groups such as the Galileo Movement present as a alternative to mainstream view of climate is not an alternative consensus, but rather a collection of wildly conflicting and extensively discredited fragments designed to create confusion.

Singer’s book (with John Avery), Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years proposes a natural 1500 year cycle for global temperature. I find this unconvincing, with no evidence provided for the claim that Imperial Roman times were as cold as the Little Ice Age 1500 years later.

I am also puzzled as to how a man who claims we are in a natural warming cycle until about 2300 could be part of the Heartland Institute group. which convinced Senator Steve Fielding that the Earth is cooling.

But in Australia, it is Ian Plimer’s book Heaven + Earth. Global Warming: The Missing Science that has had most impact. Kurt Lambeck, President of the Academy of Science at the time, put it aptly when he stated that Heaven + Earth is not a work of science.

The book is extensively referenced with 2311 footnotes. But oddly many of these references directly support the mainstream view of climate change.

Plimer repeatedly quotes the paper that says “climate sensitivity greater than 1.5 degrees C has been a robust feature of the Earth’s climate over the last 420 million years.”

In other words, the geological record shows that doubling CO? causes an increase in temperature of at least 1.5 degrees. That is what “climate sensitivity” means: how much warming CO? causes.

This aspect of Heaven + Earth was recycled last year by Cardinal George Pell in a letter to the Senate, claiming that temperatures in Roman times were two to six degrees warmer than now, (the opposite of what is implied by Singer’s book).

While Pell cited the references in Plimer’s book as evidence, the reality is that Plimer’s whole section on “Roman Warming” cites seven scientific papers and none of them support this claim.

One of the scams used in Heaven + Earth is to plot graphs on different scales to claim that different data averaging gives different trends.

This device was used in Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear as a simple fictional example of how to fool a gullible jury, though it also seemed to fool many gullible readers.

But, it is Plimer’s misrepresentation of the cited references in Heaven + Earth that really justifies Kurt Lambeck’s statement. Some of these are downright silly, the claim that New Orleans subsided a metre in the three years prior to hurricane Katrina, for example.

Comparable is the claim that the 1991 eruption of volcano Mount Pinatubo emitted large quantities of chlorofluorocarbons, citing a paper that says nothing of the sort. The serious fabrication arises when claiming that satellite measurements of temperature don’t show warming while citing a reference that says the opposite. So far, my analysis of Plimer’s references shows 28 cases in which he misrepresents the content of his cited sources.

Finally, there is Garth Paltridge’s own book, The Climate Caper. This contains little science at all.

It is mainly about the institutional pressures that act on scientists. I agree with much of what Garth says, but my observation is that the pressures have largely acted in the opposite direction, inhibiting communication of mainstream climate science when governments found the implications inconvenient.

Thus organisations such as CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology remain muted on the inadequacy of proposals from both sides of politics.

Even those who support Garth’s views think that his book would have been more credible, more “respectable” perhaps, if he had chosen someone other than Monckton – indeed almost anyone other than Monckton – to write the foreword.

Scientists who claim genuinely respectable scepticism destroy their own case when they link their arguments to those who mis-use and misrepresent the processes of science.

Such links expose the activities of groups like the Galileo Movement for what they are: exercises in spreading confusion for political ends.

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. You are too kind in your analysis. This may be delusional psychopathology. Or just a necessary coping mechanism. Denial defends the individual from ultimate shame and guilt. When one knows that carbon emissions directly cause warming then they know it can directly cause colossal damage of runaway warming. It is horrifying to bear the ethical burden of promoting an end to all civilization. Impossible to accept. Much easier to deny science and promote fantasy thinking than accept complicity. The self-destructive insanity of promoting delay and confusion, just means the consequences will be that much greater. And horribly, because of the increased consequences, it is a greater motive for more psychological denial. What a mess. Why do we pay attention to crazy people? This is not a test of science or logic, it is a test of the limits to human emotions.
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  2. Where I first heard about the Galileo Movement I immediately thought that we could add a third bit of advice to an old saying. "Never play poker with a man called Doc, never eat at a place called Mom's and never trust a science organistaion calling itself the Galileo Movement."
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  3. The "Galieo Gambit" in action. What climate science "skeptics" (along with anyone else who attempts to score rhetorical points with this gambit) forget is that it is not enough to espouse a position contrary to the consensus of experts. One must also be right. The contrarians have manifestly failed in this latter regard. Indeed, they are not even persecuted the way Galileo was (that fate is, it seems, reserved for climate scientists).
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  4. “The very first step should be for climate scientists to make a conscious effort to read some of the documentation appearing in the more respectable sceptic weblogs,” he argued. Hmm..."respectable sceptic weblogs"... Nope, sorry: can't think of a single one.
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  5. In the interests of getting exposure to as many viewpoints as possible, I waded into Prof Entings offering. Alas! He proceeds to cite as his first authority Oreskes' discredited The Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes is a non scientific [ -Inflammatory & Ideology/Political Snipped- ).
    Merchants of Doubt is long on innuendo and short on evidence or compelling logic. It fits well with Mark Twain’s classic observation of about the gathering facts and then distorting them as the gatherer desires.
    So with Oreskes being the cardinal point of reference, my motivation to read further disappeared as quickly as a proxy temperature record data set. Sorry Prof.
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    [DB] "my motivation to read further disappeared as quickly as a proxy temperature record data set"

    Would that be what real skeptics do? 

    Please try to adhere more closely to the Comments Policy when formulating future comments.  Thanks!

  6. Patrick, Check out argument #120, "Naomi Oreskes' study on consensus was flawed". An examination of the papers that critics claim refute the consensus are found to actually endorse the consensus or are review papers (eg - they don't offer any new research but merely review other papers). This led the original critic Benny Peiser to retract his criticism of Oreskes' study.
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  7. Patrick, If you want to be taken seriously here, saying something is flawed isn't enough. You'll have to actually demonstrate that it's flawed by pointing out specific errors or shortcomings. Also, I think it's generally frowned on here to quote without attribution, as you did with the italicised paragraph. Even better, link to the original so people can easily check out the full context of your quote.
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  8. “The very first step should be for climate scientists to make a conscious effort to read some of the documentation appearing in the more respectable sceptic weblogs,” Are there any 'respectable sceptic weblogs'? I honestly can't think of one. Every single one I've visited was clogged with numerous examples of bogus claims; malicious accusations; venomous innuendo; pseudo-science; conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated false accusations against respectable scientists. My understanding is that's neither what's 'respectable', nor remotely 'scepticism'. Should anyone not believe me: ...I had no idea that is what these guys are doing. I am absolutely pissed off at this kind of junk science. This wouldn’t pass the smell test in any field except climatology and it only passes here because there is motive....They would almost want bad data to prove global warming was caused by man. We might as well roll dice and run it through the algorithm.... Follow the link if you dare, you have been warned.
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    [DB] Please refrain from linking to...websites such as that one.  At SkS the focus is on the science within an atmosphere of civility.

  9. I omitted mined quotations. I understand that in many cases these are silently edited-out later.
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  10. DB [moderator], sorry! I'll try to remember not to do it again.
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    [DB] Perhaps I over-reacted a bit; sorry.  On threads with topics such as this, one must hold one's nose a bit.  Perhaps a not-so-direct quote with a link to the actual.

  11. The source for Patrick Kelly's squishy little nugget is - quelle astonishment! - the George C Marshall Institute. Specifically here. Now, that's objectivity! There's even a heading called 'Alleged Tobacco Conspiracies' which is pretty funny given they were proven in court... This response - and it being tossed around like this as if it were 'fact' - really only manages to prove Oreskes' and Conway's point.
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  12. Minor correction: S. Fred Singer's co-author on "Unstoppable Global Warming ..." is not "John Avery", but "Dennis T. Avery". The book is still non-science.
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  13. To answer the question "rogues or respectable", have a glance on the brand new anti-RC Wiki site from the Heartland Institute : Climatewiki, which would make an interesting subject for an article too. How could a so little and kind tree not be respectable ?
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  14. Oh brother. Just google Galileo gambit.
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  15. Things to know: The Denialists' Deck of Cards, and note that denialism is often industry-based behind the scenes. What Eli adds. And if you try to really get to the bottom of it, it takes long hard work to discover how low it goes.
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  16. ScaredAmoeba, here is some information on how professional deniers make Hockey sticks. It is a little bit technical, but it may help explain the confusion that is found in some quarters.
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  17. "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy." Said by a tobacco industry executive: "People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’. [...] Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary." Said by a Tobacco Industry Lobbyist
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  18. The International Climate Denial Spin Machine has now set-up shop in India... New Delhi/Bangalore, June 18: Several environmental groups, including Climate Revolution, have criticised the Delhi-based Liberty Institute, the Institution of Engineers, Karnataka state Centre (IEI-KSC) and the Karnataka Environment Research Foundation (KERF) for claiming that passive smoking isn't harmful. They have also questioned as to why these three institutions are now being employed by oil companies to question climate change. Source: "Climate change deniers spreading misinformation: Environmental groups",, June 18, 2011
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  19. Some thoughts triggered by Garth Paltridges "The Climate Caper" (2010):

    Hermann Hesse wrote a poem that is included in his novel "The Glass Bead Game. It is called "A Compromise" and it opens:

    "The men of principled simplicity

    Will have no traffic with our subtle doubt.

    The world is flat, they tell us, and they shout:

    The myth of depth is an absurdity!"

    The goal of science is to find satisfactory explanations for whatever we feel needs explaining. Whatever explanations we come up with in science are regarded as permanently open to criticism and refinement, but the holding of doubt is subtle, for not even the philosopher Karl Popper would suggest that theories that have survived severe testing should be readily discarded without serious consideration.

    The closing sentence of Hesse's excerpt raises the issue of who are the flat-earthers, the denialists of human accentuated climate change or the proponents? It is obvious in matters of conjecture and refutation that exaggeration and dogmatism can stain all sides of the debate. If Garth Paltridge's text highlights the dangers of an excess of dogmatism, the inertia of normal science, and the dangers of herd mentality, yes even in the IPCC, it is perhaps a worthy aim, if however it subtly reinforces denialist claims that have already been falsified in peer-reviewed testing then it would be a sad legacy for his eminent and long fought career. A forward by The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley is not a good way to start a work of serious intent. Sad career finales are not without precedent, Sir Ronald Fisher, arguably the greatest statistician of the twentieth century naively stained his legacy in the final years of his life in questioning the impact of smoking for public health. Science has implications that are far from neutral or saintly in their disinterest. Do shrill, and politically correct, warnings about the dangers of tobacco look so misguided now?

    Moving to specifics, Garth Paltridge in this short book does question the hockey-stick model of climate change - later studies do seem to have falsified Garth's stance or at least have made it questionable.

    It is all well and good to comment on the sociology of science, to stress situational analysis and piecemeal engineering rather than big budget government social engineering. The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance but even piecemeal solutions can turn toxic if out of context. Climate change does present complexities of a new scale that require a diversity of opinion and robust debate, but denialism is not scepticism.

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