Friday, March 15, 2013

A long quiet spell

 I've let this space go dark recently, partly because my real job has been all-consuming for the last little bit, and partly because I was thinking about the direction I wanted to take this blog in future.

I started here in a fire of righteous indignation at the politically and ideologically driven science denial propagated -- chiefly across the web -- by those who wanted to sweep the problem of global warming under the rug. On that front, I and many others that took part in the struggle to reveal the true face of climate denial can declare victory, for victory it is when the public recognizes science denial as one facet of the polarized right's assault on American society, and they have.

Sorry, 8%ers, you lose

I can pinpoint the moment I knew we'd won this battle. It was when Todd Akin's theories on pregnancy and "legitimate rape" blew up across the interwebs, claiming his political career as a casualty almost as an after thought. (Quick, what state did he lose his race in?) At that moment, it was crystal clear to everyone with eyes to see (that is, everyone not already sunk deep in this radical right-wing social movement) that a certain portion of the public had decided they could just make up science on the spot. And most people quite rightly recognize this as quackery. Mission accomplished.

Exposing quackery was all I ever wanted to do with this blog, and it stands exposed. Very well, but shoddy thinking in the name of the cause is an immortal enemy, and it will rise up as many times as it can be laid to rest. Nevertheless it still warrants some reflection about how best to go about fighting distortions and misinformation. Clinical psychologist Norbert Schwarz argues that repeating misinformation in order to debunk it may contribute to the problem.

Even if we can avoid reinforcing misinformation, the larger problem with approaching climate change from an attitude of refuting science denial is that, implicitly, it grossly exaggerates climate deniers' importance as an impediment to effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Deniers are not the problem. They are not what is standing in the way of effective action. What is standing in the way of effective action is this:

Sixty percent of the public wants Congress to act. Seventy percent want corporations and industry to get busy. But:

It's hard to find questions about climate change with the cost to the responder cooked in. People doing serious surveys of climate change attitudes don't tend to like them, and this question illustrates why: posit a cost of $15 a month, and our majority for climate action falls to a measly 39%.

That's the climate problem, right there. It's not a tiny minority shaking their little fists and demanding Mann be indicted. It's a broad majority that recognize climate change as a serious problem, but not so serious, or so pressing, that they are ready to vote for, and pay for, effective strategies to cut greenhouse gases. What seems like an exciting clash of intellect and science versus ideology and hokum turns out to be something much more familiar and prosaic: voters that see a long-term problem and prefer to procrastinate rather than make tough decisions with real costs. See also, infrastructure. See also, education. See also, healthcare.

It's not clear that dissecting the horrifically ill-reasoned and often just as ill-argued talking points of the climate denial movement helps move forward the ball towards getting the broader public buy-in we need for carbon taxes and such. Since normal, non-blogging people avoid bitter, divisive arguments -- rather than leaning into them -- attacks on climate deniers, however witty, may contribute to the majority's determination to avoid engagement.

I might retort that I do this for my own amusement and those of like-minded people, but that's not true. I want to have a positive impact, however small, on the discourse of climate change. Maybe arguing, provoking, and poking fun are not the best way to go about it. I put it to you, loyal reader, what is?


  1. 1) I can't answer your question atm, but I can say there is a reason I've continued to check this site regularly. The clarity of thought with which you dissected the Lukewarmers' position is a good example of what you bring.

    2) No offense, but don't overestimate your reach. Given the audience that comes here, I would guess you don't need to worry about reinforcing misinformation.

    3) A tax and dividend approach would be a huge first step and wouldn't cost the public anything.
    3a) As the economy improves, those poll numbers will also improve.


  2. I too am pretty big on not repeating the myths, but if it can't be helped, it can't be helped. Here is my counsel on whether to keep blogging: keep reading on this subject, and if you find yourself thinking something that no one is saying--then your voice is needed. The "air conditioners all the way down" piece was witty, thought provoking, and original--nothing else like that around. I've passed it on, quoted it, and admired it. I think it's quite likely you will be an enormously valuable contributor to the discussion, if you do go forward. Thumbs up from me.

  3. Aside from my recreational forays onto the comment sections, where I'm scientifically correct, while being dismissive and rather unpleasant when dealing with the wingnuts, I have to agree with you Tracker.

    The main problem is this. Dealing with the denialists in a polite, congenial, respectful, manner makes it look like there is a debate going on. There is no debate. AGW is real and may turn out to be very serious.

    I've had one go at a denialist on my blog. Since then all they get are snide closing comments. They deserve nothing more. They are the dregs of a formerly respectable position, the ones to stupid too realise the game is over.

    I suggest you leave reality to deal with them and continue in the direction you seem to have been going - reporting what is going on, the risks we court, and possible solutions.

  4. Thank you for that thoughtful essay, and all the other insightful and witty articles you've written. For what it's worth, I hope you keep blogging.

    However, I wouldn't be so quick to declare victory. The dismissive might only be 8% of the population, but they're a very loud 8%. Every minute they spend insulting us is one minute they can't spend trying to confuse someone else. So I'm going to keep debunking them, even if that makes me Don Quixote. Actions speak louder than polls: I won't declare victory until we have some kind of price on carbon. Republicans Art Laffer and Bob Inglis explain that this can be done without damaging the economy:

    People certainly procrastinate about infrastructure and education, but America's procrastination about health care seems to have been exacerbated by an onslaught of nonsensical claims about death panels, etc. Similarly, I think peoples' reluctance to pay for clean energy is partially due to the confusion peddled by these merchants of doubt.

  5. Dumb Scientist,

    "The dismissive might only be 8% of the population, but they're a very loud 8%."

    So are the nutjobs who screech: 'CIA did 9/11', 'meat/bread/milk/breathing causes cancer', 'innoculations cause autism', 'UFOs abuducted me', 'the wold's going to end on [insert future date here]. But they're regarded as nut jobs by most people. That's where the AGW denialists are rapidly consigning themselves. We can best help them continue digging their hole by not directly addressing them except to ridicule them.

  6. "Dealing with the denialists in a polite, congenial, respectful, manner makes it look like there is a debate going on."

    In a standard blog format, you're probably right. Every new post is a blank slate which allows contrarians to pretend their past mistakes never happened.

    "We can best help them continue digging their hole by not directly addressing them except to ridicule them."

    I think casual observers are more likely to notice the holes that are dug by people who are treated with respect but don't respond in kind. In many comments, I debunk their claims and then ask them to "please stop spamming humanity with all this misinformation. It’s staining your legacy and threatening the future of our civilization."

    In response, they usually just dig faster. Rinse, repeat. Unfortunately, it can sometimes take hours to debunk nonsense that contrarians can type in mere seconds. But it might be helpful for others to see just how often and effectively Morton's demon prevents them from acknowledging these debunkings.

    "I suggest you leave reality to deal with them and continue in the direction you seem to have been going - reporting what is going on, the risks we court, and possible solutions."

    I agree regarding new posts; my two latest climate posts take that approach. I dump most of my contrarian debunkings at the end of one older post called "Abrupt climate change". Hopefully the index prevents them from convincing other people that their past mistakes never happened. Also, I'm not indulging their need for attention with multiple web pages, just one really long page.

    "So are the nutjobs who screech: 'CIA did 9/11',"

    Interestingly, #7 on that index is Jane Q. Public who's also a 9/11 Truther, an Obama Birther, and rants about dark matter, string theory, neutrino oscillation, the Casimir effect, etc. Crank magnetism fascinates me, and I think longitudinal case studies can complement cross-sectional studies like Lewandowsky et al. 2012.