Let It Go

Once again discussion has erupted in the climate blogosphere about the appropriateness of the term ‘denier’ as used by advocates of the Consensus position about their opponents. Science of Doom started the ball rolling, after which it got Keith Kloor to write a post on his Discovery Blog. After which HotWhopper wrote a spirited, if somewhat incoherent defence of using the term and I guess now it’s my turn.

Denier is a political term, not a description. I have seen physicists with 250 published papers to their credit classed as ‘deniers’, as well as luminaries such as Freeman Dyson, Ivar Giaevar, Judith Curry, John Christy, Richard Lindzen and others. It is obvious that they don’t deny climate science, as most of them have helped make it. So why the term?

Here’s what I wrote over at Science of Doom: “Using the ‘d’ word was a political alternative to engaging with the opponents of the consensus.

When veterans of the tobacco wars advised allies that debating climate science was a losing strategy, it left them with few alternatives to one-way messaging.

Broadcasting messages proved difficult, especially as many of the messages were not crafted by scientists. After some errors had to be acknowledged in vehicles such as An Inconvenient Truth, for example, green NGOs began creating and financing campaigns, as if climate science were a consumer product. This led to imagery such as polar bears on ice floes, close-up pictures of mosquitos, Amazon rainforests being cut down, etc. Later these were joined by more bizarre examples such as the No Pressure video.

But because they were one-way messages, those employing this strategy found it difficult to respond to those on the other side of the policy fence. Often(not always) the consensus team was right on the facts of a particular issue, but couldn’t organize a one-way message in real time.

One of the strategems to bulwark their decision not to engage with opponents was deligitimizing them. We see the results today.

It was not just the use of the ‘d’ word, by the way. Another tactic was pointing out the age of the scientists who spoke out against the consensus, using things like ‘gone emeritus’ etc.

Another was the use of carefully crafted literature searches to create the impression of an overwhelming consensus–the 97%, as opposed to merely the 81% that is closer to the truth. Oreskes, Prall, Cook–all of their signature pages were based on research designed to ignore relevant work by their opponents, not measure it.

To be clear–it is not scientists at fault for this strategy. A group of politically concerned activists took the microphones out of the hands of scientists and began insulting their opponents instead of discussing the science.

I would ask scientists (I’ve said all this to Bart Verheggen at his place of business) if it is not time to reclaim the microphone, ‘thank’ the activists for their efforts and ask them to leave the stage.”

The real argument in a nutshell can be summarized quickly at Keith Kloor’s post:

“Denier” is an accurate word for them. Why can’t it be used

  • Go ahead. Knowingly using a word like this that you know may be offensive to someone says a lot more about you than it does about them.

    Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. So I’ll give my advice to members of the Consensus who really, really want to link their opponents to skinhead thugs who deny the Holocaust occurred–but I’ll make it a bit difficult for them, as they annoy me:

 

11 responses to “Let It Go

  1. While I also dislike the label “denier”, used as it is mostly as a pejorative not as an actual description, I have found that it can be useful to be called one.

    My approach is to not take offense, but to reply with “what exactly do you think I’m denying?” In most cases, this will lead to two realizations: first, that I know a great deal more about AGW than my accuser; and second, that the actual point of departure is in the realm of politics and policy response, not the science. Sometimes useful views are conveyed this way, albeit mostly to bystanders.

    Admittedly, this is taking place down at the level of Joe Public talking with relatives, acquaintances and co-workers rather than the rarefied heights of academia, media and government, but in a participatory democracy that can still matter. [Probably one of the reasons so many AGW solutions seem to demand the removal of democracy from the picture…but that’s another matter entirely.]

    So yes, it would be nice if people who want an actual discussion would stop throwing around pejorative terms, but in the right circumstances it can be useful to be the target.

    • kch,
      In conversations, that is likely a good tactic. Media use of it is shameful and deceptive. Like Grubber and Brian Williams.

  2. I have listened to National Public Radio and our local affiliate Minnesota Public Radio for almost thirty years. When both began using the term in their news stories, I resolved not to fund hate and ended my membership.

    I believe they started to use the term “denier” shortly after The Sea Change Foundation handed them grants for “sustainability coverage”.

  3. I was disappointed by Keith Kloor’s post. He is usually rather reasonable and I agree with him more than not. This time, his appraisal of the skeptic blogs was a bit over the top. I note that he skipped Climate Audit and Climate Etc.but here is what he had to say about Watts Up With That

    Anyone who reads the most highly trafficked “climate skeptic” blogs, such as the one run by Anthony Watts, will detect a consistent ideological bias and a skepticism that runs in only one direction–broadly doubtful of mainstream climate science. The criticisms published there are often slanted, marred by conspicuous omissions or a selective use of facts. The overall tone at the site is hostile and conspiratorial. What you mostly see at Watts Up With That is not true skepticism but rather confirmation bias masquerading as skepticism.

    I agree that Watts Up With That has slipped. I rarely go there these days but let;s rewind a bit…

    I was drawn to Watts site by his Surface Station Project. A citizen science effort to properly evaluate the condition of the U.S. Historic Climate Network. I didn’t participate in the effort but I did check out our local USHSN station at Zumbrota MN and was shocked by what I found.

    In college I studied arctic land forms (peri-glacial geomorphology) and damned well understood the impact of micro-climate. The Zumbrota sensor was located in a waste-water treatment plant (think concrete) and mere yards from a parking lot. Beyond that, knowing the area, I couldn’t help but realize how changes in farming practices biased the readings over time.

    The cumulative effect of all these things may have been small, especially when homogenized with other stations – yet the effect on a climate model run of a hundred years has got to influence the slope.

    While Anthony Watts was researching the USHCN and raising issues, Keith Kloor was not. Instead, Mr. Kloor was uncritically pushing the consensus.

    So yes, a number of skeptic sites have gotten into the bad habit of questioning everything about climate science in conspiratorial tones but if the “science writers” had done their job, maybe things would be different.

    • It goes without saying that any fair assessment would have admitted that the other side has sites like ClimateProgress and so forth that aren’t exactly a straight up view of the science. KK seems convinced giving time to anti-GMO advocates is false equivalence, so he continues this trend here. Only giving one side of a story is one definition of propaganda. Propaganda = activist.

      A trend on US college campuses of language and thought police seems to be escalating into the media and it is becoming socially acceptable to shut down discussions and unilaterally impose penalties on anyone who brings up an alternative viewpoint. If you compare this to the free speech radicals in 1960’s and the Vietnam war era, a lesson could be learned that the there is little real difference between the oppressor and oppressed except who happens to be in power at the moment. They both will abuse the power to shut down opponents if given the opportunity to do so.

      Another recent example is a tenured Economics professor at a Catholic university was fired for this blog entry:
      http://mu-warrior.blogspot.com/2014/11/marquette-philosophy-instructor-gay.html

      As one can surmise, the worst thing one can do is attempt to expose the suppression of speech. I truly hope this trend reverses soon. This type of overreach does tend to backfire.

  4. Tom,
    Your point,
    “A trend on US college campuses of language and thought police seems to be escalating into the media and it is becoming socially acceptable to shut down discussions and unilaterally impose penalties on anyone who brings up an alternative viewpoint. If you compare this to the free speech radicals in 1960’s and the Vietnam war era, a lesson could be learned that the there is little real difference between the oppressor and oppressed except who happens to be in power at the moment. They both will abuse the power to shut down opponents if given the opportunity to do so.”
    Is chilling.

    • I probably shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush. What you get is a set of people on either side that are:

      1. Absolutely convinced they are right on a subject.
      2. Believe they have a moral high ground
      3. Believe the opposing side has malicious intent
      4. Believe the opposing side is winning using nefarious tactics.

      This then leads them down a path of the ends justify the means. They draw moral equivalency between their own actions (which they would normally judge as immoral) and the perceived nefarious actions of their opponents. Peter Gleick is a perfect example.

      No matter which side you are on, you will have those in your tribe that match these characteristics. Call them the attack dogs. The battle is to not let these people obtain power and start setting the agenda. When the people in your tribe are effective with these tactics in a polarized high stakes debate, it is pretty difficult to start shouting them down.

  5. Sound advice, Tom – but falling on deaf ears. (Cf, Matt Ridley’s recent account of his vilification.)

  6. In his book, Michael Mann mentions a scientist who was particularly hurt by the use of ‘Nazi’ because of his family’s suffering during the Holocaust.

    So this is clearly a deliberately choice to link to Holocaust denial.

  7. Pingback: Who to believe? Tobis or your lying eyes? | The Lukewarmer's Way

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