Comment threads about global warming show the American mind at work, like a reality-TV horror show

Summary:  Belief in a secret conspiracy of government scientists manipulating US climate data to exaggerate global warming might join Benghazi BENGHAZI in the right-wing canon. See this happen in real time in the comment threads at Prof Curry’s website, showing the American mind at work on one of our most important public policy issues. It’s a sad spectacle, deserving your attention. We can do better, if only we would try. (updated July 2)

This is second in a series about this fascinating story. It is one of a series of posts using popular media as a mirror in which we can more clearly see who we are, and what we’re becoming.

All Seeing Eye

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I strongly recommend reading the comments to “Skeptical of skeptics: is Steve Goddard right?“ by Judith Curry (Prof, GA Inst Tech) at her website, Climate Etc.  (update: and to her follow-up post here). It’s a typical discussion about politicized science in America, with comments by scientists, talented amateurs, and extremist partisans. The latter dominate, with anti-science their primary theme.

If you step back from the specific issue, this thread reads like countless others in recent years by the Right (e.g. about evolution, the extreme example) — and by the Left  (e.g., genetically-modified food and nuclear power).  And by both the Left and Right about climate and economics. A common element is people who have little or no understanding of the subject, but confidently proclaim the relevant scientists to be fools, crooks, or charlatans (this is a defining characteristic of the public climate wars, with activists on both sides so condemning scientists on the “other side”).

Political leaders cherish such followers, their vanguard of high-energy “useful idiots” (an essential concept for political engineers, origin unknown). They’re easily directed and immune to rebuttal by fact or logic (they don’t listen to their opponents, who are misguided if not evil). As a chorus they entertain the faithful and can often shout down saner voices.

“Then the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of `Four legs good, two legs bad!’ which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.”

This is a manifestation of an deeper ill in American life, anti-intellectualism. The best-known descriptions of this are two works by Richard Hofstadter. The comment thread at Climate Etc shows both of these traits proudly displayed.

(1)  Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963).  It includes the belief that everyman can understand technical matters as well as experts, without bothering with years of study. It’s as or more serious now than in 1963.

Twenty-first century philistines, suffering from a lack of imagination and curiosity, have seized upon understandable economic anxieties since the financial crash of 2008, to shepherd an increasingly large flock of American sheep into the livestock freight carrier Pulitzer prize winning historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “anti-intellectualism.” … The American mind is swimming in icy waters …

— “America’s New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism“, David Masciotra (journalist), The Daily Beast, 9 March 2014

(2) The Paranoid Style in American Politics“, Harpers Magazine, November 1964 — To the Right-wing climate scientists are not just wrong, but in an active conspiracy to deceive us — they “fake”, fiddle”, and “rig” the data. Excerpt:

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Paranoia has a long history in the American polity. American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. … I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. … It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Paranoia and esteeming ignorance form a noxious and mutually-reenforcing combination that might cripple our ability to respond to the rapidly-changing world of the 21st century. Combined with our amnesia about the past and clouded vision of the present, it results in an Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop broken in every phase.  This ignorance might negate much of our strength, such as our ability to innovate, our ability to integrate people from other societies, our strong social cohesion, and the vitality of our culture.

Ignorance is Strength

Powerful but stupid is unlikely to be the winning play in the 21st century.  We were better in the past — see these examples — and can be great again.

Other posts about this story

Also: see a definitive response to these allegations by Zeke Hausfather (Senior Researcher, Berkeley Earth), posted at Judith Curry’s Climate Etc: “Understanding adjustments to temperature data“, 7 July 2014.

For More Information

See the posts about Information & disinformation, by both the Left and Right. Overwhelming and sad evidence.

See these posts for analysis of our broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop.

See these posts about how we govern the Republic: Politics in America.

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Asimov: antiintellectualism

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20 thoughts on “Comment threads about global warming show the American mind at work, like a reality-TV horror show

  1. Anti intellectualism ain’t necessarily bad. True democracy contains it as its core. One man one vote no matter what they know of politics.

    Also in climate and evolution matters it’s the natural reaction to silly activist intellectuals. You can’t blame the everymen really.

    1. Omnologos,

      Maybe we are vague on the meaning of anti-intellectualism. But when one’s thinking starts and ends with a conclusion, promulgated by our “clan”, one is thinking anti-factually. When this thinking is seen in society’s outliers, maybe it ain’t so harmful. But when anti-fact clans move to the mainstream, I think it is harmful in a democracy.

      We have seen this many times in our history and doesn’t end well.

    2. Democracy implies representation of all types of citizens, including morons with cognitive problems. In America, anybody can be President, as GWBush proved.

    3. gzuckier,

      Bush Jr was not a moron, nor did he have cognitive problems. He was smart guy, operating in a job beyond his capabilities — and for which he was temperamentally unsuited.

      The foolishness was ours, in electing him. In a nation of 300 millions, we could easily have done better.

    1. Now this is a post that perfectly exemplifies the term anti-intellectual. Playing fast and lose with a crackpot survey to besmirch anyone who does not agree with your view…….I guess it is what you learned on your non-STEM degree. Objectivity be damned, it is the message that counts.

      Quite embarrassing.

    2. “Harris poll = crackpot survey” would seem to be an idea example of anti-intellectualism, the belief that everyman in his armchair can outthink the professionals with years of postsecondary education and more years of experience, etc. etc. etc. Thanks!

  2. What is often termed anti-intellectualism is in fact anti-elitism. Much so-called intellectualism is nothing more than the learned elite talking in code to one another. The unlearned can’t crack the code but they get the subtext: Shutup, they explained.

    1. The problem that I see with this argument is that in this case, anti-intellectualism comes a little too close to Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes. (What Mark Twain and Will Rogers had to say made a lot of sense…but they were also men of their times, and the times have changed quite a bit since then. George Carlin is probably one of the closest equivalents in our times to these men, but Carlin toward the end of his life was also cynical in the extreme about where he saw us heading.)

      The hungry fox sees some grapes but they’re hanging out of his reach…so he convinces himself that he doesn’t really want them because they must be sour and are therefore worthless. In a similar vein, I think that at least some of those who fall prey to anti-intellectualism — instead of taking the initiative and making the effort to educate themselves (because it would require too much effort from them) — convince themselves that they don’t need the facts and knowledge that the “learned elites” have and it can’t possibly mean as much as people think it does because they themselves don’t understand it.

      I don’t think you have to look all that hard to realize that a lot of people these days really *are* egotistical enough to believe that the world is under some sort of obligation to conform to their opinions and wishes — the facts be damned. The War In Iraq is a good example of this thinking in action. To a man, the neoconservatives under President George W. Bush were to all indications either unable or unwilling to accept that what they had said would happen, what they had expected to happen, and what they assumed would happen kept on not happening and was in fact probably never going to happen (or at least, certainly not in quite the way they had anticipated it would). Even now, with the situation in that country growing increasingly unstable and uncertain, many of the people who either helped orchestrate or promote the war insist that what is happening now cannot possibly be their fault and refuse to admit that they might have been wrong — as one of my favorite authors (Douglas Adams) used to say, it’s reality that got it wrong. Reality refused to play fair, refused to listen to reason, and refused to do the right thing because it didn’t fall obediently in line with their plans and objectives.

      It really is enough to make you wonder where this mentality comes from. I haven’t lived all that long — I’m only in my 40’s — but i don’t remember observing this same level of irrationality in people when I was young. I’m (unfortunately) inclined to think it might have something to do with technology. The increased speed at which we’re becoming accustomed to getting many of the things we want — whether it’s news or hot food or whatever — subtly teaches us that we no longer need to wait very long or exert much effort in order to have what we want and anything we need to wait for or work for is just too much trouble.

    2. I agree with Max who explained the point more clearly than I have. Anybody with a functioning intellect ought be skeptical of anything the learned elites and the professional intellectuals try to push onto the public.

      Anyway, America was founded on a rejection of European elitarian command-and-control so little wonder there are many people who can’t bear the sight let alone the sound of yet another intellectual.

      And once again, there is no point in blaming, demeaning or lamenting the anti-intellectuals…just read anything written by Slavoj Žižek to see what hell on earth people are still preparing for when enlightened oligarchies will once again rule the world.

    3. Omnologos,

      I believe I understand what you are saying, and agree with much of it. But it is hardly a defense on anti-intellectualism. I think you are missing the point of this post, radically so.

      To take your opening point – yes, skepticism of the ruling elites statements is good sense. In no way is that justification for anti-intellectualism and ignorance. I would like to see a quotation from Marx supporting such a thing. Even in his massive body of work, with many contradictory threads, that might prove difficult to find.

    4. I think it’s more the revenge of the kids who never did their homework in high school. At last, nobody to call them mistaken when they shout out their answers, nobody to mark them lower than the kids who took the time and made the effort to read the material and think about it.
      You see this all the time in online political “debates”, using the term loosely. Somebody read an article “proving” that Obama is a socialist, Muslim, and/or native Kenyan, and is therefore convinced, despite a quick Google search pulling up two dozen websites disproving said theories. Gee how to choose? Well, you could chase down the primary sources and see if they say what either side says they say, but that takes time and effort away from the valuable task of repeating the party line everywhere. Note also which side of the debate tends to include links to said primary sources, and which avoid them.
      Sure, there are lots of crackpot conspiracy theories on the left as well. But you’re not going to ask a roomful of Democrat presidential hopefuls if they believe that vaccination causes autism and get 90% of them agreeing, the way you saw the Republican candidates declaring their skepticism of evolution. On one side, the fringe remains fringe, on the other it’s become a way of identifying oneself as loyal and trustworthy.

    5. gzuckier,

      I suggest you read some of the comment threads about climate change, on both left and right. The technically sophisticated ones are overwhelmingly on the skeptic (ie, conservative) side. Those on the Left are, often, little more than sheep shouting “Two legs bad, four legs good”.

      What makes this IMO so scary is that the skeptic comments threads are often dominated by educated intelligent people, and yet nuts. Far out in space.

      I wish I knew what this means. I fear it means nothing good for America.

    6. Well, as a longtime admirer of FM (largely because of the ability to avoid dogmatic polarization), I shall take your admonitions to heart, and revisit the blogosphere with rigorously objective attention, at least attempt to do so.

  3. Certainly the truth is difficult to find – but that is no accident.

    Let us look at the basis of the climate wars : fearmongering about speculative futures. When one enjoyed Campbellian sci fi he knew to critique plausibility of projected scenarios. But in the case of ‘climate science’ the background information does not support – cannot support – any hypothesis involving modeling or prophecy. Modeling is not a reliable technique when used according to known parameters. When used to explore co2 as a driver of temperature it has refused to seemingly confirm the alleged mechanism.

    Yet the whining about responsible alarm continues. Why is this not a sign of manipulation of the public forum ? The subject is inextricably wound up with energy politics and carbon tax. As a prime use of war and propaganda it is no leap to assume energy ‘warmism’ is part and parcel of the same phenomena.

    Assume for a moment that the UK has generated this program to deliberately con the public in the same fashion as Leading to War outlines for the war in Iraq…which was sold as an invasion about a ‘terror organization never present in that nation before the occupation. We couid even reasonably assume many of the same principals…following in the style of the Hostmen ot Newcastle. And that it has been implemented not merely bilaterally but multinationally.

    Surely both the UN and NATO would provide a vehicle for flogging a global tax on the use of energy.
    Since its origins, the IPCC has been open and explicit about seeking to generate a ‘scientific consensus’ around climate change and especially about the role of humans in climate change

    Climate Change: what do we know about the IPCC?”, 27 June 2010

    I’m sure you recognize the source.

    1. John,

      All good points! Esp about models. They’ve become political tools, irrefutable, wielded as trump against those opposing climate change related public policy.

      Motives are difficult to ascertain. “Why” is the most difficult of questions.

    2. “Modeling is not a reliable technique when used according to known parameters. When used to explore co2 as a driver of temperature it has refused to seemingly confirm the alleged mechanism.”
      A fine demonstration of not understanding the basics of the AGW hypothesis, the process of modeling, the nature of the physics underlying it, the sources of uncertainty in the model outputs, and so on and so on, despite them all being well represented online for anyone.
      I can’t even understand what that first sentence is supposed to mean. Since the second sentence specifies CO2/temp modeling, it appears that the first sentence is meant to be a general statement about modeling. “Modeling is not a reliable technique when used according to known parameters.”?? You realize that the prediction that the sun will rise tomorrow AM is based on a model of the motions of the earth and sun, based on the theory of gravity, right?
      As for the second sentence, firstly the model is CO2 as driver of CLIMATE, not temperature, which is not a trivial distinction; secondly, the effect of the CO2 concentration versus energy absorption (closest to your positing of “temperature” is really well established and quantified. The uncertainty in climate modeling is largely due to, as repeated every IPCC report, uncertainty of the feedback of atmospheric energy vs. water vapor, and water vapor vs atmospheric energy absorption; uncertainty which is reducing every year. On a shorter time scale, the behaviors of the oceans are still a source of variation, but 5 and ten year localized climate predictions from AGW modeling are the strawest of straw men.
      Anyway, you can relax your anxieties and rest assured, modeling “co2 as a driver of temperature” is a pretty accurate calculation. You can buy gadgets that measure the CO2 concentration in a sample of air by beaming IR through it at a target and measuring the resulting temperature.

    3. g,

      “Modeling is not a reliable technique when used according to known parameters. When used to explore co2 as a driver of temperature it has refused to seemingly confirm the alleged mechanism.”

      I don’t know what the author intended. The problems with models are well-understood, the subject of many articles in the major peer-reviewed literature in recent years — to some extent, the result of the pause.

      While the role of CO2 is well-understood, there is considerable debate about other important factors. As a result, the climate sensitivity — the change in temperature for a given change in CO2 — is stated by the IPCC only within a wide range. At the top, giving horrific results late in the 21 st C if we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate. At the bottom, not a big problem.

      Another level of problems results from the use of parameterization. The models are not representations of discrete physical processes. The cloud box, the CO2 box, the solar box, etc.

      It’s a complex subject, with as yet no clear answers

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