Have the climate skeptics jumped the shark, taking the path to irrelevance?

Summary: How do myths get entrenched in conservatives’ minds, exerting a pull to the right on American politics? We can understand the process — and perhaps fight it — by studying specific cases. Like the one happening right now, about the secret conspiracy of government scientists manipulating the US climate data to exaggerate global warming. These myths take hold in part because most people, including journalists, consider them too daft to bother with. Like a small infection. In the coming months we’ll see how well the skeptics — and America — fight this off.

Altered version of Newsweek Aug 2007 cover
Altered version of Newsweek Aug 2007 cover

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BENGHAZI: the model for debates in our mad age

I saw the first sparks of the Benghazi BENGHAZI myth as they flew through the right-wing blogosphere. I remember a Sergeant (having an impressive bio) explain how the decisions that night could only have been made by the President as he watched events in real-time on the giant monitors in the War Room. I laughed at this fantasy by someone who probably spent too much time watching TV, and too little studying the vast-beyond-imagining but slow-moving US government apparatus. Many Congressional investigations — and thousands of articles and Fox TV shows — later, it’s not so funny.

Right now a similar social virus spreads through the political right of America. This post briefly describes it, puts it in a broader context, and discusses the possible effects. For details about the story see:

  1. Did NASA and NOAA dramatically alter US climate history to exaggerate global warming?
  2. Comment threads about global warming show the American mind at work, like a reality-TV horror show., 29 June 2014
  3. The climate wars get exciting. Government conspiracy! Shattered warming records! Global cooling!

This story has a second dimension. Movements have life cycles, and are subject to “illnesses”. One of these is “jumping the shark“, a decline in quality following an over-the-top moment in the plot. I saw this happen in the Peak Oil Movement at the 2008 US Conference of the Assn for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (also see posts at The Oil Drum from that period). People competed to have the most dire forecasts, the most authoritative conspiracy theory — with a complete collapse of intellectual integrity by the group, and failure of its leaders to maintain discipline. (As with Benghazi, I saw this but did not appreciate its significance)

The result: growing irrelevance, and loss of members and influence. This is unrelated to the issue of peak oil, which not only remains serious but also intersects with the potentially equally serious challenge of climate change. It’s also unrelated to the work of scientists, which mostly works on a separate plane.

“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
— attributed to French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874)

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Fonz jumps the shark
Fonz jumps the shark

The climate skeptics might be jumping the shark right now, as the desires and beliefs of their largely right-wing membership overcome their interest in science, and their craft yet another enduring false myth that motivates conservatives and increases their social cohesion (like Orthodox Jews dietary laws, walls between the group and the wider society). The price paid might be their influence in America. It’s too early to say for sure.

How Does This Happen?

How does this happen to a movement of intelligent and well-educated people? It’s a mystery, like so much of mass psychology. There are two common characteristics to these events.

First, emboldened ideological-driven ignorance. Like creationism: believers have an ideology, so they can confidentially opining on technical matters about which they know little. Politicized movements attract such people. They’re vocal, and unless restrained they will dominate the group once they gain sufficient numbers, drowning out the voices of experts. As they do now in most comment threads on skeptic websites.

Second, diffident leaders unwilling to stand up to their followers. Anthony Watts — a meteorologist, with extensive experience in gathering and processing of temperature data — well understands the need to adjust the raw data (see his posts of June 25 and June 26), but neither he nor his fellow skeptics don’t push back against those who say otherwise.

Eminent climate scientists Judith Curry (Prof, GA Inst Tech) writes about the belief in the secret conspiracy by government scientists, and only weakly speaks out:

“Re NCDC staff manipulating the data for political purposes – I don’t buy that. However, the NCDC Press Officer trying to cover up problems with the data for political reasons . . . now that one wouldn’t be too far fetched for me to believe.”

The result is the discussions in the movement become dominated by confirmation bias, and condemnation of opponents (often characterized as evil). The discussions become fun, exciting, and reenforce the believers’ per-existing political beliefs. Science becomes a mask behind which they hide, instrumental but not guiding.

Also, this might also be happening to the climate alarmists as they describe normal weather as extreme due to human-influences (droughts, storms, and such are major influences of history) and dream up increasing bizarre effects of warming.

Update

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.

Close examination of the news tells us much

This is another series of posts closely examining current news, more deeply than the major news media. These concretely display our broken observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop.

  1. The “rape” charges that successfully neutralize Jullian Assange of Wikileaks
  2. Pakistan’s efforts to prosecute CIA agent Raymond Davis

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

(a)  Posts about climate change:

  1. Posts about climate change
  2. Science & nature – studies & reports
  3. The important things to know about global warming

(b)  Some posts about our confusion:

  1. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 Oct 2011
  2. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  3. Who lies to us the most? Left or Right?, 25 February 2013
  4. Facts are the enemy of both Left and Right in our America, 12 May 2014

(c)  See all posts about Information & disinformation, the new media & the old

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11 thoughts on “Have the climate skeptics jumped the shark, taking the path to irrelevance?

  1. I am not sure how to break this easily to you but…aren’t you Fabius committing the same sins of exaggeration that you have identified as typical of the American mind?

    First and foremost there is no such thing as “the climate skeptic”. It’s like saying “the non-Roman Catholics” pretending that Evangelicals, Muslims, Bah’ai and atheists have anything in common (apart from not being RCs).

    Therefore the interpretations of the wrongness of US temperature data will vary considerably, from fully-fledged conspiracy to a sigh at the sight of widespread algorithmical incompetence.

    There is no jumping of the shark because there isn’t a Fonzarelli on the waterskis…

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    1. Omnologos,

      You must be a busy bee writing these notes a thousand times per day at characterizations of groups. It’s quite obvious. I suspect, to almost all other readers that these are useful generalizations about groups — without which useful discussions about society would be impossible.

      If it would make you happy, mentally insert some text in every paragraph about these generalizations not applying to individual members.

      If you are denying the existence of group characteristics, typical or averages, well then “whatever, dude.”

      Like

    2. this reply doesn’t carry much meaning. You are free to generalize beyond reason and I am free to tell you there is no reason in your generalization…without which this very post would be meaningless.

      as I said, having complained that Americans exaggerate, you have opted to exaggerate yourself. Fine. I surmise you’re 100% American too.

      Going back to skeptics there have been public spats of very large magnitude, and even the Heartland conferences aren’t generally popular and/or attended by all. Recent attempts to organize skeptics together via very popular websites have failed. The most influential skeptical think tank in the UK, the GWPF, regularly appears with the same two or three people. I have been to meetings of skeptics and it was obvious we had zero in common, apart from a general distrust in ecofascism.

      The point is if Heller goes ga-ga (and I do not think he’s gone ga-ga on this), if Watts loses his mind, if Montford of Bishop Hill becomes funny, if the Viscount leaves the planet off a tangent, if Morano retires to a convent, if if if…well, the vast majority of skeptics will remain skeptics, because the reasons of their skepticism come before and not from the most visible characters. What they do or don’t has no bearing on “climate skeptics”.

      There is no Fonzie, there is no waterski, there is no jump. There is no jumping of the shark by “the climate skeptics” and there cannot be any.

      Like

    3. Omnologos,

      Let me try to reply better. Imagine a freshman philosophy class. I learn about reification and General Semantics, as in “The Map is Not the Territory.” Empowered I decide not to use maps. By the end of the class I realize that instead this insight means that maps are abstractions — useful tools, but with limitations and so subject to misuse.

      So it is with all generalizations.

      Like

    4. …and so sticking to the analogy, the hypothesis that skeptics might be jumping the shark into irrelevance is the same as letting the map of France fall into an open fire only to declare “Paris burned to a cinder” :)

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  2. Denial of observed and verifiable reality has now become a serious problem in America. As witness the unprecedented recent whooping cough outbreak in California, now classified as an “epidemic,” resulting from vaccine denialists who refuse to get their kids vaccinated.

    Republicans seem to have become the advance shock troops in America’s war against reality. It will prove interesting to see if this affects the influence and popularity of the Republican party. So far, it hasn’t.

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    1. @ Thomas –

      I think we have two issues at play here: one, a willingness to overlook data we find to be inconvenient to our preconceived beliefs, and two, an inability to carry on meaningful discourse about what that data demonstrates and to then act on it in an agreeable manner. Common to both left and right.

      Climate change is just such a topic. Many of us can accept that the climate is changing, many of us can accept that this has lasting, significant implications for humanity. What is far more difficult is the conversation about what the cause is and what the next steps should be.

      Unfortunately, in the zeal of one side or the other to win (or, as is more common today: destroy the opposition) what is being lost is the facts upon which this debate rages.

      Like

    2. hreardon,

      “conversation about what the cause is and what the next steps should be. ”

      Yes, and magnitudes. Also, from another perspective, the debate about the reliability — the uncertainties — of the climate models, and their forecasts of the future.

      And the variables. China clearing their skies (reducing aerosol emmissions) might warm the world. Development of new energy systems might radically reduce emmissions from 2025 or whatever (vs. the IPCC’s scenarios, which assume the world burns off most or all of its recoverable fossil fuel deposits).

      Like

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