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Spot the denier

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The flood in Bershire, UK

The flood in Bershire, UK

It’s March, Canada is in a deep freeze, it’s snowing even in Vancouver.  So it’s understandable to expect some people to make jokes about global warming.  (And hearing that climate change appears to be spreading the standard deviation of the statistical distribution of climatic parameters may not be all that convincing for most folks, either.)

What is less acceptable is the amount of space in the media given to deniers.  They are clever, well funded, and often eloquent enough to sow doubt; and they are poisoning the debate.  But how do you spot a denier, if you don’t have a science background?

There are several tell-tale clues, and often several of them are present in the same article.  I chanced on an article by Christopher Booker that I’ll use to explain the denier clues: they are almost all present in the article.  Also, Booker is British, writing about the UK flood, which has the advantage that the distracting issues of our local politics are absent.  The full article is on-line here.

Booker is a journalist who writes for the Telegraph; he majored in history.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; journalists from all kinds of background write about science competently, and right-wing publications like the Telegraph are not automatically dens of deniers. So what are the clues?  Well, consider these:

1.       Ad hominem attacks

2.       Confuses weather and climate

3.       Minimizes current weather extremes

4.       Claims that until recently scientists were predicting an ice age

5.       Mentions the “warming hiatus” as proof that models are wrong

6.       Presents obscure sources of information as more trustworthy than anything official

Booker’s article has nearly all of them.  He attacks Julia Slingo, the Chief Scientist of the Meteorological Office, who is also Dame Commander of the British Empire and the  founder of the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at Reading, a centre that addresses the cross disciplinary challenges of climate change and its impacts.  It would be difficult to find someone with better credentials for discussing climate issues, but Booker devotes the first three paragraphs of his article to attacking her credibility, presenting her as “an arch-climate proponent” whose work is erratic and consistently wrong in its weather predictions, and who dares using the very same computer for long-term climate models as for weather predictions (somehow, that’s a problem).  There follow two paragraphs attacking Jeremy Grantham, Lord Stern, and numerous others as “warmists”, “zealots”, and “luminaries”.

Attacks on the messenger, rather than the message, have two objectives: undermine the credibility of the speaker, of course, but also create an in-group: dear reader, I can disparage these folks in front of you, because you’re on my side (which paves the way for number five, presenting information available only to initiates).

So, ad hominem, check.  These attacks on the Met Office are also a clear instance of conflating weather with climate.  I doubt that Brooker himself fails to see the difference between the day to day variability of weather and the long-term averages of climate, but it is typical of deniers to ignore that difference where opportunities to sow doubt and confuse arise.  Weather v Climate, check.

Number 3, “we’ve been there before” or some other version of “it’s not that big a deal”, is very common in denier stuff.  Climate follows cycles, we had a medieval warm period, etc, etc; all true and usually irrelevant because of the context.  In this particular article, there is a bolder variation: simple denial of anything unusual.  The Met Office has labelled the rain record braking (also here and here), but Booker demurs: “Even January’s continual downpours made it only the sixteenth wettest month since records began in 1766.” So it’s a clear statement of facts, verifiable – but what reader will check?  

I prefer the word of the Met Office, myself, but then I’m not one of the in-crowd.  Booker gets his weather facts from an obscure website called Not A Lot Of People Know That – the title says it all.  We are now part of the inner sanctum, led to secrets that scientists know but in their duplicity won’t reveal to the public.  Sheesh!  The author of this particular blog is so obscure that DeSmogBlog, a great source, hasn’t profiled him; but he has written for Watts Up With That, which is one of the main denier sites.  Once you figure that, you’re in business: number 3, check, number 6, check.  The technique consists usually of cherry-picking data; like claiming that there is no warming, just because Atlanta is cold (and it is; see the map below).  

temperature anomalies in january 2014

temperature anomalies in january 2014

But what about the hiatus?  Doesn’t that sound credible? 

It does, yes, and Booker uses it deftly: “As we know, since the 17-year “pause” in the rise in global temperatures made a nonsense of all those IPCC computer models, the warmists have sought to prop up their faltering religion by seizing on any “extreme weather event” they can lay their hands on, hot, cold, wet or dry.”  Wow.

The warming hiatus, or pause, is the name given to the fact that global air temperatures didn’t rise as fast as expected in the last decade (note that they still rose). This puzzle has been bandied about by all deniers to show that theclimate models can’t possibly work (so any mention of it a good sign of who you’re reading – they just can’t resist).   The fact is that, indeed, the models aren’t perfect; they reflect our state of understanding, which is constantly improving – which means that, yes, at any time there are pieces that are wrong; but these are usually fine-tuning details.  The hiatus in question has now been largely explained by a better understanding of ocean currents (much of the unaccounted-for warmth is in deeper layers of the Pacific Ocean) as well as the temporary cooling effects of volcanoes.  Once the models incorporate these new findings, the issue disappears.   This is how science progresses: when something doesn’t quite fit the observations, look for something that had not been accounted for.  Science is no religion; if it could explain everything at once, there would be no need for research; yet this is precisely the standard that deniers like Booker uphold.  (For a while, it was actually a very interesting scientific puzzle; see here, here, here and here.) 

Too bad Booker doesn’t invoke the supposed predictions of an ice age; that would have completed the list.  He does make plenty of other mistakes, though: for instance, he claims that “all true science, of course, has here been thrown out of the window. There is no rising trend in atmospheric humidity. Put the Arctic and the Antarctic together and there is more polar sea ice today than at any time since satellite records began.”  The first point, demonstrably false, is based on purposedly confusing relative and absolute humidity, and it is a rhetorical trick common that NASA devoted a page to debunking that claim; see also here, here and here for background.  As for the second point, it is true, but completely irrelevant.  (The arctic has lost a tremendous amount of ice, which is changing the northern weather; warming is causing the glaciers of Antarctica to flow faster, which is indeed increasing southern oceanic ice.  This is not a surprise, nor does it imply incompetence or lies from scientists.) Oh, and he’s also off when supposedly quoting the sea level rise predicted by the GRACE satellite (it’s 11.3 inches, not 6.7).

So when such a denier claims that the flooding could have been averted had the government bothered to dredge canals and rivers, do you now believe him?  Hmm.  (For an answer to this, read here or here.)


One Response

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  1. Whilst I do agree with the notion that climate change is a human prerogative to fix, stifling open debate is never the way to go as I’m sure deniers would love to silence blogs such as this too

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