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How to spot “alternative scientists”.

Filed under: — rasmus @ 12 August 2020

Recently, a so-called “white coat summit” gave me a sense of dejavu. It was held by a group that calls itself ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ (AFD) that consisted of about a dozen people wearing white coats to the effect of achieving an appearance of being experts on medical matters.

 

The AFD apparently wanted to address a “massive disinformation campaign” (what irony) and counter the medical advice from real health experts. This move has a similar counterpart in climate science, where some individuals also have claimed to be experts and dismissed well-established scientific facts, eg. that emissions of CO2 from the use of fossil fuels results in global warming.

 

Climate science is not the only discipline where we see confusion sown by a small number of “renegades”. A few white-coated scholars have disputed the well-established danger of tobacco. We see similar attitudes among the “Intelligent Design” community and the so-called “anti-vaxxers”.

 

Statistically speaking, we should not be surprised by a few contrarians who have an exceptional opinion within a large scientific community. It is to be expected from a statistical point of view where there is a range of opinions, so there should be little reason to make a big deal out it.

 

On the other hand, there are some fascinating stories to be told. Sometimes there are individuals who can be described as “crackpots” and “quakesalvers” (e.g. a scholar believing in dowsing rods among the climate renegades and some within the AFD who talk about demons). Hollywood has even realized that some scientists may be mad, which has given us the familiar term “mad scientist”. But all “renegades” may of course not necessarily be mad.

 

Nevertheless, according to Snopes, the background of the individuals of the AFD is rather colourful. And there is nothing in the background provided about them that gave me any confidence in their judgement. On the contrary.

 

A sign that should trigger a big warning is that Snopes found it difficult to see who the AFD really are or where their conclusions really come from. The transparency is lacking and their story is murky. Especially so if the results have not been published through renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals. This is something we have seen time and again with climate change contrarians.

 

Any claim would be more convincing if colleagues independently are able to replicate the work and get the same results (without finding anything wrong with the process). This would require transparency and openness.

 

Another sign that should make you skeptical is if the claims have a dogmatic character. The AFD address is all dogma. This is also typical among the science deniers.

 

It’s also typical that the extreme fringes cannot falsify the established science and therefore move on to conspiracy theories. In the case of AFD, it is the alleged “massive disinformation campaign”.

 

Should we take such fringe views seriously? This type of “infodemics” seems to become a growing problem as described in a feature article in Physics World July 2020: ‘Fighting flat-Earth Theory’. The term “infodemic” reflects the fact that false information is just as contagious as an epidemic. Imposters dressed in white coats peddling false information can cause harm if people take them seriously.

 

The damage caused by erroneous information and conspiracy theories is discussed in the HBO documentary ‘After truth’, and the wildest claims can spread like a rampant disease as shown in that film.

We have witnessed how misinformation and lack of trust of true medical sciences have caused bad situations in some countries, while in others (eg. New Zealand, Canada, and some Nordic countries) the pandemic has been kept under control because the general public in general has followed the scientific health advice.

 

There is a common denominator when it comes to the AFD, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, “intelligent design”, chem-trail evangelists and those dismissing climate science. I think it may be useful to join forces within the broader scientific community to help the general public understand the real issues. This effort should also be on more general terms. People have a right to reliable and truthful information. Everybody should understand that anyone who spreads bullshit or lies also shows you a great deal of disrespect. The same goes for platforms spreading disinformation.

 

So what can we do to make people understand how science works and enhance the general science literacy? Is it better to teach people how to spot these “alternative scientists” (the term is inspired by “alternative facts”), conspiracy theories, and falsehoods, if we show a range of examples from different disciplines? We can probably learn from each others. There seems to be a lesson to be learned from the pandemic.

Forced Responses: Aug 2020

Filed under: — group @ 1 August 2020

This is the bimonthly thread on climate solutions. Climate Science discussions should go here.

Unforced Variations: Aug 2020

Filed under: — group @ 1 August 2020

This month’s open thread for climate science issues. People might want to keep an eye on the Arctic sea ice

Somebody read the comments…

Filed under: — gavin @ 28 July 2020

This post is just to highlight an interesting paper that’s just been published that analyzed the comment threads here and at WUWT.

In it, the authors analyze how the commenters interact, argue and attempt to persuade, mostly, to be fair, unsuccessfully. It may be that seeing how academics analyse the arguments, some commenters might want to modify their approach… who knows?

The comment threads they looked at (I think) are from five posts from Feb to April 2019, including The best case for worst case scenarios, Nenana Ice Classic 2019, First successful model simulation of the past 3 million years and a couple of open threads.

References

  1. C.W. van Eck, B.C. Mulder, and A. Dewulf, "Online Climate Change Polarization: Interactional Framing Analysis of Climate Change Blog Comments", Science Communication, pp. 107554702094222, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1075547020942228

Climate Sensitivity: A new assessment

Filed under: — gavin @ 22 July 2020

Not small enough to ignore, nor big enough to despair.

There is a new review paper on climate sensitivity published today (Sherwood et al., 2020 (preprint) that is the most thorough and coherent picture of what we can infer about the sensitivity of climate to increasing CO2. The paper is exhaustive (and exhausting – coming in at 166 preprint pages!) and concludes that equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely between 2.3 and 4.5 K, and very likely to be between 2.0 and 5.7 K.

More »

References

  1. S. Sherwood, M.J. Webb, J.D. Annan, K.C. Armour, P.M. Forster, J.C. Hargreaves, G. Hegerl, S.A. Klein, K.D. Marvel, E.J. Rohling, M. Watanabe, T. Andrews, P. Braconnot, C.S. Bretherton, G.L. Foster, Z. Hausfather, A.S.V.D. Heydt, R. Knutti, T. Mauritsen, J.R. Norris, C. Proistosescu, M. Rugenstein, G.A. Schmidt, K.B. Tokarska, and M.D. Zelinka, "An assessment of Earth's climate sensitivity using multiple lines of evidence", Reviews of Geophysics, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2019RG000678

Shellenberger’s op-ad

Filed under: — group @ 9 July 2020

Guest commentary by Michael Tobis

This is a deep dive into the form and substance of Michael Shellenberger’s promotion for his new book “Apocalypse Never”. Shorter version? It should be read as a sales pitch to a certain demographic rather than a genuine apology.

Michael Shellenberger appears to have a talent for self-promotion. His book, provocatively entitled “Apocalypse Never” appears to be garnering considerable attention. What does he mean by that title? Does it mean we should do whatever we can to avoid an apocalypse? Does it mean that no apocalypse is possible in the foreseeable future? For those of us who haven’t yet read the book (now available on Kindle), Shellenberger provides an unusual article (at first posted on Forbes, then at Quillette and the front page of the Australian) which appears less a summary than a sales pitch, an “op-ad” as one Twitter wag put it.

It’s called “On Behalf Of Environmentalists, I Apologize For The Climate Scare”. In short, Shellenberger lands clearly on the naysayer soil. Not much to see, everyone. Cheer up, carry on, these are not the droids you’re looking for.

FEW PEOPLE KNOW THAT THE MOON IS MADE OF CHEESE

In support of this insouciance, Shellenberger offers twelve “facts few people know”. Most of the points are defensible to some extent, and most of them raise interesting topics. A main purpose of this article is to provide references to the relevant discussions. But in going through it, it’s worth keeping an eye on the rhetorical purposes of the items, which appear a bit scattershot, and to the rhetorical purpose of the list, which might appear rather obscure.

Clearly labeling the list “facts that few people know” implies that all these points unambiguously refute common beliefs that are widely. And the “apology for the climate scare” indicates further that these beliefs are widely held by a supposedly misguided community of “climate scared”. A defender of the list, Blair King suggests that “[Shellenberger] identified false talking points used repeatedly by alarmists to misinform the public and move debate away from one that is evidence-based to one driven by fear and misinformation”. That does seem to be a fair reading of the stated intent of the list, but it just doesn’t ring true as a whole.

Speaking as a verteran “climate scared” person, the items don’t seem especially familiar. It’s hard to imagine a conversation like this:“Gosh, climate change is an even bigger threat to species than habitat loss.”“I know, and the land area used for producing meat is increasing!”As Gerardo Ceballos said:

This is not a scientific paper. It is intended, I guess, to be an article for the general public. Unfortunately, it is neither. It does not have a logical structure that allows the reader to understand what he would like to address, aside from a very general and misleading idea that environmentalists and climate scientists have been alarmist in relation to climate change. He lists a series of eclectic environmental problems like the Sixth Mass Extinction, green energy, and climate disruption. And without any data nor any proof, he discredits the idea that those are human-caused, severe environmental problems. He just mentions loose ideas about why he is right and the rest of the scientists, environmentalists, and general public are wrong.

What causes the strange incoherence of these “facts few people know”? At the end of this review I’ll propose an answer. Meanwhile, I will consider several questions regarding each item:

  • VALIDITY Is the claim unambiguously true? Unambiguously false? Disputed?
  • RELEVANCE TO CLIMATE Is the claim directly relevant to climate concern/”climate scare” or is it more of interest to tangentially related environmental issues?
  • SALIENCE Is the contrary of the claim widely believed by environmental activists? Does widespread belief in the claim contribute materially to an excess of climate concern?
  • IMPLICATION What is the rhetorical purpose of the question?
  • REALITY To what extent is the rhetorical purpose justified?
More »

Unforced Variations: July 2020

Filed under: — group @ 1 July 2020

This month’s open thread for climate science topics.

Sensitive but unclassified: Part II

Filed under: — gavin @ 13 June 2020

The discussion and analysis of the latest round of climate models continues – but not always sensibly.

More »

Forced responses: Jun 2020

Filed under: — group @ 11 June 2020

Open thread on climate solutions. Please try and stay within a mile or two of the overall topic.

‘2040’

Filed under: — rasmus @ 3 June 2020

After an absurd period with a real-life gloomy corona pandemic, lock-down and unrest, it was quite refreshing to see visions for a sustainable future in a new documentary ‘2040 (link to trailer). Its message, through the voice of Damon Gameau, is about hope and is based on rational thinking.


The video takes us to twenty years fast-forward to an imagined future. It makes good use of effects that communicate. For instance, Damon Gameau speaks with children about green and sustainable solutions and then makes the time travel to show what such a future may look like when climate change has stopped.


The documentary also makes use of some cool effects to demonstrate how things work. But it is mostly about a positive message on solutions rather than emphasising climate science and harmful consequences of climate change.


There is an interesting timing with the release of ‘2040’, and hopefully it will contribute to discussions about new solutions and how we can make use of both technology and new behaviour to improve our lives and the health of the planet. This is something that is already being discussed in Europe.


I thought the documentary made some interesting points about energy production, how to make agriculture more sustainable through mixed crops and good soil health, and how to use ocean resources. Another important point is the importance of empowering girls and women. However, I’m not in the position to say how successful the suggested solutions would be. I guess we may know answers in 2040.