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Fake news, hacked mail, alternative facts – that’s old hat for climate scientists

Distortion? False information? Conspiracy theories? Hacked email? Climate scientists have known all this for decades. What can be learned from their rich experience with climate propaganda.

The world is slowly waking up. “Post-truth” was declared the word of the year 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries. Finally, people start to widely appreciate how dangerous the epidemic of fake news is for democracy.

Stir up hate, destroy discourse, make insane claims until no one can distinguish the most bizarre absurdity from the truth any more.

Thus the Austrian author Robert Misik aptly describes the strategy of right-wing populists.

Some call it “alternative facts”. (Those are the convenient alternative to true facts.) Let’s simply call it propaganda.

Fake News

Confusing people with fake news is not an invention of the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Here are some examples of simply false to outright crazy claims that “climate skeptics” have used to fool lay people for at least two decades (the links lead to explanations):

The greenhouse effect cannot exist, because it supposedly violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Since the late 1990s there has been no warming. In the Middle Ages Greenland was almost free of ice. The climate has cooled dramatically, Daily Mail and Breitbart News recently claimed (see the following video, in which meteorologist Kait Parker from the Weather Channel charmingly debunks this).

The “hockey stick” is broken. Sea levels are falling (claimed Björn Lomborg ). Etc. etc.

Graph: Greg Laden , with permission

The latest salvo in this is the claim by David Rose (yet again) in the British tabloid Daily Mail that “world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data”. Check out the “data manipulation” yourself in the next graph to see immediately how credible this story is. Rose used a misleading graph and cited a retired “whistleblower”, John Bates, who has since told AP that there was “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious.”

The key graph from Karl et al. (2015), showing the old NOAA data in red and the improved new version in black. Could the difference of a few hundredths of a degree have duped world leaders into signing on to the Paris Climate Agreement? (Mind you, the new version has been independently verified against the latest high-quality observational data and merely brings the NOAA data in line with the other global surface temperature data sets.)

And in any case, climate change is an eco-marxist scam (writes the Oslo terrorist Anders Breivik in his manifesto – with reference to hacked climate researchers’ emails.)

Hacked mail

Among the dirty tactics in the US election campaign was the spread of hacked emails in the weeks before the election. US intelligence agencies have come to the conclusion that Russia has tried specifically to influence the US elections in order to help Trump.

To climate scientists that sounds familiar. Before the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (where failed what in 2015 in Paris finally succeeded after 50 years of dithering: a global climate treaty), numerous emails from climate researchers from the preceding 14 years appeared on a server in the Russian city of Tomsk. They had been stolen from the British Climate Research Unit (CRU). British media speculated about evidence for a role of the Russian secret service FSB (who has an office at Tomsk) at the time; the British police have failed to identify the perpetrators of the data theft. On climate denier blogs and in many media these mails were hyped up to a “climategate” scandal and out-of-context tidbits were paraded to discredit climate research. For example, the Daily Telegraph headlined: “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation”.

The problem with this hype: in those climate scientist emails, there wasn’t even the slightest indication of any misconduct or reasons for doubt about global warming, as a full eight thorough investigations later proved. The best thing the climate deniers could find were the phrases “Mike’s trick” and “hide the decline,” which was presented as if scientists were trying to hide that global temperatures are really falling. Which is false of course (they are rising), and which wasn’t what the quote referred to, as the context in the mail concerned immediately shows.

Nevertheless, from the point of view of climate deniers, the email hack was a terrific success in influencing public opinion. This can even be seen in a recent interview of the New York Times with Donald Trump. The one where Trump’s statement that he was “open” was widely interpreted as if he might reconsider his position on climate change. In fact, he said :

It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know. I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists. Where was that, in Geneva or wherever five years ago? Terrible. Where they got caught, you know, so you see that and you say, what’s this all about. I absolutely have an open mind.

It is shocking that a US president apparently bought into the propaganda about “climategate”. I guess Trump really doesn’t know any better – he’s known for often claiming demonstrably false things he got “off the Internet”. But  leading people from his team (like Myron Ebell or the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt) are among those who have systematically been spreading such fake news about climate. Even the sober New York Times headlined on the nomination of Pruitt: „Trump Picks Scott Pruitt, Climate Change Denialist, to Lead E.P.A.“ According to the Guardian, at least 9 senior members of Trump’s team deny basic scientific knowledge about climate change.

Threat and intimidation

Many climate scientists are subject to threats and hate mail. My colleague and Realclimate cofounder Michael Mann got threats against him and, worse still, his family. This went as far as a letter with white powder, which was sent to Mike at the height of the anthrax scare and led to the evacuation of the university building by the police. In Australia, where I held a visiting professorship last winter, after anonymous threats my colleagues are working in a locked security area of ​​the university, which can only be entered with a chip card. Two weeks ago, I was called “vermin” (“Schädling” in German – a word last used about human beings by the Nazis) and threatened with death for me and my family if I were to publish another blog article. This is how afraid some people are of words, of an open, reasoned discussion.

These intimidations have a chilling effect. I know some (especially younger) colleagues who prefer not to publicly comment on climate science, to avoid becoming a target.

Doubt as a product

There has long been a consensus in the scientic community that human activities are primarily responsible for global warming. The physics is understood, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. Scientific academies and professional organizations from all over the world have clearly stated this. The doubts about climate science, which are still widespread among lay people, are a product with an industry behind it. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped annually by (mostly fossil) interest groups into “think tanks” which promote doubts by parading self-styled “experts” and pseudo-studies. Some are the same PR folks who previously tried to portray the harm from smoking as scientifically unproven.

The British author George Monbiot recently wrote in a highly recommended article :

I first encountered the machine when writing about climate change. The fury and loathing directed at climate scientists and campaigners seemed incomprehensible until I realised they were fake: the hatred had been paid for. The bloggers and institutes whipping up this anger were funded by oil and coal companies.

The oil company Exxon knew, 40 years ago, how harmful their products are to the climate. In the US, public attorneys are currently investigating because Exxon systematically deceived the public about these findings.

But Trump, who owns holdings in oil companies, has now appointed former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Tillerson has received a friendship award from Putin, and in 2012 he has sealed a $ 500 billion oil drilling deal in the Russian Arctic, which is currently blocked because of sanctions over the  annexation of Crimea – one of the plausible motives for Putin to support Trump in the election campaign. (A number for comparison to those 500 billion: Russia’s total military spending was $ 66 billion in 2015.) Trumps administration is expected to aggressively push fossil fuel business – at the cost of the stability of the climate and people suffering from the increasing droughts and extreme events all over the world.

The flood of paid or politically motivated propaganda is not just a threat to democracy. It is a danger to humanity’s livelihood: a stable climate, reliable crops, a life-giving biosphere. It is a relapse behind the time of scientific enlightenment. What can you do about it, and what should you rather leave?

What is not helpful

Ignoring the danger. The problem won’t go away by ignoring it. Propaganda and conspiracy theories are increasing dramatically, as the Guardian shows with a number of examples and statistics. In the social networks, the most popular climate change item of the past six months was not a carefully researched article by a science journalist but the #fakenews “Tens of Thousands of Scientists Declare Climate Change a Hoax”.

Normalizing nonsense. It is not helpful when some media keep citing nonsense spread by dubious anti-climate-science lobby groups as if this were a part of a normal “scientific debate”. Lobby groups that systematically spread disinformation, defamation, or hatred should be named as such and not be cited as if they were just normal discussion contributors.

Going into hiding. One should not duck away out of fear or opportunism, when the open society (and that includes science) is being attacked.

False balance. When the propaganda film “The Great Global Warming Swindle” was broadcast in the UK Channel 4 with its misleading graphics, false statements, fabricated data , etc., the station justified this thus: “This is a controversial film but we feel that it is important that all sides of the debate are aired.” This is only true if there is actually a serious “other side of the debate” that puts forth honest arguments. Or is there in reporting about AIDS always someone for the sake of balance, who claims AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus? The well-known problem of “false balance” in the media has resulted in only a small minority of the public understanding that there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community. A majority of people falsely believes that climate researchers are split into two roughly equal camps about the causes of global warming.

What we should do

Check sources! To avoid becoming a gullible victim of fake news, one needs to critically check the sources of news. Is a piece of news originating from the Washington Post, or from some fringe website? A serious newspaper with professional journalistic standards and a reputation to defend is a priori much more credible – but not a guarantee either. Even some mainstream media repeat falsehoods from climate deniers and (probably) consider this critical science journalism. I don’t need to mention specific examples here; our readers know plenty anyway. Checking sources also means: are cited experts really as prestigious as claimed? Today, thanks to scientific publication databases, you can easily verify that. Is a media report about some scientific finding based on a study in a peer reviewed journal? What do those media say whose core competence is science (e.g. Scientific American)?

Gather the views of independent experts. A very useful initiative in this regard is Climate Feedback, which solicits and publishes comments from a whole range of scientists about media articles on climate.

Enlighten. The best antidote against false news is true information with well-documented facts. One advantage of the Internet: everything I write in an article I can support with links, so everyone can verify the evidence. In case of statements on science, the ultimate evidence is usually studies in the peer-reviewed literature. Anyone who makes strong claims to laypeople, but does not publish them for discussion by professionals in relevant specialist journals, may well be more interested in propaganda than in science. False claims should be rebutted by those who understand the subject (but without giving the false claims more prominence).

Illuminate the background. Instead of citing lobby groups like a normal voice in a scientific discussion, one should illuminate their background and funding sources. Useful resources for checking the background of climate skeptics are e.g. the Realclimate Wiki and DeSmogBlog (here their background on David Rose).

Unfortunately there is no magic formula or panacea against the lobby activities of powerful interest groups who are deceiving the public by means of propaganda. Ultimately, only the citizens of the open society can defend themselves by making the effort to think and check rather than just being gullible. And by being willing to pay for quality journalism. If you’re not paying for the news you are reading, someone else is. And they might not have your best interest in mind.

As Immanuel Kant said:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.

Self-imposed.

Weblinks

The Atlantic: How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media (core statement: clearly denounce lies as such – and not just call them “controversial” etc.)

Guardian: BBC climate coverage is evolving, but too slowly (On the “false balance” problem of the BBC.)

The Climate Feedback project regularly makes a critical commentary on media articles by scientists

Washington Post: I’m a scientist who has gotten death threats

Scientific American: The War on Facts is a War on Democracy

67 Responses to “Fake news, hacked mail, alternative facts – that’s old hat for climate scientists”

  1. 51

    KW 49,

    Crack a book, okay? Your refusal to accept perfectly good explanations does not mean the explanations are wrong.

  2. 52
    nigelj says:

    Keith Wollard @49

    “They would be valid if climate science just relied on on simple physics and stuck with no feedbacks.”

    This is just incorrect. We know feedbacks are a reality in terms of climate processes, from both theory and past climate history, so the science would be negligent if it ignored feedbacks.

    “Climate modelling is exactly the same process as weather modelling. Take a current state, move all the grid cells forward one step in time, recalc and start again.”

    It’s not the same process at all. But even if it was, your argument is a red herring. It’s easier to predict long term climate trends because they are less chaotic than short term weather trends. That’s just the way it is whether you like it or not.

    “I live in Perth, the weather comes from the west across 6500km of unbroken ocean. It must be the easiest place in the world to forecast….. but the 5 day forecast is only accurate to 3 degrees 60% of the time.”

    One anecdotal example proves nothing. Just because you have clear ocean doesn’t prove a thing because the pattern of cyclones and anticyclones is not a regular cycle like a sine wave curve. It’s only roughly regular because the perturbations that generate it where bodies of air meet are somewhat chaotic. Its just not possible to predict it with accuracy.

    Having said that, I live in NZ and on average meteorologists get 80% accuracy overall for cities as a whole, which is a useful level of accuracy, if not ideal.

    “Yes it (weather prediction) is hard, but climate is harder. It is a much larger time and space frame with many more variables.”

    No climate prediction isn’t harder. While it has plenty of variables, they are known variables with known causes. Climate is a longer term phenomenon, and on these time frames cycles are reasonably regular and have known generating factors.

    In comparison weather is short term and the cycles are very irregular so harder to predict. The cycles are irregular as stated above because bodies of air combine in somewhat chaotic ways, ie they cannot be mathematically modelled. You will therefore be unlikely to get very accurate weather predictions.This is yet another reason why a world with more extremes of weather is going to be trouble.

  3. 53
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Keith Woolard, your ignorant opinion is duly noted. You know that predicting climate is harder than predicting weather precisely…how? How may climate models or weather models have you written or even learned how to use?

    [Crickets chirping]

  4. 54
    James says:

    The 97% consensus is often quoted… While I don’t think that consensus should be the determining factor in science, I am curious about this.

    You see articles like this one: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2013/02/13/peer-reviewed-survey-finds-majority-of-scientists-skeptical-of-global-warming-crisis/#2b6a270b4c7c

    and official documents like this https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2008/12/post-d6d95751-802a-23ad-4496-7ec7e1641f2f, and other things where they are all opposing the narrative of climate change.

    So the questions:
    What is the selection criteria for scientists included/excluded when calculating how many scientists are part of the consensus(for or against)?
    How many, exactly, are for and against it?
    How was this data accumulated?
    Is a list of their names available somewhere, or has it been peer reviewed?
    When corrected for the total number of submissions on both sides, has there been any review of bias for scholarly articles submitted for publication, Grant submissions, etc?
    Since apparently climate change modeling is easier that weather forecasting as it is a larger scale, can anyone link me to a model which can accurately reflect the climate data we have historically and can predict the climate going forwards?

  5. 55
    Ray Ladbury says:

    So, James, how would you expect things to work. Say you take a sample of scientists of varying degrees of understanding of a field. Some (group 1) publish actively in the field. Some (group 2) are general leaders in science–e.g. National Academy types, BSDs–they make it their business to understand what is important in science and how it relates to policy. Some (group 3) are in related fields, maybe occasionally contributing an article to the field, but understanding most of what is written. Some (group 4) are in fields that have a tangential relation to the field in question.

    Now, if a field is generally true and on the right track, would you expect the consensus to increase or decrease as group # decreases. I mean hopefully, the best practitioners of a field establish the theories on which there is consensus, so you’d expect a high level of consensus there–this is the group where 97% consensus prevails. The science-policy level would include groups like the National Academies, the Royal Society, professional societies, etc. Here we find some dissent, but it is so limited that there is not a single honorific or professional society in a related field that dissents from the consensus. And so on. The further one gets from those actively shaping the field, the less researchers understand it and the more folks you have in the group, so you’d expect consensus to go down. There is no actual serious dissent among scientists about the reality of climate change. What to do about it… that is another story.

  6. 56
    Thomas says:

    54 James, the answers are:

    It depends; add them up; read the Papers; read the Papers; Yes; Yes.

    You’re welcome. (smile)

    53 Ray Ladbury: How may cognitive science papers have you written or learned how to use in your own life/work? How many businesses have you run and do you have the leadership skills to run a multi-million $ business with 1000 employees and mngt? How many marketing communication psychology studies have you run and Paper have you written, or learned how to use in your own life work?

    [Crickets loudly chirping]

    So using your own pointed words of advice RAY, YOU and the MAs, BPLs, Chucks of this world can become more educated in science and math and PSYCHOLOGY, and 21st century Mass Social Media realities, and Advertising and Propaganda techniques, and corrupt democracies –thereby enhancing your value to your society as a voter and adding a great deal of meaning and pleasure to your own life.

    Don’t be intimidated Ray. Ask questions Ray. Ask for reading suggestions Ray and when provided on a blog site actually READ THEM and save the Ref Links.

    Ask for help with things you OBVIOUSLY don’t understand Ray.

    And pay it forward to the next kid or layman who asks help from you Ray, and MA Rodger, Barton Paul Leveson, and Chuck, and ……… for remaining delusional plus ignorant is not a valid option.

  7. 57
  8. 58
    nigelj says:

    James @54, good questions.

    The study you referenced polled geoscientists and engineers, and found the majority were sceptical about climate change. I’m mystified what relevant expertise engineers would have, and why geologists would be so dominant in their study. It’s just a rubbish study of two groups who have a history of climate scepticism.

    The most useful poll has to be climate scientists.

  9. 59
    Radge Havers says:

    James @ ~ 54

    You can look this up. Avoid fake news and propaganda–maybe figure out how to do that before forming an opinion.

    Skeptical Science has a bunch of stuff on this. Here’s two for starters:
    https://skepticalscience.com/debunking-climate-consensus-denial.html
    https://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm

    Hostility towards scientific consensus, a sign of a crank:
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/03/24/hostility-towards-a-scientific-consensus/

  10. 60
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Thomas,
    Actually, I had about 20 hours of psych credits when I got my undergraduate degree. I took some educational psych classes after I got my doctorate in physics. I served as a science teacher trainer in Africa after I got my doctorate. I continue to read the occasional paper in psychology and science education when time allows.

    I have availed myself of every class and training opportunity on mentoring in science offered by my employer. I have won an award for mentoring.

    It would be pointless for me to write a paper in psychology as I am not a psychologist.

    I would rather stick my hand into a Cuisinart than have anything to do with business.

    The problem with well intentioned prats like you is that you assume your experience is the only experience that matters. The situation is so crystal clear to you because your tunnel vision narrows your focus to a microscopic point. And so you pollute the discussion with an endless stream of literary diarrhea in which the occasional nuggets of actual insight that you might provide are swept away in a tide of dross.

    When I have questions, I ask questions. I do not ask them of you for the simple reason that nothing you have ever written has provided even the slightest scintilla of clarity.

  11. 61
    Mal Adapted says:

    James, @54, is specifically asking for the detailed methods of the various polls and surveys from which consensus numbers are obtained. The authors of each study presumably documented their methods along with their findings, so James just needs to start with the primary publications of each analysis.

    OTOH, if James just wants a credible indication of how strong the consensus is, and doesn’t really care about the precise number of individuals agreeing with one survey statement or another, then he may be able to draw on scientific meta-literacy to guide him [my emphasis]:

    We scientists rely upon a hierarchy of reliability. We know that a talking head is less reliable than a press release. We know that a press release is less reliable than a paper. We know that an ordinary peer-reviewed paper is less reliable than a review article. And so on, all the way up to a National Academy report. If we’re equipped with knowledge of this hierarchy of reliability, we can generally do a good job navigating through an unfamiliar field, even if we have very little prior technical knowledge in that field.

    IOW, when the US National Academy of Sciences publishes a report that begins with these words [emphasis in the original]:

    CLIMATE CHANGE IS ONE OF THE DEFINING ISSUES OF OUR TIME. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate.

    …you can be sure that represents the lopsided consensus of thousands of working climate scientists around the world, reached by iterative, disciplined debate in appropriate venues, over multiple lines of evidence from two centuries of research. Whether it’s a 66%, 85% or 97% consensus really isn’t relevant anymore.

  12. 62
    Thomas says:

    60 Ray Ladbury posits The problem with well intentioned prats like you is that you assume your experience is the only experience that matters.

    Spoken like an overly self-opinionated Prat who assumes only HIS experience, his biased worldview, his knowledge and lack thereof is the ONLY thing that matters.

    Such egotistical haughty prats like this believe their own shit doesn’t stink which to them is reason enough to make up BS and Fantasies about others at will; and despite not in possession of a reasonable knowledge of the subject matter.

    This may come from spending waaaaay too much time in their cloistered Ivory Tower existence where their “authority” far exceeds their life experience and talents.

    Go hard son!

  13. 63
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Thomas, you are hilarious…not very eloquent or smart, but hilarious. Luckily, you aren’t very persuasive, so the fact that your are wrong doesn’t matter.

  14. 64
    Thomas says:

    63 Ray Ladbury says: “Thomas, you are hilarious…”

    High praise indeed. Always willing to please. btw how’s that living in Bubble and inability to communicate working out for you? (smile)

    Anyway, back to the topic of climate science, alternative facts and fake news and especially the very serious dangers laying immediately ahead.

    Maybe recent Human History can help by offering up some reflections and clearer perspectives?

    Secret Iraq War Dossier The 572-page report was written between 2008 and 2011 by Dr Albert Palazzo from Defence’s Directorate of Army Research and Analysis.

    If world leaders can deceive voters about the greatest foreign policy debacle in a generation, why should a president today worry about casually lying about the crowds at his inauguration?

    Originally classified “Secret”, it was finally released last week after more than 500 redactions.

    As the catastrophic incompetence of Bush and his cronies became more and more obvious, most of the “progressive” journalists and pundits who’d backed the Iraq invasion walked (or perhaps tiptoed) back their support.

    So where George W Bush cultivated certain elite liberals (the late Christopher Hitchens comes to mind) to sell his program, Trump, by necessity as much as by choice, identifies as an opponent the mainstream media in its entirety – “the enemy of the people”, as he recently put it.

    Yet that rhetoric still draws on the hysterical, threat-laden discourse that accompanied the march to war in Iraq.

    “I accuse the media in the United States of treason.”

    That’s not Steve Bannon or another Trumpite writing today. It comes from a Washington Post op ed published in 2002 by Dennis Pluchinsky, a senior intelligence analyst working for the US Department of State.

    Back then, that sort of stuff was remarkably common.

    read the rest here
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/06/the-stench-of-the-iraq-war-lingers-behind-todays-preoccupation-with-fake-news

    or here
    http://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2017/iraq-dossier/

    Credibility Refs:
    https://www.army.gov.au/sites/g/files/net1846/f/sp317projectingforcealbert_palazzo_antony_trentini_jonathon_hawkins_malcolm_brailey.pdf
    http://www.bigskypublishing.com.au/Albert-Palazzo/1515/authordetail.aspx

    It’s funny how someone who is supposed to be not that “smart” didn’t need this 2017 news report to already know the crux of the matter all the way back in 2003.

    Maybe he’s way smarter than you think. ;-)

  15. 65
  16. 66
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thomas, have you ever been tear gassed in a demonstration?
    Just curious.

  17. 67
    Ron Taylor says:

    Stephan, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your courage and forthrightness. This website has been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and trustworthy information for me since its beginning. You have been an especially strong voice.