Science, Propaganda & Climate Change

By David L. Brown

If a climate change denier wants to make a point, it seems there’s no need to worry about the facts. No, just making stuff up seems to be the policy being followed these days. As someone recently pointed out, the argumentative* model used by climate change deniers is looking more and more like the crazy ravings of Creationists, or as they like to call themselves, advocates of “Intelligent Design.”

It goes something like this: Conjure up a strawman based on some unsubstantiated “fact,” then use that to attempt to destroy the entire edifice of scientific knowledge about the subject at hand. In the case of “intelligent design,” the process is to state that, for example, it would be impossible for a certain feature of living creatures such as the eye to evolve, ergo, evolution is a hoax, Charles Darwin was the Anti-Christ, and the Earth was created 4000 years ago. Trouble is that there is no basis for the starting statement, because evolutionary biologists can quite easily explain the evolution of the eye. What seems reasonable to the uninitiated  has no basis in fact, and such processes of “reason” depend for their success upon the ignorance of the audience.

With the question of global climate change, the usual “argument” goes something like this: “It’s colder today in (fill in place) than usual, so there is no global warming.” The trouble with that utterly simplistic statement is that no climate scientists believe or have ever stated that global warming will be observed as an overall steady rise of temperatures equally spread out all around the world. In fact, the concept of “climate change” allows for and indeed predicts that some areas will grow colder (thus the stupid movie The Day After Tomorrow). It is the average temperature that is rising, not the temperature in Podunk, Minnesota where it might be colder than a… well I’ll let you complete that statement (Hint: rhymes with “which is it?).

Nowadays climate change deniers are becoming more aggressive than ever. For example, there is presently a big hoo-haw going around about the “fact” that the “hockey stick” graph made famous by Al Gore in his An Inconvenient Truth has been discredited, and in fact the world is actually cooling. Articles, blog entries, op-eds and media commentators have sprung up everywhere to trumpet this “news.” According to the general theme of the reportage, the big bad wolf of climate change is dead, we can all go back to burning fossil fuels forever, and it might be a good idea to invest in a nice warm set of woolen underwear.

The trouble is that the underlying “fact” of this “argument” isn’t true. For a complete debunking, see this analysis on the web site. (Incidentally, that site has the subtitle, “Climate science from climate scientists.” Wow, what a concept!) I won’t even attempt to summarize this report and invite you to follow the link if you want to read the details, including a batch of graphs that show that the “hockey stick” still lives and there is no credible evidence for the position that it has been in any way discredited. I will share with you this graf from the RealClimate article, referring to these kinds of “kerfluffels”:

The timeline for these mini-blogstorms is always similar. An unverified accusation of malfeasance is made based on nothing, and it is instantly ‘telegraphed’ across the denial-o-sphere while being embellished along the way to apply to anything ‘hockey-stick’ shaped and any and all scientists, even those not even tangentially related. The usual suspects become hysterical with glee that finally the ‘hoax’ has been revealed and congratulations are handed out all round. After a while it is clear that no scientific edifice has collapsed and the search goes on for the ‘real’ problem which is no doubt just waiting to be found. Every so often the story pops up again because some columnist or blogger doesn’t want to, or care to, do their homework. Net effect on lay people? Confusion. Net effect on science? Zip.

One of the things that must just frost the deniers’ butts is the fact that we see glaciers receding, the oceans rising, permafrost melting and so forth. So another thing they do is to make up stories about these realities. For example, in a letter to the editor of the Orange County Register today, a certain Larry Hamlin chimes in on the subject. The author identifies himself as “former state energy czar under Gov. Gray Davis” and a retired vice president of “SCE Power,” which is the working name of Southern California Edison, the local electrical power company.

Now we don’t have to think very hard to imagine that this former energy czar might not want to accept the need for power companies to cut back on CO² emissions or anything like that (even in California, apparently), but his letter (you can read it here) is an interesting example of climate change “argumentation.” You can get the gist of it from the headline: “Climate-change winds blow colder”. He makes several points, but I will only address the first, in which he states:

…the 2009 summer minimum Arctic Sea Ice Extent [Area of ocean with at least 15 percent sea ice] that was predicted by alarmists to decline, instead, grew dramatically. According to International Arctic Research Center AMSR-E satellite data, it grew by about 1 million square kilometers of ice (1.4 times the size of Texas), which is a 23 percent growth above 2007 and 11.5 percent growth above 2008 sea-ice levels, respectively.

This is a total fabrication or misstatement of the facts. The ice did not “grow,” but instead failed to reach the record low level of 2007. It was still far below the average of n_daily_extent_hiresprevious years and marks a continued decline in summer sea ice. “Alarmists” (read: climate scientists) did not predict that sea ice would decline to a record low this year, only that there is a downward trend, and indeed this season reflected that.

The map at left, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, tells the story better than words. The orange line shows the average extent of sea ice as of September 30 for each year during the period of 1979-2000. The white area shows the actual sea ice present on that date this year. Can this be interpreted as evidence of “growth” of sea ice, and even more, as evidence that that the sea ice “grew dramatically”? Well, only in the imaginary world of climate change denial. I won’t dignify the rest of Hamlin’s letter by repeating it here.

One has to wonder about the source of the argumentative model now in widespread use by those who seek to deny climate change. Well, let’s look for some clues. Here, for example is a statement by Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister:

“Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.”

Yes, you read that right: to attain the aims of propaganda, the “truth” is found not in reality, but in what just “seems” right, that is to say, appears credible to the unenlightened masses. Thus, simplistic statements such as we so often hear about the temperature in a certain place at a certain time fits perfectly into Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda, upon which the Third Reich built its rise.

So can we conclude that what climate change deniers do is to apply the principles of political propaganda? I think we can. Here is another clue, a statement written by Craig Miyamoto, APR, a public relations counselor:

Known as the “father of modern American radicalism,” Saul D. Alinsky (1909-1972) developed strategies and tactics that take the enormous, unfocused emotional energy of grassroots groups and transform it into effective anti-government and anti-corporate activism.

Using the “unfocused emotional energy” of the Great Unwashed, that’s what we’re talking about. I could go on, quoting Nicolai Machiavelli, Vladimir Lenin and others. It is perhaps enough to note that propaganda created some of the most terrible monsters of the 20th Century, and that both Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were “revered as superhuman geniuses by literally at least a billion people,” according to a statement by Dutch philosopher Maarten Maartensz, who added “and among these billions were some of the brightest and best informed in the West of the time.”

Propaganda is a political tool that has been used by every government or national leader since, well, probably since well before recorded history. Can you not imagine the  stone age “propaganda minister” of Cave A spreading bad rumors about the folks who live in Caves B, C and D? Of course you can. Modern propaganda is merely that same sort of rumor-mongering and slander writ large on national and international scales. And, that is exactly the kind of stuff that climate change deniers use to “discredit” scientific findings.

The trouble with this is that scientists cannot, by the very essence of how they work, engage in such an approach. Science deals in the ongoing effort to discern the truth, no matter how incredible the conclusions may seem. In fact, much of what modern science has revealed doesn’t pass the Goebbels credibility test (think here of the theory of Relativity, the evidence of an expanding universe, quantum dynamics, etc.) To a scientist (or at least, a “real” one and there are all too many fakes), only demonstrated facts can be applied in argument, and even those are always open to challenge. To act otherwise means the end of one’s career, for the manipulation of data is a “crime” among professional scientists.

And what makes this even more of a problem is that the ordinary folk who are the targets of the propaganda efforts against climate change are largely ignorant of these distinctions. They are oblivious to the fact that there is a wide gulf between the arts of science and propaganda, and are far too likely to accept the misleading machinations of the latter against the “inconvenient truths” of the former.

Propagandists love to play on this difference, invisible to ordinary people, whether to advance their “theories” of intelligent design or to build uncertainty about the danger of climate change. The saddest part of this is that ignorance is more often apt to win out over reason, and that is the tragedy of human existence.

And since I have been quoting various sources in this essay, I will end with this one:

“If we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

Take note and beware.

* Just so we are clear, the process of “arguing” in civilized society does not equate to barroom fights or domestic disruption, but to a rational process of discussion, as in this definition: “Argumentation: 1 : the act or process of forming reasons and of drawing conclusions and applying them to a case in discussion,” Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary. That is in the same sense that a lawyer “argues” a case in court.

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