Fakegate: Why chase after the delegitimization of Heartland ?

Environmentalists have invested significantly in building their political movements. It is primarily their campaigning investments that has opened up newer areas of politicking.  As Donna Laframboise notes, just before Gleick’s ‘confession’, a peculiarly virulent pushback was directed at the Heartland Institute. ‘Conservative think tank tries to participate in environmental debate.’ – book the criminals!!

However, what is being done in the case of Heartland is not new. In 1999, Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap  – famous academics in the global warming social sciences circles, if you should know, (for e.g., the recent cool dudes paper) did the same in a systematic manner. The authors took a hold of published material from American right-wing think tanks (i.e., evil) and examined the structure of their content (link here). The ‘composite list’ included

conservative think tanks that received the largest amount of funding from conservative foundations, garnered the most media citations in recent years, and have the strongest affiliations with past Republican administrations

They obtained documents – a total of 224 – by searching official web sites of 26 conservative think tanks for material ‘written between 1990 and 1997 on “global warming,” “greenhouse effect,” and “climate change.”

Just as Heartland was found to be poised to “undermine” climate science, one of the main themes they found was that the think tanks criticized the “evidentiary basis of global warming.” Now, there are a lot of documents, and we don’t have the raw data; nor is it practical for the authors to compile them together as an appendix. Helpfully enough, the authors quote key passages from the material they collected. These are passages McCright and Dunlap themselves chose, that they think are the best in making their case:

Compare what the dastardly think thanks say (highlighted in yellow), and what McCright and Dunlap take them to be (underlined in blue). A declaration about a lack of consensus over the ‘likelihood, extent, or even reality of human-induced global warming’, in the hands of the authors, becomes a denial of scientific consensus over the ‘existence of global warming.’  It is the same phenomenon noted with the Heartland incident.

The problem noticed above – is a recurring one. Climate consensus upholders, despite claims to the contrary (if any), do not wish to debate or engage in any form, shape or fashion, with anyone, on the global warming issue. The tactic of choosing ‘science’ as a basis of decision making is a political innovation designed to avoid discussion. Consequently, anything a conservative organization seeking debate utters on the topic of global warming, would immediately invalidate their very legitimacy.

This explains how McCright and Dunlap see a lack of ‘consensus on human-induced global warming’ as utter denial of even the existence of global warming. For the consensus, the problematicity of global warming is synonymous with the scientific fact of global warming. Contrary to what they imagine however, this is a political tactic, and nothing more. How? Firstly, it allows consensus upholders to dismiss criticism of problematicity of global warming, without confronting the question. The conversation takes on the same format, over and over again:

X:’Global warming is not a problem.’

Y:’How can you even deny the existence of global warming?’

Subsequently, you will find the consensus challenger (X), busy explaining: ‘I am not denying the existence of warming. I am not a denier. I am not an oil shill. …etc.’ By putting their opponents on the backfoot in this fashion, consensus upholders acheieve several objectives. They paint themselves as, and imagine themselves to be, defenders of science. They shoo away competing voices from the domain of claimsmaking by de-legitimizing them, effectively capturing completely the debate terrain. In the process, they avoid or postpone cross-examination of their own claims. The very domain, belongs to them – that is the result.

The attacks on Heartland are not surprising due to this reason. The same tactics are replicated with the ‘teaching of climate science in schools’ discussion. Predictably enough, the attempt at climate science teaching is the real crime from Heartland, not the content of such teachings, which are not even known at this stage. In this regard, Steve McIntyre has wrestled the Fakegate demon to the ground.

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7 comments

  1. Maurizio Morabito (omnologos)

    OTOH this attitude makes speaking to an archwarmist very easy…all one has to demonstrate is that he/she doesn’t listen, and is not listening: ie, ask them to explain your position, and they’ll be lost for words before making things up. QED.

    It never fails.

  2. Stew Green (@stewgreendotcom)

    Did they get jailed last time ?
    They have the vast PR resources to do these clever dirty tricks, but will they keep getting away with this ?
    there’s the serious old man world of the skeptics
    – & the cool, chick-full world of the pseudo-greens who lap up the dogma confirmation

  3. alexjc38

    Good article, and it’s always interesting to learn something more about the historical dimension to this debate. I’ve also noticed this de-legitimising tactic in statements made by at least one scientist who should know better.

    For example, geneticist Steve Jones, author of last year’s report on impartiality commissioned by the BBC Trust, speaking on BBC Radio 3 recently about balance:

    “If you’re talking about global warming – which is 99.9% likely to be happening, and due to human activity – there is a sort of nervous tic, that they have to have the 0.1% attitude – that it’s not happening, that it’s all made up by corrupt scientists. It isn’t, and if it is made up by corrupt scientists, the first people to show that will be other scientists.”

    I’ve been curious about this sort of statement, coming from a nominally smart person. Does he actually think this way? It would mean, surely, that he is less smart than he considers himself to be, or at least that his smartness is limited to his specific area of expertise. Or is he deliberately employing this tactic, knowing it to be mendacious? Up until recently, I’ve been willing to go for the former possibility, but perhaps I’ve been too charitable?

  4. Shub Niggurath

    Alex,
    I’ve always thought there is a fascinating paradox behind the actions of those like Jones.

    In everyday science, in the lab and in meetings, scientists and trainees are always careful to make, and to be seen making claims fully justifiable by the evidence and not a single step more. In publication the same rule holds – one is compelled not to speculate. This tendency is particularly exacerbated in the process of paper publication, by the crowding out of scientific enterprise by funding mechanisms. Government and private donors typically fund for research in a specific area at a time, and lots of researchers pursue work in the same area at a given time. So there is a tendency for such a community of peers to restrict each other from making speculative claims, so there can be room for all participating members to say something (i.e., get a paper published). (the opposite can happen as well, but that is a different story).

    In any event, there is always a tension in academic scientific activity to ‘say only what the evidence supports’ in formal settings – in meetings, conferences and papers. If A->B->C=>D=>E, where the link between ‘C’ to ‘D’ and ‘D’ to ‘E’ are tentative or speculative, scientists are leery of their peers who insist on making such links.

    The corollary – which Jones is referring to – is that claims that survive cross-examination in the published literature for a period of time can be admitted as being part of canon of knowledge (A->B->C). 99.9% of scientists agree they must be true. At that point, there is (usually) a small group who are still examining such links whom, suddenly, the rest are leery of. There are small holdouts in every science/science-related department in the world doing this. Active scientists always give sage advice to young and upcoming scientists – don’t be a maverick, don’t waste your time thinking up shit, don’t chase mirages, just keep your nose down and get your papers out solid.

    ‘Don’t develop that tic’.

    The same Jones though, paradoxically, fails to realise or detect that some of the most prominent claims in a field unrelated to his – global warming science – could possibly of a nature he wouldn’t allow in his own field. As a scientist, you assume that the published canon in a field is that which has passed critical review and stood the test of time. You assume those throwing objections at it are those with the ‘tics’ to oppose established work – the kind you are simply familiar in your own work.

    When this happens, a scientist like Jones, might end up providing support to a chain of claims of the nature: A=>B->C=>D=>=>E. This is because it has acquired the superficial appearance of most established claims in his own discipline. I think the silent support global warming science gets from the larger scientific community is of this nature. Scientists battle the demons of speculation and evidence in their work; as compensation, I feel, they concede to orthodoxy readily in others’.

    Of course, in the specific case of Jones himself, I would be tempted to attribute his support as mere mendaciousness. I couldn’t believe that such a smart guy wrote the kind of report that he did.

  5. alexjc38

    Shub: “Scientists battle the demons of speculation and evidence in their work; as compensation, I feel, they concede to orthodoxy readily in others’. I agree, and this would account for instances where laypeople have found it easier to be sceptical than the scientists, a situation which would otherwise seem counter-intuitive.