User:Scribe/Denialists are idiots

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A cautionary tale about futility

Why arguing with denialists is pointless and silly

I've been editing various articles on global warming related topics on Wikipedia for a while. Like most scientists in the field, I believe anthropogenic global warming is real and extremely important (although I am not an atmospheric scientist, merely well read in the area). However, I've faced some very tendentious and determined denialist editors who clearly think the whole issue is nonsense, and feel strongly enough about it to edit against it, in one way or another, obsessively. I had an email exchange with one of them (Alex) because despite his claims of employment as a computer programmer in real life, he clearly had plenty of time to edit Wikipedia and oppose me and many others at every turn on climate-related pages. In fact, there is no way he could be fully employed and doing what he was doing, looking at his edit history. Now there are literally billions of dollars, perhaps even trillions, at stake over carbon trading schemes around the world. Just here in Australia we've seen mining executives say that any emissions trading scheme would, in its first five years, "cost the Australian coal and gold mining sectors $5 billion and $850 million respectively". [1] So my suspicion was, and is, that these vested interests are paying people to edit wikipedia to put their case, just as the tobacco industry did.

Anyway, during our email exchange (listed below, with my emphasis added in red), my interlocutor implied that the overwhelming scientific consensus over anthropogenic global warming was the result of scientists being too frightened to say what they really feel and voice their real doubts. He sent me a paper by scientist Jeffrey Kiehl as an example of a climate researcher who was hinting at doubts with a nudge and a wink, if you read between the lines. I called his bluff and wrote to the scientist, asking him what his true feelings are. See what happened below.

My interchange on Alex's Talk page

I wrote on Alex's talk page:

Have a look at this press report showing that the "cooling" since 1998 is not real. I still can't work out if you're genuinely skeptical but misguided, or if something more sinister is afoot. Jason

He replied:

Um, I've already seen that. It appears to be a dreadful straw man argument. "Global warming skeptics base their claims on an unusually hot year in 1998. Since then, they say, temperatures have dropped — thus, a cooling trend. But it's not that simple." But... um... who says this? I have never heard a serious skeptic make this argument.[My comment: but what about skeptic-in-chief Ian Plimer, he makes that argument, and so do many others] So it looks like more propaganda to me.[My comment: when skeptics lose an argument, the other side's argument is dismissed as "propaganda"] Meanwhile, to help you understand where I'm coming from I've been thinking I might actually clarify my own view of global warming. When I do that I'll add it to my main user page. In a few words, though, I don't pretend to know what has caused recent global warming, but I do believe (know) that many of those who are claiming "the science is settled" are exaggerating their certainty and pretending not to have doubts. I have a passionate belief that nothing good can or will come from decisions or actions based on distortions of the Truth. I also don't like Wikipedia being used to further distortions of the truth. So nothing sinister is afoot! :)


Email 1 Jason to Alex


I'm perfectly all right with all that. However, before you come down on the side of doubt about the certainty of scientists, I'd ask you to listen to some of these podcasts, specifically the ones by Australians:

By Australians:

I'm interested if you're a real person susceptible to rational debate.


Email 2 Alex to Jason

Hi Jason,

I'm a real person with a real email address; that much is hopefully clear now! I'll see if I can look at the podcasts when I get home from work.

On the doubt of scientists, I know some of these scientists personally. I read peer reviewed papers and often detect what feels like undeclared skepticism. I sometimes then send off some hard questions to the authors, and the responses I get back (when I get responses back at all) are often far less certain than what was published. To put it another way, I have never received back a response that confirmed real certainty.

Have a look at a recent paper by the high profile IPCC scientist Jeffrey Kiehl (no, I haven't corresponded with him).

Kiehl, J.T. (2007) Twentieth century climate model response and climate sensitivity. Geophys. Res. Lttrs., 34, L22710, doi:10.1029/2007GL031383 (attached).

Read this paper carefully, and ask yourself, does Kiehl really believe in the IPCC model projections? I don't think so.


Email 3 Jason to Alex

Hi Alex

Thanks, I read it. I'm taking you seriously as a real, thinking person and not a mole-for-coal or industry stooge, so I investigated Kiehl.

Do these comments by Kiehl sound like the comments of a doubter:

But developing ways to reduce reliance on carbon is exactly what companies (and everyone) should be doing, said keynote speaker Jeff Kiehl, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Unfortunately, Kiehl said, just 37 percent of people in countries with high GDP are optimistic that technology can solve environmental problems, according to a 2005 Environics International study. With the U.S. accounting for only 5 percent of the world’s population but for 25 percent of its carbon emissions, Kiehl said the country needs to use its collective imagination and lead the way to developing sustainable technologies. “We should show the world how to do it,” he said. “Then we should sell those technologies to countries like India and China and make profits. Hopefully, we’ll do that.” [2]


Email 4 Alex to Jason

Hi Jason,

All that quote says is that he is certain that he wants to break our reliance on carbon based energy. But it doesn't say anything about whether or not he truly believes that carbon is causing global warming, or even that global warming matters. I think it suggests he is certain that our present way of life is unsustainable, and we need to change it, regardless of global warming. On that much, I can agree with him.

In any case, often the public pronouncements of these scientists is quite different from what you find in their peer reviewed writings. Just as politicians' public statements are often different from what they truly believe.


Email 5 Jason to Alex

Come on, Alex, why would an atmospheric scientist —who has no committed feelings on the issue of anthropogenic global warming— be out in the community promoting low carbon tech? Please think it through carefully. Your position isn't logical.

He's also an organizer for the Aspen Global Change Institute. Those people are AGW believers.

Next you'll be telling me that he's probably secretly is full of doubts. If you do that, I'll write to him personally and canvas his opinions.


Email 6 Alex to Jason

Hi Jason

There's not much point in speculating on what goes on inside another's mind. [My comment: but that's exactly what Alex does to sustain his belief that scientists secretly harbour terrible doubts!] Nevertheless, I find it rather hard to believe that the author of the Kiehl 2007 paper is not somewhat more skeptical of our climate sensitivity results than he is willing to publicly admit. Climate sensitivity results are based purely on model outputs. Read the final paragraph, and look at the wording.

It could also be argued that these results do not invalidate the application of climate models to projecting future climate for, at least, two reasons.

These are Kiehl's peer reviewed words. He says it merely "could" be argued that model projections are not invalid. What kind of conviction is that? The remainder of the conclusion is similarly lacking in conviction or certainty.

Then what about this paragraph:

It is important to note that in spite of the threefold uncertainty in aerosol forcing, all of the models do predict a warming of the climate system over the later part of the 20th century. The warming is in essence bounded by the fact that climate sensitivity is a positive quantity and the total forcings used by modelers are also positive. This implies that the total forcing of the 20th century cannot be negative, i.e. the negative aerosol forcing cannot be larger than the positive greenhouse forcing, which bounds the magnitude of the total aerosol forcing.

Now stop and think about what he has just said before reading on. The only thing he puts in the realm of the factual is that climate sensitivity is a positive quantity. Can you see that? This is exactly what Garth Paltridge is saying in his book. He does not talk about any bounding by any "fact" that the sum of all feedbacks is positive. If the results are not bounded by any fact of the theory of the positive feedback, in other words that's just not a fact! That's just not proven, and he knows it, and admits it. This implies that the possibility that the sum of all feedbacks is negative (a la Lindzen, Spencer et al) is actually widely open in his mind.

If you'd like to contact Kiehl with these questions, by all means! Just let me know what he says.


Email 7 Jason to Scientist Jeffrey Kiehl

Hello Jeff

I am an editor at Wikipedia and I am involved in an argument with another editor over the meaning of your work. You can see our correspondence [included]. He's using your work as a reason to justify his extensive pro-skeptic edits to the encyclopedia. I do not see this skepticisim in your work or your pronouncements on the issue. Could you make a comment on where you really stand please? Is anthropogenic global warming real and significant and the cause of the current warming, or not, or are you not sure?


Email 8 Jeffrey Kiehl to Jason

Dear Jason,

The facts are that Earth is warming and this warming is mainly due to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. This warming will continue into the future as long as atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to increase. The uncertainty in net radiative forcing will actually decrease as the relative role of aerosols becomes smaller over the next few decades. The greenhouse forcing at the end of this century will be in the range of 6 to 12 W/m2, which is larger than Earth has seen in tens of millions of years. So, global warming is real, it is due mainly to human activity, and it will cause unprecedented warming over the century and beyond. I hope this is clear enough.

Also, note that Reto Knutti published a paper after mine showing that the future projected warming is insensitive to the model fits to the 20th century record, which is what I hypothesized to be the case in my paper.

Here is the reference to Reto's work: Knutti, R. (2008), Why are climate models reproducing the observed global surface warming so well?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L18704, doi:10.1029/2008GL034932.

Jeffrey T Kiehl, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
Climate Change Research Section
National Center for Atmospheric Research
1850 Table Mesa Dr
Boulder, CO 80305

Email 9 Jason to Alex

Hi Alex

From the horse's mouth [Kiehl's email forwarded]. Now come on, join me. I'm pretty sure this is a real and dangerous issue, and we should not be arguing over it.


Email 10 Alex to Jason

Hi Jason

Let's not argue over this indeed; I have managed to get scientists' true feelings after building their trust that I wasn't about to betray them and send off their views in writing to a newspaper. You said to him: "He's using your work as a reason to justify his extensive pro-skeptic edits to the encyclopedia." That's not even vaguely true.[My comment: It isn't? But your edit history screams the opposite!] It was quite clear to him that anything he said was about to be made public... That's kind of like writing to Kevin Rudd right now and asking him to send you an email about his true feelings about the 70 people stuck on a boat near Indonesia. Yeah, right. There's absolutely no way he would put his true feelings into an email as the risk is significant that you'd send it off to The Australian.

Whilst it seems clear to me that your own views on the serious of global warming are being used as a reason to discredit scientists who disagree, nothing I believe about global warming has anything to do with my edits on Wikipedia.[My comment: Which could be true, if it's just a job to him!] What I believe is that anyone has a right to disagree without being subjected subsequently to a smear campaign. I am asking you to obey the Wikipedia guidelines.

That said, I'll be interested to see the Knutti paper.

Best regards,

Email 11 Jason to Alex


I thought you were amenable to reason. I was wrong. Lesson learned. To claim that Kiehl made his statement out of fear his email would be used in public is perhaps the most desperate ploy I've ever seen in a debate. I'm sure that even if he personally called you up and told you that this is a real and serious problem, you'd still be blathering on about how he cannot say what he "really" feels. And comparing this senior scientist to a sleazy politician like Kevin Rudd is really a low move. You've basically accused him of lying out of fear. If so, it's one of the most convincing lies I've ever read.

So I'm still left wondering if editing Wikipedia isn't your real, paid daytime job. Upton Sinclair said it best: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

As for trying to discredit people: I'm only using what's out there about these people to show readers who they are. If the cap fits, wear it.


Email 12 Alex to Jason


I'm sorry, but you seem to have a big problem with distinguishing what someone is really saying, and what you hear them as saying. [Oh, the irony is delicious!]