Tag Archives: front group

Making an honest hack out of Fred Pearce in five easy steps

Image courtesy of Flickr user “bLOGOS/HA HA”, used under Creative Commons

Attempting to convince those in the grip of denialism is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Take the case of the DDT-holocaust lie. No sooner has one false claim been thrown out (e.g. DDT ban in Malaysia in 1999 resulted in an increase in malaria) and shown to be nonsense than a new claim bearing no particular relation to its predecessor is deployed. Rather than chase down every single mutually contradictory claim made by those perpetuating the lie, I invite them to put themselves on record in a manner that makes their claims easily assessable.

In order to claim, as rubbish journalist Fred Pearce has, that anti-science environmentalism is responsible for “blanket opposition” to DDT use in fighting malaria resulting in a “virtual ban” for “more than three decades” and “millions of deaths”, one only has to satisfy a handful of conditions:

  1. Quantify how many, from where, and over what time interval the “millions of deaths” are supposed to have occurred.
  2. Demonstrate that there was a ban (actual or “virtual”), restriction, or other meaningful impediment to using DDT for malaria control (vs. for example agricultural spraying) in place for all deaths claimed in the above.
  3. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, all deaths claimed in the above would have been prevented (taking into consideration obvious confounding factors like the increase in resistance to DDT).
  4. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, the overall net result including health, economic, and environmental problems would have been positive- in other words, that using DDT would have resulted in more good than harm.
  5. Demonstrate that the cause of DDT not being implemented in all of the above cases was specifically attributable to “blanket” anti-science environmentalist opposition, rather than science-, economics-, efficacy-, and logistics-based reasons from professional science and health organizations like the World Health Organization, or implementation problems that had nothing to do with Silent Spring (such as replastering and bedbug concerns raised in places like South Africa).

Pretty simple. If you can’t satisfy the conditions, you don’t get to toss corpses at the feet of supposed anti-science environmentalist opposition arising from Silent Spring. Just how serious a case do people like Fred Pearce and Roy Spencer really believe they have?

My guess? Most won’t even  get past the first question or two.

Tom Fuller and Malaria – A Case Study of Denialism and the Backfire Effect

[I’m going to assume that most people who visit this blog are familiar with denialism and its hallmarks. If not, check out a good rundown from Denialism blog.]

Longtime readers are already familiar with Tom Fuller’s denialism on climate, e.g. here and here. Lately, Fuller has decided to throw his lot in with the DDT-holocaust lie.

The meme that anti-science environmentalist hysteria resulted in a ban on DDT use, resulting in millions of deaths from malaria, is fairly prevalent among the fringe American right wing but few places elsewhere. It’s championed by anti-regulatory front groups (e.g. CEI), climate denialists (e.g. Roy Spencer), and more recently rubbish journalist Fred Pearce.

It is of course demonstrably false. Make no mistake, there was indeed a resurgence of malaria after some decades of relative success in suppressing it. This resurgence had nothing to do with anti-science environmentalist hysteria. The reasons for it are not shrouded in mystery, but are rather mundane and (unfortunately for those looking to smear environmentalists) pretty much what a sane person would expect: financial problems, complacency, political instability, growing resistance, cost-benefit tradeoffs with alternatives due to scientific, economic, and practical concerns, and the like (Nájera et al., 2011; Cohen et al., 2012).

This was pointed out to Fuller. But Fuller tends to think with his gut, so he was not about to let pesky little things like reality stand in the way of a good blood libel. So he attempts to marshal some “evidence” in support of Pearce’s use of the lie. His first attempt is to blame the 1972 domestic ban on DDT use in the US- that had explicit exemptions for public health needs such as disease vector control- for a decline in DDT use in Sri Lanka that began in 1964. This is, to put it mildly, rank idiocy. Its nonsensical nature is pointed out.

Unsteadied, Fuller spends the next few comments telling people like myself that we “suck”, we’re on acid, and that environmentalists are like skinheads.

You might think this invective is the dawning of a realization of defeat. But the human psyche is a funny thing. When someone is shown that their position is stupidly, laughably wrong, if the position is tied to their ideological beliefs, it will have some interesting effects. Rather than accept their wrongness, they will actually discount the the refuting evidence and reaffirm their position even more strongly (Nyhan and Reifler, 2010). So after the brief period of insults free of any actual arguments, Fuller goes casting about for something else that will justify the DDT-holocaust lie. And look what happens along the way:

Fuller starts out just trying to justify Pearce’s use of the word “arguably”, and says that, well “[t]here are a substantial number of people who sincerely believe” in the DDT-holocaust lie, so Pearce is okay [October 23rd, 2012 at 12:16 pm]. His attempts to defend Pearce are shown to be wrong and he goes looking for other ones. As he does, he becomes more and more invested in the idea not just that Pearce was okay to spread the lie because he said it was “arguably” true, but that it is in fact absolutely true [October 24th, 2012 at 4:45 pm; October 24th, 2012 at 4:52 pm], and then goes still further and claims Pearce was really understating (!) the case [October 24th, 2012 at 9:28 pm]:

If Pearce is guilty of anything, it appears to be understatement.

This is the backfire effect on full, magnificent display.

And of course, denialism is nothing if not predictable, so Fuller’s evidence included the following: citing a four year hiatus of DDT use in South Africa that actually had nothing to do with anti-science environmentalist hysteria related to Silent Spring and was, it should go without saying, not responsible for “millions of deaths” (Mnzava, 2001; Cliff et al., 2010). Claiming that a 1999 ban on DDT caused an increase in malaria infections in Malaysia- this is what the trend in malaria infection actually is:

Citing the science, economic, and logistics-based decisions of the World Health Organization as anti-science environmentalist hysteria. Copypasta’ing walls of text from Senate testimony-fudger and all-around innumerate DDT evangelist Donald Roberts. And claiming that DDT was “stopped several decades [before the year 2000 in Mozambique], because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT” , despite DDT being the main method of malarial control until 1993. Claiming this, I should add, hours after it was pointed out as a falsehood in response to another commenter.

There is no admission of being wrong about any of things Fuller tossed out that were demonstrably false. There is no attempt made to maintain coherence of evidence or narrative (science and logistics are conflated with anti-science hysteria; the World Bank and WHO are conflated with hippies; the “millions of deaths” are supposed to have taken place in Africa in the 60s, then the 90s, then in the Americas; etc.). Causality is, several times, thrown completely out the window. And the sillier and more contradictory the claims grow, the more convinced Fuller becomes that the DDT-holocast lie is true.

All of this behavior will seem irrational and bizarre to many onlookers. And it is bizarre, if we were really talking about a person who was legitimately interested in looking at the reality of the situation. But of course, that’s not at all what’s taking place. What’s taking place is very classic behavior associated with motivated reasoning. It’s certainly not rational, but it is all too familiar. Though the topic is different, the dynamics are the same with respect to the denial of the reality and seriousness of anthropogenic climate change. Some people are just not going to be reachable by reality-based arguments. Taking a fact-based approach will actually cause some of them to be even more committed to their incorrect beliefs. Fortunately, though, the same social science that has illuminated this irrational behavior offers us some ways to bypass it. Hopefully I will have more to say on that later.

Note: In comments, Fuller says he was not defending Pearce’s use of “arguably”.

References

  • Cliff, J., S. Lewin, G. Woelk, B. Fernandes, A. Mariano, E. Sevene, K. Daniels, S. Matinhure, A. Oxman, and J. Lavis (2010), Policy development in malaria vector management in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Health Policy Plan, 25(5), 372–383, doi:10.1093/heapol/czq008.
  • Cohen, J., D. Smith, C. Cotter, A. Ward, G. Yamey, O. Sabot, and B. Moonen (2012), Malaria resurgence: a systematic review and assessment of its causes, Malaria Journal, 11(1), 122, doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-122.
  • Mnzava, A. E., B. L. Sharp, D. J. Mthembu, D. le Sueur, S. S. Dlamini, J. K. Gumede, and I. Kleinschmidt (2001), Malaria control–two years’ use of insecticide-treated bednets compared with insecticide house spraying in KwaZulu-Natal, S. Afr. Med. J., 91(11), 978–983.
  • Nájera, J. A., M. González-Silva, and P. L. Alonso (2011), Some Lessons for the Future from the Global Malaria Eradication Programme (1955–1969), PLoS Med, 8(1), e1000412, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000412.
  • Nyhan, B., and J. Reifler (2010), When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Political Behavior, 32(2), 303–330, doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2.

Due diligence – Gleick edition

I didn’t blog about the Gleick/Heartland stuff initially because, well, I didn’t think there was a lot of “there” there. The people who are clued into what front groups like Heartland do have documented their activities in the past, and frankly, I was only vaguely aware of who Gleick was. I believe the only time Gleick as a person or subject was really on my radar screen prior was him commenting on a post of mine. That’s not to disparage Gleick out of some ex post facto embarrassment, it’s just the facts.

I remarked when the controversy erupted that the whole affair would have essentially zero impact on the larger issue of mitigation (and would rather reinforce per-existing worldviews partisans but pass unnoticed by the general public). I later commented that I heard Roger Pielke Jr. make a similar prediction on public radio.

Shortly after these comments, I was informed of an amateur analysis of the language used in the documents in question that pointed to Bast rather than Gleick as being the author of the disputed “memo”. I asked why such an analysis (relative to the entrail-reading being done by obvious partisans on either side) wasn’t bigger news. No real answer there.

But now the person who designed the software used for this analysis performed one on his own and found (ignoring the possibility that anyone other than Bast or Gleick wrote the memo) Gleick was more likely than not the author of the memo relative to Bast.

This of course doesn’t “prove” anything one way or another, but it is obviously a bit more credible than the amateur pass that I initially highlighted, and so I think it’s well worth mentioning. My position from the start has been, and will continue to be this: the entire affair is irrelevant to the reality of anthropogenic climate change, mitigation efforts to lessen the impact thereof, etc. Groups like Heartland act as fronts for industries at risk of regulation and routinely try to obfuscate the scientific evidence that suggests such regulation is beneficial to the public. Gleick may be an award-winning scientist, but he was basically not on my radar screen prior to this and certainly plays no part in the fundamental body of evidence demonstrating the reality and attribution of present and future climatic change to humankind. Lastly, but not least importantly, if Gleick did fabricate the document, I think that he should be prosecuted for whatever laws he may have broken and should obviously receive repudiation from the scientific community for those actions.

I think it only fair that if I made a passing comment about the potential for his innocence, I note evidence in favor of his culpability. The case for stabilizing anthropogenic greenhouse emissions to reduce our perturbation of the climate system is strong enough without embellishment. Any illegal activity should be roundly condemned as such.

Moving slowly and avoiding whiplash: Jon Huntsman and Climate Edition

A few months back, Jon Huntsman caught some flak from conservatives for refusing to succumb to the pressure to reject science in order to pander to Republican primary voters. He was cheered as the lone voice of sanity in a vast ocean of denial by many, myself included.

Yesterday, it was reported that Huntsman had apparently thrown his lot in with Romney, Newt Gingrich, and the rest of the GOP field who have reversed themselves on the issue lately. Huntsman’s ostensible “flip flop” came during an address to the anti-regulatory, industry front group Heritage Foundation.

Many have been quick to attack Huntsman for this seeming pivot, and I confess that my reaction was quite negative as well, even though Huntsman’s chances seem as dismal as ever.

But according to Politico, Huntsman is denying any change in position, and has reaffirmed his support of the scientific consensus:

“Let me be very clear on this: there is no change,” he told reporters after his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I put my faith and trust in science. So you have 99 of 100 climate scientists who have come out and talked about climate change in certain terms, what is responsible for it. I tend to say this is a discussion that should not be in the political lane but should be in the scientific lane.”

“Is there a one percent that has a disagreement? There’s a one percent that has a disagreement,” he added. “Will those discussions continue, as they always do in the scientific community, to clear up those areas of ambiguity? I suspect so. But, as for me, I’m on the side of science on this one.”

I suppose that’s one benefit of infrequent blogging- I procrastinated my way out of jumping the gun. Anyway, as James Fallows said, it will be interesting to see what Huntsman says the next time climate comes up.

William Nierenberg, Merchant of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is a highly engaging read by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes about the long war on science waged by anti-regulatory forces. Obviously, this extends to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

One of the “Merchants of Doubt” is William Nierenberg, founder of the anti-regulatory, denialist, bullsh*t hub of disinformation, the George C. Marshall Institute.

Nierenberg’s son Nicolas has been engaged in an understandable effort to whitewash his father’s legacy in underplaying the risks posed by climate change. In doing so, Nicolas (ironically?) follows virtually the same pattern of doubt-mongering laid out in Oreskes’s and Conway’s book. He relies upon the scientific community’s tendency to dial in on details to the exclusion of all else, and thus tries to argue the minutia in order to distract from and cast doubt on the bigger picture.

I couldn’t have scripted a better example than the beginning of a recent comment of his over at William Connolley’s: “…Merchants of Doubt (MOD) is highly misleading. As a very specific and critical point…”

Please don’t get me wrong- I believe that Nicolas is engaging in good faith, and is not deliberately trying to be misleading. I encourage everyone to read his comments in full and discuss the issue with him personally- in my experience he is always prompt and courteous.

But as I said, Nicolas is depending on our failure to keep the big picture in mind. From a science standpoint, GMI is an inexcusable, disgusting organization. It is the antithesis of what genuine and honest inquiry should be. William Nierenberg’s part in its founding is terrible, and it is simply not credible to pretend that he was not engaged in the same anti-regulatory shenanigans as his organization- no matter how much Nicolas would like us to believe otherwise. No matter what Nicolas says about Oreskes and Conway’s writing, keep that in mind. Listen to what William himself said in his own words. On the likely effects of climate change:

In actual fact- the actual fact is, that calmer [vs. the scientific consensus] analysis has restricted the maximum likely CO2 to- the concentration- to slightly less than double and extended the time for the effects to the year 2150- that’s quite an increase. The global temperature change would be at most 1°[C], and the sea level rise would be barely one foot (or 30cm). The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is now believed to be stable for the foreseeable future. Despite this great relaxation in extremes, the dire predictions remain. [8:15-8:52]

On the atmospheric residency of CO2:

Well you see with [the scientific consensus of long atmospheric residency of CO2] in mind, you have a problem. No matter how sure you are that the effects will be minimal- you see- they are in effect irreversible. If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a bad estimate, you’re stuck and you have a problem- you see- reversing what you’ve done. Now, that’s the problem, but what happened is, the change in our viewpoint- those who take the problem seriously… In fact we now know that the CO2- the excess C02- will not last for a thousand years, but in fact will decay away on the average in about 150 years. Now that alters the entire perspective of the problem. It makes a possibility of correctibility at any stage of the game, if you have made a mistestimate [about the severity of the problem], and so on. So this [atmospheric residency of CO2], however, is the reason that the problem seemed to agonizing to so many of us early, and that reason has completely disappeared today. [12:01-13:08]

Watch the video in full. There are a legion of strawmen, red herring, appeals to ridicule, and other fallacies intended to persuade an audience rhetorically at the expense of fact and logic. William Neirenberg wasn’t a Morano or Watts-type out and out denialist. He was always an interjector of “reasonable” disagreement and uncertainty to prevent meaningful action on the issue. Nicolas Nierenberg would like you to believe that his father was not a Merchant of Doubt.

Nicolas is simply wrong.

UPDATE: As it’s a particular interest to WC, I wonder how he’ll react to Nierenberg lying about the “coming ice age” bullsh*t?

UPDATE: Per request in the comments, the video I linked to was shot in 1999. I don’t believe that the date substantively excuses many of the lies and half-truths by Nierenberg, but if anyone wants to attempt to justify his claims that’s probably a persuasive place to start. Nierenberg died in 2000- I’m not sure why anyone would expect comments of his to be made much past that time…

Exoneration fails to appease conspiracy theorists, cont’d, cont’d

Michael Mann has been unanimously cleared of the final accusation of wrongdoing by Penn State. Its full report is here.

In keeping with the tenets of Conspiracy Theory 101 (previous examples here and here), the panel’s findings were immediately dismissed as a “whitewash” by climate denialists, like CEI‘s Myron Ebell:

“It has been designed as a whitewash,” Ebell wrote in an e-mail. “To admit that Dr. Mann is a conman now would be extremely embarrassing for Penn State. But the scandal will not be contained no matter how many whitewash reports are issued. The evidence of manipulation of data is too obvious and too strong.”

Because as any good tinfoil hatter will tell you, when the investigation fails to confirm your pathological rejection of reality it can only mean that investigation is illegitimate.

[h/t John Mashey and Aaron Huertas]

UPDATE: Brian Angliss of Scholars and Rogues covered the “whitewash” nonsense back in February.

In a climate of fear

Nature has published an editorial calling upon the community to reaffirm the broad scientific conclusions in light of the high profile attacks being waged across talk radio and the blogosphere:

The core science supporting anthropogenic global warming has not changed. This needs to be stated again and again, in as many contexts as possible. Scientists must not be so naive as to assume that the data speak for themselves. Nor should governments. Scientific agencies in the United States, Europe and beyond have been oddly silent over the recent controversies.

You can read the whole thing here (or here).

Speaking of the war on climate science, a clip of Naomi Oreskes has been making the rounds of late. She’s giving a talk for the University of Rhode Island’s People and Planet Global Environmental Change, Vetlesen lecture in support of her upcoming book Merchants of Doubt:

Oreskes is also featured on a recent podcast of “Are We Alone?”, along with Stephen Schneider on denialism, and Simon Donner on corals in a warming and acidifying ocean.