Tag Archives: Merchants of Doubt

Fred Pearce continues to be rubbish

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Editor B”, used under Creative Commons.

Not content with lying about positions scientists don’t actually hold, passing off his opinions as reporting, engaging in the kind of “he said, she said” false equivalency that has been so toxic in media coverage of climate, and just generally getting things wrong, here’s Pearce perpetuating the free market/anti-regulation think tank lie about DDT bans causing millions of deaths:

When Rachel Carson’s sound case against the mass application of DDT as an agricultural pesticide morphed into blanket opposition to much smaller indoor applications to fight malaria, it arguably resulted in millions of deaths as the diseases resurged.

[Although there was a big push to do away with agricultural DDT spraying, its use to fight malaria was not banned. DDT use continued apace in some countries and declined in others for top down reasons rather than environmentalist-driven anti-science hysteria, including resistance in mosquitoes, political instability, preferences for pyrethroids (which also killed cockroaches) or netting (which didn't involve coating one's walls with a sticky unpleasant substance), and genuine-science-based health concerns of governments.]

But hey, it’s totally fine to say something that egregiously, hideously untrue as long as you mumble “arguably” into your sleeve, at least according to Pearce’s cheerleaders.

Pearce’s lie comes in the context of the latest hippie punching fad, which is to equate environmentalist fears about GMOs, nuclear power, and fracking with evolution denial, climate denialism, and other hallmarks of the anti-science right. This is approaching something of a cottage industry among people who seem to be garnering fewer eyeballs on topics like climate change than they once did.

There are three facts of relevance here, in my opinion:

  1. There are unquestionably environmentalists who have and promote fears about certain technologies that are unsupported or in contradiction to the balance of scientific evidence.
  2. This anti-science vein is in no way equivalent to, in terms of political legitimacy at the levers of governmental power, that right wing anti-science beliefs enjoy.
  3. The actual, problematic anti-science beliefs of environmentalists are often conflated with issues that have nothing to do with science in order to make the problem seem larger than it is. This is counterproductive.

I think point number 1 is hugely important. The work of Dan Kahan and others (e.g. Kahan et al., 2011) has shown pretty convincingly that egalitarian-communitarians interpret scientific evidence in a way that conforms to their preexisting worldviews just as hierarchal-individualists do. I would like to see anti-science fears about GMOs and nuclear power either marginalized or preferably reversed by effective messaging and education. I vehemently believe that GMOs and nuclear power are going to be necessary tools in dealing with our energy and agricultural needs in the future, and that climate change probably increases their importance.

Point 2 is something that I trust is not in any way controversial or requires further discussion.

For those of us who believe point 1 is a legitimate problem, point 3 effectively knee caps efforts to ameliorate it. When people conflate issues that enjoy no clear scientific consensus, such as the environmental impacts of fracking, with denial of evolution or the reality of anthropogenic climate change, they are injecting a false equivalency that muddies the waters of discourse and prevents positive movement on the issue. The same goes for conflating dislike of business practices of certain agricultural companies and economic/national security concerns over nuclear power with denial of evolution or climate change.

If Pearce or the others who have taken up this latest meme stuck to what actually was equivalent, their complaints would look a great deal less serious. So they have to over-egg the pudding. This not only gives the appearance of more substance, it also generates more acrimony and page views. Whether the latter is intentional or not, it’s certainly not productive in actually addressing the problem, which requires understanding the actual scope and potential strategies for overcoming what environmental anti-science exists. And make no mistake, there are people doing just that.

But Fred Pearce is not one of them.

UPDATE: Some folks over at Collide-a-scape are trying to pin the decline in DDT use in some countries in the 60s against malaria on a 1971 US domestic ban. Yes, something in the 60s is being attributed to something that happened in the 70s.

Setting aside the timeline idiocy, as I stated previously, actual examination of the causes of malaria resurgence simply does not bear this out. Nor does it support in any way Pearce’s ghoulish lie that environmentalists are somehow to blame for it or millions of deaths. In the course of providing others with some references, I came across some additional reasons for malarial resurgence. It turns out that weakening of programs due to financial shortfalls, premature complacency, and intentional expiration of short term programs- in addition to aforementioned factors like resistance and political instability- are responsible not just for a decline in DDT use, but a decline in malarial-eradication programs generally (Cohen et al., 2011;  Nájera et al., 2011). Both papers should be accessible without a subscription.


  • 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.
  • Kahan, D. M., H. Jenkins‐Smith, and D. Braman (2011), Cultural cognition of scientific consensus, Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147–174, doi:10.1080/13669877.2010.511246.
  • 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.

My apologies to Judith Curry

Image courtesy of Flickr user messtiza, used under Creative Commons

Boy, is there ever egg on my face for suggesting that Judy Curry’s blogging efforts would support ridiculous doubt-mongering (as opposed to serious criticisms). I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For instance, Curry wants you to know that Murry Salby thinks [new window, MP3] we aren’t driving the increase in atmospheric CO2, and he doesn’t believe the ice core record.

IPCC AR4 Figure TS.1. Variations of deuterium (δD) in antarctic ice, which is a proxy for local temperature, and the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) in air trapped within the ice cores and from recent atmospheric measurements. Data cover 650,000 years and the shaded bands indicate current and previous interglacial warm periods. {Adapted from Figure 6.3}

Salby ostensibly gave this presentation at IUGG. But the topic of his talk was actually on antarctic ozone. Where are his data and analysis? He can’t show them to us. Why not? Because he’s “operating in the traditional mode of waiting until the paper is published”. Didn’t he say he was actually going to sell a book about this before he got the paper published? Uh, that was a different half of the data. Or something.

This isn’t silly, it’s serious.  How serious? “Wow” serious! It’s important. How important? “[S]ufficiently important that we should start talking about [it].” Why? Because it “could revolutionize AGW science”. In what way? Curry will get back to us on that, I’m sure.

No needless doubt-mongering here! Just digging into the areas of the issue that are really uncertain, based on hard evidence and with complete transparency.

I also note that Curry has taken to citing such bastions of accuracy and credibility on climate issues as Andrew Bolt and Joanne Nova. And to think anyone had ever warned Curry against becoming a purveyor of doubt.

[UPDATE: Fred Moolten has a worthwhile defense of what he believes Curry's blog is doing.

I responded: I would be more sympathetic to that narrative if it actually had the productive qualities that Judith probably does at the end of the day intend. However, I’ve seen no evidence of such. If you have, that’s wonderful and I’d love to know about it.

The threads I’ve read at length seem to be largely “skeptic” echo chambering and backslapping, with admirable contributions of sanity by you, Pekka, and a few others. The “technical ‘skeptics’” that Judith so relentlessly pursued for an audience fall largely in with the former, and only rarely in with you in the latter.

While it may be true that Judith intended this blog to be a place where climate science was strengthened in trials by fire, its impact so far has been to bury the field under garbage (I believe that Judith has a T-shirt with a related theme). I see this blog cited approvingly by “skeptics” online, and it has without exception been in the context of dismissing, ridiculing, or otherwise attacking the mainstream. Whenever I myself have tried to cite it or Judith’s writing at say Climate Audit in a reinforcing or supporting role (to say nothing of her actual publications), these efforts are dismissed. No matter how hard Judith tries to earn her “skeptic” bona fides and proclaim herself an outsider, when she has the temerity to acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic warming and the threat it poses, she’s written off behind her back as a “warmer”.

She may believe she’s building bridges between “skeptics” and the mainstream, but so far these bridges have been decidedly one way.]

[LATER UPDATE: Curry is getting a little defensive over repeatedly getting called out for supporting nonsense like Salby by the relatively sane among her commentors. She has a new post on her "editorial policy", wherein she- shockingly- paints herself as some sort of rebel at the bleeding edges of science discourse for having the courage to suck up to the denialosphere and bash the IPCC.

I responded:

JC writes: The frustration that the “warm” bloggers (e.g. RC et al.) seem to have with Climate Etc. is that I stray from the party line of the consensus.

This is crap.

People get upset because you promote, credulously repeat, or make on your own behalf, claims that sound at best far-fetched. When pressed for specifics, you frequently backpedal or move goalposts. When you get called on it, you play the victim, seeking (but never quite succeeding) to further promote your self-styled image as a rebel.

This Salby thread is a great example. On some level, I suspect you know that it’s ridiculous, but it’s “Not IPCC”, so what the heck- you put up a thread. You get pressed on specifics of why you support it, and you cannot name a single concrete thing mentioned in the presentation you are promoting.

JC: I am striving for something different, sort of an e-salon where we discuss interesting topics at the knowledge frontier.

That humans are increasing atmospheric CO2 levels was at “the knowledge frontier” decades ago.

This “knowledge frontier” “e-salon” you describe sounds incredibly fascinating. Let me know when you trade in this dumping ground for “Not IPCC” for something remotely like it.]

[LATER UPDATE: Curry predictably ducks.

My response:

JC writes: I am not ‘promoting’ anything

So what word that is non-synonymous with “promote” would you use to describe the act of someone writing a blog post about something, exclaiming “wow” about it, saying it’s “sufficiently important that we should start talking about [it]“, saying it “could revolutionize X science”, etc.?

JC: open discussion and integrity and science

In the interest of ‘open discussion and integrity and science’, what scientifically (not “he used to be a coworker”) about the presentation do you think was deserving of all the ‘totally not-promotion’ you were throwing around in the last thread?]

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…