merchants of doubt

A skeptic would find it interesting that many of the players involved in misleading the public about the dangers of tobacco smoke have been recruited by the anti-AGW camp (Dr. Richard Lindzen being one of them). They would also find … Continue reading

A skeptic would find it interesting that many of the players involved in misleading the public about the dangers of tobacco smoke have been recruited by the anti-AGW camp (Dr. Richard Lindzen being one of them). They would also find the leaked API Global Climate Science Communications plan ( ) an interesting read, showing the planning that was going on in the fossil fuel industry to mislead the public about the science of climate change. The skeptic would also find it interesting that about $900 million a year is now being spent to mislead the public about climate science ( ). It would also be interesting to note that where funding for right-wing think tanks and astroturfed climate denial front groups was made openly in the past ( ), the funding is now done largely through groups like the Donor’s Trust to hide the trail ( ) .

Climate change denial is a denial or dismissal of the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, or its connection to human behavior, especially for commercial or ideological reasons.[1][2] Typically, these attempts take the rhetorical form of legitimate scientific debate, while not adhering to the actual principles of that debate.[3][4] Climate change denial has been associated with the fossil fuels lobby, the Koch brothers, industry advocates and free market think tanks, often in the United States.[5][6][7][8][9] Some commentators describe climate change denial as a particular form of denialism.[10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Although there is a scientific consensus that humans are warming the climate system,[17][18] the politics of global warming combined with some of the debate in popular media has slowed global efforts at preventing future global warming as well as preparing for warming “in the pipeline” due to past emissions. Much of this debate focuses on the economics of global warming.

Between 2002 and 2010, nearly $120 million (£77 million) was anonymously donated, some by conservative billionaires, via two trusts (Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund) to more than 100 organizations seeking to cast doubt on the science behind climate change.[19]

The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on public health, environmental science, and other issues affecting the quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. In seven compelling chapters addressing tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and DDT, Oreskes and Conway roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

Are there any advocates of climate science denial who don’t take money from fossil fuel companies?

1) “The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years’ worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe.” Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R-AK) – Incoming Chairman, Energy & Natural Resources Committee, $733,144 from oil and gas industry in her career

2) “We have 186 percent of normal snow pack. That’s global warming?” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), $489,933 from oil and gas industry in his career

3) “Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.” Ex-Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), $977,624 from oil and gas for his 2012 Presidential Campaign

4) “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,”Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), $1,463,788 from oil and gas industry in his career

4) (tie) “I’m not a scientist,” Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), $1,783,169 from oil and gas industry in his career

6) “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” Senator Marco Rubio(R-FL), $295,138 from oil and gas industry in his career

7) “Anybody who’s ever studied any geology knows that over periods of time, long periods of time, that the climate changes, mmkay? I’m not sure anybody exactly knows why.” Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), $129,305 from oil and gas industry in his career

8) “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does, either.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), on whether human activity causes climate change, $508,549 from oil and gas industry in his career

9) “And the problem with climate change is there’s never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing.” Senator Ted Cruz(R-TX), $932,568 from oil and gas industry in his career

10) “How long will it take for the sea level to rise two feet? I mean, think about it, if your ice cube melts in your glass it doesn’t overflow; it’s displacement. I mean, this is some of the things they’re talking about mathematically and scientifically don’t make sense.” Ex-Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), $118,100 from oil and gas industry in his career

or this…

Earlier this year, the New York Times exposed the secret relationships between a well known climate change denier and the fossil fuel industry. The Times revealed that Dr.Willie Soon had been paid over 1.6 million dollars to create scientifically dubious studies absolving the fossil fuel industry of any responsibility for climate change. His funders included ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, and Southern Company, a large coal-fired utility.…

Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher

For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.

One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests.

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

‘An overwhelming majority of the American public, including half of Republicans, support government action to curb global warming, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future.

In a finding that could have implications for the 2016 presidential campaign, the poll also found that two-thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change. They were less likely to vote for candidates who questioned or denied the science that determined that humans caused global warming…

67 percent of respondents, including 48 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents, said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who said that human-caused climate change is a hoax…

The poll found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future…

And while the poll found that 74 percent of Americans said that the federal government should be doing a substantial amount to combat climate change, the support was greatest among Democrats and independents. Ninety-one percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans said the government should be fighting climate change.’…

There are also some books such as “Don’t even think about it” ( )and projects such as the Yale project on climate change communication: that explore the psychology and sociology of climate change.

List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A majority of earth and climate scientists are convinced by the evidence that humans are significantly contributing to global warming.[1][2]

This is a list of scientists who have made statements that conflict with the mainstream scientific understanding of global warming as summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and endorsed by other scientific bodies.

The scientific consensus is that the global average surface temperature has risen over the last century. The scientific consensus and scientific opinion on climate change were summarized in the 2001 Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The main conclusions on global warming were as follows:

  1. The global average surface temperature has risen 0.6 ± 0.2 °C since the late 19th century, and 0.17 °C per decade in the last 30 years.[3]
  2. “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities“, in particular emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.[4]
  3. If greenhouse gas emissions continue the warming will also continue, with temperatures projected to increase by 1.4 °C to 5.8 °C between 1990 and 2100.[A] Accompanying this temperature increase will be increases in some types of extreme weather and a projected sea level rise.[5] The balance of impacts of global warming become significantly negative at larger values of warming.[6]

These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all the major industrialized nations.[7]

There have been several efforts to compile lists of dissenting scientists, including a 2008 US senate minority report,[8] the Oregon Petition,[9] and a 2007 list by the Heartland Institute,[10] all three of which have been criticized on a number of grounds.[11][12][13]

Each scientist listed here has published at least one peer-reviewed article in the broad field of natural sciences, although not necessarily in a field relevant to climatology.[B] Since the publication of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, each has made a clear statement in his or her own words (as opposed to the name being found on a petition, etc.) disagreeing with one or more of the report’s three main conclusions. Their views on climate change are usually described in more detail in their biographical articles. As of August 2012, fewer than 10 of the statements in the references for this list are part of the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The rest are statements from other sources such as interviews, opinion pieces, online essays and presentations.

The “hockey stick” slaps back

Despite all the accumulating evidence of climate changing at an unprecedented rate, climate deniers still attack the «hockey stick» graph as if it didn’t show that climate change is real. But a new study on the past 11,300 years of climate puts that myth to rest.

The rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, with an averaged curve (black line) fitted to the annual cyclic variation of seasonal ice (noisy blue curve).

The rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, with an averaged curve (black line) fitted to the annual cyclic variation of seasonal ice (fluctuating blue curve).

The year 2012 and now early 2013 have been an unending litany of bad climate news. After a record-breaking year of heat and drought in North America, and with devastating Superstorm Sandy, and record heat and fires in Australia, the year 2012 ended up being the ninth hottest year on record despite a strong La Niña cycle that should have made it a lot cooler. Once the current La Niña cycle ends, you can expect the next few years to blast past the previous global temperature record of 2010. As it is, nine of the ten hottest years on record were in the last decade—only the record-breaking El Niño  year of 1998 didn’t occur in the window between 2002 and 2012.

Even more alarming were the weekly reports about the incredibly fast loss of our global ice volume, from mountain glaciers to the Greenland and Antarctic continental ice sheets. Most serious of all, however, is the record melting of the Arctic ice. Last summer, the Arctic ice cap shrank to the lowest level ever measured, and even the winter ice pack was the fifth smallest ever measured. And the news just came in that the melting rate of the Antarctic ice cap is the highest ever recorded. If anything will cause the rapid rise of sea level, it will be the melting of these ice sheets. Then we’ll see not only low-lying countries disappear, but more storms like Superstorm Sandy, whose storm surge will reach much further inland with a higher sea level base.

Deniers pointed to the heavy snowstorms that hit North America in late winter and even the spring of 2013, and foolishly made jokes about global warming as they stood in the snow. Once again, they are confusing weather (the rapidly fluctuating changes in temperature and precipitation on a daily or weekly time scale) with climate (the long-term average of weather over years to decades or longer). Ironically, the late-winter blizzards are actually a prediction of the climate models: late winter storms are due to the increasing moisture that builds up in the atmosphere in a warming planet, especially because the Arctic is warming up, adding moisture to the system, and affecting climate in new ways. As Greg Laden explains, the new air currents triggered by the ice-free Arctic Ocean are like a hole between the freezer on top and the refrigerator below. The cold leaks downward more often, forming late snowstorms in North America, while the freezer itself (the Arctic) doesn’t get as cold as it’s supposed to.

Over and over again, we hear the climate deniers making the claim that the warming is “just part of a natural cycle”, and can’t be blamed on humans or our huge output of greenhouse gases. The best way to debunk that argument is to look at past climate records to see if the present-day warming is within normal variability. The most important recent study to examine the problem was the famous “hockey stick” paper of Dr. Michael Mann and his colleagues. First published in 1998, and frequently revised, it has been the focus of climate deniers trying to discount its serious implications. They have attacked not only the paper itself, but grandstanding right-wing demagogues like Virginia’s Attorney General Cuccinelli have tried to prosecute Mann in a great witch hunt (since dismissed in court as frivolous—and Mann is now at Penn State, so Cuccinelli can’t reach him). Mann has received numerous death threats for being a Cassandra bearing bad news (as he describes in his scary and unsettling book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

The Mann et al. (1998) "hockey stick" graph, showing the relatively steady climate of the past 1000 years, and the anomalously fast rise of temperatures in the last 150 years.

The Mann et al. (1998) “hockey stick” graph, showing the relatively steady climate of the past 1000 years, and the anomalously fast rise of temperatures in the last 150 years.

The chief legitimate scientific criticism about the original “hockey stick” paper (so-called because it shows climate as nearly a straight trend through the past 1000 years, culminating in a sharp bend upward in the past 200 years,  like the blade of a hockey stick) was that Mann and colleagues generated a composite curve of actual observed global temperatures (the last 150 years or so), with older records from tree rings, ice cores, and a few other data sources. Since all these recorders measure global temperature differently, it is always a challenge to calibrate them properly so they yield a single consistent climate curve. However, NONE of these attacks on the data of Mann et al. (1998) contradict the fact that the sharp rise in temperatures in the past 200 years is real, or that it is much more rapid than any climate change we could detect from these data sources over the previous 1000 years.

The new Marcott et al. (2013) expands the record way past the original data (shown on right), and clearly demonstrates that the past 150 years are NOT within normal variability during the entire past 11,300 years.

The new Marcott et al. (2013) expands the record way past the original data (shown on right), and clearly demonstrates that the past 150 years are NOT within normal variability during the entire past 11,300 years.

But all those criticisms of Mann et al. (1998) are now moot. A new study by Shaun Marcott, Jeremy Shakun, Peter Clark and Alan Mix of Oregon State University and Harvard (Alan was a classmate of mine when I studied paleoclimate at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory) has circumvented most of the objections to the original “hockey stick”. This study goes back 11,300 years with +/- 300 year resolution (the highest ever), through the entire Holocene interglacial, expanding the record much earlier than the 1000- to 2000-year records of older studies. Most of this older record comes from the isotopes of plankton in deep-sea cores, one of the oldest and best established methods of paleoclimatic temperature estimates. Most importantly, it comes primarily from this data source, and so is not hampered by the criticisms of compiling widely different data sources, the problem that plagued the original “hockey stick” curves. What it clearly demonstrates is that the warming of the past 150 years is not only hotter than at any time in the past 11,000 years, but it is MUCH faster as well, and NOT proceeding at the typical rates of global cooling and warming in the past when humans were not filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. If ever there was a smoking gun that we are responsible for global warming, this is it (along with many other lines of evidence that I have outlined in previous posts).

The Shakun et al. (2013) "wheelchair" graph, showing the climate trends of the past 20,000 years

The Shakun et al. (2012) “wheelchair” graph, showing the climate trends of the past 20,000 years

Still not satisfied? Then let’s expand it back to 20,000 years through the past glacial! The curve of the present Holocene interglacial of Marcott et al. (2012) can be added to data going back to the peak of the last glacial at 20,000 years ago to give a curve that is being nicknamed “The Wheelchair” (Shakun et al., 2012). Now we have 20,000 years of record to examine, the anomalously rapid heating of the past 150 years (the vertical line that forms the “back” of the “wheelchair”) really stands out as extreme and unnatural.

The EPICA-1 ice cores from Antarctica showed that at no time in the past 680,000 years has carbon dioxide been above 300 ppm--yet it is almost 400 ppm today.

The EPICA-1 ice cores from Antarctica showed that at no time in the past 680,000 years has carbon dioxide been above 300 ppm–yet it is almost 400 ppm today.

STILL not convinced? Then we will go even further back in time, to the EPICA-1 ice cores in Antarctica (Siegenthaler et al., 2005), which drilled back over 680,000 years into the past. This core recovered air samples from trapped gas bubbles that gives us an isotopic and carbon dioxide record through the past 6 or 7 glacial-interglacial cycles (each lasting about 110,000 years, and due to the Milankovitch orbital eccentricity cycle that has been well known for decades). As these records show, at no time during any of the previous interglacial cycles did the atmospheric carbon dioxide level exceed 300 ppm, even at the warmest part—yet our planet is well above 350 ppm today, and shooting rapidly to 400 ppm in a few years and possibly to 600 ppm before the end of the century. THAT is not natural “climate variability” by any stretch of the imagination!

The voices of climate denialism, fueled by funding from the energy industries whose mission is to confuse us with smokescreens of doubt, will keep attacking these data and trying to obscure what these plots tell us. For the longest time, it seemed that their PR was winning over scientific truth. But the last few polls seem to show the balance of public opinion changing the other way. A poll taken just after the 2012 election showed that 68% of Americans now regard climate change as a “serious problem,” up from only 48% in 2011, and 46% in 2009. A few weeks later, another poll found that 80% of Americans accept that climate is changing (compared to 73% in 2009), and 57% say the U.S. government should do something about it. And the most recent poll found that even a majority of GOP voters accept that climate change is real and that the government should do something about it (even if their leaders are still climate deniers)!

The times, they are a changin’ ….

rocks from space—and rocks in the head

Last week’s coincidence of a close pass by an asteroid and a meteorite impact in Russia has led to all sorts of bizarre conspiracy thinking, New Age woo, and just plain bad journalism

Last Friday we all got a message from space. For weeks, scientists had been talking about the close pass of Asteroid 2012 DA14, and trying to use it as an opportunity to educate the public about the risk they might pose. Then, without any warning, a much smaller piece of rock zipped through the sky above Siberia and left lots of damaged windows and buildings—and a LOT of amazing footage from cameras of every kind (including lots of dash cams, which are the rage in Russia because of all the horrendously scary driving and insurance issues). Immediately, the media and internet was flooded with stories of every kind, from the merely uneducated (typically from mainstream media newspeople who know no science) to the positively weird. Count on an event like this, which grabbed the media’s fleeting attention worldwide for a precious day, to be the source of every bizarre notion you can imagine (and some you can’t).

First, some basics. It was apparent as news people all over the media mangled the terminology that most people don’t know one space object from another. Yet all of these objects in space have distinct names, and it’s not OK to interchange one with another. Thanks to the many crappy sci-fi movies about impacts threatening civilization and requiring Bruce Willis to save President Morgan Freeman and the rest of the world (never mind that none of them are remotely plausible scientifically), some of this misunderstanding is excusable. These mistakes are just symptomatic of the general scientific illiteracy of most people—sadly, even among news media people who should  understand more of the facts behind the news they read than they actually do. (Cue the references to the hyper-smart newsman played by Jeff Daniels in the HBO series “The Newsroom”, who actually knows the facts behind most stories, and can conduct in-depth interviews without cue cards or teleprompters). Just so we’re all clear on these things, a helpful graphic is provided below the fold.

In a nutshell, there are two kinds of objects floating out there among the planets: asteroids, which are rocky objects mostly moving around Sun in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter (the “asteroid belt”, a remnant of a larger planet that has long since shattered); and comets, which are masses of dirty ice that have much larger orbits that typically go well outside the solar system, then loop by the Sun and some other planets every few decades or century or so. A few asteroids are outside the asteroid belt, and even fewer are in orbits that might cross earth’s orbit. If larger objects (larger than a dust grain but smaller than an asteroid) enter earth’s gravitational pull, they become meteoroids. As they burn up entering the earth’s atmosphere, they become meteors (or “shooting stars”). The vast majority of these burn up completely and leave nothing on the ground, but if they are large enough, some of the space rock reaches the earth’s surface and impacts. Those rocks we can collect are meteorites.
Most of the media coverage I saw was OK. The newsreaders stuck to their scripts, and tried to have someone with scientific training aboard to lend “expert” commentary (Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye were working overtime that day, I’m sure). Still, there were lots of myths and misconceptions that were being propagated. The most common was the coincidence of these two events happening at the same time. Most people make the false correlation of two events happening together as having some connection and commit the “post hoc” fallacy. Whenever it was explained to these people that it WAS a coincidence, they could not accept this. But as Phil Plait points out, the objects were in totally different orbits going in opposite directions. There is no possible connection between the two, and this is one more instance of the fact that accidental coincidence happens all the time, and we must resist the natural tendency to associate events that are unrelated. (More about this below).

The second common misconception was this event was unprecedented, or that we were suddenly getting bombarded. Certainly the public attention it got was unprecedented (because of the explosion of worldwide media outlets and the internet, and the record number of cameras that filmed it), but small meteors hit us every few hours, and events like this happen every decade or so. Remember, 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans, and so most of these events are small meteors landing in the open ocean that are rarely seen by humans and too small to pick up on radar before they burn up. But as numerous scientists pointed out, we’ve had big events like this in just the last century. North America has been struck in the recent geologic past, since the Willamette meteorite found near Eugene, Oregon, is the sixth largest meteorite ever recovered. In 1908, some large object exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, which has been a favorite event of the UFO nuts and woo merchants ever since then. Most likely, the Tunguska object was another meteor only slightly larger than the one that burned up last Friday, but with enough energy to flatten 80 million trees over 830 square miles and torch the ground. (No debris has ever been found, so it apparently burned up completely). By contrast, there are reports that some have found meteorite fragments from Friday’s event, and there’s a “gold rush” going on there now, because such meteorite fragments are worth more than their weight in gold.

And no, Russia is not a “meteorite magnet”. It just happens to be the largest country on earth, with a huge land area that makes it the next most likely target after the oceans. In fact, the best places to find meteorites are very predictable: they need to be large open barren land areas with limited vegetation and even slower rates of weathering and erosion, so that meteorites are visible and can be recovered soon enough before they weather away. Not surprisingly, the best hunting is in Antarctica (where the flowing ice conveyer-belts it to the surface and meteorites accumulate) and in Australia.

A third common myth was that it left a “burning crater” that appeared as splashy video footage all over the internet within hours. No, that footage is from the Derweze, Turkmenistan, gas explosion, a drilling operation that in 1971 hit a huge pocket of natural gas that then collapsed and swallowed up the drill rig. The oil geologists decided to ignite it and “flare it off” as they do with much natural gas they cannot recover. It is still burning almost 42 years later, with no signs of stopping, and has been nicknamed “The Pit of Hell” or the “The Door to Hell.” If there is an impact crater, it is probably this circular hole through the ice on a lake, but judging from its size, the piece of rock that survived wasn’t very big. Divers have gone down in the freezing water to find any meteorites but so far no luck.
Then there was a lot of media speculation on why we didn’t see this object coming, and whether it poses a threat to us. As this article points out, the object is too small to be seen by most of our current detection techniques, and even looking at old telescope images after the fact, we could only pick it up at best a day or two before impact. As this article summarizes, however, we are getting much better at tracking these objects. All the largest objects have been detected for a long time and none pose a serious threat to the earth. More recent efforts and technology have now picked up 100x more objects of smaller and smaller size, so it’s just a matter of time and technology and money if we want to catalogue and evaluate most of the large objects that could harm us. Apparently, the warning from last Friday was scary enough that even tax-cutting, science-denying Congressmen like Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) wants the U.S. to spend money to improve our detection of these objects. Nothing gets the attention of the people and their politicians than a close call, I guess!

But given the media attention the event generated, it was guaranteed that there would be downright kooky and crazy ideas out there, too. Typical of this was the empty-headed CNN announcer who asked Bill Nye if this event was somehow related to global warming! Apparently, some people think all events happening outside the earth, whether from our atmosphere, or from space, are somehow the same.

As the Skeptophilia blog pointed out:

But no.  It couldn’t be just a coincidence.  Start with a post in the blog Twilight Language, wherein we find the following quote from “astrologer Philip Levine:”

In other times and places, these would be a sign, a very big sign, saying something (what depends on which prophet or psychic you listen to). If you think the Universe is intelligent and an embodiment of some kind of Being, then you would want to know what It is saying.
If, like most, you believe the Universe is just a random collection of debris with no meaning other than chaos, then Statistics is your God. And the statistical chance of ONE of these things happening is immensely small, but TWO on the SAME DAY, within hours, in this infinitely vast Universe, is something to give one pause.
If you aren’t sticking your head in the sand, how does this coincidence/synchronicity strike you?

It strikes me as a damn coincidence.  That’s what you call it when two events coincide.

Then we had Russian parliament member Vladimir Zhirinovsky blathering on that the meteor wasn’t actually a meteor, it was an American weapons test:

Those were not meteorites, it was Americans testing their new weapons… (Secretary of State John Kerry) was looking for (Russian Foreign Minister) Lavrov, and Lavrov was on a trip.  He meant to warn Lavrov about a provocation against Russia.

Right.  Because that’s plausible.  The US Secretary of State calls up, and says, “Um… just so you know, we’re about to blow up a weapon over one of your cities today.  Hope you don’t mind.  Give my regards to the wife and kids.”

Things only got worse from there.  A “senior clergyman” in Yekaterinburg said the meteor was a Sign from God:

From the Scriptures, we know that the Lord often sends people signs and warnings via natural forces.  I think that not only for the Ural [regions] residents, but for the whole of humanity, the meteorite is a reminder that we live in fragile and unpredictable world.  It is the Lord’s message to humanity, and we need to pray to understand it.

Or, maybe, just consult an astronomer.  They seem to understand it pretty well.

Which is more than I can say for major league baseball player José Canseco, who weighed in on the event with the following series of tweets:

No way was that a meteor in russia today
Governments think truth is a poison that will kill them
we have lots of enemies dont underestimate them
long range test deal with russia operation meteor
north korea do the math

The media is now calling Canseco a “meteor truther.”  Which makes me want to weep softly and bang my head against my desk.

And then there is this clever Poe, where the Fox news crawl has been Photoshopped, but not too farfetched compared to other stuff on that same network:

What Is a Consensus?

Anyone who has ever pointed out that a scientific consensus exists on a certain matter has probably been meet with laughter and derision. The word consensus has practically become a punchline. It is reminiscent of the famous corollary to Godwin’s Law which states that the first person to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument; […]

IMG_3741Anyone who has ever pointed out that a scientific consensus exists on a certain matter has probably been meet with laughter and derision. The word consensus has practically become a punchline. It is reminiscent of the famous corollary to Godwin’s Law which states that the first person to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument; so it frequently goes with the first person to mention consensus. So many highly visible personalities deny and deride scientific consensus that the term has, in popular usage, become synonymous with a fatally weak argument.

A common criticism I hear of scientific consensus is “science should not be decided by a vote”. I agree. People making this argument are probably genuinely unaware that science-specific use of the word consensus differs from its common use. Of course, the scientific community does not ever gather in a secret conference and vote on the official scientific dogma of the day. That would make a cool 1984-style cautionary sci-fi story, but it doesn’t happen in real life. (Who would pay for all those flights, hotel rooms, and bar tabs?)

The way the word use differs is that in common use, a consensus merely means the general agreement of the majority. We all have a consensus that killing people is bad. Non-scientists also have a consensus on certain matters of science: gravity makes a ball drop, the Earth is globe shaped, sunburns are harmful. But for a scientific consensus to exist, it must be based on more than just personal opinions and observations of the majority; it must be based on results.

I found a dramatic example of this when I did my Skeptoid episode on left handedness. I found that the majority of research shows that left handers have shorter life expectancy. Now there are a lot of ways that the data can be analyzed, and a lot of possible explanations for this; and quite a few researchers disagree with that finding. However, I found that the scientific consensus shows left handers do indeed have shorter life expectancy. Not everyone agrees, but a clear majority do. This is based on the conclusions reached by many, many researchers over many, many studies. This consensus excludes Joe Blow like you and I, who have not done any such research. Ideally, it also excludes psychologists who may have strong opinions, but who have not performed or analyzed the research. Even though handedness is an active field of study that includes dissenting viewpoints, we currently have a scientific consensus that left handers have shorter life expectancy.

The obvious application of consensus in today’s political climate is global warming. A scientific consensus exists that shows anthropogenic global warming is a reality. This consensus is far stronger than the one I found pertaining to lefties; it is, in fact, virtually unanimous among professional climate researchers. But quite obviously, there is no common consensus about global warming. If we took a vote among the public, we’d essentially get a near-50/50 division along political party lines. This does not constitute a general agreement among a clear majority. However, the more we focused our study group toward people in scientific fields, the closer the common consensus would morph toward the scientific consensus. The scientific community at large would show a trend toward AGW as a reality, but it would include many dissenting voices, and could not really be called a scientific consensus. If we focus our group further to exclude scientists from non-climate fields, the scientific consensus would strengthen. Finally, if we limit our group to only those professional researchers with advanced degrees in climate science who actively work, publish, and review work specific to global climate, we find that the consensus is (very nearly) unanimous.*

So, simultaneously, there is no consensus on AGW, and there is strong consensus on AGW. It depends on whether you’re using the scientific meaning of the word consensus or not. Scientific consensus does not equate to a vote of the majority. It more closely represents the majority of the current published research.

Consensus does, of course, change as knowledge improves. It must change, or it is useless. Its whole value is that it represents the current state of our knowledge, to the best of our ability to determine it. When the fringe research turns out to be true, the results are repeated by others in the field and the consensus changes to represent it. Cold fusion failed to persuade other researchers who failed to replicate the results; and consensus did not change. The idea that HIV does not cause AIDS has also failed to move the consensus. However, scientific consensus does still actively change. It has recently changed to reflect that a type of bacteria, not stress or diet, is the cause of peptic ulcers; and even the Standard Model has had to have been updated recently to show that neutrinos have mass. Scientific consensus is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

By all rights, it should be the case that the first person to reveal the scientific consensus should win the argument. Because, really, whatever the current consensus is, is the first and last word on a scientific question for us people on the street — until the researchers working hard at changing it manage to do so.

* – The question of whether these authors and researchers are all paid stooges participating in a global conspiracy is an unrelated question. To change the scientific consensus, the brave patriots who turn down the Big Warming paychecks need to get publishing!

Baloney Detection Kit

THE TEN QUESTIONS How reliable is the source of the claim? Does the source make similar claims? Have the claims been verified by somebody else? Does this fit with the way the world works? Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? Where does the preponderance of evidence point? Is the claimant playing by the rules […]


  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?


This is the first video by RDFTV.
Presented by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Directed by Josh Timonen
Produced by Maureen Norton
Animation by Pew 36 Animation Studios
Music by Neal Acree
Post Production Sound by Sound Satisfaction
Supervising Sound Editor/Re-Recording Mixer: Gary J. Coppola, C.A.S.
Sound Editor: Ben Rauscher
Production Assistant: Graham Immel
Copyright © 2009 Upper Branch Productions, Inc.

Baloney Detection

How to draw boundaries between science and pseudoscience,

By Michael Shermer

When lecturing on science and pseudoscience at colleges and universities, I am inevitably asked, after challenging common beliefs held by many students, “Why should we believe you?” My answer: “You shouldn’t.”

I then explain that we need to check things out for ourselves and, short of that, at least to ask basic questions that get to the heart of the validity of any claim. This is what I call baloney detection, in deference to Carl Sagan, who coined the phrase “Baloney Detection Kit.” To detect baloney–that is, to help discriminate between science and
pseudoscience–I suggest 10 questions to ask when encountering any claim.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim?

Pseudoscientists often appear quite reliable, but when examined closely, the facts and figures they cite are distorted, taken out of context or occasionally even fabricated. Of course, everyone makes some mistakes. And as historian of science Daniel Kevles showed so effectively in his book The Baltimore Affair, it can be hard to detect a fraudulent signal within the background noise of sloppiness that is a normal part of the scientific process. The question is, Do the data and interpretations show signs of intentional distortion? When an independent committee established to investigate potential fraud scrutinized a set of research notes in Nobel laureate David Baltimore’s laboratory, it revealed a surprising number of mistakes. Baltimore was exonerated because his lab’s mistakes were random and nondirectional.

2. Does this source often make similar claims?

Pseudoscientists have a habit of going well beyond the facts. Flood geologists (creationists who believe that Noah’s flood can account for many of the earth’s geologic formations) consistently make outrageous claims that bear no relation to geological science. Of course, some great thinkers do frequently go beyond the data in their creative speculations.

Thomas Gold of Cornell University is notorious for his radical ideas, but he has been right often enough that other scientists listen to what he has to say. Gold proposes, for example, that oil is not a fossil fuel at all but the by-product of a deep, hot biosphere (microorganisms living at unexpected depths within the crust). Hardly any earth scientists with whom I have spoken think Gold is right, yet they do not consider him a crank. Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data.

3. Have the claims been verified by another source?

Typically pseudoscientists make statements that are unverified or verified only by a source within their own belief circle. We must ask, Who is checking the claims, and even who is checking the checkers? The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for instance, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong. It was that they announced their spectacular discovery at a press conference before other laboratories verified it. Worse, when cold fusion was not replicated, they continued to cling to their claim. Outside verification is crucial to good science.

4. How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works?

An extraordinary claim must be placed into a larger context to see how it fits. When people claim that the Egyptian pyramids and the Sphinx were built more than 10,000 years ago by an unknown, advanced race, they are not presenting any context for that earlier civilization. Where are the rest of the artifacts of those people? Where are their works of art, their weapons, their clothing, their tools, their trash? Archaeology simply does not operate this way.

5. Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought?

This is the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek confirmatory evidence and to reject or ignore disconfirmatory evidence. The confirmation bias is powerful, pervasive and almost impossible for any of us to avoid. It is why the methods of science that emphasize checking and rechecking, verification and replication, and especially attempts to falsify a claim, are so critical.

Shifting Baselines and Dying Oceans

No matter what you think of the data showing changing atmospheres, the evidence that the oceans are changing, becoming warmer and more acidic, and that marine life is going through a mass extinction, is far more alarming, since it is irreversible and will affect all of us.

These tiny planktonic snails known as pteropods, or “sea butterflies”, are critically sensitive to small changes in ocean acidity, and are now vanishing as the oceans dissolve their thin shells. Without their huge numbers in the plankton, many animals higher up the food chain will die, too.

As we approach the phony hysteria over the end of the world this coming Friday, it’s worthwhile to consider some real threats to the planet. Climate deniers try to distort or obfuscate the evidence about the changing atmosphere, and it’s not always easy to give overwhelmingly conclusive data that would convince them.  In some cases the data are tricky to analyze, or do not have well-documented long-term histories necessary to answer every concern about whether recent weather events are truly unprecedented. The atmospheric system is very complicated, with many different processes operating on short-term, medium-term, and long-term time scales, and not all of it is as well understood as we would like. Thus, the arguments over changes in earth’s atmosphere often reach an impasse.

Not so for the oceans. Although oceans are an even larger system than the atmosphere, we understand them much better. More importantly, we have an excellent long-term record of how the oceans have changed over millions of years from thousands of deep-sea cores, and from the paleontological record of marine fossils that goes back over 700 million years. And unlike the atmospheres, oceans change very slowly over time, since the thermal inertia of water makes the seas very resistant to change except on long-term time scales. In addition, most ocean currents move slowly compared to atmospheric currents. So no matter what you want to make of the data showing atmospheric change, the changes in the oceans are more alarming, since oceans require immense stimuli to cause such change.

A few years ago, marine biologist and film-maker Randy Olson (famous for his film “Flock of Dodos“, which lampoons not only creationists but also arrogant scientists who refuse to communicate with the public) founded a web-based effort to publicize the destruction of the oceans. Named “Shifting Baselines,” it refers to the fact that many ecological systems have shifted to a “new norm” or “new baseline,” and conditions no longer return to those they exhibited only 30 years ago. For example, long-term divers and marine biologists have all documented dramatic changes in the oceans, especially coral reefs. When Olson and most senior marine biologists began diving, coral reefs were thriving around the world, and these same people are now documenting the rapid deterioration of reefs around the world in a single lifetime. Thus, the “baseline” of what is considered normal marine diversity has changed in just a few decades, and biologists being trained today have a very different concept of “normal” marine diversity than those just 30 years ago. As my friend and colleague Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian put it, ”Every ecosystem I studied is unrecognizably different from when I started. I have a son who is 30, and I used to take him snorkeling on the reefs in Jamaica to show him all the beautiful corals there. I have a daughter who is 17—I can’t show her anything but heaps of seaweed.” Or as marine biologist Steve Miller of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, wrote:

“Caribbean coral reefs of the 1970s changed my life. But the reefs I first knew and loved are gone, casualties of disease, coral bleaching, and overfishing. The reefs I study now in Florida are only a shadow of their former glory. My tourist friends go snorkeling and marvel at the colors and structure, but little do they know they’re looking at the ghost of a coral reef. While I can tell my friends about all that we have lost, I am saddened that my children can’t have the same personal experience I had, just 25 years ago.”

Although overfishing and disease are certainly important problems in the oceans, the biggest problem seems to be that the oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic as they absorb the excess heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into carbonic acid. For a long time, some people argued that we didn’t need to worry about carbon dioxide, because the oceans would serve as a big buffer and absorb it all. Well, if that were ever true, it is no longer. The evidence is overwhelming that the acidity of the ocean is changing faster than it has in 300 million years. This, more than any other factor, is responsible for the world-wide dying of the tropical coral reefs. Known as “bleaching,” it occurs when the individual coral polyps (which look like tiny sea anemones) cannot tolerate the environmental conditions, such as excess heat or acid ocean waters, any longer. They shed their symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae), which in normal times help them metabolize carbon dioxide and build their skeletons, and thus lose their color. Eventually, the coral polyps die off, leaving their huge stony skeletons behind which gradually turn white. Although some reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, are also suffering from problems like out-of-control predation by the crown-of-thorns sea star, the worldwide bleaching and dying of coral reefs can only be attributed to a global oceanographic change—and only ocean warming and acidification fits that description. Certainly, there are certain marine organismsthat thrive in warmer, more acidic oceans (such as the algae that cause the deadly red tide, or encrusting algae growing on rocks uncropped, plus sand fleas, some less calcified crustaceans, and sea urchins), but the vast majority of marine species are negatively affected. Once the reef corals themselves die, nearly all the hugely diverse community of animals and plants vanishes soon thereafter, leaving a mass of dead stony coral rock covered by algae where once a gloriously beautiful and diverse reef community lived.

Huge areas of the world’s coral reefs are now bleached white and dead.

If the loss of the coral reefs and their huge effect on diversity were not worrisome enough, there is even more direct evidence of what ocean acidification is doing to the marine realm. Several studies have just reported new data that shows the shells of sea creatures are now dissolving faster than they can be grown. First spotted in the thin-shelled planktonic mollusks known as pteropods (or “sea butterflies”) in the Antarctic waters (where colder water allows higher carbon dioxide concentrations), this is an alarming sign. Once the rest of the world’s oceans become acidic enough, most calcareous shelled invertebrates (especially the world’s population of clams and snails, plus echinoderms, some sponges, and corals) will literally dissolve away as larvae before their shells can grow. In addition, the loss of the planktonic pteropods (and most other calcareous plankton, such as foraminifera and coccolithophorid algae) will wipe out the marine plankton that are the base of the food chain throughout the world’s oceans. Once the plankton vanish, so do their predators higher up, leading eventually to most of the world’s fish and whales, all of which feed on smaller animals from lower in the food chain. This would cause a dramatic extinction in the world’s oceans. It would have adverse effects not only on our need for seafood to help provide protein for some of the 7 billion people on the planet, but dead oceans have a huge effect on the atmosphere as well. Once the calcareous planktonic algae vanish, they remove our largest absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, since the world’s planktonic algae have a much bigger effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide than do the land plants in rainforests and elsewhere (which are also diminishing due to deforestation).

Even more alarming is how quickly this is all happening. In one lifetime, marine biologists have witnessed widespread mass extinction in the coral reef community, and the first signs of oceans so acidic that the marine shelled organisms are dissolving before our eyes. As studies have shown, this is faster than at any time in geologic history, even the famous “methane burp” event 55 million years ago which caused a sudden spike in carbon dioxide and worldwide mass extinction in the ocean.

As I mentioned above, we have 700 million years of ocean history recorded in the fossil record, especially in the deep-sea cores that record the past 100 million years in great detail. We can analyze the carbon isotopic composition of shells of planktonic microfossils and show how the ocean chemistry has changed. We can look at the patterns of diversity and extinction of acid-sensitive marine fossils, and find out when the ocean has experienced this kind of “acid bath” before. As a recent article by Hönisch et al. (2012) pointed out, the current episode of mass extinction and rapid acidification of the ocean has no precedent. The closest we can come to is the worst mass extinction in earth history, the “Great Dying” at the end of the Permian Period, about 250 million years ago. The extinction was so severe that about 95% of marine species vanished, and a similar number of land species as well. Although the complete causes are complex and still under discussion, there is a clear signal from the chemical isotopes that there was a global warming event, as well as too much carbon dioxide in the seawater (hypercapnia). It is thought to have been driven by the largest volcanic eruption in earth history, which occurred in northern Siberia. As these eruptions released greenhouse gases, they drove the delicate chemical balance in the oceans to supersaturation in carbon dioxide and highly acidic conditions. Between the toxicity of hypercapnia and the effects of dissolving shells, nearly every group of animals in the oceans vanished 250 million years ago. These included many groups, such as rugose and tabulate corals, trilobites, and blastoid echinoderms, that had survived many previous oceanic mass extinctions. Other groups, such as the brachiopods, the bryozoans, the crinoids, the bivalves and gastropods, and the ammonoid cephalopods nearly vanished, with only a few subgroups surviving to repopulate the world later.

The fossil record provides us with a sobering lesson: what we’re doing to our atmosphere is bad enough, but what we do to the oceans is even deadlier, even if it is less visible to us landlubbers. Previously, all the focus has been on the mass extinction in land animals caused by humans and their associated animals, but the devastation of the oceans is far worse. The last time it was this bad, life nearly vanished from this planet.