Fri 15 Jul 2011
. . . ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pat Michaels’ absurd Climate of Fear blog! I’ve already posted on what I thought was a remarkably problematic post from this blog, and I am coming to realize that addressing the mountain of garbage that emerges from this source could become a semi-full time job, and I just don’t have that kind of time. So, rather than work through each post (and they all need attention, as they are all rife with misdirection, internal contradictions, factual inaccuracies, and what I can only call staggering ethical lapses), I’d like to lay out a loose framework for critically reading Michaels’ entries that anyone can use.
First, look for internal contradictions: In his post “Big Science, Big Government,” Michaels subtly identifies himself as a scientist (he obviously feels the need for that legitimacy) by saying “My lobby, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) isn’t located in Washington, D.C., because its employees are fond of the city’s heat and humidity in the summer.” (Full disclosure – I am currently on an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship). Obviously, he feels fine about advocacy from his position as a scientist, as he is writing opinion pieces for Forbes.com and now works for the Cato Institute. Despite this, he sees no irony at all in arguing, in the context of a huge banner supporting AAAS advocacy for biofuels (which I have long disagreed with, incidentally), that “The image [on the banner] was hardly neutral. Backgrounding the corncob/gasoline pump is an image of a wild blue (i.e. pollution-free) ocean. This was propaganda and public relations, not science.”
Well, technically he is correct – this was advocacy, no doubt. But Pat, your blog is propaganda and PR, not science. So why is this a problem for AAAS, but fine for you? Either we are looking at a serious internal contradiction, or an ethical lapse around the failure to disclose his own advocacy.
Oh, and Pat, UVa is one of the “Public Ivies,” not one of the “Public Ivy’s.”
Second, look for misdirection: In “Voodoo Economics? How About Voodoo Climate Science,” Michaels actually rightly points out a number of problems with the last IPCC report (again, full disclosure – I am a review editor for the upcoming 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC). Well, he throws a spurious temperature claim in there, but then this is par for the course on his blog. He then constructs a stunning argumentative fallacy – he finds six errors in a report that runs several thousand pages in its entirety, argues they are all biased in the same direction, and then makes the argument that the odds of six errors in a report of this size aligning in the same direction rises to the .02 level of significance (to break out the stats).
Now, some of the errors to which he points require attention – for example, climatologists I know who focus on hurricanes and cyclones have long said that climate change would have an uncertain impact on these storms because their formation is very complex, and a lot of different factors that contribute to their formation were being altered by climate change – in other words, the uncertainty to which Michaels (rightly) points is the product of climate change. Oopsie. This is what we call misdirection . . .
Third, look for spurious arguments (and structures of argument): Aside from tiny internal fallacies such as I just described in the “Voodoo” post described above, the entire structure of Michaels’ argument in this post is crap. Michaels does not address errors of understatement in the report – which, by his standards, are examples of bias in favor of his position. For example, the Arctic Sea Ice is disappearing much faster than projected in the last report – so does this mean that the authors of that chapter are in bed with Pat Michaels and the rest of the climate denial crowd? Er, no. It means that this chapter was written with the best evidence at the time, and now we have better evidence. When we start looking for errors of understatement, we find that this report was often far too conservative – and the number of cases where the estimates or interpretations were too conservative (i.e. arctic sea ice) outweigh Michaels’ pathetic six cases. Michaels is cherrypicking the data (in this case, the data are the examples of errors in the report) to get the result he wants . . . which would get him slapped down in any scientific outlet.
Finally, look for evidence for Michaels’ real fear – that markets might not work perfectly, and that government regulation of activities that affect the environment might actually be needed to correct for the obvious market failures that are occurring around greenhouse gas emissions: For example, look at the title of the post “Voodoo Economics? How About Voodoo Climate Science”, Michaels never actually makes reference to George H. W. Bush’s critique of Reagan’s supply-side economics – yet somehow it is in this post. Perhaps because Michaels is defending that supply-side position against the threat of regulation and taxation? This blog is a frequently updated proof that Oreskes and Conway were really on to something in their exploration of the anti-science movement Merchants of Doubt. In a nutshell, they argue that people like Michaels are not motivated by real curiosity, empirical data, or scientific consensus – they are driven by a broadly neoliberal agenda that emerged in the Cold War and still sees itself as the protector of the American Way from the path of regulation and taxation that leads to Communism and other forms of totalitarianism. Except, of course, that this is more than an argument about politics and economics – this is an argument about what to do in a changing world . . . where one group participating in the argument has its fingers in its ears and is shouting “lalalalala” as loud as it can whenever actual data appears.
So, read away – you can make a game out of identifying the misdirections, misrepresentations, internal contradictions, barely concealed neoliberal freakouts, and much more rare overt neoliberal freakouts as you go. But look for all of these, and understand that Climate of Fear is not a source of information, it is an effort to obscure the problem in the name of a long-discredited political-economic agenda . . .
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