Pseudo-skepticism and Pseudo-Journalism about Global Warming

I’m not a climate scientist. But I *can* read. And I try to evaluate all sides of issues that are controversial.

Its my penchant for reading and interest in climate, however, that have prompted me to follow the science involved in studying climate change and the possible anthropogenic causes. And, being the inquisitive type, I have several topics that I follow in the news. Archaeology is obviously one of them and I have Google News set to email me daily with news items related to archaeology. Another keyword that Google sends me news stories on is “pseudoscience.” And it was this keyword that landed a story from a right-wing blogger and columnist, JB Williams. His story ran in the online editions of several conservative news outlets -they may not even have print editions.

The article was titled, The Pseudoscientific Gospel According to Al Gore, and that link is but one of many. JB also includes the story in his right-wing extremist (or so it seems) blog at Newsbull, though the site seems to load rather slow if at all.

I chose the link to his article above, because this one includes a call-out or side bar that reads:


…real scientists can not establish that, a) the earth is getting any warmer or colder to begin with, b) that any temporary shift in whether [sic] conditions or climate are anything other than natural event cycles, or c) that any human behaviors in any way affect atmospheric conditions in any way [sic]

Normally I quickly ignore the rantings of right-wing extremists as quickly as I do left-wing extremists. I just don’t dig politics. I did, however, notice that his article was an example of the pseudo-skepticism that exists with those that have an agenda to propagate their political ideologies over actual science. And these pseudo-skeptics invariably resort to bad science and outright deception to accomplish their agenda. JB’s article was laden with such nonsense, the quote above being a key example, so I was moved to leave a comment. I no longer have the news outlet link that I originally accessed, but I thought it was one of those that allowed blog-type comments to be left at the end and, since I didn’t see any comments yet, I was excited to be the first to do so!

As it turns out, the comment was directly emailed and not left, much to my dismay, for public viewing. My goal wasn’t so much to write to JB Williams as it was to offer public dissent. Regardless, a brief exchange occurred between JB and myself, which I’d like to highlight here.

First Email
The first email was sent through the news site’s html form, so I don’t have a copy of it. As my memory serves, I commented on the fallacious nature of JB’s comments regarding both the science of climate change as well as his derogatory comments about Al Gore, which I implied were typical of pseudo-skepticism and pseudo-journalism. I remarked that such tactics don’t actually evaluate data and facts but attempt only to appeal to emotional and ideological opinions of readers and the ad hominem tactic of pseudo-journalists who write such op-eds are not concerned with critical analysis or inquiry because of pre-conceived conclusions on a given topic. These conclusions are all that need data and that data which contradicts them are ignored, avoided or discarded. This is what I accused JB of doing in his article.

First Response
JB wrote back within a day and his response was to counter-accuse me of not reading his article. His reasoning, apparently, was that, since he disclosed in the beginning of the article that he was “not a scientist” and had ” not spent [his] life researching Planetary Climatology,” he should be off the hook for making claims like Al Gore’s presentation was “based on his politically motivated global warming via capitalist-pig doctrine,” or that his documentary “seems to be an outright lie.” JB also goes on to quote a single dissenting voice that says, “Al Gore is wrong. There is NO consensus on global warming!” My first email to JB was to call him on this, in spite of his disclaimer, which is simply a logical fallacy of poisoning the well. If he’s so unqualified to comment on climate science, why bother writing an article that is critical? The reason, of course, is because he, like most right-wing extremists, isn’t interested in the future of the planet or whether or not global warming is real. After all, isn’t Rapture iminent? Here’s an excerpt of JB’s response:


Maybe you should read the entire piece before commenting?

I make the initial disclosure concerning my lack of personal knowledge on the subject for reason of honesty, but also to point out that this only makes me equally qualified as Al Gore on the subject.

I then proceed to quote a very well known and well respected expert on the subject who is much better qualified than Al or me, who stated that it is bunk and why, if you read his column, which I linked to the column for your convenience.


He closed his email with:


Maybe you should lay off the kool-aid and read ALL scientific opinions before simply grasping the one that suits your political agenda?

Al’s nuts. Most people already know this. Sorry you’re slow to catch up.

Of course, I had to respond. The irony of his accusation that I should read “all” scientific opinions and that I have a political agenda were killing me. I haven’t settled on the anthropogenic cause as the primary reason for global warming. I’ve accepted that global warming is happening and I also accept that the correlations of human activity to climate change are such that they cannot be ignored.

Second Email


On the contrary, I did actually read your entire rant. I was not at all impressed by your quote-mining of the single dissenting voice who claims there’s no consensus on global warming. The fact of the matter is that there *is* an overwhelming consensus that global warming is a fact, despite Lindzen’s claim to the contrary. Moreover, there are some serious questions with regard to Lindzen’s financial motivations, though I need not consider this in order to look at the over-all picture of scientific consensus.

One thing that Gore got right if nothing else (and I saw no scientific inaccuracies in his presentation), is that the fact of global warming is an inconvenient truth, regardless of whether its cause is anthropogenic or not.

Your “kool-aid” remark and ironic accusation that I should educate myself on scientific data would seem to lend more credibility to my assertion of your pseudo-journalistic style.

When discussing actual data doesn’t suit the pundit, resort to attempts at personal derision and ad hominem remarks, eh?

Thank you for the response,
Carl Feagans

Second Response
JB’s response was brief, but uninformative. His perjorative use of the word “real” with regard to the scientific community is telling and typical of the pseudo-skeptic types I’ve encountered. Again, they have a conclusion for which they only seek that evidence or data which is supportive, regardless of the ve
racity of the evidence or the context of the data. Moreover, a very vocal minority of dissent within a far larger majority of consensus somehow rates them as more “real,” in spite of problems with the motives and funding these very few voices.

According to the real scientific community, there is in FACT, far from any consensus on the matter. Them;\’s the facts… Ignore them if it suits your agenda…

Thanks for the exchange!

So I was moved, once again, to email JB with the reality of the consensus. My intent was to present him with clear, indisputable evidence of a scientific consensus across a wide spectrum of disciplines related to climate change and to see his response. My prediction to myself was that the response would be minimal.

My Third (and final) Email


Let me begin by apologizing if my previous email was abrupt and rude. I was on my way out the door to work and in my haste to respond to your accusation that I didn’t read your entire article I may have let emotion get the best of me. I’m not the sort who would comment on an article that I’ve not fully read.

Moving on, I find your use of “the real scientific community” interesting. Could this “real” community include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has clearly expressed the consensus of global warming in its reports? Undoubtedly, you would have some objections to the veracity of their reports, as seems popular among global warming denialists these days.

But even if we cast aside this major portion of the scientific community, we are left with others to consider:

The National Academy of Sciences (2001) issued a report called “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions,” which began with this sentence: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise”

The American Meteorological Society (2003) concluded “that there is now clear evidence that the mean annual
temperature at the Earth’s surface, averaged over the entire globe, has been increasing in the past 200 years.”

The American Geophysical Union (2003) stated, “Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth’s climate,” and, “[s]cientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2000) has the position that “[a]verage temperatures are half a degree centigrade higher than a century ago. The nine warmest years this century have all occurred since 1980, and the 1990s were probably the warmest decade of the second millennium.”

Finally, a recent meta-analysis of climate change (Oreskes 2004) revealed that, of 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, none took a stance contrary to the current scientific consensus on global climate change. The abstracts were results from a scientific citations database using the the keywords “climate change.”

What Oreskes clearly demonstrated in her analysis is that journalists and politicians incorrectly perceive or intentionally deceive their readers and constituents that there is discord and disagreement in the scientific community.

You’ve indicated that there exists a “real” scientific community independent of the organizations mentioned above and cited below. Out of curiosity, just what are this “real” scientific community’s citations?

In case you were wondering how I stumbled upon your article at The National Ledger, I have a “Google News Alert” that sends topics with various key words like “archaeologists” and “pseudoscience.” In your case, it was the latter. The misuse of the “pseudoscience” label prompted me to write and, as I click through to the link to your home page, I see this phrase nestled in about half-way down: ” a place where if you can’t prove it, you can’t say it.” I would contend that you haven’t “proved” pseudoscience with regard to Al Gore’s presentation and if I had to guess, I’d say you haven’t seen the documentary 🙂

Forgive me if my tone in this brief exchange has appeared terse or even angry. It certainly isn’t meant to be and I’m pleased that you took the time to respond to my first email. I had assumed that I was leaving a comment blog-style on the article and didn’t realize it emailed you directly.

I hope you find the information I’ve included at least interesting whether or not you agree, and that it demonstrates that I’ve actually taken the time over the last few years to attempt to educate myself on the topic. As I mentioned in my first correspondence, I’m still agnostic with regard to the cause of global warming, but I’ve come to accept the scientific consensus that the change is occurring.


Sincerely,
Carl Feagans

References:

AAAS (2000). Atlas of Population and Environment: Climate Change found at http://www.ourplanet.com/aaas/pages/atmos02.html

AMS Council (2003). Climate Change Research: Issues for the Atmospheric and Related Sciences. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 84, 508-515.

American Geophysical Union (2003). Human Impacts on Climate. Found at http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/policy/positions/climate_change.shtml

National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Science of Climate Change, (2001). Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions . National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

Oreskes, Naomi (2004). The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306 (5702), 1686.

JB’s Response, and the end of our exchange
I expected a minimal and even minimizing response. But even I was surprised at this:

http://www.friendsofscience.org/index.php?ide=3

That was it. Just a link. No discussion, no opinion. Just a link.

And this is what it boils down to with pseudo-skeptics and, apparently, pseudo-journalists: I don’t like what science says, it isn’t inline wiht my politics, and I’m not going to listen to anyone that doesn’t get on board with my politics.

I don’t level that criticism at just right-wing extremists. Quite frankly, there’s enough pseudo-skepticism and bad science to go around when it comes to supporting politics and belief. The hard part, even for the most critically minded, is to separate what we want to be true from what can be objectively observed to be true. I don’t want there to be a causal link between human activity and global warming. That doesn’t mean it isn’t so. But because humans are so driven to screw up the environment with our “progresses” in technology, also doesn’t mean that we are the c
ause of global warming. I’m still reviewing the data on that one and go back and forth on a near weekly basis with the new data that continues to come out. And I’m suspect of anyone that says that they “know” for sure on the subject one way or the other.

As a parting word, the pseudo-skeptical and pseudo-journalistic tactics of the JB Williams’ of the world are disruptive to observing the truth. They interfere with many controversial advancements of science ranging from stem cell research to even HIV/AIDS research. Be suspect, skeptical and critical of such voices and don’t be afraid to dissent if you know what they’re saying is bunk.

About Carl Feagans 312 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.