Internet Climate

Although it has nothing to do with the science of Earth’s climate, the following video from the HBO series The Newsroom is a chilling, and telling, tale of the internet climate. Please watch.


When it comes to climate science, denizens of the internet — its bloggers and tweeters and facebookers etc. — have spent a decade or more proclaiming not only that they know better than the world’s community of climate scientists, but that those same scientists are perpetrating a hoax — a global conspiracy to rake in huge money, kill jobs, ruin our economy, institute world government based on socialism, condemn the world’s poor to eternal poverty, and generally destroy our freedom!

That the army of internet commenters who will preach their gospel really do think they know better than actual scientists, is the topic of a recent editorial in the Washington Post in which Tom Toles hits the nail on the head:


Climate-denying blog commenters have researched the subject for years now, by consulting actual websites where actual statements are made. These websites are better than a systematic review of all climate data, because a review of all data starts to get dangerously close to actual science, and climate-change-denying blog commenters have determined amongst themselves that actual science is completely corrupt, due to the fact that scientists are paid for their work, and any paycheck in science is all the evidence you need of corruption by government conspiracy. Scientists should work for free if they expect climate-change-denying blog commenters to believe them. Climate-change-denying blog commenters are willing to work for free, after all. Some of them, anyway.

Of course, when it comes to climate science there’s a good side to the internet too — a great side, in fact. If I want actual data, from actual scientists, odds are better than even that I can get it from the internet, free of charge, in less time than it takes to visit my local library (which wouldn’t have it anyway). If I want to read actual scientific research, in actual peer-reviewed scientific journals, odds are I can get it too from the internet, free of charge, in less time than it takes to find out whether it’s available at the local library (which it isn’t). The quantity of information available to everyone is staggering.

It’s not just climate science that benefits from the rapid and massive flow of information. Nearly every science, from astronomy to medicine, from chemistry to psychology, is making its presence felt on the internet by making its data and research freely available. Whether you want to know the real effect of vaccines on autism, or the true impact of second-hand smoke on human health, or the actual science behind evolution, you can find it with your computer, without leaving the comfort of your easy-chair.

And thanks to your computer and the marvelous tools available, you can do more than just look at it. Anyone with data and Microsoft Excel can actually do analysis. A lot of people have Microsoft Excel, anyone can get data, so the number doing it is legion.

Alas, the number doing analysis competently is nowhere near as large as the number doing analysis.

And therein lies the rub: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The internet, together with computers and their tools, has made it ridiculously easy to build a clever and persuasive case for what is not true. Result: truth itself has become a casualty of the internet war on climate science. The more complex and contorted the crackpot theory, the more time and effort is required to debunk it — far, far more than needed to construct it in the first place. Even when we invest the time and effort to debunk, far fewer people take the time to read it than leapt at the chance to swallow the lie in the first place. While the truth is still putting on its shoes, the lie has made it all around the world.

And while the body of actual science is required to fit together to make a consistent, logical whole, no such coherence is required of the climate deniers. A really good climate denier website can tout a dozen reasons climate change isn’t real, or isn’t due to human beings, or won’t be a problem, and can consider them all good reasons not to do anything about climate change, while casually ignoring the fact that they all contradict each other.

Meanwhile, the more complex and contorted the conspiracy theory, the more tin foil is required for the hat to wear, the better it plays to the mob who delight in confirming that they not only know better than the scientists, they’re more pure and straight and narrow and god-fearing then those evil, greedy, godless heathens.

So the internet buzz is about how wrong the science is. And it sells — big time! Blogs like Watts Up With That (WUWT), where Anthony Watts is celebrating 10 years of his efforts, don’t just spread confusion and doubt about the science, about policy, and about the motives of the scientists, they also boast about their popularity and their following. After all, WUWT declares itself to be “The world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change.” I don’t doubt that it is.

Why should we doubt the internet doubters? Who is it, really, who says unequivocally that climate change is real, man-made, and dangerous? Ninety-seven percent or more of the world’s actively publishing climate scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society (Great Britain’s national science academy), the national science academies of Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, Sweden, Turkey, the American Meteorological Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, European Geophysical Union, American Chemical Society, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, Australian Institute of Physics, European Physical Society, World Meteorological Organization, … and yes, many more.

When you put their certainty up against Anthony Watts’ certainty, I don’t know who the hell to believe.

Everybody is entitled to his own opinion. Everybody is free to say it out loud, including on the internet. The danger, to all of us, is that political leaders have bought into their science-denying, conspiracy-wielding rhetoric so completely that the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology promotes it. The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works promotes it. The next President of the United States promotes it. His appointments to key positions in the U.S. government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and NASA, not only promote it, they do so loud and proud. And when they’re confronted by scientists other than their chosen few (very very few) supporters, they use “I’m not a scientist” not just as an excuse, but as a badge of honor.

All while lecturing us about science:

The climate science community is right. The national science academies are right. The experts are right. Climate change is real, it’s man-made, and it’s dangerous. Very dangerous.

But because of the angry army of climate denying bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, etc., and their even angrier army of internet commenters, we in the U.S. now have a government dedicated to doing absolutely nothing about it — except of course to burn as much fossil fuel as we can, as quickly as possible.

Well done, internet mob!


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11 responses to “Internet Climate

  1. At 6:20 in this recording (https://youtu.be/RM4lZlO6P-M?t=386) of the Trump shill Scaramucci says:
    “People have gotten things wrong thorughout the five thousand, five hundred year history of our planet.”

  2. An opportunity to plug an interesting and short comment on ‘opinions’: http://www.iflscience.com/brain/no-youre-not-entitled-your-opinion/

  3. Paul Butler @PaulButler999

    He immediately added the caveat “human history” after that. It’s important not to take the bait and accuse him of being a young earth creationist when he isn’t.

    There’s plenty enough that is genuinely wrong about what he says.

  4. Deniers have the edge because they can lie and they can tell people a comforting story that allows everyone to keep living the way they think they want to. And denying it doesn’t impact the economy – yet.

    Oh yes, the Internet has a lot to answer for. But, of course, it’s not the technology that’s the problem, it’s how we use it. However, were we ever likely to have used this technology any other way?

  5. Of course, while the Trumpistas may subsidize fossil fuels even more than they are, and in the form of privileged regulations (“regulatory capture”), it is very tough to fight exponential growth. (See Lazard.) That does not mean anyone should be complacent, because it was always clear that the market would not move as fast as Nature demands. But it isn’t a knock-out setback, not any more than it might be under Clinton. States, like California, Massachusetts, and others, and cities under the Memorandum of Understanding are doing things on their own, figuring it out. In Massachusetts, my concern is more adaptation and resiliency than emissions control. DGMW, we have a lot of work to do on that, too, especially on transport. But our Republican governor’s administration understands they need to electrify transport, and is moving to be sure the electricity generating sector double-downs on zero emissions.

    So, it’s not all bleak. I think the Trumpistas need to be watched for their civil rights and book-burning inclinations.

    And the Internet is and always was an unconstrained mob scene, especially as it is managed by non-cooperative and competing commercial interests.

  6. Lying has not been sufficiently punished in our culture, nor by our parents.

    When I grew up the penalty for LYING was far far worse than the punishments I got for breaking things, hiding the peas, or coloring on the wall. It was an attribute of Boy Scouts and calling someone a Boy Scout these days is almost pejorative.

    That just doesn’t seem to be a value any more.

    It is difficult enough for the intelligence in one mind to accurately communicate a concept to the intelligence in another, through the translation to from our internal representations to words, the verbal output, the sounds themselves the aural input and the translation from words to an internal representation. Add a lie and you have greatly diminished not just yourself, but your civilization.

    • The trouble is that everyone, right-wing-nut-jobs included, thinks that when they lie it is for a good reason. Bertrand Russell defended lying to the hunters chasing the fox, “It went that way”. But we all think that our own lies, or exaggerations, or important things we left unsaid, are justified for the noble reasons behind our decisions.
      It can be even more subtle than that – just that you don’t check facts that support your argument as assiduously as you check those that don’t.
      However, that is the beauty of science – that people check everything, and that people gain kudos by improving on what has gone before.

  7. When someone uses the Gish Gallop I tell them or the audience that “It takes 5-10 seconds to utter a lie but 5-10 minutes to explain the truth.”