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The Science of Why Comment Trolls Suck

This piece originally appeared on Mother Jones as part of Climate Desk. 

Everybody who's written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They're predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science—sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities. To cite a recent example:

What part of “we haven't warmed any in 16 years” don't you understand? Heh. “Cherry-picking” as defined by you alarmists: any time period selected containing data that refutes your hysterical hypothesis. Can be any length of time from 4 billion years to one hour. Fuck off, little man!

It was reasonably obvious already that these folks were doing nothing good for the public's understanding of the science of climate change (to say nothing of their own comprehension). But now there's actual evidence to back this idea up.

Are Conservatives Inherently More Biased than Liberals? The Scientific Debate Rages On

In the first round of critical reactions to my book The Republican Brain, there wasn’t much to impress. As I related at AlterNet, the general conservative response to the book was to misrepresent its arguments, rather than to engage them seriously. (The book predicted this, incidentally.)

But now that some researchers have been able to read and process the book, some highly intellectually serious criticism arrives courtesy of Yale’s Dan Kahan, of whose work I’ve written a great deal in the past. You can see Kahan’s first two responses to the book here and here—the latter includes new experimental data. You can see my roadmap for how I plan to respond to Kahan here.

This is the first post of my response, and it is solely dedicated to clarifying my position in this debate. You see, while many people will read this exchange as though I am claiming that conservatives are inherently more biased than liberals—or in other words, claiming that they engage in more or stronger motivated reasoning—it isn’t actually that simple.

The closing words of The Republican Brain are these:

I believe that I am right, but I know that I could be wrong. Truth is something that I am driven to search for. Nuance is something I can handle. And uncertainty is something I know I’ll never fully dispel.

These are not the words of someone who is certain in his beliefs—much less certain of the conclusion that Dan Kahan calls the “asymmetry thesis.”

Conversion Fever! Why The Media Adores Former Climate Skeptics

If you’ve been following the science of global warming for over a decade—as I have—you might find the recent conversion of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller into a climate believer kind of underwhelming. That’s certainly the reaction of many longtime climate scientists, with whom Muller now, finally, agrees.

At this rate, Muller should be caught up to the current state of climate science within a matter of just a few years!” climatologist Michael Mann tweeted. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira also had an amusing take, as quoted by Joe Romm: “I am glad that Muller et al have taken a look at the data and have come to essentially the same conclusion that nearly everyone else had come to more than a decade ago.”

Why, then, does Muller draw New York Times op-ed attention for his conversion? Is it really news that one individual physicist has finally come to agree that the science of climate change is very solid?

If Conservatives Were Really “Conservative,” They Would Want to Do Something About Global Warming

Originally, when I asked MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to be a guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast, my goal was simple. I wanted someone who could give an expert take on the relationship between climate change and all the freakish weather we’ve been seeing. As for having this individual also be a self-described conservative and onetime voting Republican, and someone who fell under attack from Tea Party types because of his stance on climate change…well, that it was kind of icing on the cake.

As the interview progressed, though, I came to feel something quite different. I felt, ever so tentatively at least, that there is a real persuasive case to be made by conservatives to other conservatives about climate change, one that just might help bring them around to seeing the need for real policy solutions. What’s more, such a case might even prevail if conservatives in the U.S. today truly embraced the principles of their Burkean intellectual forefathers—which one can conclude almost by definition that they don’t, since they largely deny the science of global warming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s the Weather, Stupid: Slowly Re-Awakening the Public About Climate Change

The Yale and George Mason Centers on Climate Change Communication, collaborators on the well-known “Six Americas” studies of how the public views global warming, are out with their latest report, the fifth in the series. And it hints at an underlying theme discernible in many of these surveys: On climate change, the U.S. public is a lot like a weather vane. When there’s freaky weather—like now–people increasingly worry about global warming. When the weather is what they’re used to and expect, not so much.

Let’s start with some background on the “Six Americas” study: It began in the fall of 2008, that hopeful time when Barack Obama was soon to win the U.S. presidency and many thought he’d address the global warming problem within the short space of a year. In those days, fully half of the public fell into the two “Six Americas” audience segments that evince the most worry about global warming—the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned.” Yet by January of 2010–following “ClimateGate” and the failed Copenhagen summit–the number of Americans falling into these two segments had tumbled by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, the denialist segment of the public—the “Dismissive” category—had ballooned dramatically, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

Those were sad and depressing days for science and environment advocates; and when it comes to public opinion, we have not yet clawed back to where we were in the fall of 2008. But what the latest survey hints at is that the public is growing more concerned again—a finding that is particularly noteworthy in that these data only run through March of 2012, and thus really only take into account the freakily warm winter (not, you know, the summer heat waves, wildfires, and drought).

I’m betting that since March 2012, Americans have gotten even more alarmed over global warming–perhaps moving all the way back to where they were in fall 2008.

After All That, The Himalayan Glaciers are Indeed Shrinking

Remember the Himalayan glaciers?

They were at the root of the most deserved black-eye to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change during the intensely politicized period of 2009-2010. In so-called “GlacierGate,” it was revealed that the IPCC had published, in one of its reports, a truly bogus assertion that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by the year 2035. As I reported at the time:

Not only is this business about 2035 an exceedingly dubious assertion, but part of the error seems traceable to a simple typo—an original source made predictions for the year 2350, not 2035.  When doubts were raised about the passage, however, the IPCC failed to respond either quickly or well. IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri even reportedly referred to a November Indian government report that questioned the IPCC’s findings about the glaciers’ vulnerability as “voodoo science.” Actually, the voodoo was all the IPCC’s, but the U.N. body only acknowledged its error several months after questions were first raised in the Indian report. “In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly,” the IPCC coughed out on January 20.

Climate skeptics and deniers of course seized on “GlacierGate” to try to discredit the IPCC. In reality, while the group did indeed make an error, a little perspective is required–this is one mistake in a vast 938 page report! What would be truly amazing would be for the IPCC not to make any mistakes when dealing with such a vast volume of scientific material.

And anyways, while the IPCC did itself no credit with how it handled “GlacierGate,” the fact remains that the error was acknowledged, period. The story is over.

In fact—and most important—most Himalayan glaciers are indeed retreating in a manner consistent with climate change (although certainly not at a rate suggesting they’ll be gone by 2035).

Anthony Watts Is Right Because He’s Older Than Me

Last week, the leading climate skeptic blogger Anthony Watts criticized my writing based upon my age and looks–and other, er, observations:

For the record, it is now official; Chris Mooney is a paid political hack disguising himself as a science writer. I’m going back to calling him a “kid blogger”, because no adult could have thought processes that give conclusions like this.

With this, Watts posted a picture of what I look like. I’m 34. 

I would like to note some reasoning fallacies here. First, there is the obvious ad hominem fallacy—trying to discredit my intellectual arguments by saying negative personal things about me. Relatedly, Watts is also poisoning the well—he throws in these negatives before beginning to evaluate any argument, thus biasing readers against me before they actually assess evidence or claims.

There is also another fallacy here that conservatives, in particular, tend to commit—indeed, it pervades their view of issues like welfare policy. It’s called the fundamental attribution error, and it entails attributing someone’s behavior to something inherent in them (why doesn’t that lazy poor person try harder to get a job), rather than to the situation in which they find themselves (debilitating conditions of poverty). Thus, e.g., I make dumb arguments because I’m young and don’t know any better. 

Why is this argument invalid?

More Evidence That Republicans Are More Factually Challenged Than Democrats

In writing The Republican Brain, I had a problem to solve. You see, it was one thing to cite all the psychological research suggesting that liberals and conservatives just think differently, because they have different personalities and cognitive styles. Sure, one could infer on this basis that certain conservatives, especially authoritarian conservatives, would simply be more factually wrong about certain deeply held beliefs. But I also needed evidence from the real world showing that, you know, conservatives or Republicans are more factually incorrect.

That’s where all the fact-checker data came in.

You see, we have paid professionals whose job it is to track just how wrong Democrats and Republicans are. They’re called fact-checkers, and as I show in The Republican Brain (and in this article for The Nation), both PolitiFact and the Washington Post’s fact-checker column do indeed rate Republicans significantly worse than Democrats overall. The data for PolitiFact had already been analyzed before I did the book (see here); I then carried out, with the help of a research assistant named Aviva Meyer, a similar analysis of 315 fact-checks by The Washington Post from 2007 through 2011. And the punchline is the same: Republicans fare worse than Democrats, especially when it comes to the worst ratings (4 Pinocchios, “pants on fire”).

I find these fact-checker data particularly compelling, by the way, for the following reason: Neither PolitiFact nor Glenn Kessler (who writes the Post’s column), think of themselves as liberal partisans. To the contrary, I would argue that both go too far in trying to ding Democrats and liberals, just to make themselves appear balanced (and, presumably, to keep getting their calls returned by the other side of the aisle). Therefore, if their data shows Republicans fare worse, that really says something.

The Politics of Ice and Fire

In late June of 1988, just under 24 years ago, NASA’s James Hansen testified before the U.S. Congress about global warming. He noted that the Earth had been remarkably warm in the months leading up to that moment, and said he was 99 percent certain that the overall warming trend in the temperature data was due to human causes. ''It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Hansen stated. (His actual testimony is here.)

Hansen’s testimony put global warming on the national agenda—and the reason for its dramatic impact isn’t hard to see. It was given during a time when Washington D.C. was suffering from sweltering heat, just as it is now; when Yellowstone National Park was ablaze due to drought-induced wildfires; and when the Atlantic Ocean would soon serve up Category 5 Hurricane Gilbert, then the most intense storm ever measured in the Atlantic basin.

In other words, events were highly conducive to climate change hitting the national agenda—and Hansen’s testimony was itself pegged to those events. Hansen even stated that the frequency of hot summers in Washington, DC had already increased enough to be noticeable to the average person.

Once again, this was 24 years ago. And I point it out because right now, we are clearly witnessing another of those agenda-setting summers—or at least, we should be.

New Study: Climate Deniers Are Emoting--Especially the Conspiracy Theorists

Anyone paying attention these last few years will have noticed that global warming denial simply isn’t a rational phenomenon. And it’s not just that if there were any reason involved, then denial it would have decreased in prevalence—rather than increased—as climate science grew more firm and certain over the past two decades.

No: It’s much more than that. It’s that so many climate deniers are, let’s face it, angry. Try talking about the issue on the radio sometime. Get ready for them to call in, ready to argue with you.

Now there’s new scientific evidence documenting this emotional aspect of climate denial. In a new paper in Risk Analysis designed to tap into the “affective” component of the climate issue, Yale’s Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz report on four separate studies of the public’s emotional associations related to climate change, conducted from 2002 to 2010.

In the surveys, people were asked about the first “word,” “thought,” “image,” or “phrase” that popped into mind in association with global warming. It was the analysis of these rapid fire responses that showed a steep increase in emotional climate denial. As Smith and Leiserowitz put it:

Several significant trends in Americans’ associations with “global warming” over time were identified. Perhaps most notable was the large increase in the proportion of naysayer images (e.g., “hoax”). The proportion of naysayer images rose from less than 10% in 2002 to over 20% of total responses in 2010.

And even as such denier associations increased, associations involving climate impacts like melting ice and sea level rise declined over the same period (though associations related to “disasters” also increased somewhat).  

Fascinatingly, the study also looks more closely at the various associations made by the deniers.

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