Sunday, October 17, 2010

Of scams and conspiracies - the language of climate change

An annotated rant, a look at the expression ad hominem and a vocabulary exercise based on words to do with dishonesty

It all started one day when a teacher friend put the question: “Why is it that if I am sceptical of the theory of global warming I am called a denier?”. To be honest at that stage I was only vaguely aware that climate sceptics were called deniers, and hadn’t given much thought to questioning the idea of global warming. I had no reason to doubt what the vast majority of climate scientists were telling us, and knew that a lot of the opposition came from a part of the political spectrum which I don’t have much sympathy with, and from certain commentators who I definitely have no sympathy with. What’s more, this scepticism was often accompanied by dark rumblings about conspiracies of one sort or another. Now if there is one thing I really am sceptical about, it is conspiracy theories.

The word sceptical, by the way, is pronounced with a hard ‘c’. Americans, more conveniently perhaps, spell it with a ‘k’ - skeptical. But I’m just an old fuddy-duddy who is set in my ways. So I’ll just stick with the ‘c’ if you don’t mind.

Now denier is undeniably a strong word. To deny something is to say it’s not true. Worse, the word denial is often connected with holocaust denial. What have climate-change sceptics done to deserve such a severe epithet. Well, we also have the expression - to be in denial - which means ‘a refusal to accept that something unpleasant or painful is true’ (Oxford) - She is still in denial concerning her cancer. The theory is that some climate-change sceptics (especially the noisy ones) are not really driven by healthy scientific scepticism, but rather by some other agenda, whether it be ideological, political, philosophical or even religious. Hence their description as deniers. I don’t find it particularly ‘useful’ however, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and just call them sceptics.

Anyway I decided that I really didn’t know anything about the subject, and decided to gen up on it a bit. This is not too difficult in these ‘wired’ days, especially as much of the debate takes place in blogs. Well it wouldn’t be too difficult perhaps, if I was scientifically minded. But I am scientifically illiterate and totally panic at the sight of more than one line on a graph. Climate blogs have lots of graphs. With lots of lines. And their own jargon: words like forcings and feedbacks. Finally I discovered a fascinating history of climate science at the American Institute of Physics. Now history I can understand; it’s what I graduated in.

But how to decide what side to come down on if, like me, you don’t really understand the science. Well, one thing I noticed early on was the use of language. Now it’s quite possible that the thousands of scientists, maybe tens of thousands, who are working on climate-change, or in disciplines such as zoology and botany, where the effects of climate change are felt, ... it is just possible that all these scientists are mistaken. Not perhaps very likely, but possible. But 'mistaken', or even 'wrong', is a word you very rarely hear from sceptics. They much prefer words like fraud, scam, swindle, hoax, conspiracy, lie. In fact 'denier' is a pretty tame word compared with the words used by sceptics for the 'warmists'. And their supporters just love CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks, as in - IT'S THE SUN, STUPID!!!! Which I always thought was meant to be like shouting; and I hate getting shouted at.

The handful of real climate scientists among the sceptics may not use this kind of language themselves, but they are nevertheless happy to appear in films with titles such as ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, or ‘The Greenhouse Conspiracy’.

One expression I kept coming across was ad hominem, as in an ad hominem argument, an ad hominem attack, or the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem is Latin for ‘to the man’, and basically means attacking the person (that is their views, beliefs etc) rather than their arguments. It’s an expression that gets bandied about a lot in the climate change debate, and my impression is that it’s used more by sceptics than by ‘warmists’. If you should happen to mention a sceptic’s affiliation to a particular conservative think tank, or that some anti-climate-change groups get a lot of money from certain fossil fuel interests, the cry is immediately of ad hominem. Calling people liars, fraudsters, swindlers on the other hand, apparently isn’t.

Perhaps the most colourful use of this expression was by a certain Lord Monckton. Monckton is a British peer and the darling of the American and Australian Right, although a prophet apparently unheeded, even largely unheard of, in his own country. He is, it has to be said, a very powerful speaker, and the video of his address to the Minnesota Free Market Institute at St. Paul, Minnesota is something of a YouTube hit. The only trouble is that most of what he says is absolute tosh. That, for example, Copenhagen was going to usher in an 'international communist government', or that environmentalists were responsible for millions of malaria deaths with some mysterious ban on DDT forty years ago. That environmentalists are really the 'traffic light tendency' - ‘they say they’re green, but they’re too yellow to admit they’re red’ - it goes down a storm with right wing audiences, but is hardly designed to appeal to the mainstream, especially as even the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party wants his government to be ‘the greenest ever’. (Something that remains to be seen). This is what in Britain we call 'preaching to the converted' and Americans often call 'preaching to the choir'.

Well, a certain Professor John Abraham published a fairly damning but always polite and good natured critique of Monckton’s St. Paul presentation on the web. Monckton hit the roof. In his initial reply he included this gem:

So unusual is this attempt actually to meet us in argument, and so venomously ad hominem are Abraham’s artful puerilities, delivered in a nasal and irritatingly matey tone (at least we are spared his face — he looks like an overcooked prawn) [prawn - Google], that climate-extremist bloggers everywhere have circulated them and praised them to the warming skies.

This is one of the vary rare cases when somebody has accused somebody else of an ad hominem attack, while including in the very same sentence their own ad hominem attack (which I have put in bold) on the person they are accusing. "Nasal" presumable refers to Abraham's midwest accent, matey means friendly - hardly a crime you would think. This outburst caused much mirth in the 'warmist' blogosphere, and led to a Facebook page called Prawngate in defence of the much maligned Abraham. Incidentally "artful puerility" (clever stupidity) is an interesting concept. Notice also how those who accept global warming, who I have called 'warmists', are now 'climate-extremists'.

In the end I think most of us have to make ad hominem judgements about complex subjects like climate change, where most of us know very little. It comes down to who we trust, and who we are suspicious of. Whose opinions we usually respect, and those whose opinions we often find abhorrent. And of course the sort of language they use.

Vocabulary exercise - Click and Drop - Click on the appropriate option on the left of the upper table (in grey), then on the box in the lower table where you want it to go. If you change your mind, just click on another option and repeat.

1. Look at these words and how they are used in context.

a. fraud [1] (n)The police have charged him with fraud for using false credit cards
b. fraud [2] (n)Did you hear about that doctor who has never been to medical school. He’s a complete fraud.
c. hoax (n)A couple of years ago Belgian television announced that Flanders had declared independence. But it was all hoax.
d. conspiracy (n)Some people see conspiracies everywhere, they will never accept an obvious and simple explanation for an event.
e. scam (n)There are a lot of scams on the Internet involving realistic looking bank websites, where they ask you for your bank details - this is known as phishing.
f. swindle (n)It was a swindle that involved selling land for villas in Portugal, but the land didn’t really exist. By the time the buyers found out it was too late; the ‘property company’ had disappeared.
g. con (n)This man came to the door and tried to sell me new windows for the house, but I realised it was all a con and that I’d never see my money again.

2. Match the words above with their definitions. Some of them are very similar.

1. An act intended to make somebody believe something that is not true, especially something unpleasant. Sometimes done as a ‘joke’.
2. A situation in which somebody uses dishonest or illegal methods in order to get money from a company, another person, etc.
3. A trick to get someone's money, or make them do what you want, by gaining their confidence
4. A clever and dishonest plan or system for making money. The emphasis here is on the plan.
5. A person who pretends to have qualities, abilities, etc. that they do not really have in order to cheat other people.
6. When people secretly plan together to do something harmful or illegal.
7. The crime of cheating somebody in order to get money or goods illegally.

You can find a printable version of this exercise at Google docs

American Institute of Physics - The Discovery of Global Warming
Wikipedia - The Great Global Warming Swindle
Wikipedia - The Greenhouse Conspiracy
Wikipedi - Ad hominem
YouTube - Lord Monckton at St.Paul
Abraham's critique
Monckton's counterattack
Definitions adapted from Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary and Cambridge Dictionaries Online

Some 'warmist' blogs
Real Climate - run by climate scientists
Skeptical Science - countering the sceptics
De Smog Blog - 'Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science'

Some 'sceptic' blogs
Watt's up with that - the current favourite with sceptics, much quoted in the press
Climate Audit - Steve McIntyre, scourge of CRU at East Anglia
World Climate report - Pat Michaels

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