Ad hominem attacks


What does it take for people to connect with climate change, or as one researcher puts it, global change? Many people feel that there is a significant disconnect between the scientific community, which tends to keep its collective head down, doing research and publishing papers, and the public at large. The public is much more likely to hear from the skeptic/denier community than the scientific community.

An analysis recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters ( reviewed over 4,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers written since 1991 that took a position on human-caused global warming. Of these 4,000 abstracts, 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus that humans are causing global warming. Yet we are more likely, in my view, to hear about the 2.9 percent who don’t support the notion of human-caused climate change. You can read my post on “Merchants of Doubt” to learn more about that.

A local sent a letter in to the editor of the Napa Register a few weeks ago, complaining that Scientific American wasn’t telling the whole truth about climate change, that they were leaving out selected pieces of information that didn’t support his skepticism about the issue. I thought it’d be fun to follow the comments, and I was right.

I was not surprised to see folks jumping in with ad hominem attacks (e.g., a guy boasting of a master’s in political science (really? Poly sci?), so he knows how this works and you don’t), significant broad brushing of human-caused climate change (aka anthropogenic global warming/AGW) being a liberal campaign to throw the free market in disarray, and similar. When folks would bring up specific scientific issues, the denier response would be “that’s wrong” with no evidence to support the claim.

The deeper I went, the more interesting it got. One guy claimed that a Fortune magazine (no conservative bias there) article, which supposedly cited a peer-reviewed paper, established that there has been no warming in the past 10 years, therefore the AGW thing was bunk. I reviewed the Fortune article, which seemed to have the term “alarmist” in every paragraph, then looked at the article that it cited. It was quite a stretch to come to the Fortune conclusion of “no warming” from that article, which largely talked about different forcings and the difficultly of obtaining consistent data. But this commenter thought it was the be-all-end-all, and got rather huffy when I posted a note asking if he had actually read the cited article. He didn’t answer my question, but got huffy regardless.

There was quite a lot of banter about liberal conspiracies in the comments. Every time somebody posted about research findings that supported aspects of AGW, the rantings about liberals undermining the world would come out. And there were many retorts along the lines of “you’re stupid because you disagree with me”. These folks really play nice.

The fun part was when one guy found a piece (on Yahoo search, of course; seems to be the “go-to” for deniers/skeptics with no scientific background) about a recently-published article that claimed that cosmic rays were to blame for global warming, not humans and CO2. He paraded this around quite a bit. Never mind the 97 percent of the papers that support the consensus on AGW: this paper from the three percent shows that they’re all wrong. It took very little time for someone to point out that the paper’s author had brought up this theory before, and it had been thoroughly debunked at that time. Apparently he had new information that encouraged him to try again. I note that the skeptic community frequently claims that editors of peer-reviewed journals will not publish papers that take issue with AGW, but this researcher had the same poorly-received theory published not just once, but twice. Maybe I’ll keep that in my back pocket for the next “they won’t publish contrarian papers” claim. Could be fun.

It’s fine to take issue with global warming. Atmospheric science, oceanography, and similar are tough subjects to get one’s arms around, and it can be frustrating. But that doesn’t mean that you should reject it out of hand. Do some reading, find articles that are based on the literature, whether it’s the 97 percent or the three percent, but try to inform yourself. Send me a note if you are interested in readings aimed at the layperson, as I’ve read several and can make recommendations (a research scientist I am not). Take a position, but do make it an informed position.