The introduction that shapes perceptions

Continuing from previous post in which I looked at a “rebuttal” in a Guardian article on an alleged claim made by Roy Spencer in his Guide to Understanding Global Temperature Data. This puzzling rebuttal of the first argument was not the only thing that caught my attention. Another thing was the claim that the Spencer white paper was a classic example of a Gish Gallop.

He claimed that Spencer producing “such a large volume of nonsense arguments that refuting all of them is too time-consuming”. Which is indeed (a variants of) the definition of a Gish Gallop. That seemed a bit funny because my first impression when I read the Guardian article was that the introduction was a quick succession of a bunch nonsense factoids, not related to the argument.

Let’s first see how Spencer was introduced:

When I give a presentation and mention the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming, I’m often asked, “what’s the deal with the other 3%?”. These are the publishing climate scientists who argue that something other than humans is responsible for the majority of global warming, although their explanations are often contradictory and don’t withstand scientific scrutiny.

A few months ago, the world’s largest private sector coal company went to court, made its best scientific case against the 97% expert consensus, and lost. One of coal’s expert witnesses was University of Alabama at Huntsville climate scientist Roy Spencer – a controversial figure who once compared those with whom he disagreed to Nazis, and has expressed his love for Fox News.

Last week, Spencer wrote a white paper for the Texas Public Policy Institute (TPPI) outlining the contrarian case against climate concerns. TPPI is part of the web of denial, having received substantial funding from both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, including $65,000 from ExxonMobil and at least $911,499 from Koch-related foundations since 1998, and over $3 million from “dark money” anonymizers Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

Spencer’s arguments should of course be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of who commissioned them. However, it turns out that they have little merit on which to stand. The white paper is a classic example of a Gish Gallop – producing such a large volume of nonsense arguments that refuting all of them is too time-consuming. NASA Goddard director Gavin Schmidt rightly described Spencer’s paper as:

“A great example of how making nonsense arguments undermines his whole point”.

A mishmash of myths

Most of Spencer’s white paper consists of repeating a variety of long-debunked myths. It’s laid out in the form of 13 basic climate questions that Spencer tries to answer. Fortunately, SkepticalScience.com has a database of over 200 climate myths, and summaries of what the peer-reviewed scientific research says about each.

None of these links has anything to do with the white paper. In just four paragraphs, even before Nuccitelli comes to the main point, the reader gets following information:

  • About their side (the in-group):
    • are part of a majority (97%)
    • fortunately SkepticalScience.com has a database of over 200 climate myths
    • database shows what peer-review says about the myths
  • About the other side (the out-group):
    • are part of a minority (3%)
    • argue that something other than humans is responsible for the majority of global warming
    • their explanations are often contradictory and don’t withstand scientific scrutiny
    • world”s largest private sector coal company went to court, made its best scientific case against the 97% expert consensus and lost
    • TPPI is part of the web of denial
    • TPPI received substantial funding from both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries
    • TPPI receives millions from “dark money” anonymizers Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund
  • About Roy Spencer:
    • one of the expert witnesses coal company
    • is a controverial figure
    • said some nasty things about whom disagreed
    • prefers Fox news
    • wrote a white paper for the Texas Public Policy Institute (TPPI) outlining the contrarian case against climate concerns
    • his arguments should be evaluated on their own merits, but they have little merit on which to stand
    • the white paper is a classic example of a Gish Gallop
    • most of his white paper consists of repeating a variety of long-debunked myths
    • A great example of how making nonsense arguments undermines his whole point

Basically, the members of the in-group are smart people and are supported by the majority. The members of out-group belong to a small minority, are apparently not so smart, they are just wrong without realizing it and connected to organizations with dubious funding. The members of the in-group will probably be gloating reading it.

It remembered me of a long time ago, when I was started to realize that global warming story wasn’t what I thought it to be. One of the first things that I did back then was studying propaganda systems and how to deal with them. I learned that propaganda attempts to shape perceptions by making appeals to emotions and critical thinking is shut down or diminished.

That is what seems to be happening here. Before the argument even comes up, a black/white picture is build in which the audience is told that they are part of the smart group, far above the other group that is clutching at straws and is in no way a match. In this case, the message that this introduction gets across is: we are superior and we can safely dismiss the arguments of Spencer beforehand, without the need to examine them. Who would listen to someone who was introduced as someone unreliable by someone from the in-group?

Like a red herring that lays a trail away from the issue, the audience will likely dismiss the argument before even looking at them. They will unlikely follow the links or read the paper to make their own assessment and it will look like Spencer’s guide is totally and utterly wrong. Confirming the position of the in-group.

However, those who would follow the links and also read the guide with an open mind, will notice that those links aren’t necessarily relevant or even correct. Like the rebuttal of the first question of the white paper that was based on a misrepresentation of Spencer’s argument and was rebutted with a link to a page which was not relevant to what they wanted to prove.

Coming back to the Gish Gallop claim. That was funny because when I saw his definition of a Gish Gallop, I recognized the same thing in the article. In that short introduction there are already many statements in quick succession (19 in just 13 sentences). Some true, but none of them relevant to the arguments in the white paper. Shooting down and refuting them would be very time-consuming. Those who would try this, would be on the defensive and unable to put forward their own arguments.

For example, just try to image that one first need to refute as concise as possible that the explanations of those belonging to the 3% are generally not contradictory or can withstand scientific scrutiny… Without So even before one could start defending the actual case, one has to wade through a whole bunch of unrelated (but emotionally strong) statements. Which will surely be a waste of time. According to Nuccitelli’s own definition, I am inclined to call that a Gish Gallop…

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2 thoughts on “The introduction that shapes perceptions

  1. manicbeancounter

    Dana Nuccitelli stated

    When I give a presentation and mention the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming, I’m often asked, “what’s the deal with the other 3%?”. These are the publishing climate scientists who argue that something other than humans is responsible for the majority of global warming, …

    This is statement is not true from the two most recent studies. Doran and Zimmerman 2009 asked two questions.

    (1) When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
    (2) Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

    The second question does not define “significant”. If somebody believed that a minority of the warming is due to rising GHG levels – say 10-20% – then they could have answered “Yes”. There was no question about belief in the majority cause of the recent warming. The true expert answer to this we cannot state the majority cause of the warming since 1800. The IPCC AR5 states only a belief that the majority of the warming since 1950 is human caused.
    Also what is an expert? I prefer the Wikipedia definition
    An expert is somebody who obtains results that are superior to those obtained by the majority of the population
    As you posted a few weeks ago, Professor Peter Wadhams might be very knowledgeable on Arctic Sea Ice, and come from one of the World’s top 5 Universities, but in terms of predictions of Summer Sea Ice Levels has predictions consistently worse than dumb predictions that sea ice extent will be the same as last year.

    Dana should know (as a co-author) that the Cook et al. 2013 paper based the 97% consensus on those abstracts where an indication was given of a belief in GHG gas theory. But it did not try to single out those specialized in climatology. It was just academics who published on “climate”, including sociologists, psychologists and astrophysicists.

    Reply
    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I also was surprised to read Nuccitelli talking like that about the 97% consensus. Just as I was baffled in the past when I heard Cook talking about their research. It makes me wonder whether they actually read their own paper. Although they should know the limitations (and that of previous research like Doran or Anderegg et al,…), they apparently see it otherwise (or they just keeping up appearances).

      Reply

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